Deadliest firefight for U.S. beset by equipment problems

WASHINGTON -- The deadliest firefight for the United States in the Afghan war -- a mountain battle that killed seven Americans -- was beset by communications problems, the Pentagon said Friday.

The war commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, attributed the problems to the harsh weather and equipment failures, such as broken radios and shot-up helicopters, rather than to human error.

In a leadup to Memorial Day, he praised the bravery of the troops and the success, though costly, of the operation in recounting the battle on the frigid mountaintop against dug-in al-Qaida fighters. A commando who fell out of a helicopter and six soldiers who tried to rescue him were killed.

"That battle showed heroism," Franks said. "It showed fog, uncertainty, it showed friction, elements common to every war."

"In the end the bravery and the audacity and certainly the tenacity of the people involved in that operation carried the day."

During the battle, in March in an area of eastern Afghanistan the locals call Takur Ghar, U.S. commanders watched helplessly as a Predator drone relayed live video of some of the fighting.

The operation was hurt by communications problems, from a reconnaissance flight that failed to detect al-Qaida forces lying in wait to the difficulties that troops on the ground and in helicopters had in raising their commanders and nearby warplane pilots.

Franks indicated troops in the heat of the fight might have used a wrong radio frequency.

'Judgments were good'

But he said no changes in command arrangements between regular and special forces were made as a result of a Pentagon review. He said of the people on the scene that day: "I think their judgments were good."

Nor did he think it was extraordinary that equipment would malfunction given the circumstances. "In the middle of a firefight, things will get shot up," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was briefed on the review's findings on Thursday.

"As in most human endeavors, plans are never executed exactly the way they're developed," Rumsfeld said.

The battle was part of Operation Anaconda, a U.S.-led effort to encircle and eliminate a large number of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the mountains south of Gardez. It began early in the morning of March 4, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter tried to drop a team of Navy SEAL commandos near the top of a mountain.

There were heavily armed al-Qaida fighters there, and they shot at the chopper with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The helicopter was hit, and as it lurched away to safety, Navy Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts tumbled out the rear door.

Roberts survived the fall, but was eventually surrounded and killed by al-Qaida fighters.

Six others were killed as two other Chinooks dropped in teams to rescue Roberts or recover his body.