Earth Trends, 18 Feb

The war is over in Afghanistan.  Or is it?  There are still frequent reports of innocent Afghan civilians killed by bombs, missiles and military raids conducted by the US military.  The number of deaths of innocents may be approaching or may already have exceeded the number killed by the tragic September 11 attacks.  It is time for accountability for the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, compensation for the victims, and an end to the bombing.

In the swirling, confusing fog of the wars against terrorism, we should all spare a thought for the thousands of innocent victims in Afghanistan.

In the war against the Taliban and their allies, many hundreds of civilian Afghans were killed and many more were injured by the American bombings.

And now, many weeks after the Taliban’s defeat, the bombs and missles continue to fall, killing more innocent victims.

The extent of this so-called “collateral damage” is only now emerging.  The media has only reported on the incidents sporadically.  Now, there is growing concern.  But really, there should be an international outrage at how little the lives of innocent, ordinary Afghans are valued.

At least 3,767 civilians have died in Afghanistan between 7 October and 6 December, according to an estimate by Prof. Marc Herold, an economist at University of New Hampshire.  Since then, many more have perished.  If this estimate is correct, then the number of deaths of Afghan innocents is approaching (or may have exceeded) the number of deaths in the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.

Another researcher, Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, used a more stringent estimation system and concluded there had been 1,000 to 1,300 deaths.  Even then, the numbers are high.  And they have climbed significantly since December.

The latest two incidents, which were widely reported in the main US papers, took place just a few weeks ago.

On the night of 23-24 January, American soldiers conducted raids in the small mountain town of Oruzgan.  The death toll was 21, according to local officials, whilst the Pentagon says at least 15 were killed.

A front-page report in the New York Times (11 February) said the Pentagon has acknowledged the raids were conducted in error, apparently due to flawed intelligence.

US Special Forces stormed two compounds: the local school (which housed the government’s disarmament commission) and the district civilian and police headquarters.  Two of the interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s top commanders were killed in the school, and two security guards were killed in the district headquarters.

After the raids, 27 Afghans (including the district’s police chief and staff) were taken prisoner, beaten and abused by American soldiers, although they protested they supported the interim government leader Hamid Karzai.   They were only released on 7 February after 16 days’ detention in the American base in Kandahar. 

The Pentagon has now admitted the prisoners were neither members of Al Qaeda nor Taliban fighters, according to the news report.

The police chief, Abdul Rauf, said he was beaten, kicked until his ribs cracked and punched by American soldiers when they stormed the district headquarters and took him and his men prisoner.

An American officer aplogised to him for the mistake when he was released.

“I can never forgive them,” said Mr Rauf. “Why did they bomb us? Why did they do this?”

In another incident, an American Predator drone operated by the CIA fired a missile at a group of people in the mountains of Southeastern Afghanistan in the first week of February.  Three peasants, who were simply looking for scrap metal, were killed, according to local Aghan sources.

The Americans suspected the group of being Al Qaeda members and one of the men killed was said to resemble Osama bin Laden.  Senior US military officials on 11 February were still defending the missile attack whilst a team of US soldiers have collected materials, including human remains, at the attack site.

These two most recent incidents are the tip of the iceberg of strikes that killed and injured civilians.  In another report, the New York Times (13 February) revealed that on 21 October, American planes bombed the area of Tirin Kot in southern Afghanistan and killed 21 people from two families.

Those who died were 17 children, 3 women and a man who was driving them in a tractor-trailer on a road out of town, ironically to avoid the bombing going on in the town.

According to survivors, most of the children were killed when a plane struck the tractor-trailer.  Then, as relatives rushed to the scene and carried the wounded into a house, the planes returned and bombed the house, killing most of the wounded and injuring four who tried to help.

“We were trying to escape, so we took all the children in one trailer to get away,” said Radigul, 23, who lost three children and was badly injured herself.  “We thought to get to safety, to relatives, somewhere in the mountains.”

Yet another New York Times front-page article (10 February) provides a listing of other incidents causing civilian casualties.  They include:

**  On 11 October, in Karam village in Nangahar Province, an air raid killed 200 civilians, according to the Taliban.  Some survivors put the death count at 50, some 100, some higher.  Reporters found a hamlet of demolishedf mud huts and interviewed devastated family members.  The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called claims of a high death toll “ridiculous.”

** On 1 December, 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, an aid agency, said they transported 72 dead (including women and children) and left many bodies behind.  The Pentagon said its planes had hit only its intended targets.

** On 20 December, American planes attacked a convoy in Paktia Province, killing 50 to 60 people on the road and in surrounding villages.  Survivors said the convoy was bringing tribal elders to Kabul for the inauguration of the interim President.  The Pentagon said Taliban leaders were in the vehicles and the enemy fired first.

** On 29 December, an air raid on Niazi Qala village in Paktia killed more than 100 civilians, according to some survivors.  The Pentagon claimed it hit a Taliban ammunition depot. 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.

William Arkin, a military advisor to Human Rights Watch, says the organisation has about 300 incidents in its database and about a third involve some civilian casualties worth taking a second look at, according to the New York Times report.

“The military knows they’ll get pummeled about issue relating to civilian casualties and they don’t have a clue how to address it in a non-propagandistic way,” said Arkin.  “The subject ties them in knots.  It’s an irritant, and they avoid it.”

According to the New York Times report:  “Whatever the total (of civilian casualties), 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 killeds and that is always unfortunate.’ “

This “unfortunate and inevitable” collateral damage is not taken so serenely by the victims’ families and others.

“Tell me why our homes are destroyed at 55 people, even little children, are dead?” asked an angry yound man, Gul Nabi, standing in December amidst 15 obliterated houses of Madoo village.  “There were only farmers here who lived a good life and prayed to Allah for peace.”  (NYT, 10 Feb).

“There is no need for more raids,” said Azizullah Agha, the head of the government disarmament commission in Oruzgan (the venue of the January raid that killed 21.  Agha, who lost nine family members in another bombing in November, added: “I do not know why they are making so many mistakes. This latest one is a very big mistake. There were no Al Qaeda or Taliban.  There was just a commission working for the government, collecting weapons.”  (NYT, 11 Feb).

The governor of Oruzgan Province, Jan Muhammad, also expressed anger.  He said he had 30 American special forces soldiers working with him and living in his headquarters while 100 miles away other Americans were killing his commanders.

The lack of transparency and accountability relating to civilian deaths and casualties in Afghanistan is a scandal. It is a shame that there has been little publicity and few calls from the “international community” to the American military to account for these civilian casualties.

The world was justifiably outraged when the attacks on the Twin Towers caused almost 4,000 deaths.  It should also be similarly angered by the thousands of innocent lives lost in Afghanistan.

An international investigation should be carried out on the incidents in Afghanistan involving civilian casualties.  The innocent victims (those killed or injured) and their surviving family members should be compensated fairly.  And the bombings should now stop.