When Masuda Sultan first heard reports that scores of civilians at a wedding
party in central Afghanistan had been killed in a U.S. bombing attack last week,
she says she experienced a sickening sense of deja vu.
Sultan herself had lost 19 members of her extended family in a
U.S. air attack on a village near the Afghan city of Kandahar last October.
And from what she could gather from news reports about the July 1 attack on the
Deh Rawud village in the central Uruzgan province, the events seemed chillingly
Outside the White House, Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American from New York, protests
against Afghan civilian casualties, on July 5, 2002. Sultan is program coordinator
for Women for Afghan Women. (Kenneth Lambert/AP Photo)
"It was almost like playing out what happened to my family," says the 24-year-old
Afghan-American. "At first, my deepest fear was that something had happened to
my family. And then after a while I found I couldn't help thinking about what
these people must be going through."
It was the sort of empathy that comes from having been there and done that.
Nineteen years after her family fled the fighting in her native Afghanistan
for the United States, Sultan returned to the region with a U.S. documentary crew
last December to find out how some of her family members who had stayed on in
Kandahar were doing.
She wasn't exactly expecting an exuberant family reunion, but she had no idea
it would be quite so grim. As the camera rolled inside a modest dwelling in the
Pakistani border city of Quetta, where her family had taken refuge from the bombing,
Sultan learned that many of them had been killed by U.S. AC-130 gunships in the
village of Chowkar-Karez on October 22.
Pouring over the photographs of the victims a smiling couple at their
wedding ceremony, an impish nephew, a cousin's new bride as her family
recounted what happened that frightening night, Sultan was forced to confront
the human face of war.
And that's a lesson she's been trying to bring home to her fellow Americans
ever since she got back from her trip to the bombed-out spot about 50 miles north
of Kandahar that was once Chowkar-Karez.
Days after President Bush expressed his sympathies over the "tragedy" of the
July 1 bombing raid , Sultan who currently works as a program coordinator
for the New York-based Women for Afghan Women - and a number of other activists
addressed a small gathering of protesters outside the White House.
Her demands were simple: an investigation into all the reported cases of civilian
casualties in Afghanistan and for the U.S. government to set up a trust fund to
assist families of innocent victims of U.S. bombings in Afghanistan.
"I find myself asking that in this age of information, don't we want to know
the successes and failures of the war?" she says. "And why don't we want the people
A Public Relations War
Still in her party dress, Palako, 6, sleeps in a bed at the Mir Wais hospital
in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she is recovering from wounds she received during
a U.S. attack in the Uruzgan province. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)
Bombing blunders and the concomitant cycle of claims and counterclaims are
an essential part of the public relations battle that accompanies modern war.
By most accounts, the Pentagon's initial responses to the July 1 attack have
not inspired confidence in the international community.
Hours after the news broke, the Pentagon said B-52 bombers and AC-130 aircraft
responded to anti-aircraft fire, but officials admitted that a bomb had gone "errant."
But even as the Pentagon admitted to an errant bomb, officials said it was
unclear if the casualties were the result of an errant bomb or from falling anti-aircraft
While there have been several reports of civilian casualties ever since the
military campaign in Afghanistan began on Oct 7, 2001, the sheer casualty figures
in the July 1 attack the Afghan government estimates 48 people were killed
and 117 injured have raised fears that Washington's precarious battle for
minds could tip the wrong way.
Days after the mishap in Uruzgan, in the first anti-American demonstration
since the Taliban fell from power, a group of protesters in the Afghan capital
of Kabul warned that friendship between Afghanistan and the United States could
deteriorate if, as they put it, the U.S. attacks on innocent civilians continued
"It's certainly something we should watch out for," says Thomas Goutierre,
dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"We obviously have a problem here. The military has got to find a way to have
a better combination of intelligence and striking capacity so that these things
Last week's mishap in Uruzgan has put the spotlight on the quality of U.S.
intelligence in Afghanistan, and most experts admit Washington still has a long
way to go.
"U.S. intelligence is very poor," says Rohan Gunaratna a terrorism expert
at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland, and author of the book Inside
Al Qaeda. "The U.S. has the technological intelligence capability, but is
lacking good human intelligence capability. And unless there is a high quality
of human intelligence, you don't know where the enemy is. Nine months after the
campaign, Osama bin Laden, the most important man, is still free. The U.S. needs
better contact with the people."
But while Gunaratna stresses that military mishaps must be avoided, he warns
that they are unfortunately "part and parcel of a conflict."
A Difficult Toll
Estimates of military mishaps and civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however,
have been hard to come by.
Last year, an anti-war Web site said civilian casualties had exceeded the
3,000-plus casualties of Sept. 11 in the United States. The figures were questioned
by several news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, which
put the figure between 1,067 and 1,201 last month.
Citing the difficulties involved in arriving at accurate estimates while hostilities
were ongoing, Amnesty International spokeswoman Maya Catsanis says the organization
has called upon the U.S. authorities to investigate such reports and arrive at
an estimate of Afghan civilian casualties.
But Reuben Brigety of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch believes it
is necessary for independent organizations to investigate such allegations and
arrive at reliable figures.
Brigety himself was part of a three-member Human Rights Watch team that visited
Afghanistan in March to investigate reports of civilian casualties. Their report
is expected to be published this fall, but until then, Brigety declined to offer
details on the estimates of civilian casualties.
Experts also warn that civilian casualties and a failure to adequately acknowledge
and address them threatens to increase the pressure on a fledgling Afghan administration
struggling to unite and rebuild the shattered nation.
While U.S. and Afghan investigators have completed a preliminary inquiry into
the July 1 attack, many Afghans have been disappointed that the results of the
inquiry have not been released. On Monday, the country's newly created Human Rights
Commission called for the results of the preliminary report to be made public.
U.S. military officials, however, say a full and formal investigation into
the July 1 attack is expected to begin sometime this week and the results of that
investigation when it is finished would be made public.
Amid Afghan fears that Washington was biding time in the hope that the incident
would slip from the media spotlight, General Dan K. McNeill, head of U.S. military
operations in Afghanistan, has promised there would be no attempt "to sweep the
matter under the rug."
Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss
But that's just what Sultan is afraid could just happen if rights and community
groups let up on the pressure on the authorities.
A native New Yorker who rushed downtown on Sept. 11 to pitch in at a volunteer
stand handing sandwiches to relief workers, Sultan says she supports the military
action in Afghanistan and has often found herself in the awkward position of defending
the campaign to incensed Afghans who asked her why they were attacked by U.S.
"Like many Afghan Americans, I feel the military action was necessary given
what happened on 9/11 and given the hold the Taliban had on Afghanistan," she
says. "But I just figured we'd be more careful and if we did make mistakes, I
had more faith that our government would help people rebuild their lives and just
So far, all her efforts to have the attack at Chowkar-Karez investigated have
yielded nothing. Speaking to ABCNEWS.com, Lieut. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman
for the Department of Defense, said there was no specific investigation into the
incident, nor were there any plans to launch one since there was nothing to change
the original explanation that Chowkar-Karez was a "legitimate" military target.
But Sultan dismisses the possibility that there were Taliban in the village.
As her documentary records, Chowkar-Karez is a desolate hamlet to which her Kandahar-based
family fled fearing attacks on their city home.
"The villagers can see exactly who's coming for miles, there was just no way
there could have been Taliban in Chowkar-Karez without the villagers knowing,"
If there are cover-ups, Sultan argues, the biggest losers would be the American
people. "We may not hear about civilian casualties, but the people there definitely
know," she says. "And we don't want Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers to be able
to tell people, 'look, this is what the United States does to innocent people.'"
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