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September 11 2001

The Afghan Death-Toll

  Just less than 3,000 people were killed in the September 11th atrocities. At the time, many of the relatives of the victims, including Irish relatives, pleaded that not one more innocent life would be lost in retaliation for these crimes. Unfortunately, this plea went unheeded. The present civilian death-toll in Afghanistan is at least 4,000 and could be as high as 8,000.
The Guardian  
The September 11 toll in the US is now put at just undzr 3,000 dead. In a new study, Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute estimates that up to 1,300 civilians have been killed by US bombs and at least 3,000 other Afghans are dead because the American campaign worsened the humanitarian emergency.ì

Why did they bomb my village?î asks Rashid, who lost two relatives. ìIt could not have been stray bombs since they bombed three times. It must have been a blunder.î
In a country where death is so ubiquitous, killing a habit, and war has been a constant for an entire generation, few are bothering to count the casualties mounting from more than four months of US action. For the Pentagon, the Afghan war has been a triumph, the perfection of hi-tech combat techniques practised 10 years ago in the Gulf war and honed in the Kosovo campaign of 1999. The rapid victory at a minimal cost to American lives has helped to lay the ghost of Vietnam.

But as the international focus shifts from war to a fragile peace and to the rebuilding of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the war still raises several unsettling questions about the price of the Pax Americana. The first and most obvious question in this unfinished war is how many civilians have died. There is no easy answer. Somehow in the middle of Americaís hi-tech, $1bn a month bombing blizzard, the simple matter of keeping a tally of civilian casualties has been overlooked.

ëPlease donít askí
There are no official US figures, and nor have the dozens of non-governmental charities now operating in the country done any independent research. ìUndoubtedly there have been civilian casualties,î says a well-informed Afghan professional working for an NGO mainly funded by the US government.
ìNo one is doing a real assessment of that. It gets very political. Please donít ask me about that.î
ìThereís collateral damage in every conflict, but I donít feel comfortable talking about it,î echoed a UN official in Kabul.

Despite the manipulation of casualty figures for propaganda purposes by both pro-war apologists and anti-war activists, it is already clear that the number of civilian dead from the bombing vastly exceeds the estimated 500 killed by US air strikes during the 78-day Kosovo war, and may also be higher than the 3,200 Iraqi civilians believed killed during the Gulf war.
ìA lot of civilians are clearly being killed or injured. Itís definitely in the four figures,î says a UN source.
The charity Médecins Sans Frontières says: ìMSF increasingly sees evidence of an unacceptably high number of Afghan civilian casualties from the military operations.î

A senior MSF worker, who has been in Afghanistan for five years, estimates the number of civilian dead at between 2,000 and 3,000, based on reports from hospitals and field workers around the country.

Some analysts say more than 60 Afghan civilians are being killed daily on average since the bombing began on October 7. A European demining expert in Kabul who works closely with the Pentagon reckons that up to 8,000 civilians have been killed.
The September 11 toll in the US is now put at just under 3,000 dead. In a new study, Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute estimates that up to 1,300 civilians have been killed by US bombs and at least 3,000 other Afghans are dead because the American campaign worsened the humanitarian emergency.

Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire puts the number of civilian casualties at at least 4,000. Prof Herold, a leftwing anti-war activist, is one of the few seeking to establish the death toll, tabulating it daily from media reports. In his words, he wants ìto put the record straightî and claims his is a ìcomprehensive accountingî even though it is being conducted from a computer terminal in America, and not from first-hand reporting inside Afghanistan.

He calculates that 3,742 civilians had died by December 3. Scores more have died since. Sceptics argue that his figures are exaggerated. He insists they are conservative.
ìItís a good first go,î says Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch in New York, which had two researchers on the Pakistani-Afghan border for 11 weeks trying to get a picture of the toll. It has a data base of 300 strikes it wants to investigate for civilian casualties.
What is certain is that Prof Heroldís work is incomplete. Some of the strikes he records duplicate one another, others are fictional. For example, he has up to 19 women dying in a Kabul maternity ward around October 8 when a bomb fell on or near the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital.

