'The Americans . . . They Just Drop Their Bombs and Leave'
Afghanistan: U.S. airstrikes were highly accurate, but hundreds of villagers still died. Now, some survivors want compensation. (First of two parts)
By DAVID ZUCCHINO
Times Staff Writer
June 2 2002
TORA BORA, Afghanistan --
After the American warplanes were gone and the hilltop village of Mudoh lay in ruins, survivors tried to collect and bury their dead.
There were problems. Most of the men and boys who had survived the Nov. 30 airstrike were bloodied and dazed. The village cemetery was not big enough to accommodate the dead. And the remains were not intact.
"No one should ever have to bury a baby's hand," said Janat Khan, the silver-bearded mayor of Mudoh, who said he collected the body parts of 15 villagers, wrapped them in plastic shopping bags and buried them in a single grave.
A new cemetery carved from a rocky bluff where the village once stood holds the remains of 150 men, women and children, according to villagers and pro-American commanders. They were killed, and the village obliterated, by American warplanes during the battle that drove Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from nearby Tora Bora.
The carnage at Mudoh is the residue of a bombing campaign that, while exceptionally accurate, nonetheless killed, at minimum, hundreds of civilians and wounded thousands more. At 25 sites visited by The Times, witnesses said U.S. warplanes killed and maimed civilians because of unreliable intelligence, stray ordnance and faulty targeting, or because enemy fighters mingled with civilians.
Grieving villagers readily acknowledge that they are glad to be rid of the Taliban. But they are puzzled and angry about the United States' reluctance to apologize or provide compensation. More than seven months after U.S. planes began dropping bombs, pain and recriminations endure in villages across Afghanistan.
U.S. bombs killed 45 men, women and children at the desert oasis of Showkar Kariz near Kandahar on Oct. 22, according to pro-American provincial officials and the only remaining inhabitant.
Bombs killed four civilian passersby and eight pro-American fighters of the Northern Alliance who were driving Toyota pickups they had just captured from the Taliban at Tora Bora on Dec. 1. The next day, district officials say, nine employees of the shura, or council, in Pacheer-o-Agam near Tora Bora were killed by bombing shortly after they took over the council office from the Taliban.
American bombs killed about 40 civilians at Esterghich, a village north of Kabul, in early November during an airstrike on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, said Northern Alliance soldiers from the village.
Victims of such attacks are demanding compensation for their lost loved ones and ruined villages. Some commanders who fought alongside the Americans are adding their voices to the demands.
'The Americans Didn't Even Apologize. They Never Do.'
The question of reparations has prompted no significant debate in the United States; there has been little public outcry or congressional pressure on the Pentagon. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan, said that when claims of civilian casualties come to the attention of U.S. officials, "we investigate and then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered." Asked to define "the right thing," Khalilzad declined to elaborate.
A congressional delegation that visited Afghanistan in March said Congress will consider reparations. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul says the issue is being studied by the Pentagon and the State Department. Interviewed in the ruins of villages, survivors seemed to harbor a deep reservoir of anger for what they describe as American indifference and denial.
"The most the villagers got was a few truckloads of food from the Americans," said Gul Amir Jan, a senior commander who worked with Special Forces soldiers when he led Afghan troops in battle at Tora Bora in December. "But the Americans didn't even apologize. They never do."
The Pentagon has acknowledged that civilians have died in U.S. airstrikes, but it says Operation Enduring Freedom has been the most accurate air campaign in history. "The use of precision weapons by the coalition inside Afghanistan has been truly remarkable," said Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command.
From Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on down, military officials have said that U.S. forces tried to minimize civilian casualties, or "collateral damage." They have blamed enemy forces for using civilians as cover, and they have denied claims by some Afghans that civilian deaths resulted from false intelligence provided by Afghan allies. Because conventional U.S. forces were not involved in ground combat during most of the bombing campaign, American commanders relied heavily on Afghan surrogates for on-the-ground intelligence.
