The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] [1] Afghan civilian casualties [2]

Fellow Listers,

An accurate count of Afghan civilians killed by US bombs is central to
discussions of regime change in Iraq.  War proponents argue that the accuracy of
today's weapons (vastly improved since the Gulf War and Kosovo) reduces the risk
of civilian casualties.

But this claim is almost certainly false, and reliable counts exist that make
any pretence of 'humanitarian intervention' morbidly ludicrous.

Professor Marc Herold -- keeper of a running tally of Afghan casualties based on
compiled mainstream press reports -- reviewed the latest fatality estimates in
the Guardian recently, while defending his own.  Herold's "most recent figures
show that between 3,125 and 3,620 Afghan civilians were killed between October 7
and July 31."  Extrapolations from certain other sources (which focus on a
subset of bombings) roughly agree with this total.  See

By contrast, Willian Arkin (author of an influential Gulf War bomb damage
assessment, and frequent columnist for the LA Times and Washington Post) wrote
of the complexities of counting casualties on the ground in Afghanistan.  (Arkin
led a team for Human Rights Watch.)  I've read enough Arkin to believe that his
ghastly closing ("... citizens in Afghanistan need to be more honest with
themselves about the question of who caused the real damage in their country and
what it is that the Americans have really brought to them") can possibly be due
to jet lag - or perhaps he intended irony?  To my knowledge, HRW hasn't released
a final report on Afghanistan.

nb - Herold's piece appeared this month, Arkin's last April.

I'd also like to recommend  Their insider's view of US
media is very smart, sarcastic, and angry.

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA


Counting the dead
Attempts to hide the number of Afghan civilians killed by US bombs are an
affront to justice

Marc Herold
Thursday August 8, 2002
The Guardian

When the US bombing of Afghanistan started on October 7 2001, an official
"counting of the dead" was deemed unnecessary. The public was assured that
American and British military planners would go to great lengths to avoid
civilian casualties. The combination of newer, precision-guided munitions and
the fact that bombing would take place in remote areas would mean that, in this
war, only the "bad guys" would get killed. Subsequent events have proved these
claims wrong. But how wrong? Everyone now accepts that civilians have died in
American bombing raids in Afghanistan, but exactly how many is hotly disputed.
Given the lack of official interest, the counting of the dead fell upon
interested individuals and non-governmental organisations. To date there have
been nine studies, of which eight have been made public.The first study was my
own, published in December last year. Relying on wire services, NGO and
worldwide newspaper reports, I attempted to survey the bombing incidents to date
and concluded that more than 3,500 Afghan civilians had been killed. A weakness
of the initial study was some double-counting due to confused site names - the
figure for the October to December period should have been between 2,650 and
2,970 civilian deaths.

Soon afterwards, a couple of cursory estimates were made by Le Monde and Reuters
of about 1,000 dead civilians. At first sight, these seem considerably lower
than my own, but this is because only a sample of bombings was examined. Reuters
looked at just 14 incidents, which reportedly killed 982 Afghans. If one
extrapolates out from the sample, the count broadly tallies with my own.

In February, the Wall Street Journal announced that Human Rights Watch was
sending three researchers to Afghanistan - headed by William Arkin, a supporter
of the war - to produce the "correct" tally of Afghan dead. HRW officials, it
was widely reported, had "said privately" that they estimated the civilian death
toll at between 100 and 350 in December, figures consistent with the group's
record of severe undercounting in the 1999 Nato campaign in Yugoslavia. The HRW
study has never appeared, though it has - absurdly - had some influence: the
number 350 is still bandied about as if it had some scientific basis.

Around the same period, a major study was released by a prominent US thinktank,
the Project on Defense Alternatives, arguing that US bombing in Afghanistan had
killed civilians at a rate four times higher than the Nato bombing of
Yugoslavia. By January 1 2002, the report calculated, between 1,000 and 1,300
civilians had been killed. The bombing campaign "failed to set a new standard
for accuracy" because of the mix of weapons used, the unreliable nature of
intelligence and the decision to bomb al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in their
houses, where little margin of error existed. The PDA study was authoritative.
Its total was lower than mine only because it relied exclusively on western
sources. This made it more palatable to the media, but meant it involved a
restricted number of incidents.

On February 11, the Associated Press released its counter-study, boldly
reassuring an increasingly alarmed public: "Hundreds lost, not thousands". Its
astonishingly low figure of 500-600 was reached "by examining hospital records,
visiting bomb sites and interviewing eyewitnesses and officials." The report was
beset by methodological problems. Most Afghan deaths are not recorded in
hospital records because people are buried immediately; no details were given of
interview methods or which bombing incidents were included; many bomb attacks
were not reported; and Afghan officials have been shown often to seriously
underestimate civilian casualties.

