It was 3 am in Qala Niazi when the drone of US bombers rumbling through the night sky awoke villagers sleeping off a night of festivities last December 29. Within half an hour, a storm of sound and fury unleashed by the warplanes had ended, and the hamlet was no longer. December 29 was the morning after 15-year old Inzar’s wedding party, an occasion that had drawn guests and relatives from Jalalabad in the east, Khost in the south and the nearby city of Gardez. Because they had traveled long distances, on roads particularly treacherous after the Taliban’s hasty retreat, many chose to spend the night in the cluster of walled compounds built of dried mud and hay. The bombs entombed many of them, including the bride and groom. Strewn across the sun-baked plain in southern Afghanistan was the detritus of their lives — a pillow adorned with red roses, a purple mattress, a suitcase and a dusty blue water pitcher.

The Pentagon said the B-52 bomber and two B1-B bombers were targeting senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and speculated that the destruction was made worse by an ammunition depot at the site. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said “multiple intelligence sources” had confirmed the target. Villagers, hospital officials and the UN say the victims were civilians. The UN put the number of dead at 52, nearly half of them children. Villagers said at least 80 people were killed. The director of the hospital in nearby Gardez said 100 had died.

More certain than the numbers was the anger that lingered weeks later. “Try to understand. Nobody is here. Why are you sending planes and bombing us? Nobody is here,” said Bai Jan, a 45 year-old man from neighboring Spin Kalay who said he helped bury what was left of the bodies to hide them from wandering dogs.

Who’s Counting

In the history of the US military campaign in Afghanistan that began in October, Qala Niazi, about 100 miles south of Kabul, will likely stand out.

It remains one of the highest civilian tolls from bombing at a single site. It marked the first time the UN went public with specific concerns about the unintended consequences of US strikes. And the Pentagon’s defense foreshadowed the growing questions the US military would face in defending bombing and attacks that killed innocents in the pursuit of an elusive clique of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders who — in remarkable numbers — have managed to escape the American dragnet.

While the Pentagon has insisted since the start of the conflict that it will not keep track of the numbers killed in US attacks, a fuller picture has begun to emerge of civilian casualties through visits to bombing sites by journalists and others.

The accounting remains incomplete: Afghanistan is home to some of the world’s most rugged terrain, with entire regions cut off in winter. Impassable roads and growing lawlessness make travel risky. The dead are buried quickly — by tradition, before sundown on the day of deaths — making a tally difficult even days after bombs land. But it is becoming clear that claims by Rumsfeld and other US military officials that fewer civilians have died in Operation Enduring Freedom than in any previous campaign are likely untrue. A definitive toll will probably prove impossible, but there is little question that at least 1,000 civilians died, and likely many more, in attacks that saw US forces expend 18,000 bombs, missiles and other ordnance since October 7, 2001.

A report from the Project on Defense Alternatives, a private think tank, estimated conservatively that 1,000 to 1,300 had died by the end of December. This report projects that Afghan civilians were killed at a higher rate than in the Kosovo bombing campaign.

Whatever the count, the toll has raised questions among those supporting the war about the effectiveness of bombing — still a blunt instrument despite talk of precision weapons — in targeting a relatively small group of combatants. Civilians were rarely warned of attacks and apparently never in areas populated by Pashtuns, the largest Afghan ethnic group that formed the backbone of the defeated Taliban. More and more, Afghans claim intelligence provided to US forces by local factions was motivated as much by settling scores as eliminating cadres of al-Qaeda.

Afghans who bore the brunt of bombing are angry and confused — sentiments that contrast with the popularity the US government enjoys elsewhere in the country. From Qala Niazi to Zhawar Kili along the Pakistani border, from Herat in the west to Zadran in the Pashtun heartland, scenes of grief, loss and flight have been repeated across a landscape defined like no other by war.

On the Winning Side?

Ishaq Suleiman was a village that always saw the Taliban as invaders. But the warren of mud huts congregated outside the city of Herat had the misfortune of calling a Taliban base its neighbor. After the US campaign began in October, the Taliban sent tanks, artillery and their once ubiquitous pickups to the village for cover. Villagers knew the consequences.

In this Dari-speaking region that hoped to be on the winning side in the war, people heard warnings in Dari and Pashtun to leave the area, apparently aired by Americans in aircraft overhead. They saw the bombing of the base less than a mile away. They even banded together to put stones in the street to stop the Taliban vehicles from entering. “But we didn’t leave our houses,” said Ghaus-u Din, 45, his black turban askew in the winter wind. “If we left, thieves would come and steal all our belongings.”

On November 1, the war arrived in Ishaq Suleiman, flashes of light matched by sounds of shattered glass. Residents say dozens of bombs landed in the village on five days over a nearly two-week period. In all, according to AREA, an Afghan non-governmental organization funded by the German government that tracked civilian casualties, 12 people were killed and 14 wounded. The bombing affected 42 families, AREA said, and caused $17,350 in damage.

Among the dead was 60-year old Hajji Mohammed, whose house was wrecked by a bomb that landed about 15 feet away in the dirt street outside. Its target was a Taliban truck that villagers say had driven off half an hour before. On a cold winter morning, Ghulam Nabi picked through the mud, hay and brick that was his brother’s house — a solitary mud arch perched over the rubble piled in his former bedroom. He remembered the night that he lost his brother, and his desperation to find his 12-year old son Ghaus-u Din and 7-year old daughter Adila. “I heard an explosion and everywhere was full of dust and smoke. I was desperately looking for my daughter. I saw a body in front of me. I went up to it but there was smoke, dust and it was dark. I went closer and I touched the face and I saw it was a man with a gray beard. I saw there was another body in front of me. He was still alive, and he was screaming,” said Nabi, wearing a turban and khaki jacket. “I was running like a madman, here and there. Then I saw my wife running toward me. When I got to her, she told me our son and daughter were wounded in another village.”

