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Uncertain Toll in the Fog of War: Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan
10 February 2002
In an age of eavesdropping warplanes and satellite-guided bombs, the Pentagon finds itself accused of sometimes relying on faulty intelligence in Afghanistan, leading to an unnecessary toll of civilian deaths.
Scrutiny has grown since a pre dawn raid on Jan. 24, when U.S. commandos killed at least 15 men pre sumed to be Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Officials in the interim Af ghan government have since joined grieving survivors in calling the at tack a tragic mistake, with some surmising the Americans were duped with false information by a scheming local warlord.
A full-fledged investigation by the Pentagon's Central Command is underway, which is unusual. Despite scores of credible reports about possibly misdirected airstrikes and sizable civilian losses accounts from the United Nations, aid agencies and journalists the military has made detailed inquiries into but a few cases, like the bombing of Red Cross warehouses in Kabul twice within 10 days in October.
Most often, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and military spokesmen have dismissed accusations of mistakes as enemy propaganda. They express confidence in their targeting and regret any "collateral damage." They maintain that extraordinary efforts have been taken to minimize civilian losses, something that even most critics of the war effort would not dispute.
Nevertheless, certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent Afghans have lost their lives during American attacks, a scattering of bodies extraordinarily difficult to tabulate.
Many mournful Afghan families demand a reckoning.
"Tell me why our homes were destroyed and 55 people even little children are dead?" asked an angry young man named Gul Nabi, standing in December among the 15 obliterated houses of a village named Madoo. "There were no Arabs here," he said, referring to Al Qaeda fighters. "There were only farmers who lived a good life and prayed to Allah for peace."
The American military routinely reviews the effectiveness of its air raids, but by its own admission it has faced insurmountable difficulty in tracking the toll of civilian deaths. Mr. Rumsfeld has called the task "next to impossible," citing a lack of ground access to bombed targets.
That leaves much unknown. American weaponry, according to a statement Mr. Rumsfeld made in October, is "probably 85-90 percent reliable."
Assessing the Damage
For the Afghanistan campaign, the Air Force created a special assessment team at its air operations center outside Riyadh to look at cases of possible civilian losses and other unintended damage. Pilot reports, targeting data and aerial reconnaissance photos are examined. The team has reviewed "several scores" of reports and acknowledged a handful of bomb malfunctions that have led to unintended casualties.
Mistakes caused by bad intelligence are harder to investigate. Credible reports about such instances are referred to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Field investigations are necessary. Customarily, none have been assigned because of the difficulty of getting troops to the sites.
The military ordered its investigation of the Jan. 24 commando raid only after Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's pro-American interim president, personally complained to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the operation in Afghanistan.
"The military knows they'll get pummeled about issues relating to civilian casualties, and they don't have a clue how to address it in a nonpropagandistic way," said William H. Arkin, a former army intelligence analyst who is a military adviser to Human Rights Watch. "The subject ties them in knots. It's an irritant, and they avoid it."
For a war that has so riveted the world's attention, there are tremendous gaps in knowledge about what has occurred. Some of this was deliberate. For months, the Taliban excluded any foreign observers. Much of what they claimed about civilian casualties has proven to be false.
But now, even with the Taliban gone, truth remains hard to come by. The sites of past air raids are often in remote locations that are only reachable on unsafe roads. Memory, as always, can be a chameleon. In the Muslim tradition, bodies are buried soon after death. Some answers disappear in the turned earth.
"What we were challenged with each and every time, particularly in the early weeks of the war, was that we did not have people on the ground to check," said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, senior spokesman for the Central Command.
Now, about 4,000 American troops are in Afghanistan. But most investigations would be unreliable because of the amount of time that has passed, the admiral said. Some of the damage has been repaired, many of the witnesses have moved away.
"You just don't find much," he said.
If that is true, many mysteries will remain unresolved.
What happened at the village of Karam in Nangahar Province on Oct. 11? The Taliban claimed 200 civilians were killed in an air raid. Some survivors put the death count at 50, some 100, some higher. Reporters, visiting the scene days later, found a hamlet of demolished mud huts and interviewed devastated family members. Mr. Rumsfeld called the claims of a high death toll "ridiculous" and said secondary explosions proved that a major arms dump had been struck.
What happened on Dec. 1 when bombs leveled several villages near Tora Bora, the cave complex where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding? America's anti-Taliban allies in the region said the bombs killed at least 115 civilians and called for the raids to stop. Doctors Without Borders, the aid organization, said they transported 72 dead, including women and children, and left many more bodies behind. The Pentagon said its planes had hit only its intended targets.
What happened on Dec. 20 when American planes attacked a convoy in Paktia Province, killing as many as 50 to 60 people on the road and in surrounding villages? The Pentagon said that Taliban leaders were in the vehicles and that the enemy fired first, using antiaircraft missiles. Survivors claimed the convoy was bringing tribal elders to Kabul for the inauguration of the interim president.
