Afghans are still dying as air strikes go on. But no one is counting |
Bombing blunders and misleading information on the ground keep the civilian toll rising in Afghanistan. In the first of a three-part investigation Guardian writers ask: How many innocent people are dying?
Ian Traynor in Kabul
Tuesday February 12, 2002
Fardin's world caved in on a bright Sunday morning last October when an American bomb came through the roof of the room where he was sleeping. He was spared physically. But the six-year-old has not uttered a word nor taken a step since.
At a quarter to eight on the morning of October 21, exactly two weeks after central command in Florida started bombing the Taliban into submission and al-Qaida into flight, an F-18 airplane circling overhead dropped its ordnance on the north Kabul hovel that Fardin's and three other families shared.
The little girl next door lost both her eyes. Sardar Muhammad, 22, leapt out of bed in his room at the bottom of the gar den and ran outside to watch the airshow. A piece of shrapnel in the head killed him instantly.
The neighbour, Muhammad Sarwar, 50, lost his wife Aziza and seven other family members. "Maybe he wasn't a very good pilot," he murmurs. "We like the Americans."
The bomb, in a poor and thickly populated district on the capital's northern fringe, turned the two affected houses into a miniature earthquake zone of rubble, craters, and scattered household junk - a shredded patchwork quilt here, bits of a red and black carpet there, piles of smashed crockery and old cooking pots. The precision of the strike left the little disaster zone enclosed behind the walls of the two houses.
The roof collapsed on the first floor where Fardin was asleep. He was left speechless by the trauma and so paralysed by fear that he has not walked since.
On the same autumn day that the Americans killed nine Afghan civilians here, nine children perished to the south when the tractor and trailer in which they were travelling was bombed in Uruzgan province. And to the west in Herat dozens of civilians died when a 1,000lb cluster pod spilt its 202 yellow pea bomblets across a mosque and hospital complex.
They were all innocent victims of Washington's war on terror, part of the steadily mounting toll of civilian casualties still being inflicted on Afghanistan despite the collapse of the Taliban and the dispersal of Osama bin Laden's Islamist international. They are what have become known as "collateral damage", like "ethnic cleansing" a chilling and cliched euphemism of the past 10 years. The Afghans are wearily familiar with death - 10 years of war against the Russians, civil war between the mojahedin in the early 1990s, the Taliban's bloody conquest and consolidation of power.
In a country where death is so ubiquitous, killing a habit, and war has been a constant for an entire generation, few are bothering to count the casualties mounting from more than four months of US action. For the Pentagon, the Afghan war has been a triumph, the perfection of hi-tech combat techniques practised 10 years ago in the Gulf war and honed in the Kosovo campaign of 1999. The rapid victory at a minimal cost to American lives has helped to lay the ghost of Vietnam.
But as the international focus shifts from war to a fragile peace and to the rebuilding of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the war still raises several unsettling questions about the price of the Pax Americana. The first and most obvious question in this unfinished war is how many civilians have died. There is no easy answer. Somehow in the middle of America's hi-tech, $1bn a month bombing blizzard, the simple matter of keeping a tally of civilian casualties has been overlooked.
'Please don't ask'
There are no official US figures, and nor have the dozens of non-governmental charities now operating in the country done any independent research. "Undoubtedly there have been civilian casualties," says a well-informed Afghan professional working for an NGO mainly funded by the US government.
"No one is doing a real assessment of that. It gets very political. Please don't ask me about that."
"There's collateral damage in every conflict, but I don't feel comfortable talking about it," echoed a UN official in Kabul.
Despite the manipulation of casualty figures for propaganda purposes by both pro-war apologists and anti-war activists, it is already clear that the number of civilian dead from the bombing vastly exceeds the estimated 500 killed by US air strikes during the 78-day Kosovo war, and may also be higher than the 3,200 Iraqi civilians believed killed during the Gulf war.
"A lot of civilians are clearly being killed or injured. It's definitely in the four figures," says a UN source.
The charity M?decins Sans Fronti?res says: "MSF increasingly sees evidence of an unacceptably high number of Afghan civilian casualties from the military operations."
A senior MSF worker, who has been in Afghanistan for five years, estimates the number of civilian dead at between 2,000 and 3,000, based on reports from hospitals and field workers around the country.