A far better survey - of 14 sites bombed by US warplanes, which resulted in 830
civilian deaths - was published the same month by John Donnelly and Anthony
Shadid of the Boston Globe. The authors noted: "Because the 14 sites represent
only a small fraction of the total sites targeted... since October, the total is
estimated at 1,000 or more." The prime culprits for civilian deaths were: faulty
intelligence; imprecision of aerial warfare; and "the selection of targets in
civilian areas". Another compilation, by the Los Angeles Times, came up with a
death toll of between 1067 and 1201 between October and February. But neither
raw data nor sources were disclosed.

Last month, the NGO Global Exchange released a preliminary report of civilian
casualties caused by US bombing since the beginning of the war. The study of 11
sites purported to document 812 deaths. This report is seriously flawed. We are
not told which bombed places were visited (though we do know that only four of
Afghanistan's 30 provinces were included). No raw data is produced and the
number of bombing incidents is not divulged. Without this context, the low count
of 812 dead is meaningless.

Finally, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times last month published his study of
11 bombing incidents in which 396 Afghan civilians reportedly perished. My own
database reveals that in the same 11 incidents between 408 and 509 civilians
died. Filkins points to the use of overwhelming force as causing many of the
casualties. His study drew an immediate rebuke from Donald Rumsfeld, the US
defence secretary.

In the eight months since I published my original study, I have updated and
corrected my database, and incorporated the civilian deaths resulting from
British and US special forces attacks. My most recent figures show that between
3,125 and 3,620 Afghan civilians were killed between October 7 and July 31. This
is compatible with the sample counts done by Donnelly-Shadid, Filkins and
(probably) the Reuters study. Comparison with the PDA and Los Angeles Times
reports is difficult to make as they do not reveal raw data and exactly which
sources were employed. The AP count is flawed both in coverage and methodology
and the Global Exchange report is incomplete.

In war, counting is not value-free. To overlook or underestimate the civilian
dead gives rein to the enthusiasts of precision-guided weaponry. It is an
invitation to proliferation of war. The thousands of Afghan civilians who
perished did so because US military and political elites chose to carry out a
bombing campaign using extremely powerful weaponry in civilian-rich areas (the
isolated training camps were largely destroyed during the first week).

For political reasons, it has been necessary to hide the human carnage on Afghan
soil as much as possible from the western public. Given that many of the bombing
attacks - such as those on civilian infrastructure (cars, clinics, radio
stations, bridges) and those during November and December on anything rolling on
the roads of southern Afghanistan - violated the rules of war, there are war
crimes that need to be investigated. An inadequate count will make it impossible
for the families of those wrongfully killed to get the compensation to which
they are entitled. It will also impede international justice.

 The author is an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, US.
His writing on the human costs of the Afghan bombing campaign can be found at; his database of Afghan civilian casualties is at

Checking on Civilian Casualties

By William M. Arkin
Special to
Tuesday, April 9, 2002; 8:59 AM

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN--Late on a hot dry Friday afternoon, after another drive
along a potholed trail calling itself a road to a village in the middle of
another treeless dust bowl, after yet another inspection of a mud compound,
after yet another decrepit military outpost with its gaggle of idle
undisciplined, mix-and-match uniform-wearing "soldiers," after yet another swig
of warm bottled water in an effort to try to get the grit out of my teeth and
the dust out of my throat, after blowing my nose for the millionth time and
marveling at the chimney-full of soot emerging, after a day just like the day
before with its placemat-sized flat bread and mound of rice and version of
greasy mystery meat, after stamping my boots yet one more time to rearrange the
filth onto my pants, I lost it.

The schoolmaster was talking, talking, talking about the five boys killed in the
village of Garzagh-gar. Like most Afghans, when he saw foreigners, he assumed
something was about to be provided. The inevitable question thus came up: Are
they here to pay us? So many journalists and workers from non-governmental
organizations have been here and taken our testimony and our pictures and yet we
have gotten nothing, he said.

Nothing? The village elder would prove an annoying shyster anyhow, but the
question from "victims" of American bombing provokes this response from me: When
are you are going to pay the United States for the cost of the bombs and the jet
fuel and the American lives selflessly given to topple the Taliban and rout Al
Qaeda, all done so that you can have a future?

Innocents Abroad
That afternoon at Garzagh-gar came at the tail end of a month long survey of
American bombing for Human Rights Watch (I am a consultant for the organization
and led the mission to Afghanistan). It is the third major post-war evaluation
of American military action I've been a part of since the 1991 Gulf War.

