The first thing they do is cover your eyes. They make you strip to make sure you're not carrying anything. They replace your clothes with uniforms that are not clothes at all.
On December 10, Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, released a report about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Relying on news accounts from India, Pakistan and Europe, the study put the number of civilian deaths from US air raids at 3,767. Such a high toll, the report stated, resulted directly from the Pentagon's tactics: the decision to rely on high-altitude air power, the targeting of infrastructure in urban areas and the repeated attacks on heavily populated towns and villages. The report, Herold asserts, documents "how Afghanistan has been subjected to a barbarous air bombardment which has killed an average of 62 civilians per day" since the war began on October 7.
Herold's report has received wide coverage in Europe. An article in the London Times stated that while conservative estimates put the total figure of civilian deaths at around 1,000, "it may be considerably higher. One recent unofficial report by an American academic said that the death toll among civilians could be closer to 4,000." Using Herold's figures, some writers have asserted that more civilians have died in Afghanistan than did in the September 11 attacks, a development, they said, that undermines US claims to be fighting a just war.
In the United States, by contrast, the Herold report has received scant attention. The network newscasts, the newsweeklies and most top dailies have largely ignored it. More generally, they've had little to say about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The New York Times, which in its "Portraits of Grief" has so carefully memorialized the lives of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center, has run little about the innocents who have perished in Afghanistan. Rather, it has applauded the Pentagon's performance in the war. In a front-page article headlined, "Use of pinpoint air power comes of age in new war" Eric Schmitt and James Dao wrote that the conflict in Afghanistan "will be remembered as the smart-bomb war." As they explained it, "Satellites, electronic-eavesdropping planes and human ground spotters worked together more reliably than ever, enabling distant commanders to direct warplanes to targets with stunning speed and accuracy." The "relatively small number of civilian casualties" that resulted, they stated, "helped the United States maintain the support of friendly Islamic nations."
Such an analysis closely follows the Pentagon line. When asked about reports of civilian casualties, Donald Rumsfeld has vigorously denied them. "I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences," he has said.
The US air raids do seem to have been remarkably accurate. But, in even the most precise campaigns, bombs inevitably go astray, and even those that do hit their mark can cause unintended damage. Hamid Karzai, the pro-American head of Afghanistan's interim government, has himself expressed concern about the mounting civilian toll. And in early January, a UN spokeswoman condemned a bombing raid on Qalai Niazi, a village in eastern Afghanistan, in which, she said, fifty-two civilians had died. The Pentagon, citing intelligence reports, insisted that the village was full of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. When Edward Cody of the Washington Post went to investigate, he found wads of bloody hair and flesh pounded into the ground and children's shoes scattered about the rubble of blasted-out houses. Based on this as well as eyewitness accounts, Cody concluded in a front-page article that many villagers had indeed been killed in the incident.
In an admirably evenhanded account in the Post (one of the few papers to scrutinize the issue), Karen DeYoung, referring to the Herold study, stated that "many with long experience in such assessments are skeptical of any firm accounting." However, she added, those observers "are equally skeptical of the Pentagon's virtually routine denials, no matter what the source." DeYoung went on to quote a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who said that the organization had buried "hundreds" of bodies around each of several battle sites, although it sometimes had a hard time distinguishing civilians from combatants. "Unfortunately, I fear that there have been quite a few civilian casualties from all sides," the spokesman said.
Curious about Herold's report, I downloaded it from the Web (pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold). Its twenty-seven pages include quotes from eyewitnesses, excerpts from news accounts, photos of maimed civilians and charts and tables laying out the day-by-day toll. Interspersed throughout is Herold's own analysis, which immediately made me skeptical (he calls the US bombing "criminal" and accuses the "mainstream corporate media" of "lying"). But what about the substance of his report? In an effort to check it, I chose one incident from his list, an October 11 bombing raid on the village of Karam, west of Jalalabad. The Taliban, Herold relates, claimed that 200 civilians were killed in the attack; the Pentagon dismissed that as vastly exaggerated. Herold, relying on a half-dozen news sources, concluded that 100 to 160 civilians had been killed. Via Nexis, I found several clips on the incident, written by journalists taken to the village. They found convincing evidence that many civilians had been killed; exactly how many, though, no one could say. From this Herold's estimates seem to be on the high side but substantial enough to warrant a closer look.
Why have American reporters been so reluctant to explore so important a matter? No doubt the remoteness of the sites in question has been a factor, but even more important, I believe, have been the Pentagon's aggressive denials, plus the general popularity of the war. Back in October, as images of leveled villages began appearing on American TV screens, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his staff ordering them to balance clips of civilian destruction in Afghanistan with reminders of the Taliban's harboring of terrorists, saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." In a period in which a lot of video was coming out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Isaacson told the Post's Howard Kurtz, "You want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States." Clearly, concerns about appearing unpatriotic continue to inhibit the press's efforts on this score.
