Bombing on Responsibility

Here is a tale of accountability. In mid-April, the Dutch prime minister and his entire cabinet announced their resignation, after a report criticized the government for having botched a military operation seven years earlier.

The issue at hand was the performance of Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica, Bosnia, during the Bosnia-Croatia-Serbia war. In the summer of 1995, the Dutch military was responsible for peacekeeping operations in Srebrenica, and it failed to stop Bosnian Serb forces from overrunning a UN-declared "safe-zone" and slaughtering 7,500 or so Muslims. This was a dark episode for the Dutch, for their soldiers surrendered the Muslim refugees to the Serbs without putting up a fight.

The report, commissioned by the government and written by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, concludes that Dutch officials sent the troops into the area without proper instructions and without the weapons needed to protect the 30,000 refugees under their watch. The study also criticizes the UN itself, but Prime Minister Wim Kok did not attempt to shift blame. He trotted off to the Queen to call it quits.

True, elections were already scheduled for May 15, and the Kok government would continue in office in the interim. But the mass resignation was at least a nod toward assuming responsibility for a military mistake. How refreshing when compared to the way U.S. governments tend to address errors: deny, deny, deny. Or just ignore.

So, now, a tale of unaccountability. Recently, a group of local leaders from Khost, Afghanistan, came calling on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. They wanted to discuss what had happened when the U.S. military last December bombed a convoy carrying tribal elders to the inauguration of interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Yet no one at the embassy would see them. "It's amazing," one of the Khost representatives told The Washington Post. "The Americans will accept wrong reports and bomb our people. But they don't allow us to come in and tell them the truth."

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government -- particularly the Pentagon -- has denied credible reports from eyewitnesses and pro-American Afghan officials that errant U.S. bombs have killed and maimed Afghan civilians.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged, in an abstract manner, that in war civilians are occasionally hit by accident. But he and the Pentagon have repeatedly refused to admit particular mistakes like the attack on the convoy. In one instance, the CIA did pay $1000 to each family of 12 to 20 Afghan soldiers who were killed when U.S. Special Forces, believing they were striking a Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold, assaulted two compounds containing Afghan troops loyal to Karzai's government. But even in this case, Rumsfeld stubbornly maintained that the U.S. military had committed no error.

The estimate of Afghan civilians killed accidentally runs from several hundred to several thousand, and last December I wrote an article proposing the United States pay compensation to those civilians who lost relatives, limbs, homes and businesses due to misguided American bombs. I was lucky enough to be able to promote this idea on several television and radio shows.

The email poured in, almost all of it against, and much of it profane. But in recent weeks, there have been positive stirrings on this front -- albeit no groundswell -- even as the Bush Administration has adamantly stuck to its we-don't-make-specific-mistakes stance.

During a trip to Afghanistan, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican, told reporters the U.S. government should listen to Afghans who lost family members due to off-target U.S. bombs and "should take those claims seriously" and "do what's right."

Several newspapers have editorialized in support of doing so. "Most Afghans realize that the 'collateral damage' they've suffered is an inevitable consequence of the war that freed them from the oppressive Taliban regime," The Sacramento Bee noted. "But their anger is rising because they cannot understand why Washington has not moved to help a necessary war's most innocent victims."

The San Jose Mercury News began an editorial this way: "About 1 kilometer from the Kabul airport lives a 6-year-old girl who has reverted to an infantile stage. She's stopped talking. Her eyes wander. A neighboring child suffers from uncontrollable tremors. Both witnessed the bombing of their home by U.S. forces, which killed eight civilians. How many more Afghans were injured or killed in U.S. attacks gone awry? No one knows."

The newspaper blasted the Pentagon for not bothering to keep track of the damage done to civilians, and it declared, "The American people should demand to know the extent of Afghan casualties and U.S.-inflicted damage, and the effectiveness of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan....If the United States is serious about its pledge to help rebuild Afghanistan, an assessment of losses is an essential first step."

Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant, endorsing the call for compensation, observed, "An earthquake hits, perhaps 1000 or so are killed, and the world mobilizes. A war breaks out and the civilian victims are left to fend for themselves, even though there are thousands of them, not to mention devastated villages and equipment."

In Congress, Representatives Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, and John Cooksey, a Louisiana Republican, have sent a letter to their House colleagues asking them to support financial assistance for "the innocent victims of the Afghan war." About two dozen members have backed their effort. (But Rohrabacher has not. According to an aide, he favors development assistance -- not compensation payments -- with priority given to those "caught in the crossfire.")

It's not as if compensation for Afghan civilians has become a runaway train. But there's more action than months ago. Much of the credit belongs to Global Exchange, a human rights group, that has been lobbying for compensation in traditional and imaginative manners.

In Afghanistan, the group has collected petitions for compensation from hundreds of Afghan families who claim to have lost family and/or homes. These petitions have been presented to the American embassy, and Global Exchange has helped bring survivors to Kabul to tell their stories and pressure the embassy.

Several weeks ago, three dozen Afghans assembled across the street from the embassy, hoping someone from the United States would talk to them. A Boston Globe reporter asked Mohammad Ajan, who said his 6-year-old son was paralyzed when a bomb hit their home, what he would do if the United States rejected his claim. Ajan looked shocked and said, "They cannot refuse, they cannot refuse." Yet no one from the embassy met with the group. Global Exchange has also worked with Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of September 11 families campaigning for an Afghan compensation fund.

"It would be good for the United States to help out the families," Hamid Karzai has said. And in early April, Michael Metrinko, who heads the U.S. embassy's political and consular section, told reporters that "the embassy has recommend that a positive to this [the compensation claims] be given." But, he noted, neither the State Department nor the Defense Department had replied to the embassy.

Global Exchange is pressing for an average grant of $10,000 for each affected family, to help rebuild homes, obtain medical care, and compensate for the loss of a breadwinner. If 3000 families were to receive such assistance, the total sum would be $30 million -- not much in the grand scheme, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the military budget and equal to the one's day cost of the bombing campaign. And this would not be unprecedented. The United States did provide compensation to the victims of its accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and its accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988.

"I can assure you that we try our darned best to avoid hitting innocent targets -- that's not what we're about," Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, said at an embassy press conference this past week. "But mistakes do happen. When charges are made, we investigate. And then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered."

That is precisely what has not happened. No investigations. No responses to the those who have suffered. Just ask Juma Khan, a cobbler, who was sitting in his house in Khanabad when American planes overhead dropped their bombs. When he was later dug out of the rubble he learned that seven of his eight children, his wife, his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law and five nephew and nieces had been killed in the attack. His claim, like all the others, has gone unanswered. The Bush Administration and the Pentagon have evaded accountability and responsibility. No one's looking for resignations -- just some pocket change and acknowledgment of a screw-up. But apparently waging war on terrorism means never having to say you're sorry.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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