The human cost of the war

American media, in connivance with the administration, black out the unjustifiably huge civilian casualties in the war against Afghanistan.

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

Residents of Kama Ado, in Nangarhar province, survey the damage to a house in the bombing on December 3. Seventeen members of a family were killed.-YOLA MONAKHOV/AP

Residents of Kama Ado, in Nangarhar province, survey the damage to a house in the bombing on December 3. Seventeen members of a family were killed.-YOLA MONAKHOV/AP

THE air attack on Afghanistan began at 8-57 p.m. local time on October 7. The following day, Reuters carried an interview with a 16-year-old ice-cream vendor from Jalalabad, who said that he had lost his leg and two fingers in a cruise missile strike on an airfield near his home. "There was just a roaring sound, and then I opened my eyes and I was in a hospital," said Assadullah, who had been taken across the border to Peshawar in Pakistan for medical help. "I lost my leg and two fingers. There were other people hurt. People were running all over the place."

Multiply this scene by two or three hundred and you begin to approximate the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. A reality that is blithely dismissed by the Pentagon and the compliant United States' corporate media with the statement that "the claims could not be independently verified".

On November 24, 2001, seven weeks into the war, Los Angeles Times reporter M.H. Paul Richter could write without shame, "...although estimates are still largely guesses, some experts believe that more than 1,000 Taliban and opposition troops have probably died in the fighting, along with at least dozens of civilians".

Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands, as we shall document.

In fact, a careful analysis of published reports shows that Afghanistan has been subjected to barbarous aerial bombardment, which has killed an average of 60 to 65 civilians a day since October 7. When the sun set on November 23, at least 3,006 Afghan civilians had died in the U.S. bombing attacks.

In tabulating the totals I have relied upon Indian daily newspapers (especially The Times of India), three Pakistani dailies, The Singapore News, British, Canadian, and Australian (Sydney Morning Press and Herald Sun) newspapers, the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) based in Peshawar, the Agence France Press (AFP), Pakistan News Service (PNS), Reuters, BBC News Online, Al-Jazeera, and a variety of other reputable sources.

Apparently, the only casualty reports considered "real" by the mainstream U.S. press are those either issued by a Western enterprise or organisation, or "independently verified" by Western individuals and/or organisations. In other words, the high levels of civilian casualties reported elsewhere (for example, reports by Robert Fisk, Justin Huggler and Richard Lloyd Parry of The Independent and Tayseer Allouni of Al-Jazeera) are written off as "enemy propaganda".

For a typical example of minimisation, consider "Truth and Lies About Taliban Death Claims", published in a major British newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph, November 4, 2001). Authors Macer Hall and David Wastell solemnly declare that "far fewer Afghan civilians have been killed by American bombs than is claimed by Taliban propaganda". Citing "an intelligence report obtained by The Sunday Telegraph", which purportedly employed data gathered by satellite and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, they allege that most Taliban claims are falsehoods and propaganda. They then present a list of Taliban claims and counter them with "the Truth", as per the intelligence report, not their own independent research.

I give below both the Taliban claims and the "truth" as per the intelligence report, followed by my own assessment in the last column. Five bombing incidents that occurred during October 2001 were examined, showing a civilian death roll of at least 239.

TO make the war on Afghanistan appear 'just', it becomes imperative to block completely access to information on the true human costs, and the actions of Bush-Rumsfeld-Rice speak eloquently to this effort. For example, calling in all the major U.S. news networks to give them their marching orders, buying up all commercial satellite imagery available to the general public, sending Secretary of State Collin Powell to Qatar to persuade the independent Al-Jazeera news network, and, when that fails, targeting the Kabul office of Al-Jazeera for a direct missile hit. For the most part, the major U.S. corporate media appear to have obeyed the Pentagon directives and given sparse coverage to the topic of civilian casualties.

When faced with the indisputable "fact" of a civilian hit, the Bush team's standard response was that a nearby military facility was the real target. In almost every case we can document, this turned out to be a long-abandoned military facility. For instance, in the incident where four night watchmen were killed at the offices of a United Nations de-mining agency in Kabul, the Pentagon claimed it was near a military radio tower. U.N. officials, however, say that the tower was a defunct medium- and short-wave radio station, situated 900 feet (270 metres) away from the bombed building, and had not been in operation for over a decade.

