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The Human Cost of War: Afghan Civilian Casualties May Exact a Toll in US Public Relations Battle

9 July 2002

When Masuda Sultan first heard reports that scores of civilians at a wedding party in central Afghanistan had been killed in a U.S. bombing attack last week, she says she experienced a sickening sense of deja vu.

Sultan herself had lost 19 members of her extended family in a U.S. air attack on a village near the Afghan city of Kandahar last October. And from what she could gather from news reports about the July 1 attack on the Deh Rawud village in the central Uruzgan province, the events seemed chillingly familiar.

"It was almost like playing out what happened to my family," says the 24-year-old Afghan-American. "At first, my deepest fear was that something had happened to my family. And then after a while I found I couldn't help thinking about what these people must be going through."

It was the sort of empathy that comes from having been there and done that.

Nineteen years after her family fled the fighting in her native Afghanistan for the United States, Sultan returned to the region with a U.S. documentary crew last December to find out how some of her family members who had stayed on in Kandahar were doing.

She wasn't exactly expecting an exuberant family reunion, but she had no idea it would be quite so grim. As the camera rolled inside a modest dwelling in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, where her family had taken refuge from the bombing, Sultan learned that many of them had been killed by U.S. AC-130 gunships in the village of Chowkar-Karez on October 22.

Pouring over the photographs of the victims a smiling couple at their wedding ceremony, an impish nephew, a cousin's new bride as her family recounted what happened that frightening night, Sultan was forced to confront the human face of war.

Seeking Answers

And that's a lesson she's been trying to bring home to her fellow Americans ever since she got back from her trip to the bombed-out spot about 50 miles north of Kandahar that was once Chowkar-Karez.

Days after President Bush expressed his sympathies over the "tragedy" of the July 1 bombing raid , Sultan who currently works as a program coordinator for the New York-based Women for Afghan Women - and a number of other activists addressed a small gathering of protesters outside the White House.

Her demands were simple: an investigation into all the reported cases of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and for the U.S. government to set up a trust fund to assist families of innocent victims of U.S. bombings in Afghanistan.

"I find myself asking that in this age of information, don't we want to know the successes and failures of the war?" she says. "And why don't we want the people to know?"

A Public Relations War

Bombing blunders and the concomitant cycle of claims and counterclaims are an essential part of the public relations battle that accompanies modern war.

By most accounts, the Pentagon's initial responses to the July 1 attack have not inspired confidence in the international community.

Hours after the news broke, the Pentagon said B-52 bombers and AC-130 aircraft responded to anti-aircraft fire, but officials admitted that a bomb had gone "errant."

But even as the Pentagon admitted to an errant bomb, officials said it was unclear if the casualties were the result of an errant bomb or from falling anti-aircraft artillery.

While there have been several reports of civilian casualties ever since the military campaign in Afghanistan began on Oct 7, 2001, the sheer casualty figures in the July 1 attack the Afghan government estimates 48 people were killed and 117 injured have raised fears that Washington's precarious battle for minds could tip the wrong way.

Days after the mishap in Uruzgan, in the first anti-American demonstration since the Taliban fell from power, a group of protesters in the Afghan capital of Kabul warned that friendship between Afghanistan and the United States could deteriorate if, as they put it, the U.S. attacks on innocent civilians continued to mount.

"It's certainly something we should watch out for," says Thomas Goutierre, dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "We obviously have a problem here. The military has got to find a way to have a better combination of intelligence and striking capacity so that these things don't happen."

Last week's mishap in Uruzgan has put the spotlight on the quality of U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan, and most experts admit Washington still has a long way to go.

"U.S. intelligence is very poor," says Rohan Gunaratna a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland, and author of the book Inside Al Qaeda. "The U.S. has the technological intelligence capability, but is lacking good human intelligence capability. And unless there is a high quality of human intelligence, you don't know where the enemy is. Nine months after the campaign, Osama bin Laden, the most important man, is still free. The U.S. needs better contact with the people."

But while Gunaratna stresses that military mishaps must be avoided, he warns that they are unfortunately "part and parcel of a conflict."

A Difficult Toll

Estimates of military mishaps and civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however, have been hard to come by.

Last year, an anti-war Web site said civilian casualties had exceeded the 3,000-plus casualties of Sept. 11 in the United States. The figures were questioned by several news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, which put the figure between 1,067 and 1,201 last month.

Citing the difficulties involved in arriving at accurate estimates while hostilities were ongoing, Amnesty International spokeswoman Maya Catsanis says the organization has called upon the U.S. authorities to investigate such reports and arrive at an estimate of Afghan civilian casualties.

But Reuben Brigety of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch believes it is necessary for independent organizations to investigate such allegations and arrive at reliable figures.

Brigety himself was part of a three-member Human Rights Watch team that visited Afghanistan in March to investigate reports of civilian casualties. Their report is expected to be published this fall, but until then, Brigety declined to offer details on the estimates of civilian casualties.

Awaiting Results

Experts also warn that civilian casualties and a failure to adequately acknowledge and address them threatens to increase the pressure on a fledgling Afghan administration struggling to unite and rebuild the shattered nation.

While U.S. and Afghan investigators have completed a preliminary inquiry into the July 1 attack, many Afghans have been disappointed that the results of the inquiry have not been released. On Monday, the country's newly created Human Rights Commission called for the results of the preliminary report to be made public.

U.S. military officials, however, say a full and formal investigation into the July 1 attack is expected to begin sometime this week and the results of that investigation when it is finished would be made public.

Amid Afghan fears that Washington was biding time in the hope that the incident would slip from the media spotlight, General Dan K. McNeill, head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, has promised there would be no attempt "to sweep the matter under the rug."

Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss

But that's just what Sultan is afraid could just happen if rights and community groups let up on the pressure on the authorities.

A native New Yorker who rushed downtown on Sept. 11 to pitch in at a volunteer stand handing sandwiches to relief workers, Sultan says she supports the military action in Afghanistan and has often found herself in the awkward position of defending the campaign to incensed Afghans who asked her why they were attacked by U.S. bombers.

"Like many Afghan Americans, I feel the military action was necessary given what happened on 9/11 and given the hold the Taliban had on Afghanistan," she says. "But I just figured we'd be more careful and if we did make mistakes, I had more faith that our government would help people rebuild their lives and just admit it."

So far, all her efforts to have the attack at Chowkar-Karez investigated have yielded nothing. Speaking to, Lieut. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said there was no specific investigation into the incident, nor were there any plans to launch one since there was nothing to change the original explanation that Chowkar-Karez was a "legitimate" military target.

But Sultan dismisses the possibility that there were Taliban in the village. As her documentary records, Chowkar-Karez is a desolate hamlet to which her Kandahar-based family fled fearing attacks on their city home.

"The villagers can see exactly who's coming for miles, there was just no way there could have been Taliban in Chowkar-Karez without the villagers knowing," she insists.

If there are cover-ups, Sultan argues, the biggest losers would be the American people. "We may not hear about civilian casualties, but the people there definitely know," she says. "And we don't want Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers to be able to tell people, 'look, this is what the United States does to innocent people.'"

Leela Jacinto
Published by ABC News © 2002 ABC News Internet Ventures

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