A WALL commentary

    The recent U.S. attack on a wedding party in an Afghan village, killing between 50 and 120 civilians and wounding hundreds, was not the first of its kind. At least three other fatal U.S. attacks on Afghan wedding celebrators are reported to have taken place since December.

    According to Internet news accounts, similar episodes had taken place in the Khost area in eastern Afghanistan twice and at Qila (or Qalai) Niazi, 80 miles southeast of Kabul. The latest is creating more of a stir because this time the new, pro-U.S. Afghan government is protesting.

    Survivors of the most recent attack, on July 1 at Kakarak, or Deh Rawod, say hundreds were dancing when planes attacked without provocation, dropping bombs and then shooting rockets at people as they ran for their lives, CBS News reported on July 3.

    The Pentagon could not decide which excuse to offer: It was self-defense against anti-aircraft attacks; it was falling anti-aircraft fire; a bomb went astray; it never happened; it was a mission against guerrillas. A spokesman then said bombs fell "near" the village but denied that the village was a target or that a wedding party had been hit. He said four children were wounded and affirmed no other casualties.

    In the latest attack, as before, plane crews may have mistaken innocent small-arms fire for anti-aircraft fire. It is an Afghan custom to fire into the air at such celebrations.

    In view of all the misinformation from military spokesmen, you have to appreciate the frankness of the unnamed Pentagon official who admitted last fall that U.S. planes had intentionally strafed the village of Chowkar-Karez and killed the occupants, between 25 and 100, depending on the source.

    "The people there are dead because we wanted them dead," the official said. (CNN.com, Nov. 2, 2001.)

War crimes

    Of course, the Pentagon official was in effect admitting that Americans had officially committed a war crime. Among other laws, they had violated The Hague Convention on laws of war on land (1907), which is a U.S. treaty and therefore U.S. law. It says, "The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited."

    Under the convention, it is also forbidden "To declare that no quarter will be given" -- that is, to try to exterminate one's adversaries. Combatants are also forbidden "to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defense, has surrendered at discretion."

    Yet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quoted by The Times of London, Nov. 20, 2001, as saying, "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders, nor are we in a position, with relatively small numbers of forces on the ground, to accept prisoners." Two of us from the War and Law League promptly called up the Department of Defense to inform it of what has been U.S. law for nearly a century.

    The Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war (1949), another U.S. treaty and law, requires humane treatment. Yet U.S. and British forces participated or were accessories in the massacre of hundreds of POWs by the Northern Alliance at Qala-i-Jhangi fort near Mazar-e-Sarif in Northern Afghanistan in November, 2001. Bodies of some 50 Taliban soldiers were found with their hands tied behind their backs.

    The March 4 news article excerpted below tells the story of an earlier attack on a wedding party. But the writer, a staff member of Time, blames merely "bad intelligence" for committing the killings.

    Of course, he says nothing about whether those indiscriminate slaughters square with international law or even make any sense after the Taliban government is defeated and President George W. Bush has achieved his aim. Nor does the writer bring up the legality of Bush's invasion of Afghanistan in the first place -- a la the Soviets in 1979. (See "Why Bush's War is Illegal," www.warandlaw.homestead.com.)

    When a culprit plans a malicious killing and gets the wrong person, it is no defense to a charge of first-degree murder to call it an accident or a mistake. Why is it LESS of a crime when committed thousands and thousands of times over -- under the auspices of a government?

    Secretary Rumsfeld says that "unintended" civilian war deaths are to be expected (briefing, Oct. 11, 2001). Logically, of course, if the government expects civilians to be slain as a direct consequence of its actions, it cannot then claim innocence of those slayings.

    Rumsfeld says also that U.S. military mistakes are rare and suggests that many supposed civilians are really enemy soldiers concealed among the population (National Public Radio interview, Feb. 12, 2002). His words along with other evidence suggest that the attacks are mostly intentional, that there is no concern for civilian lives as long as enemies might be killed in the process. It is mainly the news media that call the attacks "accidents."

    NBC Nightly News reported on Oct. 29, 2001, that "the Pentagon is on the defensive against charges American bombs are killing hundreds of civilians. Rumsfeld says the ultimate blame lies with those who started the war." Although he did not intend that as an admission of guilt, we can take it that way.