Lt. Col. James Yonts of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said that except for the captured trucks and district office near Tora Bora, the locations cited in this article were legitimate military targets. He said the U.S. military carefully selects its targets to "inflict the maximum amount of impact against the enemy with a minimal amount of collateral damage."
Of the 21,737 bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes in Afghanistan, about 60% were "smart" bombs guided by satellites or lasers, compared with 10% during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon said. A preliminary Pentagon study found that 75% to 80% of them hit their targets in Afghanistan.
The Defense Department has said it does not plan to count civilian casualties. Relief officials with the U.S.-backed interim government estimate the total civilian dead at 1,000 to 2,000.
The Times reviewed more than 2,000 reports of civilian casualties from U.S., British and Pakistani newspapers and international wire services. After eliminating duplicate accounts, the review identified 194 incidents of civilian casualties from the start of the bombing on Oct. 7 until Feb. 28, when the air campaign was largely completed. The reported death toll, including estimates in some cases, was between 1,067 and 1,201. The Times excluded 754 civilian deaths reported by the Taliban but not independently confirmed, as well as 497 deaths that were not identified as either civilian or military.
Those numbers suggest a very low civilian casualty rate compared with earlier Afghan conflicts. During battles among warlords in Kabul during the early 1990s, more than 50,000 civilians were killed, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the western city of Herat, an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed in a matter of days by Soviet air raids in March 1979, just a fraction of the estimated 670,000 civilians who died during the 10-year Soviet occupation.
The most recent major U.S.-led air campaign before Afghanistan, the 78-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation in Kosovo in 1999, killed about 500 civilians in 90 incidents, according to Human Rights Watch.
In many cases, Afghans say, the problem was not accuracy but intelligence. Pilots hit the right targets but killed the wrong people.
At Mudoh, the bombs and missiles that obliterated the hilltop village hit their marks. Every single adobe dwelling was flattened, killing men, women and children sleeping inside after their late-night meals on the 15th day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting. The 4 a.m. attack pulverized the settlement's tiny mosque, destroyed storage bins filled with grain and killed an entire herd of sheep and goats.
"They killed our people, then they insult us by saying we're all Taliban," said Piara Gul, 33, who said his wife, mother and seven children were killed.
Villagers said Mudoh was targeted because Afghan fighters who had personal vendettas and land disputes with them told the Americans that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had taken refuge there. Haji Lal Mohammed, who commanded an Afghan unit at Tora Bora, said the fighters settled the score by using satellite telephones supplied by Special Forces to call their American patrons and tell them that the village was an enemy hide-out.
"There were no Taliban or Al Qaeda here. They were two mountain ridges away--over there," Mohammed said, pointing to a dark ridge line several miles away.
The attack came at the height of the battle for Tora Bora, a pivotal moment in the American effort to destroy the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to hunt down Osama bin Laden, who was thought to be in the area.
Mudoh may have looked like a military outpost because villagers had dug stones and clay from pits, which looked like foxholes, said Khan, the mayor, who said he lost 15 family members. "But they should have sent a spy here first, and he would have seen there were only civilians living here."
Yonts, the Central Command spokesman, said varying spellings for remote Afghan villages make it difficult to determine the circumstances of bombings. He said Mudoh is almost certainly a village known to the U.S. military as Maduu, near Tora Bora, where he said Al Qaeda fighters and their families were in underground bunkers bombed Nov. 30.
No bunkers or fortifications were visible in Mudoh, only the pits dug by villagers.
Today, about 100 survivors from Mudoh's 250 original inhabitants live in the village, holed up in the ruins of mud huts. They have stacked timbers and stones from their wrecked homes, hoping to rebuild. From a distant ridge, the dominant landmark is the new cemetery, filled with shahids, or martyrs, and marked by heaps of stones and fluttering mourning flags.
