BY ROHAN PEARCE
Since the war on Afghanistan began, the US military has had a number of standard replies to accusations that it has massacred civilians: there were al Qaeda or Taliban leaders in the area; they fired first; it was a military installation; we didn't bomb at all; or a selection of these.
"We painstakingly assess the potential for injuring civilians or damaging civilian facilities, and positively identify targets before striking", Colonel Ray Shepherd, a spokesperson for the US Central Command, told the July 21 New York Times.
However, the US military's "painstaking" approach doesn't extend to identifying the number of civilians it has killed.
The US-based Global Exchange organisation sent field workers to Afghanistan to survey areas attacked by the US and its allies in an effort to determine the number of civilian casualties of the war. Global Exchange has so far compiled a list of 812 civilians killed by US air strikes.
The July 21 NYT reported that "civilians died, the evidence suggests, because they were made targets by mistake, or because in eagerness to kill al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilians and military targets."
Global Exchange expects that as field workers reach more remote areas, further evidence of civilian deaths from US military operations will be found.
The war on Afghanistan has been described as the "most accurate war ever fought in [US] history" (General Tommy Franks), fought in a "high tech" manner with "extraordinary accuracy" (Washington Post, July 21) and resulting in a "minimal amount of collateral damage" (Lieutenant Colonel James Yonts). While the war may indeed have been "hi-tech", between misses, incorrect intelligence and, most of all, deliberately attacking non-military targets, the number of US atrocities has been rising.
The most widely reported slaughter of civilians by the US was the July 1 Oruzgan massacre of up to 150 people attending two engagement celebrations. Another well-known incident of "collateral damage" was in Kabul in November, when a US bomb hit a mosque, killing at least 65.
In December, Marc Herold, professor of economics and of women's studies at the University of New Hampshire, published the results of a study of civilian casualties. The study cited evidence of up to 4000 civilian killings by the US military. Herold found evidence of US air strikes against civilian targets, including an F-18 dropping a 900kg bomb on a Red Crescent hospital on October 31, an F-18 dropping a 450kg cluster bomb on a 200-bed military hospital and mosque on October 21 and the bombing of Karam village at dinner time on October 11, killing between 100 and 160 people.
On January 24, the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) released Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties. The report said: "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."
"In fact", the report noted, "this rate was far higher in the Afghanistan conflict — perhaps four times higher — than in the 1999 Balkans war. In absolute terms, too, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan surpassed that incurred by the 1999 NATO bombing campaign over Kosovo and Serbia; indeed it may have been twice as high."
As of December 10, at least 12,000 bombs and missiles had been fired by US forces in Afghanistan, compared to 23,000 in NATO's 1999 Balkans campaign. The PDA report noted that "given that fewer weapons were expended, a higher level of civilian fatalities in Operation Enduring Freedom implies that the bombing campaign in Afghanistan was less accurate that the one associated with the 1999 Balkans war."
The weapons chosen by the US military increased civilian deaths, even in cases when they weren't deliberately targeted. Although 60% of the weapons used in the war on Afghanistan were so-called "smart bombs", less laser-guided bombs were used in favour of global positioning system-guided (GPS) weapons — due to their comparative cheapness and the ability to be launched in large batches.
Laser-guided weapons have a "circular error probability" of 3-8 metres, compared to 10-13 metres for GPS weapons. The PDA report stated that "even a difference as small as an 8-meter versus a 10-meter CEP equates to being able to put 50% of expended weapons within a 2100 square-foot circle versus being able to put them in a circle of 3300 square-feet... And, of course, in either case 50% of the weapons fall outside the circles."
In addition, a large number of cluster bombs were used. From the beginning of the war to the end of December, there were 103 submarine-launched strikes on Afghanistan. In the 78 that there are complete reports on, there was a total of 1210 cluster bomb units used. The report notes that although "some cluster bombs can be directed to a target by precision means, they are designed to disperse their sub-munitions over a broad area on arrival". This area is around 5000 square metres.
Each of the CBU-87 cluster bombs used by the US contains 202 sub munitions. An October report by Human Rights Watch stated that the "CBU-87s are formally known as Combined Effects Munitions because each bomblet has an antitank and antipersonnel effect, as well as an incendiary capability... Recent experience in Kosovo, and before that in the Gulf War, has shown that the exact 'footprint', or landing area, of the CBU-87's bomblets is difficult to control and that an initial failure-to-explode rate of some 7% can be expected."
Unexploded bomblets will no doubt increase the number of victims of the US war over coming months, years and, probably, decades — increasing the area of Afghanistan already contaminated with land mines and unexploded ordinance — already 724 million square metres before the start of the US war.
The United Nations estimates that in the last 23 years, 100,000 Afghans have been injured by land mines. On July 20, 13 people were killed and six injured, when a bus taking them to a picnic hit a land mine in near Bamiyan, west of Kabul.
The large number of civilians killed by the US in Afghanistan, however, is not mainly the result of "technical" errors. Following the fall of the Taliban, US military operations have been concentrated primarily in southern and eastern areas populated by the Pashtun ethnic group, from which the Taliban drew much of its support. The Northern Alliance forces, from which the current Afghan regime is primarily composed, are dominated by non-Pashtun groups.
Maintaining a strong, centralised, pro-US regime requires ensuring that a rival Pashtun political force to the narrow Pashtun warlord factions within the Kabul regime does not arise. Even with Pentagon backing, the Kabul regime remains shaky. Its allies are unreliable and could revert to being enemies at any time.
The July 21 London Observer revealed that "'bin bags' full of US dollars have been flown into Afghanistan, sometimes on [British] planes, to be given to key regional power brokers who could cause trouble for Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's administration." The Observer reported that while most of the money is from the US, some British money is being distributed.
A source in the British foreign office told The Observer that "it is certainly true that money has been distributed — it is the way things work in this part of the world — but no British money is being distributed. In any case, you do not buy warlords in Afghanistan: you 'rent' them for a period."
From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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