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Counting the terrible cost of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan
"These casualties aren't mistakes"

February 8, 2002 | Page 8

"I CAN'T imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences." That's what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had the gall to tell reporters about the war in Afghanistan in early January.

Rumsfeld should ask Paira Gul about "unintended consequences." In late December, U.S. planes bombed the town of Madoo, where Paira Gul lives.

"American soldiers came after the bombing and asked if any al-Qaeda had lived here," he told a reporter. "Tell me, is that what an al-Qaeda looks like?" Gul demanded, pointing to a child's severed foot that he had recovered from a bombed-out house.

These accounts of the brutal toll of the U.S. war on Afghanistan are heart wrenching. But apparently not to the Bush administration flunkies who routinely deny that these casualties ever took place.

A few days after U.S. bombing began on October 7, MARC HEROLD, a University of New Hampshire economics professor, started tracking foreign press reports and eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths. By his calculations, nearly 4,000 people have been killed by U.S. bombs. For assembling these facts, Herold has faced abuse from Pentagon brass and pundits.

In January, he spoke to Socialist Worker about his study--and the need to keep up the fight against Bush's never-ending war.

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WHY DID you start tabulating the number of casualties in Afghanistan?

THE REASON was that on October 7-10, I was looking at television and reading some of the mainstream press, and it seemed like the war ended at the end of the flight deck of the USS Carl Vincent.

So I began looking at the Internet and the foreign press. And lo and behold, there was a lot being reported beyond just the numbers of planes and the pictures of neon lights on the Carl Vincent.

I began keeping track of this stuff and putting in an enormous amount of time--probably 12 hours a day, nonstop for weeks. I put together this database, which is now publicly available, and I'm updating it all the time.

WERE YOU surprised when the numbers went into the thousands?

YES. I was somewhat familiar with the Kosovo war, and I was certainly familiar with the Gulf War against Iraq. There were 80 to 90 plane sorties on average per day during October and November--compared to 500 on the average day in Kosovo and more than 1,000 on the average day in Iraq.

What really startled me was the relatively high number of civilian casualties given the relatively low intensity of the war. This really flew in the face of all the nonsense coming out of the Pentagon about "precision-guided weaponry" and all the rest.

I'm not denying that the weaponry being used nowadays is a lot more precise than during Vietnam or during earlier wars. But that argument misses the point.

It's one thing to hit a Taliban tank out in a field or on a mountain road. It's another thing to decide to bomb a building in Kabul or to carpet bomb front lines in the Shomali plain or around Kunduz or Khanabad.

The civilian casualties result from a decision of U.S. military planners to carry out a certain kind of bombing campaign. They bear the responsibility for these casualties. What I'm arguing is that these civilian casualties were necessary consequences of the U.S. campaign. These aren't mistakes.

I'm not saying they intended to bomb civilians. They didn't in most cases--although there are some fairly dubious examples.

EVEN AFTER you publicized your report, there's been very little coverage of civilian deaths in the U.S. mainstream media.

WHAT'S GOING on is pretty clear, I think--the corporate media has largely abided by the desires of the Bush administration and the Pentagon. Those desires were very clearly transmitted--that civilian casualties are a non-topic. They're not to be elevated to the front page of newspapers.

There's been, I think, a very concerted effort to market this war to the American population, just like you market a suit or a dress or an SUV. It's embarrassing, really--when you have people on the ground who are reporting things that are very contrary to what's taking place.

The problem is that the world out there knows that these kinds of warfare create significant human costs, and the results are very, very unclear. If we look, for example, at Afghanistan, the main objective has not been accomplished to this day--and as far as I understand it, they're far from accomplishing it.

I think that there's going to be a lot of pressure internationally to constrain the U.S. government. We already see that with Guantánamo Bay, where, basically, Bush and Company have been forced to backtrack on the prisoner issue.

WHERE DOES your calculation of civilian casualties stand now?

CONSTANTLY, NEW information is coming in, so I'm continually revising. The bottom line is that from October 7 to December 10, about 3,600, at least. And then from December 10 until January 16, more than 200 more. So the total is around 3,800.

This isn't going to be like the World Trade Center, where originally, it was 12,000 and now we're down below 3,000. The situation of the World Trade Center and on the ground in Afghanistan is dramatically different.

WITH THE information coming out about the bomblets from U.S. cluster bombs that didn't explode, how many years will it be before it's known how many civilian casualties there are?

WELL, IF Laos is an indicator, it won't ever be known. People in Laos are still blowing up. What I've been hearing from mine removal groups is that, in an average month in Afghanistan, about 90 people are dying from cluster bombs--which is about 3 per day.

I think there's going to be a long, long legacy here. The deaths are going to go on for years. And I'm not even talking about that in the report.

I'm not even talking about the people who are injured and who end up in hospitals--and who die because the staff has fled. In the major hospitals of Kandahar and Jalalabad and Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the staff was reduced to 10 to 20 percent simply because people fled.

I have a case study of the Kandahar hospital. They were getting about 20 new cases a day, and three people a day were dying. The hospitals were starved of supplies and were starved of power. Kandahar had its power plant knocked out by U.S. bombing. I'm assuming that similar kinds of things happened up north in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz and Khanabad.

Plus, there are now reports of renewed fighting among warlords in the Kandahar province, in Herat and in the northern provinces around Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

The central government is incredibly weak. This is a central government that was created by outside forces in Bonn, Germany. It's unrepresentative and is made up of one major group--the royalists--who basically weren't involved in Afghanistan in the last 10 years. The other faction, the Northern Alliance--in terms of its record of administration abuses--is at least on a par with the Taliban.

The country is anything but stable, and the human cost has been very high.

Marc Herold's report on casualties in Afghanistan can be found on the Web at

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