WASHINGTON - The Air Force and several other Defense Department agencies quietly have begun to investigate the cause and number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, military officials say, despite past insistence from the Pentagon that no such reviews existed.
The examinations will be part of a review by military services and intelligence agencies on what worked and what didn't in the war, called Operation Enduring Freedom. The Air Force review on its practices has been named Enduring Look.
As those internal studies begin, Project on Defense Alternatives, a think tank based in Cambridge, estimated yesterday that 1,000 to 1,300 Afghan civilians have been killed in US bombing attacks.
The study was based largely on Western media accounts. A separate report by a University of New Hampshire professor, Marc Herold, has put the figure at more than 4,000 civilians dead, but much of that report included single-source accounts from the Afghan Islamic Press.
Carl Conetta, codirector of Project on Defense Alternatives and author of the recent study, said his analysis found that two to three times more civilians have died in Afghanistan than in US strikes during the 1999 Kosovo war because of less-precise weapons, increased bombing in residential areas, and a broadened campaign objective of toppling the Taliban that created a set of targets that weren't purely military.
''The civilian death count is too high,'' he said. He suggested that more precise weaponry should have been used in populated areas, and more broadly that the nature of the response to the Sept. 11 attacks should have been first to go after the Qaeda terrorist network instead of trying to topple the Taliban as well.
In Afghanistan, Conetta estimated, 20 percent of the US weapons were laser-guided, or ''smart,'' considered to be the most accurate; 40 percent were ''near-precision'' weapons that hit within 32 feet to 42 feet of a target; and 40 percent were unguided. In Kosovo, according to his report, two-thirds of the weapons were laser-guided.
The Pentagon disputes those figures. It has said that 64 percent of weapons used in Afghanistan were ''smart'' weapons, and just 35 percent used in Kosovo were guided. In comparison, only 9 percent of US weapons used in the Gulf War were laser-guided.
''In the effort to get the people who did the Sept. 11 attacks, this is more like an international law enforcement or police action,'' Conetta said. ''When you think of civilian casualties, is it acceptable for police to have an accidental death rate close to what the criminals impose?''
At week's end, 3,113 people were dead or missing and presumed dead as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington, and rural Pennsylvania. The death toll does not include the 19 hijackers.
The Pentagon steadfastly has declined to address specifics of civilian casualties and has said its operations in Afghanistan had taken far more precautions to minimize the deaths of innocents, compared with past wars.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, ''I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences.''
Navy Commander Dan Keesee, a spokesman for the US Central Command in Tampa, said recently that ''all the targets hit have been military targets.''
Still, the Air Force, which accounts for about 70 percent of the air attacks, has begun to review its performance, said Lieutenant Colonel Woody Woodyard. The Pentagon and its intelligence agencies have started similar reviews, but there are no reports yet of US military officials conducting on-site investigations.
''We want to find out what went right, what went wrong, and that includes civilian casualties,'' Woodyard said.
The Pentagon may be reluctant to release estimates on civilian deaths. But General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has promised a review, saying, ''You have to find out what the ground truth is, and we will do that.''
Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, said he could not estimate the number of civilian deaths or whether the United States had taken proper precautions in minimizing them.
''We can make no assessment without having been in the individual places,'' Hiltermann said. ''Our sense is the targeting was fairly precise. Obviously there were some civilian casualties. But what matters is the circumstances under which they occurred, and for that we need to be there.''
Conetta disagreed. ''I don't think it comes down to a question of, `Are we being as careful as we could be,''' he said. ''The question is whether these are the methods to pursue with this type of enemy.''
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