What happened on Dec. 29 in an air raid on Niazi Qala, a village in Paktia? Some survivors said more than 100 civilians were killed. The Pentagon claimed it had hit a Taliban ammunition depot, and journalists later found a huge cache of tank rounds and mortar shells. Villagers, however, said anti-Taliban forces had earlier taken control of the munitions and that many of the people killed, including women and children, had congregated for a wedding.
"We've got about 300 incidents in our database, and I'd say about a third involve some civilian casualties that would be worth taking a second look at," said Mr. Arkin, the Human Rights Watch adviser, who is also an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies.
Human Rights Accounting
The rights group is making plans to send researchers to Afghanistan in March to estimate the number of civilians killed and to investigate those attacks that might have arisen from an illegitimate use of force.
America's use of cluster bombs will be studied. Each one sprays a huge area with more than 200 soda- can-size armor-piercing bomblets. Some fail to detonate on contact.
"The duds in effect become land mines that explode when touched," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the Human Rights Watch arms division.
By some calculations, he said, the American bombing campaign may have left 36,000 unexploded canisters strewn across Afghanistan's rugged landscape, an estimate that Admiral Quigley said was too high. He declined to provide a better number.
Rights groups often take the lead in counting civilian deaths, and some experts believe it would in the Pentagon's interest to provide its own numbers.
"It hasn't been a major focus of attention for the military, which may well be a mistake.' said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who directed the Air Force's definitive study of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "Frequently, the human rights community will, in the absence of good numbers, put out bad numbers."
A few researchers have already done some arithmetic, basing their calculations on various news reports. Prof. Marc W. Herold, an economist at the University of New Hampshire, added up at least 3,767 civilian casualties from Oct. 7 to Dec. 6. Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, used a more stringent distillation of media accounts and concluded that a better guess would be 1,000 to 1,300 deaths.
Whatever the total, the Pentagon would likely continue to insist that it is a bare, if inevitable, minimum. "There is no question but from time to time, innocent people, noncombatants, undoubtedly are killed and that is always unfortunate," Mr. Rumsfeld has said repeatedly.
Military officials describe a rigorous process of picking targets. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon has used multiple sources of intelligence, including local Afghans, U-2 spy planes, reconnaissance satellites, unpiloted Predator drones and RC-135 Rivet Joint planes that collect electronic transmissions. Sources are crosschecked for accuracy.
Commanders then determine which aircraft to dispatch, the type and size of bomb, and even the best approach route to minimize the threat to civilians. Lawyers review the targets, also evaluating the risk to civilians.
"This has been the most accurate war ever fought in this nation's history," General Franks told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
About 60 percent of the 18,000 bombs, missiles and other ordnance used since the air campaign began on Oct. 7 were precision-guided, up from fewer than 10 percent of munitions in the Persian Gulf war, military officials said.
A Raid Gone Awry
But word-of-mouth, rather than faulty high-tech gear, is the main suspect in the seemingly misbegotten Jan. 24 raid. In the pitch of night, relying on surprise, American soldiers and some commandos from an allied country burst into two compounds in the town of Oruzgan, more than 100 miles northeast of Kandahar. They were expecting to find secreted members of the Al Qaeda or Taliban leadership. And they were hoping to catch them napping.
Nayaz Muhammad, 27, said he was asleep in a school when he was awakened by a blast. Most of the 11 other men in the room died almost immediately in a barrage of gunfire. He escaped by diving out a window. The attackers were bathing the building in light. He managed to flee to a barn.
"I didn't know why they were shooting," Mr. Muhammad recalled days later.
Neither did Muhammad Yunas, a former district government chief, who had been sleeping in the other compound. He saw the charging Americans.
"I told my men, `Don't shoot, they're our people, they'll come to talk,' " he said. "We were amazed. Why would the Americans come to attack us?"
In the morning light, 21 lay dead, villagers said. Nineteen had been pulled from the school by neighbors. Two of the corpses had their hands bound behind their backs with white tape, witnesses said. The others were burned beyond recognition.
Hours later, back in Washington, a victory was being announced. The commandos had destroyed a large cache of weapons, it was reported. Twenty-seven prisoners were taken. They were being questioned. Some might be high-level Taliban.
But within two weeks, the raiders themselves were on the defensive. Mr. Rumsfeld conceded that friends might well have been mistaken for foes. Villagers insisted the weapons cache was merely a storehouse for confiscated arms. The 27 prisoners were released to Afghan authorities.
Meanwhile, the military investigation began. Was the raid legitimate? If not, where had the American military gotten the false intelligence? General Franks said that at least some of the detainees were criminals, if not enemy warriors.
Many Afghan officials from the area say the Americans listened to lies and were drawn into a feud between factions fighting to control the town. They wonder why the military did not go to Oruzgan and ask around.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother, is based in Kandahar. He said he had tried to settle the dispute. Instead, people are needlessly dead.
"I hope that the Americans are brave enough to name the person who gave them that information," he said.