On October 19, U.S. planes circled over Tarin Kot in Uruzgan early in the evening. They returned after everyone had gone to bed and bombed a residential area, some three kilometers away from the nearest Taliban base. Mud houses were flattened and families destroyed. The first round of bombs killed 20, and as some of the villagers were pulling their neighbours out of the rubble, more bombs fell, killing 10 more people. One of the villagers recalled: "We pulled the baby out, the others were buried in the rubble. Children were decapitated. There were bodies with no legs. We could do nothing. We just fled" (Richard Lloyd Parry, "Families Blown Apart, Infants Dying. The Terrible Truth of This 'Just War'," The Independent, October 25, 2001).

On October 21, planes, apparently targeting a long-abandoned Taliban military base, released their deadly cargo on the residential area of Khair Khana, in Kabul, killing eight members of a family who had just sat down to breakfast (Sayed Salahuddin, "Eight Die From One Family in Kabul Raid", at XTRAMSN, October 22, 2001).

On the following day, planes dropped BLU-97 cluster bombs (made by Aerojet/Honeywell) on the village of Shakar Qala near Herat, completely missing the Taliban encampments located 450 to 650 metres away and destroying or badly damaging 20 of the village's 45 houses ("Cluster Bombs Are New Danger to Mine Clearers," The Times, October 26, 2001). Fourteen people were killed immediately and a 15th died after picking up the parachute attached to one of the 202 bomblets dispersed by the BLU-97.

Officials of the United Nations' mine-clearing unit in the region have noted that 10 to 30 per cent of the missiles and bombs dropped on Afghanistan have not exploded, posing a lasting danger (Pakistan News Service, October 20, 2001; and Amy Waldman, "Bomb Remnants Increase War Toll," The New York Times, November 23, 2001). On November 26, following days of heavy bombing of Shamshad village in Nangarhar province, there were reports of up to three Afghan children being blown up and at least seven wounded by a cluster bomb while they were collecting firewood and scrap ("Afghan Children Killed Amassing Scrap of American Bombs", Pakistan News Service, November 26, 2001); "One dies, six injured as cluster bomb explodes", The Frontier Post, November 27, 2001).

There were several instances of bombs being dropped on areas of no military significance. On October 25, a bomb hit a fully loaded city bus at Kabul Gate, in Kandahar, incinerating between 10 and 20 passengers (Owen Brown, "'Bus Hit' Claim as War of Words Hots Up", The Guardian, October 26, 2001). Then, on November 18 and 19, U.S. planes bombed the mountain village of Gluco - located on the Khyber Pass and far away from any military facility - killing seven villagers (Phillip Smucker, "Village of Death Casts Doubts over U.S. Intelligence", The Telegraph, November 21, 2001). A reporter for The Telegraph, who visited Gluco, noted: "Their wooden homes looked like piles of charred matchsticks. Injured mules lay braying in the road along the mountain pass that stank of sulphur and dead animals..."

Noor Mohamed, a wheat trader who travels the highway from Chaman to Ghazni on business, recalled seeing the bombed-out, twisted, and still smoking remains of a 15-lorry fuel convoy just north of Kandahar in the last week of November. He said that he was sickened by the sight of the charred remains of the drivers and all the dozens of unfortunate souls who had bargained for a ride to Chaman (Paul Harris, "Warlords Bring New Terror", The Observer, December 2, 2001).

Upon arriving at a refugee camp on the Pakistan border, Abdul Nabi told the AFP on October 24 that he had seen two groups of bodies - of 13 and 15 corpses - of civilians near bombed-out trucks on the road between Herat and Kandahar ("U.N. Says Bombs Struck Mosques, Village as Civilian Casualties Mount", AFP in Kabul, cited in The Singapore News, October 24, 2001). Our data revealed that this attack was carried out on October 22, against four trucks that carried fuel oil.

The U.S. Air Force's use of weapons with enormous destructive capability - including fuel air bombs, B-52 carpet bombs, BLU-82s, and CBU-87 cluster bombs (shown to be so effective at killing and maiming civilians who happen to come upon the unexploded "bomblets") - reveals the emptiness of its claim that the U.S. has been trying to avoid Afghan civilian casualties. "Even though civilian deaths have not been the deliberate goal of the current bombing - as they were for the attackers of September 11 - the end result has been a distinction without a difference. Dead is dead, and when one's actions have entirely foreseeable consequences, it is little more than a precious and empty platitude to argue that those consequences were merely accidental" (Tim Wise, "Consistently Inconsistent: Rhetoric Meets Reality in the War on Terrorism" at ZNET, November 15, 2001).

The U.S. bombing campaign has also directly targeted certain civilian facilities deemed hostile to its war success:

* On October 13, bombs destroyed Kabul's main telephone exchange. (Civilian casualties unreported.)

* On October 15, bombs destroyed Kabul's power station, killing 12. Mentioned in BBC News Online (October 23, 2001).

