How Many Civilian Deaths are Acceptable?
It was a cryptic Pentagon answer to Senator John Kerry's straightforward question, in notes from the Senate hearing on May 21:
Question. According to The New York Times July 20, 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld personally approved over 50 US airstrikes in Iraq which were expected to kill up to 50 innocent Iraqi civilians each. According to Pentagon policy at the time, any strikes expected to result in 50 or more civilian deaths as unavoidable collateral damage were to be approved personally by the Secretary. The media was informed of this policy in July 2003 when the chief US commander disclosed the sign-off policy. Does that policy continue today in Afghanistan, and, if so, in what form? Do White House or Pentagon officials sign off on bombing runs where civilian casualties are expected to be higher than 50? Which officials?
Does the Obama administration, specifically the secretary of defense, know in advance how many innocent civilians are expected to die before bombing raids are approved in Afghanistan and Pakistan? This was the case with Donald Rumsfeld during the bombing of Iraq.
Now the administration insists on keeping the answers secret.
If the previous policy has been discontinued, that means the White House is delegating the projected body counts to lower field commanders, an unlikely abdication of sensitive decisions.
If the policy continues, does Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally approve? Is the president in the loop? Do they believe there is an acceptable level of unavoidable civilian casualties, and, if so, what is that level and who sets it?
Civilian casualties are frequently defined as little more than a massive public relations headache. Such casualties cause the US allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to constantly complain, indicating the depth of popular resentment. In June, Kai Eide, UN special envoy to Afghanistan, told NATO defense ministers of an "urgent need'' to control raids because civilian casualties are "disproportionate to the military gains.''
After a May 4 bombing that Afghan officials said killed 147 civilians, including 90 women and children, Pentagon officials gathered to address the June conference of the Center for New American Security, where General David Barno, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said, "We've got to be careful about who controls the narrative on civilian casualties.''
Acknowledging that specific levels of civilian casualties are calculated in advance, as an integral part of the air war, would raise the level of Afghan rage and even some congressional eyebrows.
That is why the Pentagon's refusal to answer whether the 2003 policy requiring a sign-off for 50 civilian deaths is so significant. The classified answer was in response to a question by Kerry two weeks after the massive casualties from the May 4 air strike. The answer remains classified.
This blurring of civilian casualty figures began in Iraq, a war in which the Pentagon sought to avoid the body-count mentality of Vietnam. The US military and its Iraqi allies engaged in a propaganda war over casualty levels, leaving a wake of public confusion among the American media and public. The London-based Iraq Body Count group utilized so-called passive surveillance techniques, relying mainly on English-language media reports, permitting President George Bush to claim the numbers were "more or less 30,000,'' according to the New York Times.
In contrast, epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins employed active surveillance techniques, based on randomized household surveys typically used in war zones. By these measures, civilian casualties were at least three times higher than the numbers from the Iraq Body Count. The real numbers disappeared in a fog of war generated in part by the Pentagon and White House.
The ghosts have returned in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As evidence, one can note the persistent pattern in which villagers, elders, and the Afghan and Pakistan governments cite high mortality figures, while the Americans engage in delay, denial, investigations of their own, and finally declare that the civilian casualties are far fewer than initially claimed. As a result there is an asymmetry of anger, with Afghan and Pakistan villagers screaming for revenge and the American public left in puzzled indifference.
To move forward, Kerry's committee should release the Pentagon's classified answer and, if necessary, press for further clarification. Congress should see through the Pentagon's conflict of interest.
A congressional inquiry into the covering up of these issues in Iraq and disclosure of whether the intelligence agencies agreed with President Bush's "more or less 30,000'' estimate is the place to begin. Establishment of an independent monitoring system is the place to begin again.
© 2009 The Boston Globe