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[] WPO 21.10.01 (Arkin): Civilian Casualties and the Air War,

Civilian Casualties and the Air War 
By William M. Arkin
Special to
Sunday, October 21, 2001; 6:06 PM 

Official voices from Europe, China, Indonesia, Iran, and the Gulf states are increasingly expressing concern about Afghan civilian casualties resulting from the air war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The message, even from allies in places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, is to urge a short campaign that is "targeted." 

Much of this discomfort stems from three basic misunderstandings of U.S. airpower and strategy. 

First, the impact of bombing has to be understood within a realistic timeline of achieving American military goals, rather than a timeline desired for resolving other country's political concerns. Airpower, especially when directed at a small country without serious anti-aircraft defenses, also tends to suggest instant gratification when it comes to achieving military goals. But Pentagon spokesmen have been speaking of destroying barracks and other military facilities to deny the Taliban and Al Qaeda quarters for the winter. They are talking of weeks and months of war. A "short" campaign is just not going to happen.

The second misunderstanding is that the bombing is not already carefully targeted, that Afghanistan civilians are dying, and more specifically that they are dying in significant numbers. While we won't know for sure until reporters and non-governmental organizations can investigate the bombed areas, we do know that there is a lot of myth about civilian deaths from U.S. bombing in Iraq in 1991 and in Yugoslavia in 1999. I have spent a good part of the past decade studying those two air campaigns and learned that ignorance and overstatement about civilian deaths even reaches high into the ranks of the U.S. military and government.

Finally, there is a popular notion, repeated in numerous articles over the past week, that ground forces are both guarantors of military success, and less dangerous to non-combatants. As a Christian Science Monitor writer put it last week, "limiting casualties will require a shift away from the less discriminatory air power to the use of ground forces&" This notion is both factually inaccurate and politically pernicious. The air war against Taliban and Al Qaeda may or may not eliminate them as sponsors of international terrorism. But romanticized notions of ground war could ultimately do much more harm, both to the war effort and to Afghan civilians

The Body Count

How many civilians died as a result of U.S. bombing in Iraq and Yugoslavia? During the 43-day Gulf War, where bombing was twenty to a hundred times more intense than we've seen in Afghanistan, there were some 350 documented incidents of civilian damage. The Iraqi government itself claimed that about 3,200 civilians were killed and 6,000 were wounded, estimates that I discovered were credible. There were a dozen or so cases of civilian loss of life that were especially disturbing: the bombing of the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad where some 400 people died and the bombing of a bridge in the town of Fallujah that caused some 130 deaths. But for a war of such intensity in which just nine percent of the firepower came from so-called "smart weapons" with precision guidance systems, the number of civilian deaths was historically low.

Ten years later in Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia, 78 days of NATO bombing caused 500 civilian deaths. The number of weapons used in Yugoslavia was only a tenth of the amount used in Iraq. More "smart" weapons were used, about 35 percent of the total. But since military targets in Yugoslavia tended to be closer to civilian areas, civilian deaths were proportionally higher than in Iraq. There were some clearly avoidable errors, such as the bombing of a civilian convoy in Kosovo due to inadequate verification of the nature of the vehicles. But overall, air power was used with low levels of civilian harm. In fact, sound military strategy was sometimes sacrificed in the name of avoiding civilian harm. The end result may have been a longer war where more civilians actually wound up at risk. 

Now comes another air war, where the intensity of bombing is even less than in Yugoslavia, and where much of the bombing so far is taking place in remote areas, far from any civilian populations. In one of his first interviews on October 8, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld stated that "every single target was characterized as & low collateral damage." This means that U.S. analysts evaluate location and the blast radius of the intended weapon before the target can be approved. In other words, avoidance of civilian casualties has become institutionalized even to the point of rejecting important targets if there is a high probability of civilian harm. And this is not the Clinton administration.

The Lack of Information Machine

Enemies of the United States who assume the U.S. bombs and kills civilians at will are not going to believe that the Pentagon's reports of civilian casualties. But even in the American media and human rights organizations there is an attitude that the Pentagon's explanations are really only "cover-ups." This skepticism originates not just from mistrust of U.S. foreign policy but in ignorance about air power. Sure there is the example of the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945 in which 135,000 to 250,000 civilians died. This is what a bombing campaign could do. It bears about as much resemblance to the bombing tactics in today's war as the practice of catapulting plague-ridden corpses over fortress walls in the Middle Ages.

Certainly no official effort was made during or after the Gulf or Kosovo wars to study how many civilians died. To do so would be to admit that the number of non-combatant deaths is important. U.S. commanders fear that a debate about civilian casualties opens U.S. military operations to even more external scrutiny, thus undermining sound military judgments, and turning war even more into an exercise in political correctness.

The military's avoidance of the subject has now backfired. Because the military has produced no useful yardstick to understand how many civilian casualties might be expected given the level of effort, the tons of bombs, the types of weapons, the targets, or the population density, the armed forces wind up facing more and more constraints imposed by emotion. When civilian deaths do occur, they become exaggerated far beyond the significance of the numbers. The death of four Afghani civilians working for a United Nations de-mining outfit in Kabul was a tragedy that was not informed by any larger analysis of whether or not such an incident could be expected.

Nothing from the Pentagon briefing machine helps in allaying public or official fears, here or abroad. The daily diet of photos and videos always display successful missions. The constant message that there are few "high-value targets" in Afghanistan is intended to educate the public that the war will not be won with a cruise missile. But the end result fosters the impression that if there aren't good military targets, then the United States must be bombing civilians.

Operation Enduring Freedom, as it is unfolding, is as "targeted" as anyone can reasonably expect, yet it is not going to be short in duration. Undoubtedly as the fighting continues to rage, more nations will express their displeasure, and more pundits will opine as to the wisdom of the chosen strategy to limit our war to air power and special operations. That strategy may or may not be successful in meeting the administration's goals, but it should not be faulted on the basis of imagined misdeeds or distorted accounts of history.

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