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It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."

The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.

In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.

But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.

The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.

The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).

Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?

In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.

Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.

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.

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