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AP review of Afghan civilian casualties suggests toll in hundreds; Taliban inflated count

By Laura King

Associated Press Worldstream

February 11, 2002 Monday

The cemetery is little more than a scattering of stones across a dusty hillside. A few tattered green flags flutter in the winter wind, marking the resting place of casualties of war. Such grave sites are haunting reminders of civilian deaths that have scarred the U.S. air war in Afghanistan.

But authorities have not calculated Afghanistan's civilian death toll in the war on terrorism, and the dimension of this tragedy is not fully known. Although estimates have placed the civilian dead in the thousands, a review by The Associated Press suggests the toll may be in the mid-hundreds, a figure reached by examining hospital records, visiting bomb sites and interviewing eyewitnesses and officials. The number of confirmed deaths will surely rise as more exhaustive tallies are compiled by independent bodies. Neither the U.S. nor the Afghan government is attempting to tally the civilian dead, but two Afghan nongovernmental groups are undertaking a count. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch also plans a study.

One factor contributing to inflated estimates was the distortion of casualty reports by the Taliban regime. Afghan journalists have told AP that Taliban officials systematically doctored reports of civilian deaths to push their estimate to 1,500 in the first three weeks of the war in an attempt to galvanize opposition to the bombing.

"Our chief was from the Taliban. His deputy from the Taliban. The information minister was from the Taliban," said one journalist, Mohammed Ismail. "We could not do our jobs. We could not tell the truth."

In the course of the air war, the U.S. military has several times owned up to errors that killed civilians, but the Pentagon stressed repeatedly that they were never deliberately targeted.

"Any loss of innocent life is a shame," said Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander. At the same time, he declared, "This has been the most accurate war ever fought in the nation's history"

Franks, speaking last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that of the 18,000 bombs dropped on Afghanistan, 10,000 were precision munitions - the largest percentage in any war. Still, some went astray.

Errors resulting in civilian deaths have continued into recent weeks, although the air campaign has tapered off dramatically. It has been difficult to authenticate casualties as the U.S. strikes have shifted to remote areas, in support of U.S. special forces scouring the rugged countryside for Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida followers and Taliban leaders.

In one such air-and-ground operation on Jan. 23, in the village of Khas Uruzgan north of Kandahar, Afghan witnesses said U.S. special forces killed 19 people, most where they slept, and temporarily detained 27. The Americans were hunting for al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts, but the Pentagon is now investigating the possibility that its team received bad information and killed the wrong people.

In the course of the air assault, every major Afghan city was targeted - Kabul, with its population of 1.2 million; the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south; Herat in the west; Mazar-e-Sharif in the north; Jalalabad in the east - as well as large swaths of rugged countryside where bin Laden and his lieutenants might have been hiding.

AP reporters visited these areas during the course of the war and gathered data on civilian casualties. Their reporting and other reliable counts - by no means complete - in the months since then suggest a civilian death toll ranging from 500 to 600.

In some of Afghanistan's main cities, where the bombing ceased months ago, the toll may be nearly final. In Kabul, the capital, an independent aid group put the total at 67, and the AP's count was 70.

Both figures took into account hospital tallies - 59 deaths reported by the city's four main non-military hospitals - as well as some victims buried without documentation by a morgue or hospital.

One of those who lost family members to U.S. bombs was a 34-year-old man named Saydamin. On the night of Nov. 7, he woke to the roar of aircraft over his northwest Kabul neighborhood of Karte Parwan. Then he heard a crash. The house filled with smoke and dust.

Staggering to the other end of the family compound, he found his brother Saydiqbal and wife Zarlachat dead in their bed, their bodies bloody and mangled. They had been married only six weeks.

"They were so sweet together. They loved each other," said Saydamin, weeping as he told the story. He believed the intended target might have been a Taliban post a few streets away.

Another Kabul family, the Ahmadis, lived at the base of a steep hill on whose peak stood Taliban military radar and anti-aircraft batteries.

On the night of Oct. 28, in what might have been a strike aimed at that installation, their mud-brick house was destroyed. The only survivor was a 14-year-old named Jawad, who woke up in the hospital alone. It was weeks before he learned that his parents, five sisters and a stepbrother were all dead.