Some analysts say more than 60 Afghan civilians are being killed daily on average since the bombing began on October 7. A European demining expert in Kabul who works closely with the Pentagon reckons that up to 8,000 civilians have been killed.
The September 11 toll in the US is now put at just under 3,000 dead. In a new study, Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute estimates that up to 1,300 civilians have been killed by US bombs and at least 3,000 other Afghans are dead because the American campaign worsened the humanitarian emergency.
Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire puts the number of civilian casualties at at least 4,000. Prof Herold, a leftwing anti-war activist, is one of the few seeking to establish the death toll, tabulating it daily from media reports. In his words, he wants "to put the record straight" and claims his is a "comprehensive accounting" even though it is being conducted from a computer terminal in America, and not from first-hand reporting inside Afghanistan.
He calculates that 3,742 civilians had died by December 3. Scores more have died since. Sceptics argue that his figures are exaggerated. He insists they are conservative.
"It's a good first go," says Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch in New York, which had two researchers on the Pakistani-Afghan border for 11 weeks trying to get a picture of the toll. It has a data base of 300 strikes it wants to investigate for civilian casualties.
What is certain is that Prof Herold's work is incomplete. Some of the strikes he records duplicate one another, others are fictional. For example, he has up to 19 women dying in a Kabul maternity ward around October 8 when a bomb fell on or near the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital.
Isatullah, the head nurse at the hospital's emergency department, is one of the few people in Kabul keeping a list of the dead from the bombing. He produces six A4 pages listing the names of 115 male bomb victims. Forty of them died. There is another list of 37 women, 10 of whom died.
"The Taliban ordered me to make the list for propaganda against America. I had to make the list. They were the bosses," he explains. "But there was no force, and there were no lies on the list."
But no bomb hit the hospital, and there have been no maternity ward casualties. But if the American professor is recording non-existent casualties, the obverse also applies since so many deaths have not been reported in the international media on which his data depends.
"You can probably double Herold's figure because so much goes unreported here," the demining expert says. "Most Muslims are buried within six hours of death. There's no need to report births or deaths here and the hospitals do not have anything on the dead."
Not included in the professor's statistics, for example, because it has not been reported until now, is the attack on the village of Moshkhil in the south-eastern province of Paktika. Three air strikes within 12 hours on December 5 and 6 left 16 people dead. The villagers insist there were no Taliban in the vicinity and no military targets.
On the afternoon of December 5, recounts a man from the village who gives his name as Rashid, a US plane bombed two cars, killing two brothers and a sister. An hour later an armed stranger on a motorbike sped through Moshkhil asking the locals where "the guests" [meaning Taliban or al-Qaida] were staying. There were no guests, he was told. Within an hour another US plane bombed an empty car. Then at half past three the next morning the planes returned, bombing a mosque and destroying it as well as seven adjacent houses. Thirteen people died as they slept.
"Why did they bomb my village?" asks Rashid, who lost two relatives. "It could not have been stray bombs since they bombed three times. It must have been a blunder."
There have inevitably been plenty of "blunders", from the striking of Red Cross warehouses to the killing of anti-Taliban fighters, caused by stray bombs, mistakes and bad or deliberately skewed intelligence. The Pentagon factors in a 10% failure rate for the 11,315 bombs it had dropped by December 5 and only a 6% failure rate for the controversial cluster bombs, although demining experts now dealing with the fallout put the cluster failure rate at up to 22%.
Most civilians have died where the fighting and the bombing have been the most intense - the November battle for the Taliban's last northern stronghold of Kunduz, the early December onslaught on the Tora Bora caves complex south of the eastern town of Jalalabad, the campaign to capture the cradle of the Taliban, Kandahar in the south.
There was barely a fight for Kabul. The Northern Alliance lost four men taking the capital. But the concentration of military targets in and around the city means that an estimated 100 civilians died in the bombing.
Most of those killed are as a result of "mistakes" during high-altitude bombing, the central feature of modern American war-making, which wreaks havoc on the ground but keeps US servicemen in a relatively risk-free environment in the skies.
But in the past few weeks, there has been increasing evidence of how the Americans are also being drawn in on the ground, committing errors after being lured into local feuds.
