Air war policy under attack

Reliance on flawed data from Afghans, bombing blamed in civilian deaths

400 killed at 11 sites, groups say

Leaders threaten to limit U.S. military activities if mistakes continue

July 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KABUL, Afghanistan - The U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan, based on a high-tech out-of-harm's-way strategy, has produced a pattern of mistakes that has killed hundreds of Afghan civilians.

On-site reviews by The New York Times of 11 places where civilians have been killed in airstrikes suggest that American commanders have sometimes relied on mistaken information from local Afghans. Also, the military's preference for airstrikes instead of riskier ground operations has made it harder to discover when the intelligence is wrong.

The reviews, which were conducted over a six-month period, found that the Pentagon's use of overwhelming force meant that even when true military targets were found, civilians were sometimes killed. The 11 sites visited accounted for many of the principal places where Afghans and human rights groups say civilians have been killed, a number estimated at upward of 400.

Pentagon officials say their strategy has evolved in recent months away from airstrikes to the use of ground forces to hunt down remaining Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. Since then, air power has been deployed mainly in a supporting role; still, the effects have often been disastrous.

The American attack this month on villages in Oruzgan province, where airstrikes killed at least 54 civilians, has crystallized a sense of anger here that threatens to undermine the good will the United States gained by helping dislodge the Taliban. That anger is threatening to frustrate America's ability to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida forces.

For the first time, Afghan leaders are demanding a say in how air raids are conducted. And they are hinting that if the mistakes continue, they may limit America's military activities.

"We have to be given a larger role," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said in an interview. "If things do not improve, well, I will certainly pray for the Americans and wish them success, but I will no longer be able to take part in this."

The Pentagon often relies on information from warlords and other Afghans whose loyalties are unclear in a country split by decades of war and tribal rivalries. That information may be incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes even deliberately misleading. As a result, the Pentagon's critics say, the military has too often struck without a full understanding of what it was attacking.

But American military commanders insist that they take pains to ensure that civilians are spared, often verifying their targets with several sources of information. In many of the cases noted here, they insist they struck valid military targets. In many cases, despite evidence on the ground, they denied that civilians were killed.

The American commanders reject the notion they may be placing too much reliance on Afghan warlords for information or too much reliance on air power to carry out their strategy.

"We painstakingly assess the potential for injuring civilians or damaging civilian facilities and positively identify targets before striking," said Col. Ray Shepherd, chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., in an interview.

Nonetheless, American officials acknowledged that the botched strike in Oruzgan has strained relationships with the Afghan government. They said that since the raid, they have changed their procedures. "We want to ensure that coordination with Afghan leaders is complete prior to an action," Shepherd said.

The war in Afghanistan is not the first in which differences have arisen between what pilots believe they hit and what is found on the ground later. Neither is it the first in which questions have arisen about civilian casualties of American air attacks.

After 78 days of airstrikes over Serbia in 1999, American military officials conceded that damage to the Yugoslav army was far less extensive than what they had originally believed. In those raids, Human Rights Watch, an American organization, said at least 500 civilians had been killed.

American commanders say they have not kept track of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but they say their strategy has succeeded at a relatively low cost. Earlier this year, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, called the Afghan campaign "the most accurate war ever fought in this nation's history." The military also takes solace in relatively low American casualties, including 37 soldiers killed.

The extraordinary accuracy of American bombs since they began falling 10 months ago produced few of the types of disasters that were common in past wars, when bombs aimed at one target hit something else instead. Such incidents have been rare. Instead, the evidence suggests that many civilian victims have been killed by airstrikes hitting precisely the target they were aimed at. The civilians died, the evidence suggests, because they were targeted by mistake or because, in eagerness to kill Qaida and Taliban fighters, Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilians and military targets.

Field workers with Global Exchange, an American organization that has sent survey teams into Afghan villages, say they have compiled a list of 812 Afghan civilians who were killed by American airstrikes. They say they expect that number to grow as their survey teams reach more remote villages.

Marla Ruzicka, a Global Exchange fieldworker in Afghanistan, said the most common factor behind the civilian deaths has been an American reliance on incomplete information to decide on targets.

"Smart bombs are only as smart as people on the ground," Ruzicka said. "Before you bomb, you should be 100 percent certain of who you are bombing."

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