"I miss my mother. I miss my sisters. I cannot believe they are gone from my life for always," Jawad, a tall, skinny boy with jaggedly cropped hair, said in an interview in the ruins of what had been his home.

While an agony for the families involved, deaths in Kabul were fewer than might have been feared in five weeks of fierce and concerted airstrikes. By contrast, the Red Cross has said that during ferocious factional fighting in 1992-96, an estimated 50,000 civilians died in Kabul alone.

Besides the 70 in Kabul, the AP count of civilian deaths includes: 81 in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar; 55 in the eastern city of Jalalabad; 10 in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif; 18 in the western city of Herat; 25 in and near Spinboldak, a town south of Kandahar; and 55 in the village of Karam, near Jalalabad. An additional 167 were killed in three villages in the heavily bombed Tora Bora region: 155 of those in Kama Ado, five in Agom and seven in Pacir.

In Paktia province south of Kabul, at least 27 civilians died in the December bombing of a convoy and roadside villages. In later airstrikes in and around the village of Niazi in Paktia's Zawar district, local officials put the civilian toll at several dozen, and at least 18 of those were confirmed by an Afghan nongovernmental group called AREA - whose count was cut short by ongoing bombardment. The AP saw 35 destroyed houses in the area, but some of those living in them had already fled.

Earlier in the war, in villages near what had been the Taliban front lines north of Kabul, nine civilians were reported killed.

Counting the dead has been a daunting challenge, not just in Afghanistan. America had difficulty reckoning up its own dead in the World Trade Center collapse. The toll topped 6,700 two weeks after the attacks; this week the number, which police say is close to final, stood at just over 2,840.

During the U.S. bombardment, the Taliban waged an energetic public relations war, in which accounts of civilian suffering were their principal weapon. In that campaign, they achieved far greater success than they ever did on the battlefield.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef - who is now in U.S. custody - repeatedly accused the United States of genocide. It was Zaeef who, three weeks into the war, claimed civilian deaths had already topped 1,500.

Afghan journalists for the official Bakhtar news agency, whose reports were used as a basis for Taliban claims, now say their dispatches were freely doctored.

Mohammed Ismail - then a Bakhtar reporter, promoted to acting director after the Taliban fled - told AP that in one typical instance, he went to the scene of an airstrike in Kabul's Khair Khana neighborhood on Oct. 20 and saw eight bodies.

"But it was changed in our dispatch to 20," he said. When he heard the report later on Taliban-run radio, the figure had gone up to 30, he said.

Bakhtar journalists also said they were ordered to report military deaths as civilian ones. Reporter Younis Mihireen recalled a direct hit on a Taliban and al-Qaida housing complex in the west of the city in late October, in which about 60 fighters were killed.

"I saw it with my own eyes - there were no civilians anywhere nearby, and I reported this," he said. "But the dispatch said all the dead people were civilians, not fighters."

In Kabul, the agency's reporters would bicycle around their own neighborhoods on the way to work to see any new damage and deaths for themselves. But reports of deaths elsewhere came directly from Taliban military officials, they said.

"So I don't even want to guess what the real casualty numbers were out in the provinces," said Ismail. "I know this: They weren't what our agency reported."

Zaeef himself sometimes called the Taliban's Information Ministry, which oversaw Bakhtar, for details on locations of airstrikes that killed or injured civilians, but always inflated the figures when he relayed them to the world press, the Bakhtar journalists said.

International news organizations, including AP, reported fast-mounting Taliban casualty claims, always with the caveat that Afghanistan was almost completely closed to the outside world and the figures could not be verified.

Even so, various death tolls, confirmed or merely claimed, took on a life of their own once they were electronically indexed and archived. In some cases they served as the basis for academic research.

A University of New Hampshire economist, Marc Herold, in December cited news reports in arriving at a total of between 3,000 and 5,000 civilian dead. In interviews last week he said he believed the range of deaths was between 3,100 and 3,800.

Herold, who has written essays on social and demographic issues in Afghanistan, readily conceded that his findings rely on secondhand data. But he said he used only information he trusted.

Other counts were significantly lower. The Cambridge, Massachusetts.-based Project on Defense Alternatives, a private think tank that studies defense strategies, estimates the number to the end of December at 1,000 to 1,300. The study was based on selected Western media and discounted any reports based on Taliban figures.

