On-the-ground survey warns more dead yet to be counted
Jill Treanor in New
Monday July 22, 2002
US air strikes in Afghanistan have killed hundreds of civilians, according to a detailed on-the-ground survey that threatens to embarrass the Bush administration.
The survey into the impact of the war on terrorism, published in the New York Times yesterday, claims that 812 Afghan civilians have died in the strikes. Conducted by Global Exchange, a respected human rights organisation, the survey warns that the number of civilian fatalities could rise as field workers reach remote villages that have been hit.
Global Exchange criticises the US strategy of using air strikes instead of ground troops, as well as the American military's heavy reliance on intelligence from locals. One of the group's field workers in Afghanistan told the newspaper that US commanders might be acting too quickly on the information received. Much of it is mistaken, according to the survey.
"Smart bombs are only as smart as the people on the ground. Before you bomb, you should be 100% certain of who you are bombing," Marla Ruzicka said.
Over six months, Global Exchange has sent researchers to 11 sites where, according to residents and human rights groups, innocent lives have been lost.
Researchers visited the site of an attack on a wedding party which apparently took place after celebratory gunfire was mistaken for hostile fire. Global Exchange found 54 people died. Confusion still surrounds the raid, with differing accounts from the Pen tagon and other US officials.
The wedding party strike is said to have added to the growing anger of Afghan authorities, which are helping the US to track down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
The New York Times warned of a backlash and quoted the Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, as demanding a greater role in deciding how the US air raids should be conducted.
Pentagon sources are said to be adamant that the strategy is changing, with a shift towards using ground forces to track down fighters. Even so, the newspaper quoted American military commanders as rejecting the criticism that too much reliance is placed on intelligence received from locals.
"We painstakingly assess the potential for injuring civilian facilities and positively identify targets before strikes," a spokesman for US central command reportedly said.
The military commanders said that they were using air strikes as back-up rather than as the main form of attack. They are also said to have improved the way in which they coordinate the attacks with Afghan leaders. rather than as the main form of attack. They are also said to have improved the way in which they coordinate the attacks with Afghan leaders.
The criticism by Global Exchange is not so much about missiles going astray - a problem that has plagued previous offensives by the US and other countries - but more about the intelligence on the nature of the targets and the desire by American commanders to strike quickly.
This appears to have been a problem with the air strike on the wedding party on July 1, when the US was supposedly seeking out Taliban leaders.
The raid on four villages in Oruzgan province was made after special operations forces on the ground saw fire from what they said were anti-aircraft guns. The Americans said they were being fired on but residents insisted that two parties were taking place that night and that the guns were fired in celebration.
Global Exchange also visited the site of an attack on an ammunition dump 50 miles south of Kabul that devastated the village of Niazi Qala. The organisation said 52 people died in the strike.
The New York Times said six survivors live in a nearby village, including a 13-year-old boy with an ill-fitting plastic eye and his younger cousin, whose body is badly scarred. A US military source insisted that Niazi Qala had been a base for fighters but did not deny that civilians had lost their lives.
A Guardian survey of aid agencies and others in February found estimates of civilian casualties ranging from 2,000 to 8,000. However, the estimates included people who had died as a result of the overall conflict, not solely in their air raids.