"Really, our village is gone," said Aya Gul, 42, who said he lost a dozen family members. "The least the Americans can do is build it back for us."
Mohammed, the commander, said Special Forces officers told him that the airstrike was a mistake. "They said they got bad information," he said.
Piara Gul, who said he has no family left, does not want an apology. He wants vengeance.
"I curse America," he said, kneeling over his wife's rocky grave. "I put a curse on the Americans who did this. I pray they will have the tragedy in their lives that I have had in mine."
Just One Man Is Left
in a Small Desert Oasis
Bad information might have also resulted in the wholesale destruction of ShowkarKariz, a desert oasis about 30 miles northeast of Kandahar. Airstrikes on Oct. 22 killed 45 civilians, according to United Nations officials and Mohammed Qasim, the sole remaining inhabitant.
Half an hour before the planes attacked, a white Toyota pulled up outside the village and illuminated the walled compound of mud huts with its high-beam headlights, Qasim said. He said the car belonged to local people who had been feuding with the villagers over water and grazing rights. The headlights were marking the target, he said.
"The Americans gave these people satellite phones," Qasim said. "I thinkthey called and said there were Taliban here escaping from Kandahar."
The planes struck just after midnight, flattening several homes. Survivors ran outside to cover up three cars and a tractor that they believed were being targeted. Fifteen minutes later, a second airstrike killed them, Qasim said. Among the victims of the second strike was a small boy Qasim said he had just dug out alive from the rubble of a hut. There were no Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters in the area, Qasim said.
The village is set in a vast desert plain, the only settlement in miles and miles of wasteland. All that remains are tufts of singed human hair, scraps of clothing and the clay foundations of homes and a mosque.
In January, eight Special Forces soldiers and a delegation of provincial officials visited the village, according to Qasim and Khalid Pushtoon, a provincial official. The Americans buried a fragment of the World Trade Center and retrieved a shard of rubble from the village.
The Americans apologized and said the airstrike was an accident, Qasim said.
"They said maybe they would pay to rebuild the village, but I know they were just saying that," Qasim said. "They didn't mean it. They'll never pay. They don't care."
Yonts said intelligence gathered before and after the strike confirmed that the area around the village was a "combined Taliban-Al Qaeda training camp," making it a "valid military target." However, no evidence was visible that any sort of military camp had been in or near the oasis. No traces of ammunition, weapons, military vehicles or infrastructure are evident across the flat desert terrain.
With the help of two boys from a distant settlement, Qasim tries to keep the village alive. He has rebuilt his damaged hut and repaired the water pump that keeps his field of wheat irrigated. He said he lost part of his left thumb during the attack, and his left hand is scarred and withered.
Squinting in the brilliant desert sunshine, Qasim stood staring at the ruins of his village.
"These are war crimes," he said.
Shifts on the Battlefield
Contributed to Confusion
In some instances, the capture of enemy equipment or territory during the confusion of battle apparently caused U.S. warplanes to hit the wrong targets.
Gul Amir Jan said his soldiers captured four Toyota Hilux pickups from the Taliban on Dec. 1 at Pacheer-o-Agam near Tora Bora. With a battle still raging, the soldiers sped down a mountainside and took cover in an adobe house at the edge of a gravel road.
About 9 p.m., the house and the vehicles were bombed by U.S. warplanes. Eight soldiers in the house and four civilians walking on the road were killed, said Haji Lal Mohammed, Jan's deputy commander.
According to Jan, American spy aircraft had earlier noted the license numbers of the vehicles while confirming that the trucks belonged to the Taliban. When warplanes spotted the trucks outside the house, they assumed that Taliban fighters were inside, he said.
"When you mix green wood with dry wood, they both burn," Mohammed said, quoting a Persian proverb.
Less than a mile away, Afghans working with the Americans took over the Pacheer-o-Agam district office after it was abandoned by Taliban fighters. The workers were sleeping inside when missiles fired by U.S. warplanes leveled the building Dec. 2, killing nine civilian workers and wounding 11, said district officer Noor Malang. When other civilians came to their aid, Malang said, a second strike wounded five more.
