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In the Taliban's Eyes, Bad News Was Good

Asia: Civilian deaths from U.S. bombing were exaggerated to sway opinion.

June 03, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan--Early one morning last October, Mohammed Yunus Mehrin was working the day shift on the city desk. He was a reporter for the Taliban news service, hustling to the site of an overnight American bombing raid.

Arriving at the Darulaman Palace military garrison in southwest Kabul, Mehrin watched bulldozers unearth battered bodies of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. He recognized their black robes and turbans, and saw their weapons in the debris of the flattened barracks. He counted nearly a hundred corpses, he recalled. Among them appeared to be Afghans and Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs.

Writing in Persian script in his notebook, he gathered details for his daily report. The U.S. bombing campaign was reaching a climax in the capital, and he knew the deaths of so many fighters was an important story.

The next day, when he heard his story on the Taliban's Voice of Shariat radio, Mehrin was disgusted but hardly surprised. The radio said that U.S. bombs had killed almost 100 civilians in a residential area. It claimed that the attack was part of an American plan to sow terror.

It was not the first time truth had suffered in time of war. Nor was it the first time the Taliban had rewritten a news report. In fact, said Mehrin and three other former Taliban reporters, the Taliban routinely altered their reports to inflate civilian casualties and minimize military losses.

If Al Qaeda commanders were killed in a safe house by an American airstrike, they said, it was reported as Afghan families wiped out. If two Afghan civilians were killed by an American bomb, it was reported as a dozen dead. A destroyed Taliban antiaircraft site was reported as a deadly attack on a maternity ward.

"The Taliban put out some very big lies," Mehrin said at his bare desk in a shabby newsroom now run by the American-backed interim Afghan government. "We knew it. Ordinary people knew it. But what could we do? All our bosses were Taliban."

While most Western agencies characterized such reports as unsubstantiated, they were often presented as fact in the Arab and Muslim worlds. With the Taliban clinging to control of the capital, there were few Western reporters to counter them.

Taliban propaganda contributed to a portrait in many parts of the world of an indiscriminate U.S. bombing campaign. On Oct. 31, just 24 days after the airstrikes began, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan claimed that they had already killed 1,500 to 1,600 civilians. The envoy, Abdul Salam Zaeef, accused the United States of genocide.

There is no doubt that, at the very least, hundreds of civilians died in U.S. airstrikes, and many more were wounded. Thousands of Afghans lost their homes. Leftover cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance continue to maim and kill civilians.

The Taliban's misinformation campaign put the Pentagon on the defensive early in the war. It also helped fan resentment and outrage among Muslims worldwide that persist months later.

Some reports from the Taliban's Bakhtar News Agency were inadvertently incorporated into tallies of civilian deaths by Western news organizations, then included in lists published by academics. In some lists, the same reported deaths were counted more than once.

Sometimes reports of the same incident cite different casualty totals. A tally by University of New Hampshire economics professor Marc W. Herold originally listed 25 civilians--not the nearly 100 reported by the Taliban--killed in the Darulaman attack, based on a report by the Pakistan Observer, a newspaper in Islamabad. Herold began looking into civilian casualties in October because he was not satisfied with news reports, and his analyses are frequently cited and debated by journalists and relief organizations.

The Darulaman garrison was in a closed military area with no civilian homes within two miles, making it highly unlikely that civilians were killed.

"Twenty-five dead civilians?" said Mustafa Turgul, a military officer now stationed next to the wrecked garrison. "That's impossible. There were no civilians anywhere near here."

Based on updated information, Herold says he now believes that the 25 dead were Al Qaeda fighters from Pakistan. He said the deaths are no longer included in his overall civilian totals.

Herold's analysis of news reports of civilian casualties attributed to U.S. attacks found the number of reported deaths ranged from 3,050 to 3,500. A Times review of more than 2,000 news stories covering 194 incidents found a civilian death total of 1,067 to 1,201. The Times survey omitted Taliban reports that were not substantiated by independent reporting, and 497 deaths not identified as either civilian or military.

Relief officials with the interim Afghan government say no formal count has been completed, but they estimate the death total at 1,000 to 2,000.

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