The war: one big mistake

    One tragedy of errors after another has been reported since Bush started his air war in October 2001. Punching the phrase "civilians killed in Afghanistan" into Google.com has brought up 113,000 items. Following are three typical cases, two of them involving civilians. The news excerpts quoted later contain more.

    Marc W. Herold, professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire (whom WALL spoke with by telephone on July 3), conservatively estimates that between 3,100 and 3,600 civilians have been killed instantly in Afghanistan by U.S. bombs and bullets. That statistic does not include those who died later from injuries -- twice as many as those instantly killed, by Herold's estimate.

    Herold's main explanation for the heavy civilian casualties is a willingness to fire missiles and drop bombs on heavily populated areas of Afghanistan, revealing a "very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by U.S. military planners and the political elite."

    In addition to direct victims of the air raids, some 20,000 or more refugees have died from lack of supplies caused by the bombing, Jonathan Steele estimated in The Guardian, of Britain (May 20).

Repeal the resolution! Come home, U.S.!

    The number of civilians slain in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, exceeds the number of civilians slain in the the U.S.A. on September 11, 2001. Our thirst for foreign blood should be slaked by now.

    It's time for Congress to REPEAL THE WAR RESOLUTION OF SEPTEMBER 14, 2001. It supposedly authorized the president to strike those responsible for the September 11th terrorism but mentioned no country and stated no objective except preventing further terrorism.

    Like the vague Tonkin Gulf resolution of 1964 under Lyndon Johnson, the 2001 resolution is treated by George Bush II as a grant of absolute power to wage unlimited and endless war.

    In addition to nine months of bombing and shooting Afghans, Bush has expanded his war to Pakistan, turned the Clinton drug war in Colombia into a war against guerrillas, entered a hunt for Philippine guerrillas; and planned a massive attack on the Iraqis -- despite the lack of evidence implicating any of those nations in the September 11th terrorism. He has not yet chosen to fight Saudi Arabia, the home of most of the September 11th terrorists.

    He has been bombing the people of Iraq almost since he became president in January 2001, taking over Bill Clinton's role as bully-in-chief of that country. Neither president had had any authorization from Congress to bomb Iraq, nor did the United Nations sanction the bombings (not that the U.N. could lawfully do so).

    Bush recently issued orders to kill Iraq's President Hussein and claim "self-defense" -- a plea that no common burglar could get away with after murdering his victim. Our nation's chief law enforcer thus appears to be violating Title 18, Section 1116, of the U.S. Code, which prohibits the assassination of foreign officials.

    Bush's expanding war could become nuclear. He has ordered the Pentagon to draw up war plans for nuclear attacks on China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria. Only the first two are avowed possessors of nuclear bombs. Bush thereby violates the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, under which the U.S. and others with nuclear weapons pledge not to use them on non-nuclear countries and further pledge to work for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

    The United Nations has condemned nuclear war as "the most monstrous crime against peoples and as a violation of the foremost human right -- the right to life" (General Assembly Res. 38/75, 1983). George Bush II has often endorsed the right to life, but he does not show much concern for it abroad.

    Far from preventing further terrorism, Bush endangers us ever more as he continues and expands his terror war. His growing assortment of enemies may not grasp the fine distinction between the mass killing of civilians by terrorists in airplanes and the mass killing of civilians by U.S. forces in airplanes.

    At the least, LET CONGRESS DECLARE A MILITARY VICTORY, STOP THE KILLING, AND BRING OUR MEN HOME. It was Congress, not any president, that got us out of the decade-long presidential wars in Indochina, after millions of deaths.

    The September 11th terrorism was a horrible enough crime; Congress can stop it from being turned into the crime of a global holocaust. How about it, honorable senators and representatives?

Excerpts from news accounts

    The following are excerpts from news stories, taken from the Internet:

The Times of London, May 18, 2002:

UP TO a dozen Afghan civilians were reportedly killed by American warplanes after a reconnaissance patrol was believed to have mistaken family wedding celebrations in the countryside for hostile guerrillas.

US gunships killed at least ten people in eastern Afghanistan as they flew to the aid of a platoon of Australian soldiers that had come under fire from fleeing al-Qaeda and Taleban forces.

Local sources in Afghanistan claimed that the gunships rounded on the village of Bul Khil in the Sabri district of Khost Province, about 19 miles from the state capital, before unleashing a volley of missiles and gunfire. They said that the villagersí gunfire had not been hostile but merely a group of men firing weapons in the air to celebrate a family wedding.