"Maybe the Americans thought the Taliban were still here," Malang said, poking his foot through the charred rubble of the collapsed building. "Or maybe these people who got satellite phones from the Americans gave them bad information. Sometimes their information was good, but sometimes it got innocent people killed."
Yonts said U.S. forces did not realize that the sites had been taken over by friendly forces.
'Our Houses Were Bombed; Our Cattle Were Killed'
Proximity to Taliban forces might have also led to the destruction of Kuram, a village 22 miles west of Jalalabad. On Oct. 10, three days after the air campaign began, U.S. bombs and missiles flattened 13 homes, killing 12 civilians and wounding 18, survivors said. The victims were nomads known as Kochis. Abdul Basis Sayeed, a local doctor, said there were no Taliban or Al Qaeda weapons depots or training camps in the area.
However, villagers said informers told the Americans that Taliban fighters were using a road that runs past the village. They said the bombing might have been related to U.S. attempts to deny the Taliban access to the road.
Mohammed Shah Khan, 20, said he and six family members were sleeping when the bombing started. He said his mother was killed. He showed a reporter scars from shrapnel wounds to his neck and legs.
"Our houses were bombed; our cattle were killed. Innocent women and children died," Khan said at the village, where the ground is littered with shredded clothing and the bones of livestock. "Someone should come and dry our tears." Haji Mohammed Zaman, a top commander who worked closely with the Americans at Tora Bora and now hosts Special Forces soldiers at his compound in Jalalabad, said he has been unable to get answers from the Americans about civilian casualties in his area.
"I asked the Americans several times to at least help the families, help rebuild their villages," Zaman said. "But they don't seem interested."
In Kandahar province, once the Taliban's stronghold, a preliminary U.N. count found 415 civilians reported killed in U.S. airstrikes--364 men, 13 women and 38 children. The numbers are based on inspections of 156 villages by U.N. mine-clearing teams.
Again, villagers blamed false information from Afghan "spies" supplied with satellite phones by the Americans, said Noor Ahmad Azimi, supervisor of the U.N. teams.
"Even more than money or other compensation, these people want justice. They want these spies punished," Azimi said. "They tell us the Americans should have verified their spies' information by coming to the villages and seeing for themselves if there was any Taliban there."
The list of dead and wounded keeps growing because of unexploded cluster bombs that continue to be detonated, Azimi said. He said U.N. teams found 238 cluster bombs at 46 villages. With more than 200 tiny bomblets within each yellow CBU-103 cluster bomb canister, nearly 50,000 "sub-munitions," or bomblets, were spread around the province. Every week, he said, children playing in fields or adults collecting scrap metal are killed or maimed. The Pentagon says U.S. forces dropped more than 800 cluster bombs in Afghanistan.
"So if you ask how many civilians were killed by U.S. bombs, we can't say for sure," Azimi said. "We can only say that they will continue to die for a long, long time."
Other civilians in Kandahar province died during U.S. attacks targeting fuel tankers supplying the Taliban and Al Qaeda, provincial officials said. Although many vehicles destroyed by warplanes were indeed carrying fuel for military use, the attacks also killed civilians in other vehicles, said Leslie Oqvist, the U.N. regional coordinator in Kandahar.
"There was no way for the U.S. military to know whether a vehicle has military fuel or Al Qaeda fighters or farmers with loads of vegetables," Oqvist said. "As military strategy, the U.S. approach was quite successful. From a human rights viewpoint, it was a disaster."
Haji Abdullah Wafa, head of the provincial transportation department, said a survey by the local truckers' cooperative found that more cars were destroyed than tankers--210 cars and 160 tankers. Wafa said any vehicle on the highway east of Kandahar leading to Kabul was a target. Scorched, rusted tankers and cars still line the road.