The question seemingly on everyone's mind is just how many civilians were killed
in this latest American campaign. The answer is not easily calculated, and
before our team can review our findings and consult with people in the know, I'm
not ready to draw any conclusions. The number of civilian casualties is an
important question in gauging the success of American efforts to use military
force in accordance with international law, but the number does not and should
not define the success or failure of the operation.

Far more interesting is that since Iraq, and through Yugoslavia and now to
Afghanistan, I've observed American airpower grow ever more reliable as a
military tool while it has at the same time acquired greater and greater public
scrutiny and doubt. What is abundantly evident on the ground in Afghanistan is
not the civilians reported killed and injured in places like Garzagh-gar. It is
the distinction between devastation Afghanistan has suffered in old-fashioned
ground and civil wars predating American bombing, and that wrought by modern
American military force. Yet what most still think of and visualize when the
U.S. military is employed is old fashioned warfare.

A Cluster of Exaggeration
In Afghanistan, where spotless heroes are scarce, the government and
non-government organizations who conduct mine and bomb clearance stand out. As
in most areas, our mission had received a list of civilian victims in Herat from
OMAR, the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation. Our
schoolmaster friend said he was the one who provided the names from Garzagh-gar
to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and they passed them on to OMAR.

Given reports that the boys died from American cluster bombs, we searched for
the markings of the demining groups. OMAR and other organizations meticulously
paint white, blue, and red markings on the walls of villages and on the sides of
roads to designate where mines and cluster bombs are suspected, or where
clearance has taken place.

They were killed somewhere over there, the schoolmaster pointed to the large
military base that backs on to the village. Our presence of course drew the
requisite crowd of town yentas and hangers-on, all engaged in the national sport
of speaking at the same time and disagreeing with each other about all the
details. But the chorus grew more and more silent and eventually ended up
listening to the village elder drone on. The more we probed, the more his
answers became vague, and he grew noticeably testier and more defensive.

What we found was that there were no deaths in Garzagh-gar. Some injuries indeed
occurred when boys were foraging for firewood near the military base, the
schoolmaster eventually admitted. Yet neither Red Crescent nor OMAR verified the
reports. To me, the incident illustrates the hazards of uncritical thinking
about "victims" of American aggression.

Lies Defused
It would be obscene for me to compare the momentary inconveniences I experienced
in Afghanistan with the life of the dishonest schoolmaster. He has endured 23
years of Soviet invasion and guerilla warfare, of government mismanagement, of
Taliban atrocities and destruction, of civil war, tribal infighting and
warlordism. He lives in a country with no real functioning infrastructure or
schools: electricity is sporadic, communications tentative, the roads are
horrendous, industry is non-existent, agriculture is decimated.

The perception from the schoolmaster, from other locals, from Pakistanis, from
the Islamic press, and seeming from a considerable portion of the European
public, is that America is somehow to be held responsible for this mess, and
indeed that American bombing was a major contributor. Compared to what and in
proportion to what achievement seems lost on most. Civilians did die from
American bombing, and there are numerous mistakes, cases of poor judgment, and
even foolish targeting. But before on starts preparing an indictment, it is a
good idea to understand the circumstances, and also the misperceptions.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon seems to focus more of its time and energies on
fattening its budget and sharpening its "strategic influence" propaganda tools
rather than on better explaining, to itself and the outside world, what actually
happened when bombing was planned and once bombs were dropped.

Throughout the Afghanistan campaign, the Pentagon asserted that the U.S. effort
was the least deadly military campaign in history. The Pentagon, however, has no
factual basis for which to make such a judgment and it is doing little to study
or substantiate its self-congratulatory line.

Instead, many inside the military are awaiting what Human Rights Watch will say
on the subject. Our report is scheduled to be published in a couple of months.
The attention is gratifying on some level, but despite visiting hundreds of
locations and almost all of the major areas of urban attack, despite developing
a "groundtruth" methodology that has now proven very accurate in Iraq and
Yugoslavia, there is real abbrogation of responsibility here: The military
cannot assert that it is doing "all" that it can to minimize civilian harm and
not develop greater expertise on the subject.

What Washington needs to do is much better understand and then publicly discuss
the civilian dimensions of its military operations. Most of the news is good,
and it should embrace the humanitarian and legal constraints in recognition of
its success rather than take a knee jerk response of defensiveness and evasion.

Critics of the military, and of the campaign in Afghanistan, need to put into
perspective civilian deaths, a not very easy task when indeed the Pentagon does
such a poor job of substantiating the military relevance of its efforts. The
public has such a poor frame of reference for understanding the true civilian
effects from modern bombing, but the propensity to accept and believe the worst
no longer makes sense.

For their part, citizens in Afghanistan need to be more honest with themselves
about the question of who caused the real damage in their country and what it is
that the Americans have really brought to them.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]