Later the American aircraft and helicopter gunships were still patrolling the area, scattering terrified villagers into the cover of surrounding countryside, the sources said....

In March the Pentagon released a report detailing ten cases of so-called friendly fire that had caused civilian casualties, fatalities and destroyed property. The report confirmed earlier evidence that a raid on two suspected Taleban compounds in January, during which 16 innocent people were killed and 27 captured, had been a mistake. The 27 were later released and returned to their village at Khas Uruzgan, in the Hazar Qadam Valley.

The United States was accused last December of bombing in error a convoy of Afghan elders traveling from Khost to Kabul for the inauguration of the countryís interim administration. According to local reports, more than 60 people died when 14 vehicles were destroyed 15 miles south of Gardez. The Pentagon said that those killed were Taleban or al-Qaeda leaders.

* * *

Pakistan Observer, May 1, 2002:

Coalition spokesman Bryan Hilferty said he had no knowledge of an incident reported by the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), which said four people were injured Thursday when US troops opened fire on a wedding party near Khost.

The private news agency quoted local government officials as saying a number of youths in a wedding party convoy began firing in traditional celebration, which was mistaken for hostile fire.

The incident happened in the Maidani area about 15 kilometers south of Khost city, AIP said, after the wedding party had left in a convoy of around 50 vehicles from the Pakistani border town of Miranshah early in the morning.

AIP reported a similar incident last week, saying a US warplane attacked a wedding party in Khost, killing 10 people. However, US officials said the dead were suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, and not a wedding party.


* * *

CNN.com, March 4, 2002 (by Tim McGirk):

This is what bad intelligence produces: a girl's dress, its embroidery stained dark red with blood, lying amid the rubble of a bombed-out building. Men wandering through the debris, gesturing to show where people were dancing when the bombs began to fall. And a U.S. special-forces soldier, who is said to have surveyed the scene and asked, "Why did we do this?"

It was a wedding party on a late December night. But from the air, it looked to the pilots like what their intelligence source had claimed: a gathering of al-Qaeda terrorists. Dozens of cars had converged on Qila-Niazi, a hamlet of 12 mud-walled homes in the shadow of a snowy ridge 80 miles southeast of Kabul. The women were gossiping and painting their hands red with henna. The men were in another room playing cards and dancing. Music drowned out the sounds of the U.S. warplanes overhead.

At 10:30 p.m., the first bombs struck the party; the assault lasted six hours. The next day, a team of special forces arrived in Qila-Niazi to inspect what was thought to have been a triumphant blow against Osama bin Laden's network. Instead it found the remains of the party. Out of 112 people, two women had survived. "When the U.S. soldiers saw the destruction, they were very sad," says Assaullah Falah, a tribal elder, as he leads a reporter through the wreckage.

Why did we do this? The question has echoed over the past two months as TIME and other publications have reported grim stories from Afghanistan that are at odds with Pentagon accounts of victorious strikes against the enemy. On Dec. 20, U.S. planes rocketed a convoy of tribal elders going to Kabul for the swearing-in ceremony of Afghan leader Hamid Karza and then chased the fleeing tribesmen into a village, killing 60, say locals. On Feb. 4, a Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at a man who U.S. Central Command thought might be bin Laden. Villagers say the dead man was a scrap collector; the Pentagon says he was al-Qaeda. And on Jan. 24, special forces raided a compound in Uruzgan province, killing 16. Locals say the victims were not Taliban or al-Qaeda but supporters of Karzai.

Pentagon officials have conceded error only in the Jan. 24 case, grumbling that after 18,000 bombs and missiles have been dropped on Afghanistan--with a declared success rate of about 85%--no one should be surprised when innocents are hurt or killed. Army general Tommy Franks, who is running the war in Afghanistan, told TIME that civilian casualties "are probably on the low end of any we have ever seen in combat. We obviously could just bomb the heck out of the thing. But that's not the American way."

* * *

Washington Post, January 10, 2002 (by Edward Cody):

QALAI NIAZI, Afghanistan, Jan. 9 -- The U.S. bombs that blasted this clump of mud-brick homes a few hours before dawn on Dec. 29, killing dozens of civilians, were aimed at Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who survivors deny were ever here, and an arms cache they say they never saw. What remains in view is the tattered evidence of a little world blown apart:

Journalists who arrived here on Sunday found a large store of ammunition that filled one little house, from boxes of rifle rounds to stacks of antitank rockets. But, by today, it had been hauled away, and people now swear it was never here in the first place.

