WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "We mourn every civilian death," Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a recent Pentagon briefing, responding
to news reports that scores of Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. bombs
in villages near Tora Bora. Rumsfeld then discounted those reports as
mere "Taliban accusations," even though they had been based
on the accounts of local anti-Taliban officials (who were working with
American forces), civilian eyewitnesses and actual victims. U.S. regret
met U.S. denial.
In the end, even if that regret is sincere, what use is it to those
who have lost family members, limbs or homes to U.S. bombs? If Washington
truly cares about innocent people killed by its weaponry in Afghanistan,
it needs to forthrightly acknowledge the damage done and offer compensation.
For three months, the United States has waged war in Afghanistan --
but not against Afghanistan. The Bush administration has repeatedly (and
correctly) said that the United States' fight is not with the people
of Afghanistan but with Osama bin Laden, his Al-Qaida terrorist network
and the Taliban. Yet, to reach these targets, our forces have engaged
in military actions that have killed and injured Afghan civilians. There
are no solid estimates of civilian casualties. Certainly, they are in
the hundreds, possibly in the thousands.
Civilian loss is an unavoidable cost of modern warfare,
particularly when policymakers engage in extensive bombing to "soften up" the
enemy and reduce military casualties. But these losses, assumed by
others for our benefit, need not be ignored. The United States is spending
roughly $300 million on humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, and
it seems likely it will contribute $1 billion or so to postwar reconstruction
efforts (though the Bush administration insists that the European Union
should pick up most of the tab).
But the United States also ought to establish a fund that specifically
makes payments to Afghan civilians whose families, bodies, homes or businesses
have been shattered by errant U.S. bombs. If there are inevitable civilian
losses due to the U.S. military action, shouldn't America bear those
costs as the price of protecting itself from terrorism?
The Afghan civilians struck by U.S. bombs are innocent victims not unlike
those Americans killed or injured on Sept. 11. Consider the case of Noor
Muhammad, a 12-year-old boy who lived in a village near Tora Bora. He
recalls hearing an airplane and running from his room; he does not know
what happened next. But when he awoke in a Jalalabad hospital he had
lost his right arm, his left hand and his sight. In another instance,
according to villagers outside Kandahar, U.S. warplanes pursuing Arab
fighters sprayed a wide area with shrapnel, killing and injuring dozens
of civilians, including several small children. One, a 6-year-old girl,
was paralyzed below the waist. Americans have generously created funds
for the American survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks. Noor and others like
him deserve similar generosity.
No doubt, there would be logistical challenges in sorting out claims.
But American investigators could examine hospital records and question
health workers, local officials and eyewitnesses to identify cases where
there is clear evidence of collateral damage. (Reporters in the field
have been able to do so.) What would be the appropriate level of compensation?
That is another tough issue. It's been a problem for the funds for victims
of Sept. 11. But it would not be an impossible task, and American dollars
go a long way in Afghanistan.
The precedent for such a program, not surprisingly, is hazy. After World
War II, the United States spent much money rebuilding Japan and Germany.
That is more akin to the reconstruction efforts promised for Afghanistan.
The United States did not rush to help civilian victims of the atomic
bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this is not an appropriate precedent
for today: Unlike the victims in Afghanistan, those killed and injured
at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not collateral damage but the intended
targets, people against whom we had declared war.
Washington did establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission
in 1947, but this agency only studied the health condition of survivors
and refused to offer medical treatment to them. When magazine editor
Norman Cousins arranged to fly disfigured women from Hiroshima to the
United States for cosmetic surgery, the State Department tried unsuccessfully
to stop the trip. ("This project might lend fuel to the public opinion in
favor of outlawing the atomic bomb,"
one senior State Department official said.)
More recently, the United States was stingy in providing assistance
to Kenyans who were hurt or lost relatives when the U.S. embassies there
and in Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by associates of Bin Laden. More
than 200 Kenyans were killed; 5,000 were injured. Congress did approve
$43 million for Kenya, but much of the money went to cover the repair
of buildings damaged in the blast and some medical treatment for victims.
(Pending legislation in Congress would expand the benefits package to
American victims of the embassy bombings, but would still not cover Bin
Laden's African victims.)
The State Department worried that direct cash payments to Kenyan victims
could be interpreted as acknowledgment of responsibility and open the
door for lawsuits. But that failure to compensate African victims can
be viewed as a cautionary tale. Washington's halting response is widely
perceived to have contributed to a swelling of anti-America sentiment
One recent incident could be viewed as a precedent for reparations to
Afghan civilians. In 1999, NATO planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in
Belgrade during airstrikes against Serbia. Three Chinese citizens (all
journalists) were killed; about two dozen were injured. Washington agreed
to give $28 million to the Chinese government and $4.5 million to the
families of those killed or injured. If the United States can pay for
misdirected bombs in Yugoslavia, why not in Afghanistan?
After the U.S. bombardment of villages near Tora Bora,
Din Mohammed, the top adviser to a post-Taliban provincial governor
in eastern Afghanistan, asked, "What is the price of our blood? How are our people to be
There has been no answer from the United States.
Obviously, few U.S. government decisionmakers would want to establish
a rule that calls for the United States to compensate noncombatants it
bombs unintentionally. But if Washington desires to present America as
a moral force in the world, can it simply write off such dreadful losses?
If the United States cannot defend itself without taking the lives of
innocent people, then it ought to do all that is possible to remedy the
harm it causes.
True, money won't restore Noor Muhammad's vision or bring the dead back
to life. But it is, as trial attorneys often say, the only concrete means
available to redress injury. Rumsfeld is right to mourn the casualties
of U.S. defense. But he -- and we -- should pay as well.
David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation, is author of the novel
''Deep Background.'' He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.
© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune