Pentagon Media Blackout Hid Afghan Civilian Deaths

On January 5, the death of Nathan Ross Chapman, the first uniformed American soldier killed by hostile fire in the war in Afghanistan, received wide coverage in the mainstream media. (Johnny "Mike" Spann, killed November 25 in a Taliban prison uprising, was a CIA operative.) Relatively unnoticed, however, was a report by University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, which charges that the U.S. military killed an average of 62 Afghan civilians per day between October 6 and December 7, 2001. U.S. mainstream media, according to Herold, has for the most part accepted Pentagon casualty information. Reports of civilian casualties usually receive the qualification that "the report cannot be independently verified." Herold's research demonstrates that information distributed by the Pentagon could be checked against non-U.S. sources with relative ease using web sites of foreign journals and organizations. His data derive from a wide range of non-U.S. media and organizational sources, including The Times of India, the Guardian (UK), Agence France Presse, and the BBC.

Herold's explanation for the high level of civilian casualties is "the apparent willingness of U.S. military strategists to fire missiles into and drop bombs upon, heavily populated areas of Afghanistan." He notes that the Soviet-backed government located military facilities in urban areas in the 80s, and that the Taliban inherited the installations. In contrast to Pentagon claims that the Taliban used "human shields" for its military establishments, Herold suggests that anti-aircraft installations are "naturally" located near the facilities they are intended to defend, such as government buildings, garrisons, and communications equipment. Civilian deaths from U.S. bombing of these facilities were exacerbated by targeting errors, equipment malfunction, and the "irresponsible use of out-dated Soviet maps." But Herold insists:

...[T]he critical element remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by U.S. military planners and the political elite, as clearly revealed by U.S. willingness to bomb heavily populated regions. Current Afghan civilian lives must and will be sacrificed in order to (possibly) protect future American lives.

Herold notes that Afghan casualties are seldom reported unless they are indirectly associated with western organizations, or "independently verified." Most civilian casualties are ignored as "enemy propaganda." To ensure continued domestic support for the war in Afghanistan, Herold charges, the Bush administration has sought to prevent media access to "information on the true human costs of this war."

On October 7 the government entered into a reported multi-million dollar contract with Denver-based Space Imaging Inc., for exclusive access to satellite photos from the Operation Enduring Freedom war zone. The government contract prevents anyone else from using Space Imaging's satellites to take pictures of the war zone, and prevents the firm from selling its images to anyone else. (Space Imaging sells most of its images to more than one client.) Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite can distinguish objects on the ground that are at least one meter in size. U.S. military satellites are believed able to distinguish objects 10 centimeters in size. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists in an interview with the Associated Press observed that by preventing media organizations from buying satellite photos, the public was being denied an important tool for oversight of government activities. "At the moment, we're essentially dependent on the Pentagon as a sole source for battle information and damage assessment. This commercial imagery would provide one independent channel for assessing the conduct of the war." Aftergood noted that satellite photos could also help organizations plan food supplies and logistics for refugees in Afghanistan by tracking their movements.

The al-Jazeera satellite television channel was founded by the Emir of Qatar and other Arab moderates in 1996, after a BBC partnership with a Saudi company was shut down when the Saudis tried to censor a documentary on executions in Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera claims that it reaches 35 million viewers worldwide. Its reporters and editors share an allegiance to fellow Muslims, not particular governments, so they routinely criticize regimes in the Arab world. In return, Al-Jazeera has been criticized by the governments of Libya and Tunisia for providing a platform for opposition leaders in those countries. The station has also been rebuked by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for reporting on the plight of Iraqi civilians living under economic sanctions. Some western observers have characterized al-Jazeera's coverage of world events as driven by anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. Others have pointed out, however, that al-Jazeera regularly interviews Israeli officials and journalists -- almost unheard of on other Middle East networks.

