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THE UNTOLD WAR

'The Americans ... They Just Drop Their Bombs and Leave'

Afghanistan: U.S. airstrikes were highly accurate, but hundreds of civilians still died. Now, some survivors want compensation.

June 02, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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