Video shows casualty victims in Afghanistan

Not a good day to be working at the press office of the Department of Defense. This morning, The Times of London released a video that purports to show civilian casualties in Afghanistan — dozens at least — from an American air raid in late August. The Pentagon has insisted that civilian casualties in the ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
592623_080912_afghanvideo5.jpg
592623_080912_afghanvideo5.jpg

Not a good day to be working at the press office of the Department of Defense. This morning, The Times of London released a video that purports to show civilian casualties in Afghanistan -- dozens at least -- from an American air raid in late August.

The Pentagon has insisted that civilian casualties in the attack were limited to the single digits, even as both the Afghan government and the United Nations put the number above 90. In a blog post last week, I wondered if this was a problem of counting methods -- deciding who is a civilian and who is a fighter.

Not a good day to be working at the press office of the Department of Defense. This morning, The Times of London released a video that purports to show civilian casualties in Afghanistan — dozens at least — from an American air raid in late August.

The Pentagon has insisted that civilian casualties in the attack were limited to the single digits, even as both the Afghan government and the United Nations put the number above 90. In a blog post last week, I wondered if this was a problem of counting methods — deciding who is a civilian and who is a fighter.

That’s a hard case to argue after watching the video [WARNING: graphic]. The Times says that a doctor shot the mobile-phone film the morning after the air raid. In the clip, casualties overcrowd a room filled equally with grieving men and women. The corpses include children. The chaos and pain of the moment is palpable.

As Human Rights Watch explains in a report released today, this is a serious problem — and not just for America’s reputation in Afghanistan. Civilian deaths, of which HRW says there were 321 this year, could easily provoke an even larger humanitarian crisis:

In every case investigated by Human Rights Watch where airstrikes hit villages, many civilians had to leave the village because of damage to their homes and fear of further strikes. People from neighboring villages also sometimes fled in fear of future strikes on their villages. This has led to large numbers of internally displaced persons. 

Hopefully, all this will be enough for Pentagon officials to reconsider their story. Until now, they have claimed that the incident began after forces came under fire while going after Mullah Sadiq, a Taliban commander. While the U.N. called upon civilian and government witnesses to verify its 90-something number, the Pentagon has pointed to retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Fox News correpondent who was indicted (but later cleared of charges) for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, to back its claim. A new investigation has been promised.

Last week, Major Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of troops in eastern Afghanistan, addressed the growing concerns with promises that Americans are avoiding casualties at all costs. He also complained:

The enemy routinely exaggerates the number of civilian casualties as propaganda, just pure and simple. They use lies and deceit as an asymmetric strategy.”

All the more reason to have a transparent, indpendent investigation. With due respect to the general, the importance of ending civilian casualties — or at least owning up to them — is something we cannot exaggerate enough.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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