Washington — The U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan said Thursday that American ground forces may be dispatched to investigate the site where suspected al-Qaida members are reported to have been killed in a missile attack by a CIA-operated drone aircraft.
In Afghanistan, a regional leader said the missile killed seven members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, but in Washington several officials said they did not know the number or identities of victims.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told reporters the missile hit its intended target, but he said bad weather in the Zawar Khili area made it difficult to verify who was killed.
Other officials said the missile was fired Monday by a Predator unmanned aircraft operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Among the factors that led U.S. officials to believe the targets were al-Qaida members was their Arab-style dress, the officials said.
In eastern Afghanistan, Wazir Khan, a brother of regional warlord Bacha Khan, said seven people were killed in the attack, but that bin Laden "is not among those people."
Franks was asked about the attack in an encounter with reporters after he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the status of the war in Afghanistan. Reporters also asked Franks whether he had considered the possibility of putting missiles on the Global Hawk, a high-altitude unmanned aircraft.
Franks said he had not considered that, but he offered praise for the usefulness of the smaller Predator.
"The work that's been done with Predator is really, really good work, and I think we've all seen that," he said. "And I think the insights that we have gained from this operation may well inform a variety of unmanned systems."
The general also said the United States continues to believe it struck a legitimate target in an attack on a convoy of vehicles outside the town of Khost on Dec. 20, which killed 12 people. Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan leader, has said the attack may have been a mistake and that U.S. commanders were misled by a local warlord into thinking the vehicle contained members of the Taliban militia.
"I remain convinced that there were people in that convoy that were precisely the people we wanted to strike," Franks said.
In his Senate testimony, Franks said the U.S. military will play a role in creating an Afghan national army, but that does not mean American troops will become part of an international peacekeeping force there.
"We intend to help them form an Afghan national army. There is no question about that," Franks said.
Specifics on how U.S. forces will carry out that effort remain under discussion, Franks said.