"They hit everything--tankers, trucks, cars, taxis, farm vehicles," Wafa said. "It was a very confusing time, because you had Taliban and Al Qaeda and civilians on the road at the same time, all trying to get out of Kandahar."
Wafa said many civilians were spared because the warplanes often fired warning shots, giving drivers and passengers an opportunity to flee.
"Sometimes they would wait and then destroy the empty vehicle," Wafa said. "Sometimes they would just leave it alone."
Despite the attacks, Wafa said, people are glad to be rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and they accept a certain level of civilian casualties.
"The Americans helped us so much," he said. "They should do one last thing and pay the people for what they have lost."
Village Had Expected
to Be Target of Attacks
Even at some villages obliterated by U.S. warplanes, residents said they were prepared to tolerate the bombing campaign because it drove out the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
At Esterghich on the Shomali plain north of Kabul, survivors of a November airstrike said they expected to be attacked because of Taliban and Al Qaeda command posts and weapons depots in the village. Esterghich was next to the no man's land between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces near Bagram air base north of Kabul.
The raid killed about 25 fighters but also left about 40 civilians dead, according to survivors and pro-American fighters in the village.
Today, survivors live in the crumbling remains of houses next to fruit trees shredded by shrapnel. They pointed out two command posts where they said Arab fighters were based, and they led the way to two huts still stacked high with Taliban rockets, grenades and mortar rounds.
Shir Alam, 13, who said he hid in the hills with his family the night of the bombing, told of kicking and spitting on the bodies of Arab fighters the next morning. "Because of them, our village was destroyed," he said.
Ghulam Dastagir, who said he fought for the Northern Alliance unit that took the village from the Taliban, said his wife and brother died in the bombing.
"I blame the Arabs," he said, standing in the ruins of his brother's home. "But I also blame the Americans. They have smart bombs. They could have aimed them at the Arabs and left the civilian houses alone."
Other villagers said they lost family members who tried to flee Esterghich in a Mercedes bus that was destroyed by an American missile on the highway to Kabul. The villagers said 18 people died, among them several Taliban fighters also fleeing the village. Today, six green flags mark the mangled chassis of the bus on the shoulder of the Bagram highway.
An ammunition depot set among civilians also caused the destruction of Qalaye Niazy just north of Gardez in Paktia province. Over the objection of residents, a Taliban commander stored weapons and ammunition there as Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were fleeing the area, according to villagers and a pro-American commander.
Airstrikes on Dec. 29 destroyed most of the weapons depot but also killed 52 civilians who had gathered for a wedding celebration, according to a Western aid organization. The group provided a copy of its report on the incident, on the condition that it not be identified. The report, based on interviews with 23 survivors, listed the names of the victims and included a map showing the five houses that were destroyed.
Yonts said the compound was occupied at the time by senior Al Qaeda leadership. He said two surface-to-air missiles were fired at U.S. aircraft from the compound.
Now, only the foundations of the compound's adobe houses remain, along with the ruins of the house that had held the weapons depot. The desert floor is covered with scraps of weapons and ammunition, plus several boxes of rockets and grenades still in their protective plastic wrappers.
"The Americans never admitted they made a mistake," said Abdul Rahim, a U.S.-backed commander in Gardez. "They just say everybody there was Al Qaeda."
Even so, Rahim said, the airstrike helped rout the Taliban and Al Qaeda. "Even if twice as many civilians died, it's still OK. That's the price we have to pay," he said.
In Kabul, U.S. Strikes Get
High Marks for Accuracy
After 23 years of fighting, Kabul is an archeological site for the study of war. The destruction from previous combat is wholesale and indiscriminate. The damage from the American campaign, in most cases, is limited and contained.
The Taliban's largest ammunition depot was in the southeast Kabul district of Pul-e-Charkhi. Today, the depot is an expanse of pulverized buildings, rockets and ammunition. Yet no civilians were killed in the airstrikes, according to residents.