Many Americans first heard of al-Jazeera when it broadcast Osama bin Laden's videotaped statement praising the September 11 terrorist attacks. After the airing of the bin Laden tape, Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced al-Jazeera for broadcasting "vitriolic, irresponsible kinds of statements." National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice held a conference call with network TV executives in which she urged them not to air unedited statements from bin Laden. According to the New York Times, she argued that Americans needed to be protected from bin Laden's propaganda, and that bin Laden might be sending coded messages to operatives. Some U.S. media outlets compared al-Jazeera to the former Communist propaganda channel Pravda or Hitler's Nationale Zeitung. Michael Moran of MSNBC wrote, "the fact that bin Laden’s zealous murderers chose al-Jazeera as a way to get their message out has very little to do with the fact that al-Jazeera is the Middle East’s only free news network," rather "al-Jazeera — and the BBC, until its correspondent was ejected by the Taliban — stayed in Kabul through the 1990s to cover a civil war that has been raging, in part with American weaponry, for more than a decade. So do we blame al-Jazeera for covering this war? As Fox would say, 'You decide.'"

After initially attacking al-Jazeera, the Bush administration reversed itself, granted interviews with Powell and Rice, and reportedly considered buying blocks of time for a political infomercial. On the evening of November 11, however, the al-Jazeera office in Kabul Afghanistan was bombed by U.S. aircraft. Ibrahim Hilal, the network's chief editor said that Washington had been given the location of the Kabul office. The Pentagon denied that al-Jazeera had been deliberately targeted, but offered no explanation as to why it was hit. Hilal told the Guardian that he believed the office had long been a potential target, but that the U.S. did not want to bomb it as long as al-Jazeera was the only broadcast outlet in Kabul. BBC had reopened its Kabul office shortly before the day of the al-Jazeera bombing.

Marc Herold's analysis shows that 3,767 Afghan civilians died in U.S. bombing attacks between October 6 and December 7. Seven days in particular are highlighted in the report:

  • October 11 At least 160 civilians were killed during the bombing of Karam in Nangarhar province. Reported in the Independent.
  • October 18 A marketplace in the Madad district of Kandahar was bombed, killing 47 civilians. Reported by BBC News and Reuters.
  • October 21 100 civilians were killed when a cluster bomb hit a military hospital in Herat. U.N. confirmation reported in the Guardian.
  • October 23 AC-130 gun ships repeatedly strafed the villages of Bori Chokar and Chowkar-Karez, killing 93. Reported in the Chicago Tribune.
  • November 10 Between 125 and 300 civilians were killed during the bombing of the village of Shah Aqa and environs. Reported by the Herald Sun (Australia) and Agence France Presse, among others.
  • November 18 At least 150 civilians were killed from carpet-bombing near Khanabad in the
    province of Kunduz. Reported in the Independent.

  • December 1 More than 150 civilians were killed in four bombing raids near the village of Kama Ado, as part of the campaign at Tora Bora. In addition livestock and water supplies were destroyed. The Independent reported a firsthand account. The bombing was also reported by the Associated Press.

The Pentagon and Central Command response to questions about the December 1 bombing was that "It didn't happen."


Herold, Marc "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan" Cursor 29 Dec. 2001

Scheeres, Julia "Trolling the Web for Afghan Dead" Wired News. 4 Jan. 2002

Burns, Robert "Soldier Killed in Afghanistan ID'd" AP. 4 Jan. 2002

"Military buys exclusive rights to commercial satellite's pictures of war zone" AP. 15 Oct. 2001

Wells, Matt "Al-Jazeera accuses US of bombing its Kabul office" The Guardian. 17 Nov. 2001

Moran, Michael "In defense of al-Jazeera: Attacking the messenger, and our message at the same time" MSNBC. 18 Oct. 2001

Ajami, Fouad "What the Muslim World Is Watching" NY Times 18 Nov. 2001

Rich, Frank "Journal; No News Is Good News" NY Times 13 Oct. 2001