The price in blood that has already been paid for America's
war against terror is only now starting to become clear. Not by Britain
or the US, nor even so far by the al-Qaida and Taliban leaders held responsible
for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. It has instead
been paid by ordinary Afghans, who had nothing whatever to do with the
atrocities, didn't elect the Taliban theocrats who ruled over them and
had no say in the decision to give house room to Bin Laden and his friends.
The Pentagon has been characteristically coy about how
many people it believes have died under the missiles it has showered
on Afghanistan. Acutely sensitive to the impact on international support
for the war, spokespeople have usually batted away reports of civilian
casualties with a casual "these cannot be independently confirmed",
or sometimes simply denied the deaths occurred at all. The US media have
been particularly helpful. Seven weeks into the bombing campaign, the
Los Angeles Times only felt able to hazard the guess that "at least
dozens of civilians" had been killed.
Now, for the first time, a systematic independent study
has been carried out into civilian casualties in Afghanistan by Marc
Herold, a US economics professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Based on corroborated reports from aid agencies, the UN, eyewitnesses,
TV stations, newspapers and news agencies around the world, Herold estimates
that at least 3,767 civilians were killed by US bombs between October
7 and December 10. That is an average of 62 innocent deaths a day - and
an even higher figure than the 3,234 now thought to have been killed
in New York and Washington on September 11.
Of course, Herold's total is only an estimate. But what
is impressive about his work is not only the meticulous cross-checking,
but the conservative assumptions he applies to each reported incident.
The figure does not include those who died later of bomb injuries; nor
those killed in the past 10 days; nor those who have died from cold and
hunger because of the interruption of aid supplies or because they were
forced to become refugees by the bombardment. It does not include military
deaths (estimated by some analysts, partly on the basis of previous experience
of the effects of carpet-bombing, to be upwards of 10,000), or those
prisoners who were slaughtered in Mazar-i-Sharif, Qala-i-Janghi, Kandahar
airport and elsewhere.
Champions of the war insist that such casualties are an
unfortunate, but necessary, byproduct of a just campaign to root out
global terror networks. They are a world apart, they argue, from the
civilian victims of the attacks on the World Trade Centre because, in
the case of the Afghan civilians, the US did not intend to kill them.
In fact, the moral distinction is far fuzzier, to put it
at its most generous. As Herold argues, the high Afghan civilian death
rate flows directly from US (and British) tactics and targeting. The
decision to rely heavily on high-altitude air power, target urban infrastructure
and repeatedly attack heavily populated towns and villages has reflected
a deliberate trade-off of the lives of American pilots and soldiers,
not with those of their declared Taliban enemies, but with Afghan civilians.
Thousands of innocents have died over the past two months, not mainly
as an accidental byproduct of the decision to overthrow the Taliban regime,
but because of the low value put on Afghan civilian lives by US military
Raids on targets such as the Kajakai dam power station,
Kabul's telephone exchange, the al-Jazeera TV station office, lorries
and buses filled with refugees and civilian fuel trucks were not mistakes.
Nor were the deaths that they caused. The same goes for the use of
anti-personnel cluster bombs in urban areas. But western public opinion
has become increasingly desensitised to what has been done in its name.
After US AC-130 gunships strafed the farming village of Chowkar-Karez
in October, killing at least 93 civilians, a Pentagon official felt
able to remark: "the people
there are dead because we wanted them dead", while US defence secretary
Donald Rumsfeld commented: "I cannot deal with that particular
Yesterday, Rumsfeld inadvertently conceded what little
impact the Afghan campaign (yet to achieve its primary aim of bringing
Bin Laden and the al-Qaida leadership to justice) has had on the terrorist
threat, by speculating about ever more cataclysmic attacks, including
on London. There will be no official two-minute silence for the Afghan
dead, no newspaper obituaries or memorial services attended by the prime
minister, as there were for the victims of the twin towers. But what
has been cruelly demonstrated is that the US and its camp followers are
prepared to sacrifice thousands of innocents in a coward's war.