The deaths last month of 65 Afghan tribal leaders when their convoy was attacked by US aircraft has drawn attention to the US’s bombing of virtually random targets in Afghanistan. While the Pentagon continues to insist that the convoy consisted of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, there is now ample evidence that this is incorrect. The most likely explanation seems to be that a local warlord informed the US that the convoy was carrying Taliban supporters after the tribal leaders refused to pay him for safe passage.
The incident highlights the fact that the US is continuing to bomb vehicles, buildings and villages on the slightest pretext. Had this particular convoy not turned out to contain supporters of Karzai, the Pentagon’s explanation would have been accepted without question. As it is, most American media sources, as usual, accepted the official US position as gospel and ignored other claims as propaganda. Most Americans probably do not know even that there is an alternative version of events.
According to a conservative study by Marc Herold of the the University of New Hampshire, published last month, the US’s bombing of Afghanistan had killed at least 3,767 Afghan civilians by December 6: an average of more than 60 a day. Herold’s report documents the indiscriminate targeting of Afghan villages, hospitals, civilian infrastructure, as well as the misrepresention of this strategy by both the US government and media. Considering the relative sizes of the US and Afghanistan, Herold points out that this casualty rate is “roughly equivalent to about 38,000 US civilians or the equivalent to about 11 World Trade Centre attacks.” He concludes that “the critical element [explaining this strategy] remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by US military planners and the political elite.”
These conclusions clearly disprove the official Western position that strategy is constrained by the need to minimise civilian casualties. In October British prime minister Tony Blair said: “This military plan has been put together mindful of our determination to do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties.”
Britain, America and its allies have, however, made no effort to monitor Afghan casualties. “It’s a matter for the Pentagon,” said a British ministry of defence spokesman. The Pentagon was every bit as unhelpful. “We have not kept figures and we don’t have any way to ascertain civilian casualties,” said its spokesman..
The omission is hardly surprising, and certainly not unintentional. Modern warfare is fought on the information front as well as from thousands of feet up in the air. Reports of increasing civilian casualties would call into question a war whose ostensible justification is the liberation and protection of the people it is actually killing and maiming.
While aid agencies suffer from the usual limitations imposed by war and a ramshackle infrastructure, they remain one of the few remaining independent sources for news of life on the ground. Their accounts seem to back up the Taliban’s claims that the toll runs into thousands. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, said in November that intensive assaults on Qandahar had killed 2,000 civilians within a week.
The standard excuse for civilian casualties is that they are unavoidable. The West has even developed a vocabulary to emphasise this distinction: “collateral damage” is now the accepted term for non-military casualties. But just how morally defensible is this position? A. J. Chien of the Institute for Health and Social Justice, writing for ‘alternative’ website zmag.org, quotes Michael Tonry, Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota:
“In the criminal law, purpose and knowledge are equally culpable states of mind. An action taken with a purpose to kill is no more culpable than an action taken with some other purpose in mind but with knowledge that a death will probably result. Blowing up an aeroplane to kill a passenger is equivalent to blowing up an aeroplane to destroy a fake painting and thereby to defraud an insurance company, knowing that the passenger will be killed.”
Much of the bombing over Afghanistan has been of the poorly discriminating carpet variety. often using anti-personnel cluster-bombs and ‘daisy cutter’ bombs designed to kill everyone over a huge area. ‘Smart’ bombs are reckoned to hit their targets only 70 to 80 percent of the time. often using anti-personnel cluster-bombs and ‘daisy cutter’ bombs designed to kill everyone over a huge area.
This matter-of-fact disregard for Afghan civilians has not been lost on the Taliban. On 22 October Abdul-Salam Zaeef, their ambassador to Pakistan, said that Washington “is implying that killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan is not such a big crime.”
Nor are these new ‘rules’ of war, says Chien, justifiable in respect of international laws and conventions. Article 48 of the Geneva Conventions requires warring parties to “at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants”. Article 51 prohibits “indiscriminate attacks... [such as]... an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
Even the word-magicians in Whitehall and the Pentagon would struggle to explain how knocking out al-Jazeera’s Kabul office, bombing a UN de-mining centre, hitting a hospital in Qandahar, destroying a mosque near Jalalabad and demolishing houses all over Afghanistan are “proportionate”.
But we may be asking too much of the US. When the Soviet Union was the enemy, people used to joke that the US was willing to fight Russia “to the last Afghan”. Some things have obviously not changed at all.