Isatullah, the head nurse at the hospitalís emergency department, is one of the few people in Kabul keeping a list of the dead from the bombing. He produces six A4 pages listing the names of 115 male bomb victims. Forty of them died. There is another list of 37 women, 10 of whom died.
ìThe Taliban ordered me to make the list for propaganda against America. I had to make the list. They were the bosses,î he explains. ìBut there was no force, and there were no lies on the list.î

But no bomb hit the hospital, and there have been no maternity ward casualties. But if the American professor is recording non-existent casualties, the obverse also applies since so many deaths have not been reported in the international media on which his data depends.
ìYou can probably double Heroldís figure because so much goes unreported here,î the demining expert says. ìMost Muslims are buried within six hours of death. Thereís no need to report births or deaths here and the hospitals do not have anything on the dead.î

Not included in the professorís statistics, for example, because it has not been reported until now, is the attack on the village of Moshkhil in the south-eastern province of Paktika. Three air strikes within 12 hours on December 5 and 6 left 16 people dead. The villagers insist there were no Taliban in the vicinity and no military targets.

On the afternoon of December 5, recounts a man from the village who gives his name as Rashid, a US plane bombed two cars, killing two brothers and a sister. An hour later an armed stranger on a motorbike sped through Moshkhil asking the locals where ìthe guestsî [meaning Taliban or al-Qaida] were staying. There were no guests, he was told. Within an hour another US plane bombed an empty car. Then at half past three the next morning the planes returned, bombing a mosque and destroying it as well as seven adjacent houses. Thirteen people died as they slept.
ìWhy did they bomb my village?î asks Rashid, who lost two relatives. ìIt could not have been stray bombs since they bombed three times. It must have been a blunder.î

There have inevitably been plenty of ìblundersî, from the striking of Red Cross warehouses to the killing of anti-Taliban fighters, caused by stray bombs, mistakes and bad or deliberately skewed intelligence. The Pentagon factors in a 10% failure rate for the 11,315 bombs it had dropped by December 5 and only a 6% failure rate for the controversial cluster bombs, although demining experts now dealing with the fallout put the cluster failure rate at up to 22%.

Most civilians have died where the fighting and the bombing have been the most intense - the November battle for the Talibanís last northern stronghold of Kunduz, the early December onslaught on the Tora Bora caves complex south of the eastern town of Jalalabad, the campaign to capture the cradle of the Taliban, Kandahar in the south.
There was barely a fight for Kabul. The Northern Alliance lost four men taking the capital. But the concentration of military targets in and around the city means that an estimated 100 civilians died in the bombing.

Most of those killed are as a result of ìmistakesî during high-altitude bombing, the central feature of modern American war-making, which wreaks havoc on the ground but keeps US servicemen in a relatively risk-free environment in the skies.
There is little doubt the war in Afghanistan has been a triumph of American might. But out of sight and out of mind, day after day, in dribs and drabs, a lot of ordinary people are dying in a war that sees the most advanced fighting machine ever assembled doing its killing in one of the most backward societies on earth.

The results: just two Americans killed by hostile fire to set against thousands of dead Afghan non-combatants. Is this civilian death toll warranted?
The Pentagon responds with age-old axioms about the inevitable and unfortunate collateral of war. ìThis has been the most accurate war ever fought in this nationís history,î the campaign commander, General Tommy Franks, insisted in Washington last week.
That conclusion is contested by Carl Conetta of the Commonwealth Institute, who calculates that the so-called smartbombs and high-precision strikes have been a lot less accurate in Afghanistan than they were two years ago in Yugoslavia.
ìDespite the adulation of Operation Enduring Freedom as a ëfinely tunedí or ëbulls-eyeí war, the campaign failed to set a new standard for precision in one important respect: the rate of civilians killed per bomb dropped,î he says.
ìIn fact, this rate was far higher in the Afghanistan conflict - perhaps four times higher - than in the 1999 Balkans war.î D
  This is an edited version of a report that first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. You can find regularly updated material on this and other matters at