Published on Thursday, February 7, 2002 in the Wall Street Journal
Human-Rights Group to Estimate Civilians Killed in U.S. Campaign
by Chip Cummins
With the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan largely complete and the
security situation across the country generally improving, the
Pentagon is facing closer scrutiny about the extent of civilian
casualties reported since American bombs started falling in October.
Human Rights Watch, a privately funded human-rights advocacy group, plans to send a team of researchers to Afghanistan next month to try to estimate the number of civilians killed during the course of the campaign. Amnesty International may do the same after trying unsuccessfully to get the Pentagon to disclose details about a number of bombings that reportedly killed civilians. And a University of New Hampshire professor has made headlines -- and drawn sharp criticism -- by publishing a database he says details thousands of civilian casualties caused by the air war.
The efforts come in the wake of an investigation opened by U.S. commanders into a raid last month that Pentagon officials now acknowledge may have resulted in the death of forces friendly to the U.S.-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai. In the raid, American soldiers killed as many as 18 people in two compounds they believed were al Qaeda leadership posts in the village of Hazar Qadam. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, responsible for operations in Afghanistan, said the investigation isn't complete, but more than two dozen people U.S. troops seized in the raid were turned over Wednesday to Mr. Karzai's government after it was determined they aren't Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.
That incident followed a December air strike on a convoy near Khost that local Afghans -- and Mr. Karzai -- say killed tribal elders loyal to the new government, not Taliban leaders as the Pentagon originally claimed. Central Command is still looking into that incident. But so far, investigators believe they hit "exactly" what they intended to hit, the Central Command spokesman said.
The investigations, spurred by outrage from U.S.-backed Afghan factions, have done little to quiet criticism from human-rights activists. "While they are undertaking investigations in a number of cases, we would hope they would investigate every instance of alleged civilian casualties," said Margaret Ladner, a London-based researcher who is part of an Amnesty International team looking at alleged human-rights violations in Afghanistan. "And we would hope that they would make those investigations public."
Defense officials have acknowledged repeatedly that civilians may have died as a result of U.S. bombing. "There is no question that we have killed and injured people we did not intend to in the course of the war," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, the top spokesman for Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla. But military planners have gone to great lengths to "maximize damage [to Taliban and al Qaeda targets] and minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage" during military operations in Afghanistan, Adm. Quigley said.
The Pentagon also has pointed periodically to the more than 3,000 civilians killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, which triggered the air campaign. The U.S. blames Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, which enjoyed refuge under Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
Except for a handful of cases, however, the Pentagon has avoided addressing specific instances of alleged civilian casualties. A small damage-assessment team at Central Command looks into cases where credible evidence points to civilian casualties, double-checking targeting data and reviewing aerial photography and other intelligence, officials say. With few American troops on the ground throughout most of the bombing campaign, officials have said it was impossible to investigate thoroughly most reports of civilian deaths. Now, with thousands of U.S. troops moving more freely across Afghanistan, the Pentagon says it is too late to begin investigations. "If you can't get there real quick, there's not much you are going to learn that you have any confidence in," Adm. Quigley said.
Human Rights Watch disagrees. A team of three researchers plans to enter Afghanistan early next month to survey sites where civilian casualties may have occurred. The team has compiled a database of more than 330 alleged incidents across the country. About a third of those allegations are considered credible, according to William M. Arkin, who will lead the Afghanistan team.
Human Rights Watch is keeping a preliminary tally based on news reports, Pentagon briefings and reports from the group's members in Pakistan. Group officials privately had estimated the civilian death toll at between 100 and 350 early in December, but they won't comment on what they now believe the number may be.
One researcher already is saying the civilian death toll from the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan may be in the thousands. Marc W. Herold, a professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire, has compiled a database from local and international news reports indicating between 3,300 and 3,900 civilians died during the Afghanistan campaign. While his study has attracted news-media attention, human-rights groups have said it is flawed because it relies on second- and third-hand reporting. Mr. Herold defended his methodology, however, saying he has spent considerable time sorting out conflicting reports and taking into account the biases of many of his sources.
Copyright 2002 Wall Street Journal