AFGHANISTAN: Pentagon says civilian casualties not its problem

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BY EVA CHENG

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush regime has shown breathtaking disregard for the growing civilian casualties that its round-the-clock bombing in Afghanistan has inflicted on a long-traumatised and now-terrorised population.

Stories of these casualties are trickling out, mostly into Pakistan, where many of the victims have fled. But US officials' standard answer to questions about civilian casualties has been that the stories can't be "independently confirmed".

When evidence about a case becomes overwhelming, such that Washington is forced to acknowledge it, officials' new formula answer is that civilian casualties are "unintended damage". More stories of such "unintended damage" emerge almost every day.

In one of their earliest admissions, Pentagon officials on October 23 admitted that US warplanes on October 20 "mistakenly" dropped two 250-kg bombs on a residential area north-west of Kabul, a kilometre from its target, and on October 21 again "inadvertently" dropped a 500-kg bomb 100 metres away from the target, next to "a home for the elderly" outside the western city of Herat. Officials stressed these were "rare errors".

'No information'

Asked at the time about survivors' accounts of a bombing of a hospital near Herat on October 22, in which more than 100 people reportedly died, a Pentagon spokesperson claimed to have no information — another frequently used answer. When asked about the casualties of the October 20 and 21 incidents, the answer was, "We have no information on that".

Pentagon claims about an elderly people's home have amazed aid workers, however, who say that no such institutions exist in a country where the average life expectancy is 40. Speculation is now mounting that the damaged institution was in fact the hospital.

Then on October 27, three separate villages in the plains north of Kabul were also struck by US bombs. Two of them, Ghanikheil and Raqi, are four kilometres inside the territory of the Northern Alliance, which Washington is supposedly backing. Nikhahil, the third village, falls on the Taliban side of the front line.

At least nine people were killed in those incidents, according to Kate Rowlands, who runs an Italian-supported emergency hospital in nearby Anawa. Many more were wounded when their homes were reduced to rubble.

"Myself and my staff are deeply shocked, especially when you see a four-year-old and old people coming in", said Rowlands of the wounded survivors who arrived that night on donkeys.

Hours later, when Pentagon officials were challenged on the incidents, they said "we have no information".

The next day, US warplanes bombarded residential neighbourhoods in Kabul again, killing 12, including seven children having breakfast, according to Reuters. Pentagon officials again said they "had no information", only stating that civilians are "never deliberately targeted".

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, explained on October 28 that, while the US was "very careful" in avoiding civilian casualty, the Taliban was making it hard to achieve, because it was using civilian locations for its operations and facilities.

'Killed? You bet'

Rumsfeld was unapologetic. "Are people going to be killed in a war? You bet ... and there is plenty of ordnance flying around."

That same day, he claimed, "No nation has done more to avoid civilian casualties than the United States has in this conflict ... So let there be no doubt: Responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rest at the feet of [the] Taliban and al Qaeda."

Nevertheless, the atrocities, and the excuses, continue to mount. The Red Cross warehouse in Kabul, which is clearly marked as such on its roofs, has now been bombed twice, once by eight 1000-kg bombs on October 16, and then at a different location, by two separate bombing waves on October 26.

On both occasions, US officials said it was an accident.

But on October 30, NBC News quoted a US military official who admitted that the Red Cross facilities were bombed on purpose, because the food there had been stolen by the Taliban.

Millions of Afghans are already starving — and the attacks on the Red Cross have robbed 55,000 would-be recipients of essential meals and blankets.

Rumsfeld's claims that the US is doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties also doesn't square with its use of cluster bombs.

Officially for "soft" targets, cluster bombs are highly deadly, because each one releases a huge number of bomblets, of which 8-12% don't explode immediately, making them de facto landmines. There are already millions of landmines and unexploded artillery shells littering the country, according to the UN.

A massive number of cluster bombs have rained down on civilian areas. One UN office has reported that cluster bombs were dropped over a village near Herat, leaving many unexploded bomblets.

Such bombs are so widely used and look so much like the food packages that the US has been dropping on Afghanistan that recent US broadcasts have sought to explain their subtle differences — though they are both bright yellow and reasonably similar in sizes, one is square and the other is can-shaped.

'Outright lies'

While US officials continue to claim to have no information on civilian casualties, they were adamant that the Taliban's figures of around 1000 civilian deaths caused by US bombs by October 23 were "outright lies".

However, the Seattle-based War Resisters League, which has painstakingly gathered data from public sources, said on October 25 that the Taliban figure was close to its own tally, which comes predominantly from refugees and Pakistani and European press.

Some such incidents catalogued since October 7 have included:

  • the bombing, twice, during prayer time of the Sultanpur Mosque in Jalalabad, killing at least 120 people;

  • the bombing of another mosque in Darunta village near Jalalabad, killing two and leaving an estimated 150 injured;

  • attacks on Torghar and Farmada villages, north and west of Jalalabad, with at least 28 civilians killed in the latter;

  • the bombing of Argandab, north of Kandahar, in which 10 were killed;

  • the death of a five-year-old child, Taj Muhammed, who was hit by a bomb while sleeping in his home just outside Kandahar;

  • the attack by two missiles on October 8 of a civilian location near Jalalabad airport, killing one and seriously injuring many others;

  • the bombing, on October 11, of Qala-e-Chaman village near Kabul airport, killing a child. A nearby house was hit later that day, killing 10;

  • sundry bombings of the major cities of Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif, which according to the UN had killed 10 civilians in the former and 20 in the latter by October 12;

  • a bombing raid on Kabul on October 17, which hit a school and the central part of the city;

  • a bombing attack on Mudad Chowk, a residential part of Kandahar, which killed at least seven people; and

  • an October 18 raid on Qalaye Zaman Khan, Kandahar, which killed four members of one family and a 16-year-old girl in another family.

The War Resisters League quoted refugees as saying that dead bodies were littering the streets of Kandahar, with more dying in the hospitals for lack of appropriate care and medicines.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has also reported cases of civilian casualties, including:

  • On October 14, a girl from the Dadkhuda family in Kabul was killed by a missile, which left three of her family members seriously injured;

  • On October 18, two young girls were killed by two separate bombs which hit Old Makroryan in Kabul; and

  • On October 21, the New Project area near Masjed-e-Itefaq, Kabul, was struck, killing eight from one family, leaving eight injured.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 23 civilians, the majority of them young children, were killed when US bombs hit the Thori village near a Taliban base in Urozgan province three times on the night of October 21.

On October 22, the group said, between 25-35 civilians died when US bombs and gunfire — lasting one hour — hit their village, Chowkar-Karez, 40 kilometres north of Kandahar.

Writing on October 24, Geov Parrish of the War Resisters League said he believed the civilian death toll in Afghanistan was already in the thousands and will surely be pushed up by at least two developments: the US Air Force pilots' mandate to fire "at will" and the continuing US use of cluster bombs.

Ominously, Parrish added, "With winter coming on and an estimated seven million at risk of starvation, there's not much time left to kill civilians before they start dying on their own."

From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.

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