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[] WPO 25.2.02 (Arkin): Not Good Enough, Mr. Rumsfeld,

Not Good Enough, Mr. Rumsfeld 
Afghan Admission 'Confused and Inadequate' 

Special to
Monday, February 25, 2002; 7:16 AM 

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's admission last week that the United States mistakenly killed 16 people in the village of Hazar Kadam on the night of Jan. 23 is confused and inadequate.

The Pentagon promised an investigation, and Rumsfeld dutifully proceeded. He now says friendly troops ­ not Taliban, not Al Qaeda as originally alleged ­ were killed. Yet the investigation report concludes: "There were no systemic errors in the targeting process, mission planning or mission execution."

I'm sorry Mr. Rumsfeld. In a week in which you were also defending establishment of a controversial new Office of Strategic Influence, designed in part for public relations, there is nothing about your announcement last week that adds to our confidence about U.S. reports on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Although you continue to assert that Operation Enduring Freedom is the least bloody in history, you show little sense of understanding the history of civilian casualties in recent conflicts involving U.S. forces and thus have little chance to absorb the lessons you say the Pentagon wants to learn.

A Sense of History

I was first exposed to the subject of civilian casualties when I went to Iraq in 1991 as a member of the International Study Team. Little of what I had read prepared me for what I saw. A decade of war with Iran, the coalition?s bombing campaign, and the civil war that raged after Desert Storm had left Iraq crippled. But in many places, most places, there was little visible damage from U.S. bombing. It took a lot of effort to figure out what happened, let alone why.

In Basra, Iraq's second largest city in the south, we could see the evidence that the city had changed hands several times in the war with Iran in the 1980s. Civil war and looting after the Gulf War had caused further devastation. With some investigation, it was not difficult to discern the damage caused by coalition bombing. 

Then, as now, there were unnecessary civilian casualties. But the Pentagon has not learned the lessons of Basra that might be applied to the future.

In Basra, local officials could also recount just about every case where U.S. bombs had causes civilian damage. I was taken to the Hakimiyah neighborhood where more than 100 civilians died. Other stricken neighborhoods followed. I was taken to the downtown telephone exchange, the port area, a mosque built in the 16th century. These officials could catalog the time and date of bombing errors with a fair degree of accuracy because they had a decade of their own experience in the highly destructive and indiscriminate ground war in the 1980s. What was hit by coalition bombing over 43 days in the Gulf War was both so obvious and so limited.

Another lesson of Basra was the indirect toll of bombing on civilians. In Basra and elsewhere in Iraq the civilian population was suffering more because of the lack of electrical power, than they were because of blast, fires, rubble or shrapnel caused by U.S. air attacks. Some 3,200 civilians died in the 43 days of bombing, but it was the systematic attack on Iraq's electrical power production grid and its effects on water systems, hospitals, and general heating and air conditioning that harmed the most innocent civilians. It was the post-war cascade of effects from the loss of electricity that had far greater impact than the bombs themselves.

Finally, you had the cluster bomb lesson. In places like Basra, where tens of thousands of cluster bombs had been dropped -- "area bombing" the Pentagon calls it -- bomblets that failed to explode on contact were taking civilian lives almost daily long after the Gulf War ended. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that more civilians have been killed or injured in Basra by cluster bomb accidents since Desert Storm than were killed by accidental bombings during the war itself.

Lessons Learned?

In Yugoslavia, I participated in another civilian bomb damage assessment after the U.S. bombing campaign of 1999, this time on behalf of Human Rights Watch. Our survey concluded that 500 civilians had died in 90 incidents. This study yielded another set of lessons, learned and unlearned, that are shaping the Pentagon?s response to increasingly aggressive media coverage of Afghan civilian casualties. 

Many civilian deaths in Yugoslavia were the result of attacks on "legitimate" urban military targets. In some cases, nothing went wrong at all. Civilian structures were just too close to these targets. Many civilians also died because the Yugoslavia Army and paramilitaries used them as shields.

In Yugoslavia, in fact, the good news was that targeters had learned from some of the lessons identified by the human rights community in previous conflicts. Lessons were clearly learned from Iraq in the way the Serb electrical grid was attacked. Targeters were incredibly careful to avoid the kinds of long-term damage to the civilian population that occurred in Iraq by avoiding attacks on power generators and only focusing on distribution nodes.

In other cases, however, no lessons were learned. Cluster bombs again caused a disproportionate number of civilian deaths and injuries in Yugoslavia. And missing in either the attacks on the electrical grid or the use of cluster bombs was any military justification for destroying the target or using the weapon. Did U.S. forces attack electrical power nodes six weeks after the war began because it had military effect or was that how long it took the U.S. to get NATO approval? With "smart" weapons readily available, why risk exposing civilians to cluster bombs when attacking fixed urban objects such as airfields or barracks?

Enduring Problems

Few people would have suspected four months ago that civilian casualties in the war on terrorism would have been a major issue of contention today. Rumsfeld clearly needs his Office of Strategic Influence so that his department can figure out how to tell a convincing story of its conduct, and to identify the gaps that exist between the Pentagon group-think that sees no problems and public perceptions.

More important than perceptions, however, are actual actions that would demonstrate the seriousness with which the U.S. takes its pronounced regard for innocent civilian lives. That means understanding from past conflicts why civilians die, admitting mistakes and misjudgments, and incorporating the result into military strategy and planning.

Over the past few months, I've been struck by how many times senior officers and officials have insisted that the level of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is low. This isn't a case of military secrecy where they know something we don't. The Pentagon can't say low compared to what, how low, nor if the low they describe is good enough. The U.S. military can assert all it wants that it takes "all" measures to minimize civilian harm. But until it is willing to actually study why civilians die in conflict, it is an assertion that has little credibility. 

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