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Archive for Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Afghan civilian toll difficult to calculate

February 12, 2002

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— The cemetery is little more than a scattering of stones across a dusty hillside. A few tattered green flags flutter in the winter wind, marking the resting place of casualties of war.

Such grave sites are haunting reminders of civilian deaths that have scarred the U.S. air war in Afghanistan.

But authorities have not calculated Afghanistan's civilian death toll in the war on terrorism, and the dimension of this tragedy is not fully known. Although estimates have placed the civilian dead in the thousands, a review by The Associated Press suggests the toll may be in the mid-hundreds, a figure reached by examining hospital records, visiting bomb sites and interviewing eyewitnesses and officials.

The number of confirmed deaths will surely rise as more exhaustive tallies are compiled by independent entities. Neither the United States nor the Afghan government is attempting to tally the civilian dead, but two Afghan nongovernmental groups are undertaking a count. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch also plans a study.

One factor contributing to inflated estimates was the distortion of casualty reports by the Taliban regime. Afghan journalists have told the AP that Taliban officials systematically doctored reports of civilian deaths to push their estimate to 1,500 in the first three weeks of the war in an attempt to galvanize opposition to the bombing.

"Our chief was from the Taliban. His deputy from the Taliban. The information minister was from the Taliban," said one journalist, Mohammed Ismail. "We could not do our jobs. We could not tell the truth."

Tactical errors

In the course of the air war, the U.S. military has several times owned up to errors that killed civilians, but the Pentagon stressed repeatedly that they were never deliberately targeted.

"Any loss of innocent life is a shame," said Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander. At the same time, he declared, "This has been the most accurate war ever fought in the nation's history"

Franks, speaking last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that of the 18,000 bombs dropped on Afghanistan, 10,000 were precision munitions  the largest percentage in any war. Still, some went astray.

Errors resulting in civilian deaths have continued into recent weeks, although the air campaign has tapered off dramatically. It has been difficult to authenticate casualties as the U.S. strikes have shifted to remote areas, in support of U.S. special forces scouring the rugged countryside for Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida followers and Taliban leaders.

In one such air-and-ground operation on Jan. 23, in the village of Khas Uruzgan north of Kandahar, Afghan witnesses said U.S. special forces killed 19 people, most where they slept, and temporarily detained 27. The Americans were hunting for al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts, but the Pentagon is now investigating the possibility that its team received bad information and killed the wrong people.

Daunting challenge

In the course of the air assault, every major Afghan city was targeted  Kabul, with its population of 1.2 million; the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south; Herat in the west; Mazar-e-Sharif in the north; Jalalabad in the east  as well as large swaths of rugged countryside where bin Laden and his lieutenants might have been hiding.

AP reporters visited these areas during the course of the war and gathered data on civilian casualties. Their reporting and other reliable counts  by no means complete  in the months since then suggest a civilian death toll ranging from 500 to 600.

In some of Afghanistan's main cities, where the bombing ceased months ago, the toll may be nearly final. In Kabul, the capital, an independent aid group put the total at 67, and the AP's count was 70.

Both figures took into account hospital tallies  59 deaths reported by the city's four main nonmilitary hospitals  as well as some victims buried without documentation by a morgue or hospital.

Counting the dead has been a daunting challenge, not just in Afghanistan. America had difficulty reckoning up its own dead in the World Trade Center collapse. The toll topped 6,700 two weeks after the attacks; this week the number, which police say is close to final, stood at just over 2,840.

How many, and wo

On Monday, U.S. soldiers finished investigating the site of a missile strike last week in eastern Afghanistan and took human remains and other evidence to determine who was killed.

U.S. officials initially believed that a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone killed a senior al Qaida figure Feb. 5 in the Zawar Kili area, about 20 miles southwest of Khost in Paktia province and about 10 miles from the Pakistani border.

The attack led to speculation that Osama bin Laden had been killed, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials were quick to downplay the possibility.

A Pentagon spokesman on Monday said U.S. officials did not know who was killed in the attack. The soldiers went to the site "to gather evidence and to, hopefully, positively identify who it was or who it was not," said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem.

Intelligence information showed that people drove up, got out of vehicles and were having a meeting in an open area on a hillside when the strike occurred, Stufflebeem said. He did not know how many people were killed. Only pieces of remains were found, he said.

Asked whether those killed may have been ordinary civilians, and not al Qaida terrorists or members of the former ruling Taliban regime, Stufflebeem said there were "no initial indications that these were innocent locals." He said the soldiers who inspected the site reached that conclusion after exploring the area and talking to local people.

The remains will be examined at a U.S. military facility in the United States, said Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

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