The Civilian Toll

As the bombs fall on Afghanistan, the toll among civilians mounts: 76 dead and over 100 injured after four days, according to Reuters. While to many it is indefensible to kill innocent people, US and NATO leaders offer a defense: that civilians are not being targeted. As Tony Blair claimed, “This military plan has been put together
mindful of our determination to do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties.” But there’s two problems with this defense: it’s not relevant, and it’s not true.

As the bombs fall on Afghanistan, the toll among civilians mounts: 76 dead and over 100 injured after four days, according to Reuters. While to many it is indefensible to kill innocent people, US and NATO leaders offer a defense: that civilians are not being targeted. As Tony Blair claimed, “This military plan has been put together
mindful of our determination to do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties.” But there’s two problems with this defense: it’s not relevant, and it’s not true.

On the first point, consider something called the “mens rea” analysis
of criminal law. According to Michael Tonry, Professor of Law at the
University of Minnesota, “In the criminal law, purpose and
knowledge are equally culpable states of mind. An action taken with
a purpose to kill is no more culpable than an action taken with some
other purpose in mind but with knowledge that a death will probably
result.” (Malign Neglect, p. 32).

An application is the current bombing. Let’s assume, as we are
told, that civilians are not being targeted. It doesn’t matter. The first
wave of attacks reportedly consisted largely of “dumb” bombs
dropped or launched from long distances, and even current “smart”
bombs hit their targets only 70 to 80 percent of the time. So our
leaders know full well that the bombs will kill innocent people, indeed
admit as much.

By the principles of our criminal law, they are
therefore just as culpable for these deaths as they would be if
innocents were targeted. Similarly for the foreseeable starvation of
Afghan civilians because of the bombing’s disruption of
humanitarian aid efforts – only in this case there are potentially
millions of victims.

What if the purpose is noble? One could defend the predictable
deaths of civilians if it resulted from, say, shooting down an airliner
in order to keep it from smashing a skyscraper. In Afghanistan the
purpose is, as a New York Times correspondent puts it, “to tilt the
balance of power within Afghanistan against the Taliban,” put forth
as a noble goal in the fight against terrorism.

But recall that the
Taliban does not stand accused of the terrorism of September 11.
The Taliban is guilty of real crimes, but the reason we are bombing
them is for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden without seeing
the evidence against him. Its punishment is to be overthrownby an
equally brutal regime.

Notwithstanding the headlines in US dailies,
nobility is not immediately apparent, never mind anything so noble
that it outweighs a great many deaths.

Let’s now consider whether all the targets are really military, in
conjunction with some relevant international law. Under article 48 of
the Geneva Conventions, “In order to ensure respect for and
protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties
to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian
population and combatants and between civilian objects and military
objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against
military objectives.”

But the main aim of the US strikes is not military
but political, to remove the Taliban from power. For all its
wretchedness, the Taliban is not simply an army but a political
entity, and its members largely civilians, not combatants. So the
distinctions of article 48 evidently have not been heeded: many of
the targets hit, such as Taliban headquarters and other buildings in
Kabul and Kandahar, would seem to count as “civilian objects” (just
as the White House presumably would, notwithstanding its hosting of
the commander-in-chief).

Then there is article 51: “Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited…[such
as]…an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of
civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a
combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the
concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

And similarly we
have the Nuremberg Charter, which classes as war crimes any
“violations of the laws or customs of war which include…wanton
destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified
by military necessity.”

Are there violations here? Among the targets
so far are airports, communication facilities, electrical plants,
government buildings, houses – all attacked for a political purpose.
After a building that housed UN de-mining workers was destroyed,
the UN appealed to the US to protect civilians in its military strikes:
in less polite terms, to obey international law mandating such
protection. Apparently they do not agree with Tony Blair that the
attackers are doing all they “humanly can.”

The Pentagon has expressed satisfaction with the early results.

Let’s
conclude by considering a different source: Afghan civilians. Here’s
a sampling of testimonials reported by the Boston Globe and New
York Times.

Rais Mazloomyar Jabirkhail: “They are not God. They want to
pinpoint every target, but they can’t make every missile go after
Osama and terrorist training camps…” While not a supporter of bin
Laden, he asked why, in response to what bin Laden was accused of
doing, the United States “is destroying our whole country.”

Mohammad Akram: “They should find Osama bin Laden and attack
only him. Why did they attack all of Afghanistan? We are just poor
people in Afghanistan.”

Naseebullah Khan: “It’s not true that the Americans have only been
bombing military targets. Many of the bombs are dropping on
residential neighborhoods.”

Abdul Qahir: “Though people are fed up with Taliban rulers, at the
same time we are not supporting the US attack on our beloved
country. It is against human dignity.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans reaching the Pakistani border
have reportedly joined anti-US demonstrations in Quetta, Peshawar,
and elsewhere. Apparently the view of many ordinary Afghans
doesn’t match that of their self-proclaimed saviors.

[ also see related items:


Remembering the Last U.S. Retaliation Against Terror – http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1482


ACTION ALERT: Media Pundits Advocate Civilian Targets
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1495


Bush’s [May 2001] Faustian Deal With the Taliban
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1491


First hand Reportage from Afghanistan: 5.5 Million Starving –
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1483


The Oil Behind Bush and Son’s Campaigns
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1513


Osama bin Laden 101: Understanding bin Laden
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1500


Noam Chomsky On the Bombings
http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1474
]

Author: A. J. Chien

News Service: Institute for Health and Social Justice

URL: http://www.zmag.org/civiliantoll.htm