There is much that is not known -- and maybe never will be -- about what happened that December night and what caused it to happen. But from conversations with people in the area today, this much seems established:

Burhan Jan's 15-year-old son, Inzar, married a local girl about his age, and people came to Qalai Niazi from miles around for the wedding. About 3:30 a.m., while the family and their guests slept in the largest house after an evening of celebration, the U.S. planes attacked.

After an initial series of blasts in which men, women and children died, people fled in panic out of Qalai Niazi, which is located north of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province. Then more bombs fell, killing a dozen other people as they moved across the barren landscape.

Bai Jan, 45, an elder in a neighboring village who helped pick up the mangled bodies that morning, estimated 80 people were killed. Khanzad Gul, a Russian-trained physician who runs the hospital at Gardez, estimated the number of victims at 100. The United Nations put its estimate at 52. By any of those tallies, the bombing here would likely constitute the deadliest civilian toll from a single U.S. attack since the Bush administration launched its war on Afghanistan on Oct. 7.

The Pentagon said it was acting on intelligence that Taliban and al Qaeda leaders were in Qalai Niazi. It also mentioned the arms store, saying a surface-to-air missile was fired at the U.S. warplanes on the bombing runs, but would not confirm reports of civilian casualties.

"There were multiple intelligence sources that qualified that target, and there were multiple secondary explosions out of that target," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "That is to say, significant explosions from more than one location as a result of the attack, which would tend to persuade one that it was a military target."

Local people, however, said no Taliban or al Qaeda militants were in the village, although some wedding guests were from the former Taliban strongholds of Khost and Jalalabad. There never were many foreign al Qaeda fighters in this region, the residents said, and Taliban activists fled south toward Kandahar soon after Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance in November.

"There was nothing of the Taliban here," Jan said. "All around, there was nothing left of them."

Gul, the Russian-trained doctor who treated one of three wounded survivors, noted that most men in this heavily Pashtun region wear full beards and the same traditional turbans that the Taliban made its trademark. But that does not make them Taliban leaders, he added.

"If they say that anybody who grows a beard is a Taliban or an al Qaeda member, they should take me, but in fact I am a medical doctor who studied in Russia," he said.

"It was just a misunderstanding," said Noor Mohammed, a nurse at the hospital. "They thought there were some al Qaeda members living over there. But when the new government took over, all the Taliban ran away from here...."

Whatever the exact tally of dead, and whatever the quality of the U.S. intelligence that night, the bombing has taken its toll on the goodwill of people around Qalai Niazi toward the U.S. military campaign. There was no reason to bomb the wedding party, they said, and the Pentagon should own up to a mistake.

"We picked up small pieces of people's bodies," said Jan, reaching down to the ground and digging into it with his hennaed nails to pantomime his gruesome task that morning. "And we put them in the ground so the dogs would not eat them."

Holding up a bit of blood-matted hair, he said: "The bombing should stop. Where can we go?

"Look at these shoes," he moaned, lifting a part of plastic slip-ons that looked right for a 10-year-old girl. "Are these Taliban shoes?"

All five of the houses in the village were reduced to rubble. A metal trunk used to store clothes was perforated with shrapnel. A man's woven cap, the kind Afghans wrap their turbans around, lay crumpled in the dust. A paperback book on the proper way to conduct Islamic prayer, titled "The Purity of Truth," flapped in a cold wind coming off mountains dappled with the season's first snow.

In the debris, scattered atop a layer of fine dust, lay a nylon bag used for grain or flour. "USA," said letters in red, white and blue. "US AID," it read just above the image of a handshake symbolizing U.S. foreign aid.

One of the bombs that burrowed into the ground created a deep hole exactly in the path of an aqueduct. As a result, the water coming down from the mountains now drops into the hole, cutting off the water supply to nearby villages whose normal sources have dried up because of a long drought.

July 5, 2002

WAR and LAW League (WALL) P.O. Box 42-7237, San Francisco, CA 94142; e-mail: warandlaw@yahoo.com; www.warandlaw.homestead.com