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.