At the height of the bombing campaign, even firsthand reporting could not always yield a precise count. On Oct. 14, the Taliban took journalists to Karam, a village near Jalalabad, to view the aftermath of an airstrike it claimed had killed 200 civilians. Reporters counted 35 graves, and villagers said 20 other victims had been taken to their ancestral villages for burial.

Kama Ado, a village of 300 people living in mud huts in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, was bombed on Dec. 1. An AP reporter who visited five days later saw widespread destruction and 44 graves, but villagers said it was so difficult to dig up the hard ground that some of the graves contained the fragmentary remains of four or five people. Witnesses put the village's dead at 155.

Even now, some reports of mass civilian casualties remain a tangle of contradiction - so much so that they cannot be included in a count without further investigation.

The Taliban claimed in early November that nearly 300 people were killed when U.S. bombs flattened the area surrounding Shah Aga village in the mountains west of Kandahar province. Witnesses interviewed after the bombing said more than 100 bodies were counted, but weather and fighting rendered the village inaccessible to independent investigators.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, travel to the village remained extremely dangerous because it was believed to harbor al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts.

Any compilation of a civilian death toll is extremely sensitive politically for the United States. And the Pentagon says such tallies are impossible without onsite investigations that cannot be carried out in wartime.

However, according to a Saudi-based U.S. Air Force official, a unit has been set up at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh to check allegations of civilian casualties and see whether they have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes.

The "collateral damage cell," consisting of intelligence officers and military lawyers, has so far confirmed only three cases of civilian deaths or injuries that were a result of "bombs that were misguided or malfunctioned in some way," said the official on condition of anonymity. He did not have details, such as where and when the incidents occurred or the number of civilians killed.

The Afghan government, for its part, is too short of cash and resources to carry out a comprehensive count. "We have nothing to work with," said Shah Jahan Ahmadi, the deputy chief of a government agency called the Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled, whose job it is to count up casualties of war.

His office, with wind whistling through a broken window, is furnished solely with a chair and table - no files, no telephone, not even a manual typewriter.

Major international organizations like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross also say they have not compiled any nationwide figure.

The best hope for arriving at a full and reasonably accurate estimate of civilian casualties may lie in counts by Afghan aid agencies whose work is supported by large international organizations. These groups tend to be better equipped than outsiders to deal with cultural complexities and the lack of record-keeping typical in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas.

One of the two such groups already attempting a counting is the Afghan Red Crescent. It is mobilizing workers for an exhaustive survey of civilian deaths, injuries and loss of property in every province, said its incoming secretary general, Qarbig Ezatyar. He estimated the survey would take two months.

Another is AREA, a nongovernmental group that gets German government funding. It is already counting casualties in two hard-hit provinces. But the more time passes, the harder it will be to get anything approaching an accurate count, said Khial Shah, AREA's Kabul director. "It's winter now. Physical signs fade. Families become harder to trace. Everyone's recollections get confused," he said. "We need direct observation to be as accurate as possible. So sooner is better - much better."

Human Rights Watch has collected information on some 300 incidents of U.S. military fire in which civilians were reportedly injured or killed. "A lot of these incidents, which come from press reports, were accompanied by reports of civilian casualties, but we believe that only about a third of those have real credibility and deserve a second look," said Joost Hilterman, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. "Once we get on the ground we will investigate these cases but not for the purpose of a count," he said. "The objective is to find out under what circumstances civilians were harmed. That's a human rights issue and that's what we do."

In their own ways, ordinary Afghans pay tribute to their dead of this war, those counted and uncounted alike. At the hillside cemetery in the neighborhood where the orphaned 14-year-old Jawad Ahmadi lived, his family lies in a row of new graves. With their wooden stakes and green flags - meant in Islam to symbolize purity and martyrdom - the graves can easily be seen from the destroyed hilltop military post that was the airstrike's likely target.

On a wintry afternoon, a woman passing by the graves with her children stopped for a moment and pressed her lips to one of the fraying flags. Asked if she was a relative, she shook her head and said she hadn't known Jawad's family.

"That doesn't matter," she said. "What matters is that they were innocent, and they died."

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