Similarly, residents said no bombs went astray when the U.S. bombed a large military motor pool in an eastern Kabul neighborhood.
However, residents said six civilians in two buildings across a highway from the motor pool were killed.
Two of the victims, civilian guards at a defunct tile factory, were killed in one strike, they said. Aman Ullah, who lives next to the site, said the Americans apparently thought that Taliban fighters had retreated to the factory from the motor pool.
A second strike killed four employees in the office of an Afghan de-mining organization, Afghan Technical Consultants, residents said. They said they believed that the office was targeted because it was next to two tall, rusted towers of a long-defunct radio station.
Some of the most precisely targeted American strikes were in the upper-class neighborhood of Karte Parwan in northern Kabul, where senior Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders lived. The roofs of three heavily guarded private homes were neatly penetrated by bombs or missiles that exploded inside. But homes on either side were undamaged and their occupants uninjured, according to neighbors.
"Those American bombs and missiles--they go straight to the point," said Haji Abdul Mohammed, a burly neighborhood man who was supervising the rebuilding of a villa-like compound set on a hillside.
The compound had been a military command post, he said. The wrecks of military trucks and antiaircraft guns lay in the grass beneath tall pines out front. Signs in Persian script on a wall read: "Taliban: Live and die for jihad," and "Soldiers: Do not come through this door. For commanders only." Neighbors said Bin Laden stayed there briefly in the late 1990s.
Mohammed pointed out holes in the entryway ceiling and foyer wall where a missile or bomb had sliced through and exploded.
"It killed several [Al Qaeda] Arabs, which is good," he said. "And it didn't kill any civilians, which is also good."
The story was similar at House No. 4 on Street 4 in Karte Parwan, Phase Two, where neighbors say the Taliban interior minister lived. He was not home the night in early November when an American bomb tore through the structure just below the turquoise-tiled mural ceiling and sprayed the prayer room with shrapnel, said Nazir Ahmad, a neighborhood resident who was repairing the house.
Six Taliban fighters who had been in the room were killed, Ahmad said. Gray fragments of the bomb were displayed on the fireplace mantel, complete with serial numbers and markings in English. Houses on either side were undamaged. No civilians were hurt, Ahmad said.
"The Americans did a very good job," he said.
But at other bombing sites, airstrikes have left a legacy ofresentment.
Ten miles west of Kandahar, residents of the village of Sanziri said they were gratified when U.S. airstrikes began driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda from the province. But during an air raid the night of Nov. 27, which Yonts said was aimed at a "Taliban leadership target," a bomb or missile ripped into a mud and clay house where 15 members of the Sedeq family were sleeping.
The house was flattened. According to witnesses, 10 men, women and children died beneath the rubble.
Fazel Sedeq, the family patriarch, spoke the names of the dead. "I lost my wife, my daughter, my nephew, my daughter-in-law, my son, five of my grandchildren," he said, squatting in the shade beside mounds of clay and earth that were once his home.
Sedeq said Taliban fighters had been in the village in the weeks before the attack but not on the night of the raid. He said the Taliban's Toyota Land Cruisers were among the vehicles that used a dirt road that connects the village to the main highway to Kandahar.
Sedeq walked from the ruins of his home to the rocky family graveyard, where 10 mourning flags fluttered. He held his chubby 18-month-old grandson, Najibullah; he said he had rescued the child from the rubble of the collapsed house.
"We are ruined," he said. "We thought the Americans were good people. But they just drop their bombs and leave. They don't explain. They don't apologize. They don't even offer to pay for what they did."
Money would not bring back his family, Sedeq said, but it would show Afghans that the U.S. is willing to take responsibility for its mistakes.
"The Americans have lost the hearts of the people," he said, staring down at his wife's grave. "Who can love America now?"
_ _ _
Times staff writers Rone Tempest and Richard O'Reilly contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: How the Taliban inflated reports of civilian casualties.