Afghanistan: Rogues on the looseBill Berkowitz
12.23.02 - Just last week, a new report by Human Rights Watch indicated that during the air war in Afghanistan the United States "dropped nearly a quarter-million cluster bomblets that killed or injured scores of civilians, especially children, both during and after strikes." The report, "Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United States in Afghanistan," says that despite some US attempt "to reduce the civilian harm caused by its cluster bombs in Afghanistan, the fundamental problems of the weapon remained."
Shortly after the US' bombing campaign in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold embarked on an unenviable, but indispensable, task of trying to document the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombing raids.
In early December 2001, Herold issued his first comprehensive report. Called "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting," the report claimed that 3,767 civilians had been killed between October 7 to December 10. (For the original report, see "Who Will Count the Dead? -- U.S. Media Fail to Report Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan", and for the revised version (March 2002), click here.)
For the most part, response to his work was positive, especially overseas. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dr. Herold's work had "received extensive coverage in the European media but almost no mention in the American press."
There were a few critics, but no organized campaign was waged to discredit his numbers. The Pentagon, as is their wont, didn't bother to try and discredit Herold's work; they simply paid the entire issue no mind. Pentagon officials claimed not to be keeping statistics on dead or injured Afghan civilians.
Now, a year after publishing his first Afghan Dossier, I caught up with Prof. Herold and asked him where he thought things currently stood in Afghanistan.
Counting the dead
BB: First off, some old business: Are you still trying to get a count of civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombing?
Marc Herold: The database that I put together last year has been revised, updated and is current as we speak. The minimum number of casualties amounts to more than 3,500. There were some problems with my original reports, but the totals weren't off by much. In the last six months I've found out about a number of incidents that I hadn't heard about before. As you move to the remote provinces and destroyed villages, I found that there were bombing raids that killed people that no one had spoken about. It's only now that people, including workers with non-government organizations, are talking about these events and they are being written up.
BB: What was the reaction to your "Dossier?"
MH: There were some negative reactions, but in general I would characterize the responses to the Dossier as pretty positive. The Associated Press' head office in New York City, however, was particularly strident in its criticism. The casualty count evoked tremendous interest abroad; in Asia, Australia and Europe, for example a number of people responded extremely positively.
Many of my articles have been published in India's national magazine, Frontline, in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly, and in Pakistan dailies. People from research institutes, reporters, the de-mining community, NGOs and others -- many who had been on the ground in Afghanistan -- responded very favorably. One particularly ignorant critique, by Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, set me off, but on the whole I was very pleased by the feedback.
BB: Who did pay attention to your dossier?
MH: Editors at the Washington Post may not have been paying attention, but grassroots organizations certainly have. I have spoken all over the Northeast to very receptive audiences. I was invited by a group of students and faculty to speak at the Monterrey Institute for International Studies -- a graduate program of language, training and international studies located in Monterey, California -- and spoke to a fairly large group.
One of the most interesting and moving events I spoke at was a conference -- scheduled around the first anniversary of the US bombing -- organized by Afghan Women's Mission, a group that is closely associated with RAWA (Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association). I was also interviewed for features on television programs in Greece and Germany.
BB: And the Pentagon's response?
MH: The Pentagon claims not to know about Afghan civilian casualties. Getting into the body count is something they perceive as having a very negative potential for public relations. There have been maybe a half-dozen incidents out of nearly 500 where they expressed some lame type of apology.
BB: How do you see the current situation in Afghanistan?
MH: Militarily the situation is similar to what the Russians faced in 1981. Special Forces bases are being hit regularly by rockets; Kabul is being hit occasionally with rockets and bombs go off frequently; and an opposition is coalescing uniting elements of the Taliban, al Qaeda, Heymatyar's faction, and elements of the Pakistani intelligence community. There is a growing sense amongst the people that things have not improved in most of the country. The rampages of US troops in villages have turned people who were once sympathetic, to being against the presence of foreign troops in the country.
There is evidence that the US intends to move in a different direction -- a civic action model -- that is remarkably similar to that employed in Vietnam. US efforts to pacify the country appear to include rebuilding some roads, building a few schools, and digging out some wells. There is always a two-pronged effort -- military and civil society folks. I will believe that reconstruction is really taking place when I see large amounts of US money sent to support the well-being of the millions of poor Afghans living in misery amongst devastation.
Politically, there will be an ongoing struggle until the West abandons the idea of trying to create a strong central government, particularly under Karzai, who in the old days was dubbed 'the Gucci Guerilla.' Essentially, the country is a mess. Karzai is de facto a daytime mayor and the pre- Taliban warlords like Gul Agha and Rashid Dostum control much of the country. In Western Afghanistan, centered in Herat, the warlord Ismail Khan is running a well-armed force of 30,000 and has complete financial independence from Kabul.
In other provinces, some really unsavory characters are running the show replete with extreme corruption and close ties to the rebounding drug industry. In Northern Afghanistan, Gen. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek who serves as Karzai's deputy defense minister, and Mohammed Atta, a Tajik, have their own militias and are battling for control of that area. All these guys refuse to disarm.
Economically, Karzai and a bunch of second, third and fourth level World Bank-types preside over Kabul and not much else. There a number of things that are really embarrassing: assassination attempts on Karzai and other leaders, the attack and killing of 4 to 6 students at Kabul University, a number of cases of Karzai's intelligence and police agencies abducting people suspected of associating with some of the warlords, scattered reports of persons tortured by Karzai's police, unsolved bombings, assassinations of senior Karzai ministers, and the grotesque though revealing spectacle of a Western beauty school to be opened soon on the premises of the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs, among others. The only vibrant economic activity is the huge informal market where people hawk their wares and sell imported items.
One serious and developing situation involves the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had returned to Afghanistan and are now returning to Pakistan's refugee camps having discovered that life in 'liberated' Kabul is unbearable. There may be a few wonderful restaurants popping up around Kabul like B's Place and the Mustafa Hotel's balcony, and a proposal from two companies, including the Hyatt Corp., to put up luxury hotels -- but for the poor things remain pretty hopeless.
BB: What is the outlook for the near future?
MH: I think there will be continued and escalating fighting. And most Americans will easily forget Afghanistan as the War with Iraq comes to dominate the media's attention. An occupation army will patrol in Kabul, Karzai will bumble along and spend more time abroad than at home, as he did in the 1980s and 1990s, and the warlords will continue to have their way with the rest of the country.
BB: And will you continue your work?
MH: As long as the United States continues its interference in and occupation of Afghanistan, I will be inspired to relentlessly persist in documenting the outrageous consequences of such actions for the common Afghan citizen.
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