Even if Herold's figures do turn out to be accurate (and he has since raised the estimated toll to more than 4,000), it could still be argued that given what the United States has accomplished in Afghanistan--the overthrow of the Taliban, the routing of Al Qaeda, the restoration of some freedoms, the start of a long reconstruction campaign--the price paid in terms of civilian casualties has been low. It could also be argued that as part of the rebuilding effort, the families of Afghan victims should receive special assistance, much as have the victims of September 11. At the very least, we need to know how many such victims there are.
India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who gathered here with the leaders of the other five South Asian countries for a summit meeting in early January, sat opposite each other at the banquet table. For two hours, while Vajpayee stared impassively down at his plate, Musharraf looked up at the chandeliers and made light conversation with Bangladesh's Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on his right. The leaders of the two nuclear powers of South Asia made no eye contact throughout. A thousand kilometers to the west, their armies were massing at the frontier.
The avuncular Vajpayee, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once penned poems in memory of the Hiroshima dead. But it was he who took the subcontinent nuclear by conducting tests in the Rajasthan desert in May 1998. This was an invitation for rival Pakistan--riven with internal angst based on an ideological reliance on Islam since its founding in 1947 and ruled by the military for long periods since--to join the nuclear fold, which it did with its own tests weeks later.
The Kargil miniwar of June 1999, which was the Pakistani military's response to peace moves by the civilian leadership of the two countries, was the first-ever conflict between two nuclear powers. It proved that the nuclear deterrent would not necessarily keep South Asia from conventional war. Since then, the region has walked a tightrope; unforeseen events can rapidly escalate into full-blown conflict, and the bluster of both sides includes the threat of using nuclear weapons.
There is a failure of imagination to consider the impact of nuclear blasts on the densely populated Indo-Gangetic plains, or that missile flying time to targets is measured here in minutes. Such are the proximity of population centers and climate conditions that a nuclear attack on Pakistan could consume India as well, and vice versa.
Meanwhile, even rudimentary confidence-building and de-escalation devices are lacking between the two countries--one a brittle military state whose command and control structures could collapse at a critical moment and the other a democracy egged toward brinkmanship by the arrogance of size and reactionary politics.
The current deep chill has its origins in the belief that General Musharraf is considered the "architect" of the Kargil conflict; in addition, there is the flamboyant Musharraf's upstaging of the aging Vajpayee at every public opportunity. But beyond the matter of personalities, New Delhi has legitimate grounds for anger, for Pakistan has been indulgent toward radical Islamic organizations with the avowed aim of conducting jihad to release Kashmir from India's grasp. It has allowed these militant groups to organize, fundraise and run training camps within its territory. These Pakistan-based external elements gradually displaced the indigenous militants in Kashmir over the last half of the 1990s, and recently even Kashmiri civilians have been targeted by the infiltrators.
Things came to a head on December 13 with the attack on India's Parliament in New Delhi by a militant Muslim suicide squad. An enraged Indian government accused the Islamabad government of involvement in the attack and, with the example of the American war in Afghanistan fresh in mind, hotheads within the BJP called for strikes on Pakistani territory. With one eye on a crucial legislative assembly election in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh, Vajpayee's government upped the ante, refusing to talk with Musharraf and massing its troops at the border.
Independent of Pakistani designs on the territory, New Delhi is unwilling to consider that the disquiet in Kashmir is due to rejection of Kashmiri aspirations for a modicum of self-rule. New Delhi wants nothing less than total control, even though the Indian Constitution contains unique provisions for autonomy for Kashmir. India decided long ago that it could suffer limited bloodletting in the territory under the mistaken assumption that "letting Kashmir go" will unravel the Indian republic itself.
The discord between India and Pakistan can also be traced to postpartition animosities that grew up after 1947 in particular among the Hindu and Muslim refugees who ended up on either side of the border. More recently, Indian ire against Pakistan has been ratcheted up by neonationalism among the growing Indian middle class, which makes up a large part of the BJP government's Hindu-right base of support. These nationalist emotions have been enhanced by the unifying function of satellite TV, a new phenomenon, and a run of movies from Bombay's escapist film-production machine that are no longer coy about identifying Pakistan as "the enemy."
There are now certain actions that the two protagonists must take, goaded by the international community, including the United States. On both sides there must be a softening of inflammatory rhetoric, a calming of tension and a pullback of the military. New Delhi must talk to Islamabad, however distasteful it finds the prospect. India, as the stronger and larger country, should have the self-confidence derived from its democracy, powerful economy and world standing to show generosity of spirit.
In the medium term, the United States and other powers must continue to pressure Pakistan to withdraw support from the militant groups engaging in Kashmiri jihad. In the longer term, New Delhi and Islamabad must be made to move toward accommodation on Kashmir (read autonomy, self-government, a plebiscite, a freeze or another imaginative solution) and a program of denuclearization.
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, visiting the region as US President, called South Asia the world's most dangerous place. January 2002 finds it a much, much more dangerous place. The resentful, asymmetrical twins of South Asia have faced each other for nearly fifty-five years in an adolescent rivalry that has triggered three major wars and an endless barrage of "minor" clashes. The price of the failure of reconciliation was once high. Now it is apocalyptic.
