Published on Thursday, January 3, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Thousands of Afghans Likely Killed in Bombings
by Murray Campbell
The Afghan village of Qalaye Niazi vanished in a rain of bombs, with only craters, remnants of mud walls and scraps of flesh and hair to show that it once existed.
The people who used to live there say as many as 107 civilians died when U.S. warplanes, including a B-52 bomber, swooped down early Sunday.
The Pentagon says the village in eastern Afghanistan was a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban loyalists and that, in any event, the estimate of casualties is "unfounded."
Such conflicting information has been a staple of the three-month-old Afghan war and, critics say, has served to obscure the toll exacted from civilians.
There is no agreement yet about how many ordinary Afghans have died from the U.S.-led bombardment, but one American academic estimates that the toll stands at 4,050 -- surpassing the number of people killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Pentagon has played down the number of civilian dead, dismissing many early reports as Taliban exaggerations.
The bombing campaign is controversial in Afghanistan, with some members of the interim government suggesting it be stopped. Washington has refuses, and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said this week the bombing must continue, to "finish terrorists completely."
The bombing campaign remains largely uncontroversial in the United States, where President George W. Bush's war on terrorism enjoys strong support.
Marc Herold, a University of New Hampshire economics professor who has monitored the campaign, said yesterday that U.S. officials again have demonstrated their ability to manage the news and mainstream U.S. media have shown their willingness to be managed.
"It's been a concerted effort to keep this kind of news off the front pages," he said. "The record of the Bush administration is pretty clear: This is a non-topic."
Prof. Herold has gathered media reports (many of them unverified) from around the world for his estimate that 4,050 Afghan civilians have been killed in the bombing. Other organizations, whose monitoring has been less rigorous, offer lower figures.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization, offers an estimate of at least 1,000 civilian deaths, while the Reuters news agency said that perhaps 982 people have died in 14 incidents.
Prof. Herold's estimate, updated to include Qalaye Niazi and four other recent incidents, follows his initial calculation three weeks ago that 3,767 Afghan civilians had died since the first bombs fell on Oct. 7.
He said he decided to study the effects of the bombing because he suspects that modern weaponry is not as precise as advertised, and because he found hardly any mention of civilian casualties in the U.S. media.
He noted there have been news reports that Washington was spending millions of dollars to buy exclusive rights to accurate satellite images of the areas under bombardment. "Preventing the images of human suffering caused by the U.S. bombing from reaching U.S. audiences creates precisely what the Pentagon and Bush seek -- a war without witnesses."
Sidney Jones, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, suggests there are several reasons for the muted reaction to the Afghan civilian toll.
She said other Afghan topics -- the rebuilding of the country and the hunt for Osama bin Laden -- crowd the news agenda.
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