* In late October, U.S. warplanes bombed the electrical grid in Kandahar, knocking out all power, but the Taliban was able to divert some electricity to the city from a generating plant in Helmand province, which too, was bombed later. (From "Bombing Alters Afghans' Views of U.S.," Pakistan News Service, November 7, 2001).

* On October 31, the U.S. launched seven air strikes against Afghanistan's largest hydroelectric power station adjacent to the huge Kajakai dam, 90 km northwest of Kandahar, raising fears that the dam might break (Richard L. Parry, "U.N Fears 'Disaster' Over Strikes Near Hydro Dam," The Independent, November 8, 2001).

* On November 12, a guided bomb scored a direct hit on the Kabul office of the Al-Jazeera news agency, which had been reporting from Afghanistan in a manner deemed hostile by Washington (See "U.S Targeting Journalists Not Portraying Her Viewpoint," The Frontier Post, November 20, 2001, at:

* On November 18, planes bombed religious schools (madrassas) in the Khost and Shamshad areas.

Utilities, news organisations, educational institutions - all seem to be "fair" targets in this war.

Afghan civilians who lived close to alleged military installations will die - must die - and are part of the "collateral damage" in the U.S. efforts to conduct military operations in the sky and on the ground without U.S. military casualties. From the point of view of U.S. policy-makers and their mainstream media lackeys, the "cost" of a dead Afghan civilian is zero (as long as these civilian deaths are hidden from the public) but the "benefits" of preserving U.S. military lives is enormous, given the U.S. public's aversion to body bags that return in this post-Vietnam era. The absolute need to avoid U.S. military casualties requires flying high up in the sky, greatly increasing the probability of killing civilians.

As John MacLachlen Gray of The Globe & Mail writes: "...Better stand clear and fire away. Given this implicit decision, the slaughter of innocent people, as a statistical eventuality is not an accident but a priority - in which Afghan civilian casualties are substituted for American military casualties" ("Working the Dark Side", October 31, 2001).

It is clear that the military strategists intentionally target missiles and drop bombs upon heavily populated areas of Afghanistan. A legacy of Afghanistan's 10 years of civil war in the 1980s is that many military facilities are located in urban areas where the Soviet-backed government had placed them for better protection from attacks by the largely rural mujahideen. Successor Afghan governments inherited these facilities. To suggest that the Taliban used "human shields" is more revealing of the historical amnesia and racism of those who make such claims, than of Taliban deeds.

Any heavy bombing of these military emplacements must necessarily result in substantial civilian casualties, a reality exacerbated by the admitted occasional poor targeting, human error, equipment malfunction, and irresponsible use of outdated Soviet maps. The most notable element here, however, is the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by military planners and the political elite. Why? I believe that race has something to do with it.

The Afghans are not "white", whereas the overwhelming majority of U.S. pilots and elite ground troops are. This "fact" serves to amplify the positive benefit-cost ratio of sacrificing the darker-skinned Afghans today (like the Indochinese and Iraqis in former wars) so that "white" American soldiers may be saved tomorrow. In other words, when the "enemy" is non-white, the scale of violence used by the U.S. government to achieve its state objectives at minimum cost knows no limits.

One may point out that the mass bombing of Serbia just a couple of years ago contradicts this view. But the Serbs, it should be noted, were tainted (read "darkened") by their Communist past - at least, in the views of U.S. policy-makers and the corporate media - hence were fair game. Otherwise, there is no instance (except during Second World War) of a foreign Caucasian state being targeted by the U.S. government.

THE Afghan War is anything but a "just war", as James Carroll has adroitly pointed out in an essay in The Boston Globe (November 27, 2001). First, the disproportionate nature of a response that makes an entire other nation and people "pay" for the crimes of a few is obvious to anyone who seeks out the real "costs" exacted upon the people of Afghanistan. Secondly, this war does little to impede the cycle of violence, of which the World Trade Centre (WTC) attacks are merely one manifestation. The massive firepower unleashed by the Americans will no doubt invite similar indiscriminate carnage in the future. Injustices will flower. Thirdly, calling the U.S. attacks a war, rather than a police action, without providing a justification for war, renders the action unjust. As Carroll writes, "...the criminals, not an impoverished nation, should be on the receiving end of punishment."

It is simply unacceptable for civilians to be slaughtered as a side-effect of an intentional strike against a specified target. There is no difference between the attacks upon the WTC, whose primary goal was the destruction of a symbol, and the U.S.-U.K. coalition's revenge bombing of military targets in populated urban areas. Both are criminal. Killing civilians, even if unintentional, is criminal.

Marc W. Herold is a Professor at the Departments of Economics and Women's Studies, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

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