As the Taliban retreat in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has ample opportunity to expand its far-reaching ‘war on terror.’
Ronald Reagan celebrated them as "freedom fighters" for upholding "the ideals of freedom and independence" and declared a day in their honor.
Events in the recent past are receding as the ominous future comes into focus.
Whoever controls Saudi Arabia's oil wields great power over the world economy.
The war in Afghanistan, coming after the atrocities of September 11, provokes a welter of contradictory emotions. On the one side, a desire for justice and a yearning for security. And on the other side, dread of a war unrestrained by national boundaries, time frame or definable goals.
We believe that America has a right to act in self-defense, including military action, in response to a vicious, deadly attack on US soil by a terrorist network identified with Osama bin Laden. There is a real threat of further attacks, so, as Richard Falk argues on page 11, action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate.
But acknowledging a right of response is by no means an endorsement of unlimited force. We must act effectively but within a framework of moral and legal restraint. Our concern is that airstrikes and other military actions may not accomplish the ends we endorse and may exacerbate the situation, kindling unrest in other countries and leading to a wider war. They have already triggered bloody riots in Pakistan and Indonesia and on the West Bank, where the cease-fire is in shreds.
This effort ideally should have been carried out under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council and bin Laden and his associates brought to justice for their crimes by an international court. The United States should still seek a mandate from the Security Council for its military actions. This would give the campaign the international legitimacy it needs to avoid playing into the hands of those charging an American war against Islam, and it would offer some protection against the calamity of a wider and uncontrolled war. It would also help strengthen the UN's policing and peacekeeping capacity.
If limited military action in self-defense against bin Laden and his backers and cohorts is justified, an open-ended "crusade" against pariah nations to stamp out ill-defined evil is not. There are already ominous rumblings in the Pentagon that such interventions are contemplated. The Administration has notified the Security Council that it might pursue terrorists in other nations. This may be more of a threat than a promise, especially as it pertains to the Philippines and Indonesia. But it is no secret that hard-liners hanker to expand the war to include strikes against Iraq, Iran, Syria and other hard cases.
Military actions inside Afghanistan must be circumscribed by limited political objectives and carried out with a minimum of civilian casualties. The report of the killing of four Afghan UN employees (engaged in clearing the deadly harvest of mines sowed by two decades of war in that nation) in the second day's bombing underscores the potential costs when vast firepower is unleashed against a poor nation with comparatively few military targets. As civilian casualties mount and more refugees are driven from their homes, international support for the US effort will dwindle.
The US air war has already magnified humanitarian problems that call for urgent attention. In addition to 7.5 million Afghans facing famine before the war, which has interrupted overland shipments of food, half a million refugees have fled the bombing. American cargo planes dropping 37,000 box lunches cannot mitigate this problem, so US contributions to international agencies giving food and medical aid must be stepped up. With fleeing Afghans massing at border chokepoints, the Pakistani government should be pressured to allow aid to go through. The UN, with US assistance, must expand the number of camps that will take in the uprooted.
Also looming in Afghanistan is the prospect of the Taliban government falling and leaving a power vacuum, into which rush the furies of anarchy and civil war. The UN should immediately convene a coalition of opposition groups (including those representing Afghan women) in an attempt to ease the transition to a new government that is broadly representative of the Afghan people.
Here in America, responsible members of Congress should demand clarification of the Administration's goals in this war and oppose the President's attempts to curtail Congressional oversight of the conflict. In this regard, we hope that the courageous statement of Representative Jim McDermott that the Administration lacked a "fully developed and comprehensive strategic plan" will hearten more of his fellow Democrats to engage in similar scrutiny. And let us also praise Senator Russell Feingold for at least slowing down an antiterrorism package that the Senate leadership was trying to rush through Congress by severe limiting amendments or debate.
As the fog of national security closes in Washington, the press must resume its appropriate watchdog role. Civil liberties groups should stay on high alert, flashing early warnings against unconstitutional laws and violations of civil rights--especially those of innocent aliens apprehended in early antiterrorist sweeps.
As we have said before, military means are only one weapon in the fight against terrorism--and a very limited one. Of greater importance are diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence efforts. Beyond those, instead of more US military attacks we need a multinational coalition dedicated to attacking the conditions breeding terrorism--the endless Israel-Palestine conflict, the corruption of US-supported Arab regimes, the world inequality and poverty spawned by globalization. And on another front, as Jonathan Schell warns on page 7, the question of weapons of mass destruction has acquired a new salience as a result of the recent events. Nuclear disarmament, a test ban and stronger nonproliferation measures are sorely needed. We should not let the military action overshadow these greater challenges.
As Schell writes, "The world is sick. It cannot be cured with America's new war. The ways of peace--adopted not as a distant goal but as a practical necessity in the present--are the only cure."
The bombing part is easy. Not of course on the civilians, the "collateral damage" likely to be killed in unseemly large numbers, as they were during the Gulf War.