Truth emerging: Human toll in Afghanistan

“Why did they bomb us? Why did they do this?” asked Afghan civilians captured and beaten in two nights of raids in Oruzgan by U.S. military forces Jan 24. They were released this week and told their story to The New York Times.

The local police chief and members from the government disarmament commission were sleeping in the district headquarters when it was attacked resulting in 21 killed and 27 being taken captive. Prisoners were punched, kicked, tied up and walked on as they pleaded, “We are friends!”

The new government of Afghanistan had to intervene to get the prisoners released.

Judith McDaniel, national director of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Peace Building Unit, told the World, “I hope people read the story and read it carefully ... The kind of absolute permission that Bush has given himself to create violence and respond with violence to almost any situation, which he perceives as threatening is being mimiced by the men in the military.”

Scott Lynch, communications and membership director for Peace Action, said, “Obviously these incidents are a probably just a fraction … of atrocities and tragedies that have been incurred. As we get further into the conflict, the truth inevitably makes its way out.”

Civilian casualties “couldn’t be ignored,” said Marc A. Herold, in a telephone interview with the World.

On Dec. 10, Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, rocked the world with a report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Herold, who collected information from international sources, put the Oct. 7-Dec. 6 death toll at 3,767.

He said that it would have been hard for the U.S. media to ignore his report after it was picked up by German, Canadian and British media, including Der Spiegel, the BBC and The Toronto Globe and Mail.

Reports of Afghan civilian casualties from U.S. bombings emerged as early as Oct. 21, 2001, two weeks after they began. Pentagon officials and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld consistently denied or dismissed these reports as “enemy propaganda.”

“The military knows they’ll get pummeled about issues relating to civilian casualties, and they don’t have a clue how to address it in a nonpropagandistic way,” William H. Arkin, a former army intelligence analyst who is military adviser to Human Rights Watch, told the Times, “The subject ties them in knots … and they avoid it.”

Herold, a professor of economics, conducted the study for a chapter in an anthology, Sept. 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke, to be released this month.

Herold said the revelations of the Jan. 24 massacre, along with a changed atmosphere, make it “acceptable politically to question the Pentagon.”

Although sometimes his sources are questioned as “unreliable,” Herold rejects these charges adding that he read regular reports from the Associated Press who hired Afghani and Pakistani journalists inside Afghanistan and on the borders. “Are they saying the only truth comes through the American lens?” Herold asked.

When asked about Bush’s State of the Union address, calling for more spending for hi-tech weaponry because it saves lives, Herold said, “Smart weaponry is more precise, but you have to put technology in context. When you decide to drop 500-1,000 bombs weighing 2,000 pounds in urban or village settings you have to know that you are going to kill people.”

The Pentagon’s claim that civilians were “unintended” victims is a murky one. “Did the military consciously bomb civilians?” Herold said. “No. But, many targets are questionable military targets. When a tractor is strafed and bombed is that a military target? When a convoy of fuel trucks is systematically bombed, its drivers killed, are they military targets? Fuel is needed for hospitals, too.”

Herold predicted that a legal case will eventually charge there were unconscionable attacks on civilians. He said the civilian toll has been systematically kept from the American public, but was hesitant to predict public reaction when the truth comes out. “People are fundamentally good,” Herold said.

He hoped the public would exert a restraining influence on the Bush administration. “Among the students on campus here was a real discomfort to responding to the violence of Sept. 11 with more violence or curtailment of civil liberties,” he said.

When asked how can the direction of the Bush administration’s policies be changed, Christy Ringore, communications director of the United States Students Association (USSA), told the World, “Our students are of the opinion that to be patriotic means keeping our government accountable. And means having a serious debate about what is happening to our country today ... We have to make sure that our legislators know that because they won an election it doesn’t make them an autonomous group and for them to stop working in conjunction with the people who voted them in.”

AFSC’s McDaniels says that coalitions like the National Coalition for Peace and Justice are discussing, “what do we mean by security, are we talking about more missles and better missles or are we talking about healthcare for every person in this country or the security of our jobs?”

Ringore told the World about USSA’s coaliton efforts, “The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition work is extremely important because we are doing something that none of us could do alone.” The coalition along with many other peace groups are sponsoring a national march on Washington on April 20. Tens of thousands are expected to attend.

Lynch said, “There is a core of folks who may initially have supported military action. Their numbers are going to drop as [the Bush administration] widen the war. And people see the cynical use of the “war on terrorism” to further the pre existing rightwing agenda of the Bush administration which has been tax cuts for the rich and the corporations, Star Wars, and expansion of the Pentagon budget.”

>The authors can be reached at talbano@pww.org and jleblanc@pww.org