In recent days CIA agents have been visiting a southern village doling out millions of dollars in compensation to relatives of men killed by US special forces who stormed Uruzgan village, guns blazing, in the hours of darkness on January 24. The Americans got the wrong men.
The bodies of two men were found shot dead with their hands tied behind their backs with plastic tape, suggesting that they had been bound and then executed. Read Admiral John Stufflebeem of the US joint chiefs of staff told journalists in Washington that the two men could have been handcuffed by local Afghans.
"That explains what we're talking about in terms of those bound and found dead," he said.
But western officials in Kabul said that in a night raid on another southern village last month near the town of Gardez, US special forces used the tape to bind local women. In both cases, houses or buildings were torched. In both cases, locals and western sources insist, the increasingly desperate hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban remnants targeted anti-Taliban forces loyal to the interim government of Hamid Karzai.
In Uruzgan village, the charred corpses of a dozen men were found among at least 21 dead. In the village near Gardez, western sources say, the Americans tied up the women and then took hair samples, apparently for DNA analysis to ascertain whether they might have been part of Bin Laden's extended family.
"This sort of thing seems to be quite common now. There's so much resentment now in the south-east," a source says.
The man the Americans were looking for was a member of the local anti-Taliban council and had been cooperating with the new government in Kabul. "But he was quarrelling with someone who has the ear of the Americans," the source says.
The raids suggest that the special forces shoot first and ask questions later. In both villages there were no US deaths although one American sustained a foot injury.
The botched operations may be explained by poor US intelligence. They must also partly be caused by the "bodybag syndrome" - the fear of US casualties which is forcing American forces into dependence on unsavoury characters on the ground who are tricking them into fighting their feuds for them.
The ground "errors" were preceded by several other strikes in which Afghan warlords coaxed the Americans into bombing their rivals, claiming that the targets were hostile forces. The International Committee of the Red Cross is investigating the deaths of at least 52 civilians on December 29 at Qalaye Niazi, south-east of Kabul, when a B-52 and two B-1B bombers struck after a regional warlord told the Americans it was a Taliban stronghold. It was not. At least 25 children were killed, according to the UN.
There have been several such attacks in the same region. The Moshkhil villagers think that the "blunder" that left 16 dead there followed a malicious tip-off from a former anti-Taliban village chief who wants his old job back.
Standing amid the rubble of the former frontline hill village of Isterghich, north of Kabul, Zakriyah, 38, brags about ordering the US strike on his native village that left four women dead. It was a Taliban-held village. Zakriyah was away on the other side of the lines. "I passed on all the information. The Americans bombed. They missed the Taliban and hit next door."
The Taliban are gone. Zakriyah is now back as the village chief, the four women sacrificed on the altar of his ambition.
A similar trend appears to be occurring at the broader political level, with the Northern Alliance officials running Kabul and dominating the interim government taking advantage of the current atmosphere to get the Americans to wipe out their perceived foes in the south.
In the post-Taliban phase of the war, the bombing has been concentrated for the past month on the south and south-eastern areas by the Pakistani border where support for the Taliban was strong. General Basir Salangi, a former Northern Alliance commander who is now Kabul's security chief, says the Americans should carry on bombing the Pashtun south: "If they're not al-Qaida, they're the people who supported al-Qaida. They should be bombed just to frighten them."
There is little doubt the war in Afghanistan has been a triumph of American might. But out of sight and out of mind, day after day, in dribs and drabs, a lot of ordinary people are dying in a war that sees the most advanced fighting machine ever assembled doing its killing in one of the most backward societies on earth.
The results: just two Americans killed by hostile fire to set against thousands of dead Afghan non-combatants. Is this civilian death toll warranted?
The Pentagon responds with age-old axioms about the inevitable and unfortunate collateral of war. "This has been the most accurate war ever fought in this nation's history," the campaign commander, General Tommy Franks, insisted in Washington last week.
That conclusion is contested by Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute, who calculates that the so-called smartbombs and high-precision strikes have been a lot less accurate in Afghanistan than they were two years ago in Yugoslavia.
"Despite the adulation of Operation Enduring Freedom as a 'finely tuned' or 'bulls-eye' war, the campaign failed to set a new standard for precision in one important respect: the rate of civilians killed per bomb dropped," he says.
"In fact, this rate was far higher in the Afghanistan conflict - perhaps four times higher - than in the 1999 Balkans war."