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How many civilians have died in the United States’ attack on Afghanistan? Military officials assert that high-tech weapons and precision bombing have kept that number low. Reports of civilian casualties — whether coming from the Taliban or independent observers — are routinely dismissed by the Pentagon as fabrications or exaggerations. U.S. journalists sometimes offer estimates […]

Can’t Forget the Afghan Dead

by Robert Jensen And Rahul Mahajan

How many civilians have died in the United States’ attack on Afghanistan? Military officials assert that high-tech weapons and precision bombing have kept that number low. Reports of civilian casualties — whether coming from the Taliban or independent observers — are routinely dismissed by the Pentagon as fabrications or exaggerations. U.S. journalists sometimes offer estimates of civilian deaths after a particular bombing raid, always cautioning that the reports can’t be confirmed.

In the foreign press, however, the question is more prominent, and regular reports of heavy civilian casualties as a result of the U.S. bombing have fueled anti-American sentiment around the world.

Given these conflicting accounts, one might think a carefully documented study by an independent American researcher might be of great interest. One might expect U.S. reporters to be clamoring for a copy and requesting interviews with the study’s author.

But in terms of mainstream news interest, it was a quiet week in Durham, NH, Marc Herold’s hometown.

On Dec.10, the University of New Hampshire professor released his finding that at least 3,767 Afghan civilians had died in the first 8 * weeks of the war. With some help from media activists, a news release was faxed to the major print and broadcast media. Follow-up calls were made to journalists. Herold’s report was posted on the Internet, along with the database he had compiled, for easy access.

One week later, readers could find coverage of Herold’s studies on a few independent web sites and an Internet radio program. But a search of the two major databases for U.S. newspapers and television news programs turned up no mention of his work.

Why does this matter? Herold, a professor of economics and women’s studies, said the lack of coverage of “the carnage on the ground” has shaped the public’s perception of the fighting.

“The war has been presented to the American people as a techno-video war in which smart bombs always hit their targets. In other words, the bad guys die and none of the good guys do,” said Herold, whose research and teaching focuses on third-world economic and social development. “But there have been a significant number of civilian casualties.”

Herold is a critic of the war with progressive politics, but his estimate of civilian deaths is, if anything, overly conservative. Aware that his methodology would be scrutinized, he relied on reports from official news agencies, major newspapers around the world, and first-hand accounts, seeking cross-corroboration whenever possible. When precise figures weren’t available, he did not arbitrarily plug in numbers, and he also did not use estimates of the indirect deaths that result when, for example, bombing shuts down a hospital. As a result, Herold’s number likely is an undercount; he estimates 5,000 civilian deaths in those weeks is probably closer to the truth.

By the conventional standards of newsworthiness listed (such as timeliness, relevance to audience, impact), Herold’s study is not only news but reasonably big news. It sheds light on a subject of great moral, political, and strategic importance that has been undercovered in the mainstream U.S. news media.

Even if one takes issue with his final count, at the very least Herold’s report could jump start a conversation that should have been front and center from the beginning: Was a war necessary? Were there more effective ways to try to end terrorism than a war that has killed a large number of civilians — now as least as many innocents as died in the Sept. 11 attacks?

Herold’s data should lead us to a fuller discussion of a number of questions: How precise are our precision weapons, which account for about 60 percent of the bombs being dropped? What about the effects of the conventional “dumb” bombs that make up the other 40 percent? What are the effects on civilians of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs, which Human Rights Watch has argued should be banned? Are the military’s methods an indication that U.S. planners simply don’t value the lives of Third World people?

Administration officials and military officers no doubt want to downplay civilian casualties to avoid undermining support for the war. But it is disappointing that journalists — who claim to be the watchdogs of government — have not covered Herold’s study and the crucial issues it raises.

For a copy of Herold’s report and supporting data, go to http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Analysis from the Margins to the Mainstream,” Peter Lang Publishers. Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is author of the forthcoming “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” Monthly Review Press. Both are members of the Nowar Collective in Austin, TX. They can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.