KABUL, Afghanistan -- A delegation of local leaders from Khost showed up at the U.S. Embassy here the other day seeking answers. What they got, they said, was the brushoff.
It has been four months since the U.S. military bombed a convoy heading from Khost to Kabul for the inauguration of the interim Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai. Even Karzai has called the attack, which killed innocent tribal elders, a mistake. But the Americans turned away the Khost representatives at the gate of the heavily fortified embassy without seeing them.
The seeming indifference has irritated Afghan civilian victims of the war who are now hoping for compensation, or at least recognition, from the United States as it continues to prosecute its battle against terrorism here. In recent weeks, hundreds of Afghans whose relatives were killed or whose homes were inadvertently destroyed by U.S. bombing have presented claims to the embassy, with no response.
"It's amazing," said Abdurrahman, a member of the Khost shura, or council, who traveled to Kabul to present the council's case to the embassy. "The Americans will accept wrong reports and bomb our people. But they don't allow us to come in and tell them the truth."
A senior U.S. official visiting Afghanistan said today that the Bush administration was sensitive to the issue and trying to help those who have been hurt.
"I can assure you that we try our darned best to avoid hitting innocent targets -- that's not what we're about," President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said at a news conference at the embassy as victims waited outside the gate. "But mistakes do happen. When charges are made, we investigate. And then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered."
Asked what "the right thing" meant, he gave no specifics. In fact, according to private organizations that monitor the issue, the United States has rarely responded to civilian casualties in Afghanistan with assistance of any kind. The only known instance cited by the organizations came in the southern province of Uruzgan, where U.S. agents distributed $1,000 to each family of at least 12 people killed in a raid in December that targeted the wrong people.
"They're absolutely not doing the right thing because there are families sleeping without homes," said Marla Ruzicka, an activist with Global Exchange, a human rights organization in San Francisco that is lobbying on behalf of Afghan victims. "Nobody's gone to talk to them, nobody's gone to help. If they were doing the right thing, they'd help widows, they'd help the orphans that were created by this campaign."
The question of how to handle the cases of civilian victims of the Afghan war has drawn only modest attention in Washington. The Pentagon has been reluctant to acknowledge errors and the Bush administration has preferred to highlight its broader efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
Global Exchange has tried to force the issue onto the U.S. agenda by enlisting help from relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. The group's leaders met with State Department officials today and will meet with key congressional leaders this week in an effort to lobby the House Appropriations Committee to earmark $20 million for a fund to help civilian victims of the war.
The issue has attracted limited support so far. Reps. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.) and John Cooksey (R-La.) are circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter calling for a compensation fund and have collected just 22 signatures so far, according to a spokesman for Meek.
Advocates of aid to civilian victims stress that such help does not undercut the war effort. "The United States is at war with terrorism, not with the people of Afghanistan," Meek and Cooksey wrote in their letter.
No reliable figures exist on the number of civilians who have died in the Afghan war, but specialists say precision weaponry limited the damage compared with that of most wars in the past.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company