Ding, dong, Al-Qaeda's dead. So sing headlines, pundits, and news shows across America. Of course, chances are good that Al-Qaeda still lives. But then, America has never been very good about counting the dead overseas.
For two months, British and Islamic media outlets, and their reporters in the field, have relayed daily accounts from non-Taliban sources -- aid workers, refugees, and even anti-Taliban forces -- of Afghan civilian deaths and mayhem. United States media, by contrast, understated and deemphasized the civilian dead, and overstated, in perfect harmony with Pentagon pronouncements, the precision of U.S. weaponry.
Now, several more exhaustive counts have emerged that claim to quantify what U.S. media reports missed. In the most widely circulated, a study by Professor Marc. W. Herold of the Univ. of New Hampshire uses international media reports to arrive at an improbably precise total of 3,767 civilian Afghan deaths during the U.S. campaign's first 60 days. The seven worst incidents totalled at least 1,100 deaths. Herold thinks his overall total of nearly 4,000 is "a serious underestimate of actual civilian casualties."
Such estimates may diminish over time, just as those of the World Trade Center dead have done; unlike the accounting for September 11, Afghanistan's conditions make even general estimates difficult. But those conditions make it easier to undercount than not.
The Pentagon's response to accusations of civilian deaths has been threefold: using them as a chance praises their precision weaponry; claims, often denied by Afghan civilians, that targets were in fact military sites; or simple dismissal of reports, even from aid agencies or the U.N., as inventions of Taliban propaganda. When hundreds clearly died at three villages on Dec. 1, the response of the Pentagon and Command Central that evening was, simply, "It just did not happen."
At this point, do these civilian deaths matter? Ultimately, yes -- not just in their own right, but because any "War on Terrorism" must ultimately be a war of persuasion, not conquest. Some people do, unfortunately, keep score, in the Islamic world as well as here. For every American who points out that Al-Qaeda's sole Sept. 11 purpose was to kill civilians, and ours was not (the attack on the Pentagon is oddly absent here), Muslims may reply that America's planes faced no meaningful enemy fire, and had all the time and technology in the world to get it right.
When the U.S. repeatedly denies the existence of something as basic and eventually verifiable as civilian deaths, its credibility on other issues evaporates. Few people, anywhere in the world, contest that the U.S. has a right to defend itself and a compelling interest in tracking down those responsible for September 11. But the Afghan attacks were on an entire country, dislodging its government, and generating all those deaths. In order to justify such broad attacks to the rest of the world, the Bush Administration must have credibility -- credibility it gains when evidence of bin Laden's guilt emerges, but loses when it dismisses its own carnage as minor "collateral damage." Bush will need even more credibility to sell the idea of attacking countries (such as Somalia, Iraq, or the Philippines) with no clear links to September 11. As the Islamic world's fears regarding the civilian cost of the U.S. war gain credence, the battle for the world's hearts and minds next time may be lost before it has even begun.
Herold's study is available online at www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm.