What if we could see the Afghan dead as we've seen the September 11 victims?
"I stand before you today as a citizen of a country that has had nothing but disaster, war, brutality and deprivation against its people for many years," Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan, told the conference of international donors in Tokyo. The representatives responded with pledges totaling more than $4.7 billion, over time spans ranging from a year to the next three to five years. That's a start, but much more will be needed--the United Nations estimates $15 billion over the next ten years--and we can only wait and see whether these promissory notes to a battered but resilient people will be redeemed in full.
The war, now winding down, that resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime and the smashing of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan can be called a success in terms of the US-led coalition's initial goals, although Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have eluded capture. But the war's effects on the Afghan people have not begun to be dealt with, and US strategies and objectives in the fight against terrorism it claims to lead remain ambiguous.
The US bombing campaign was ferociously effective against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the field, but was the civilian toll excessive? Official information is scanty, and independent investigations by human rights groups have not yet been made, but the question has to be asked: Was the utmost effort made to avoid civilian suffering, and was the cost in lives excessive in proportion to the goals of the war (see Howard Zinn on page 16)?
The tempest of high-tech ordnance loosed on the land drove thousands of Afghans from their homes, and many of them languish in refugee camps on the brink of starvation. The bombs halted humanitarian food deliveries, and only now are stockpiles being restored to normal levels. In the countryside and in cities like Kandahar and Jalalabad, deliveries of food, shelter and medicine are being stolen by resurgent warlords or armed gangs.
And then there is the deadly legacy of mines and unexploded bombs from years of warfare. According to a UN report, "Afghanistan is the most mine- and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected country in the world." A massive cleanup effort is under way, but it will be months or years before roads and fields will be cleared for normal agriculture and commerce.
Much of Afghanistan's plight is the culmination of twenty years of war, three years of drought and the destructive policies of the Taliban's repressive theocracy. The cold statistics give a bare sketch of a nation in ruins: Life expectancy, forty-four years; one in four children dies before age 5; one in twelve women dies in childbirth; only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are in school; scarcely a quarter of the population has access to potable water and one in eight to sanitation; electricity consumption is about the lowest in the world; there are two telephones per 1,000 people (compared with twenty-four per 1,000 in Pakistan and sixty-eight per 1,000 in Uzbekistan).
The interim government desperately needs immediate infusions of cash to pay civil servants, who have gone unpaid for months, and to recruit more teachers and police. Kabul has only 100 trained policemen, and the rate of murder and theft is on the rise. Daily life in the capital has returned to a semblance of normality, but armed Northern Alliance fighters commit theft and extortion, while other cities and large stretches of the countryside are ruled by bandits and warlords. Some 700,000 fighters are at large.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's spokesman said in response to Powell's speech in Kabul, "Reassurance is good. Cash is better." Aid funds pledged must be delivered quickly; beyond that, a rich country like America should be providing leadership in the financial arena. A dependable flow of money and technical assistance must last for the next decade.
The mission of the US military in Afghanistan should expand to include shoring up the frail Karzai government, helping it to restore security, to provide for the welfare of the people and to enlist the support of the fractious ethnic groups for the Loya Jirga to convene in June to set up a provisional government. Largely at US behest, the role of the international security force has been confined to Kabul. But if the interim government and its successor are to extend their writ over the entire country, they'll need a strong army and a police force. In this effort the international security force will be an essential player, and the United States should give it robust support.
The work in Afghanistan won't be finished until the international community is fully engaged in helping Afghanistan build a government that can provide the security the people crave. Immediate steps that need to be taken include integrating idle armed fighters into a national army and disarming and providing work for the rest of the 700,000 armed men who have no jobs and who are rapidly becoming part of the security problem. (And jobs must be created for millions of newly liberated women.) The country is awash in guns, and the UN Development Program has launched a campaign to reduce their number. The United States could help by supplying money to buy these weapons and even to bribe warlords and would-be drug lords into supporting the government.
Of course, the flow of aid money must be monitored to avoid corrupt diversions. And as Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation has recently pointed out, competition among international donor groups should be curbed; money should be channeled through representatives of the Afghan people so that it does not become, as Rubin writes, "simply a new political currency to be fought over by warlords, who will play one aid agency against another and all of them against the central government."
Achieving stability--preventing Afghanistan from reverting to anarchy, violence, terrorism and drug running--must be the top priority of the US government. The war in Afghanistan should not be adopted as a template for future military actions elsewhere, as the right-wing warriors in Rumsfeld's Defense Department contemplate. The conditions that brought military success in Afghanistan cannot be replicated in countries like Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Nor should they be. And rather than base-building in neighboring countries--where US support for dictators could breed even more anti-American resentment--Washington should focus on nation-building in Afghanistan.
For the terrorist threat must not be considered solely a military problem. The "enemy" is too scattered, too amorphous. The struggle against terrorism must become a cooperative global intelligence and law-enforcement campaign, with a strong UN presence. Rather than being a pretext for an expensive military buildup that wastes funds better spent on social welfare, this campaign should incorporate international economic development efforts aimed at killing the roots of terrorism--poverty and alienation. It must also include diplomatic outreach that rises above realpolitik and economic interest to oppose obsolete oligarchies and support democratic movements worldwide. And Washington must work through international bodies so that legitimate self-defense is not seen as a US war on the Arab world.
The Bush Administration's policies have been less than heartening thus far. Despite a few humanitarian commitments of hard cash, this Administration is congenitally skewed toward nationalism and unilateralism. Its inclination is to withdraw into fortress America, the latest example being the cruel treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners now caged at Guantánamo naval base, which has set off a furor abroad and further alienates the Arab world. The Pentagon categorizes them as "unlawful combatants" so they can be sequestered, interrogated and possibly tried before military tribunals. According to the Third Geneva Convention, if there is a dispute about soldiers' prisoner-of-war status, a "competent tribunal" should determine it.
America's most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism is our democratic and juridical ideals. Our foreign policy should, above all, be grounded in those ideals and be a bedrock for human rights.
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.
As the Taliban retreat in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has ample opportunity to expand its far-reaching ‘war on terror.’
For three months now, I've been closely following the coverage of September 11 and its aftermath; how well have the media done?
Recent calamitous events—9/11, the recession, Enron's collapse—haven't affected the Bush administration's aims: tax cuts, drilling and Social Security 'reform.'
The only acceptable purpose of war is to restore peace on a more durable basis.
As envisioned by the Administration, it's unilateralism with a multilateral face.
Europe and the United States have begun to follow diverging scripts on the war.