Published on Sunday, December 23, 2001 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
To Make Amends for Errant Bombs
by David Corn
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "We mourn every civilian death," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a recent Pentagon briefing, responding to news reports that scores of Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. bombs in villages near Tora Bora. Rumsfeld then discounted those reports as mere "Taliban accusations," even though they had been based on the accounts of local anti-Taliban officials (who were working with American forces), civilian eyewitnesses and actual victims. U.S. regret met U.S. denial.
In the end, even if that regret is sincere, what use is it to those who have lost family members, limbs or homes to U.S. bombs? If Washington truly cares about innocent people killed by its weaponry in Afghanistan, it needs to forthrightly acknowledge the damage done and offer compensation.
For three months, the United States has waged war in Afghanistan -- but not against Afghanistan. The Bush administration has repeatedly (and correctly) said that the United States' fight is not with the people of Afghanistan but with Osama bin Laden, his Al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taliban. Yet, to reach these targets, our forces have engaged in military actions that have killed and injured Afghan civilians. There are no solid estimates of civilian casualties. Certainly, they are in the hundreds, possibly in the thousands.
Civilian loss is an unavoidable cost of modern warfare, particularly when policymakers engage in extensive bombing to "soften up" the enemy and reduce military casualties. But these losses, assumed by others for our benefit, need not be ignored. The United States is spending roughly $300 million on humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, and it seems likely it will contribute $1 billion or so to postwar reconstruction efforts (though the Bush administration insists that the European Union should pick up most of the tab).
But the United States also ought to establish a fund that specifically makes payments to Afghan civilians whose families, bodies, homes or businesses have been shattered by errant U.S. bombs. If there are inevitable civilian losses due to the U.S. military action, shouldn't America bear those costs as the price of protecting itself from terrorism?
The Afghan civilians struck by U.S. bombs are innocent victims not unlike those Americans killed or injured on Sept. 11. Consider the case of Noor Muhammad, a 12-year-old boy who lived in a village near Tora Bora. He recalls hearing an airplane and running from his room; he does not know what happened next. But when he awoke in a Jalalabad hospital he had lost his right arm, his left hand and his sight. In another instance, according to villagers outside Kandahar, U.S. warplanes pursuing Arab fighters sprayed a wide area with shrapnel, killing and injuring dozens of civilians, including several small children. One, a 6-year-old girl, was paralyzed below the waist. Americans have generously created funds for the American survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks. Noor and others like him deserve similar generosity.
No doubt, there would be logistical challenges in sorting out claims. But American investigators could examine hospital records and question health workers, local officials and eyewitnesses to identify cases where there is clear evidence of collateral damage. (Reporters in the field have been able to do so.) What would be the appropriate level of compensation? That is another tough issue. It's been a problem for the funds for victims of Sept. 11. But it would not be an impossible task, and American dollars go a long way in Afghanistan.
The precedent for such a program, not surprisingly, is hazy. After World War II, the United States spent much money rebuilding Japan and Germany. That is more akin to the reconstruction efforts promised for Afghanistan.
The United States did not rush to help civilian victims of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this is not an appropriate precedent for today: Unlike the victims in Afghanistan, those killed and injured at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not collateral damage but the intended targets, people against whom we had declared war.
Washington did establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in 1947, but this agency only studied the health condition of survivors and refused to offer medical treatment to them. When magazine editor Norman Cousins arranged to fly disfigured women from Hiroshima to the United States for cosmetic surgery, the State Department tried unsuccessfully to stop the trip. ("This project might lend fuel to the public opinion in favor of outlawing the atomic bomb," one senior State Department official said.)
More recently, the United States was stingy in providing assistance to Kenyans who were hurt or lost relatives when the U.S. embassies there and in Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by associates of Bin Laden. More than 200 Kenyans were killed; 5,000 were injured. Congress did approve $43 million for Kenya, but much of the money went to cover the repair of buildings damaged in the blast and some medical treatment for victims. (Pending legislation in Congress would expand the benefits package to American victims of the embassy bombings, but would still not cover Bin Laden's African victims.)
The State Department worried that direct cash payments to Kenyan victims could be interpreted as acknowledgment of responsibility and open the door for lawsuits. But that failure to compensate African victims can be viewed as a cautionary tale. Washington's halting response is widely perceived to have contributed to a swelling of anti-America sentiment in Kenya.
One recent incident could be viewed as a precedent for reparations to Afghan civilians. In 1999, NATO planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during airstrikes against Serbia. Three Chinese citizens (all journalists) were killed; about two dozen were injured. Washington agreed to give $28 million to the Chinese government and $4.5 million to the families of those killed or injured. If the United States can pay for misdirected bombs in Yugoslavia, why not in Afghanistan?
After the U.S. bombardment of villages near Tora Bora, Din Mohammed, the top adviser to a post-Taliban provincial governor in eastern Afghanistan, asked, "What is the price of our blood? How are our people to be compensated?" There has been no answer from the United States.
Obviously, few U.S. government decisionmakers would want to establish a rule that calls for the United States to compensate noncombatants it bombs unintentionally. But if Washington desires to present America as a moral force in the world, can it simply write off such dreadful losses? If the United States cannot defend itself without taking the lives of innocent people, then it ought to do all that is possible to remedy the harm it causes.
True, money won't restore Noor Muhammad's vision or bring the dead back to life. But it is, as trial attorneys often say, the only concrete means available to redress injury. Rumsfeld is right to mourn the casualties of U.S. defense. But he -- and we -- should pay as well.
David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation, is author of the novel ''Deep Background.'' He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.
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