The Pentagon, when asked about Ishaq Suleiman, said the village was occupied by forces of the Taliban’s 17th Mechanized Infantry Division and 4th Armored Brigade. Even in villages, it said, trucks and equipment “were still authorized military targets.”

Convoy of Death

The US attack on a convoy December 20 in the restive southeastern region of Paktia has emerged as a case study in the dangers of intelligence delivered by warlords and faction leaders to settle their own scores. The Pentagon says the convoy was carrying Taliban leaders; survivors claim the convoy was bringing tribal leaders to the inauguration of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s interim leader, and that it was targeted by a warlord seeking to eliminate his rivals.

The debate over the convoy’s identity paid less attention to the attacks’ other targets: a cluster of nearby homes and a village about six miles away that was bombed hours later. The results were no less devastating. The aerial assault there spanned miles, persisted into the next morning and — according to villagers — left dozens dead.

Musa Khan’s family was among the first victims. Ten minutes after hitting the convoy, warplanes struck his house on a hill where relatives from two other houses had gathered. Twelve were killed — Musa’s four brothers and three sisters, plus two cousins and three aunts. The 22-year old villager, his face weathered by the sun, was tending his sheep and goats when the attack started and watched the scene from a distance. He could do nothing to help. “Everybody was climbing up the mountains, trying to hide,” remembered Musa, standing in front of the gutted remains of his home. Charred trees were snapped like toothpicks, and a burned car sat idly in front. Four craters 20 feet deep marked a path about 30 feet long that tore through the house and down the hill in front.

Musa Khan insists his family were victims of circumstance and had no connections to the Taliban, despite the presence of a nearby Taliban base. “Why did Americans do this to us? We are not Arabs, we are not Taliban. We are ordinary people,” said Khan, who buried his family in a cemetery three hours away at the clan’s ancestral village.

By 3 am the US attack was broadened to the village of Bekhere, a half-hour drive away along a riverbed in a sheltered valley that the Pentagon has described as “an active staging and coordinating base for al-Qaeda activities.” The bombing lasted until noon. Villagers say 63 people were killed, perhaps more; an Afghan non-governmental group that tracked casualties in the region put the number at 44.

The village was targeted, residents say, because the convoy stopped in front of it, trying to leave the valley by another road. The route, they say, was snowed in, forcing the convoy to turn around and go back out. The flicker of their car lights proved fatal. “They stopped over there,” said 26-year old Bala Khan, pointing at the road that ran along the village. “They turned off their lights but the airplane had already seen them.”

His two brothers were killed in the attack, and his home, along with 15 other buildings, was destroyed. The ruins cut a swatch of destruction along the side of the hill.

As with others in Bekhere, Bala still wears the face of disbelief, his eyes blinking in rapid fire. His words pour out: “I have nothing left. Even the cloak on my shoulder is borrowed from someone else.”

“In the Vicinity”

Weeks after the bombing of Qala Niazi, the landscape was still littered with tattered sandals, a baby’s shoe and shredded women’s clothes, some of them embroidered in greens, purples and oranges. A mattress lay near a can of vegetable oil and a metal canister spilling flour. Nearby was an empty sack of wheat emblazoned with USA and two clasped hands, the symbol of the US Agency for International Development.

“Is this Taliban?” asked Jan, holding a baby’s green sandal in his hands made dirty by rummaging in the rubble. “Is this al-Qaeda or Taliban? No.”

Jan and another villager, 55-year old Niaz Mohammed, said at least ten villagers ran from the village after the bombing began. The UN, citing a reliable source, put the number at 10 to 20. They were all killed by other bombs about 100 yards away. At that site, three deep tunnels, possibly dug by bombs designed to destroy bunkers, lay open. Into one cascaded a canal that once carried water to a nearby village. Dried blood was still spattered on the dirt, and a fragment of bone lay nearby.

There was no doubt that ammunition was stored at the site — though villagers differed on how it got there. At one of the five compounds, piles were still stacked like a bountiful harvest, the metallic green of the cases reflecting the sun.

US military spokesmen said the presence of the ammunition made Qala Niazi a “valid military target.” They did not rule out civilian deaths in the village, but placed the blame on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Lt. Col. Dave Lapan at the Pentagon cited the discrepancies in the casualty estimates. “Even people on the ground can’t agree on what the numbers are,” Lapan told the Boston Globe. “It goes to the nature of what is a civilian and what is a combatant. This bombing was not a mistake. This was a military target. Were civilians killed? Possibly. If they were killed, they were killed because they were in the vicinity of a military target.”

Khanzad Gul, director of the hospital in Gardez, about three miles from the village, called the attack “a misunderstanding.” “They think anyone who grew beards is an al-Qaeda member,” said bearded Gul. If that’s the case, he commented, “they should take me. But I’m a doctor and I did my study in [Soviet] Russia.”

Villagers said the houses in Qala Niazi belonged to the Niazi clan, a far-flung Pashtun family of former nomads. The houses were built about five years ago on a wide plain bordered on one side by a snow-capped range, and on the other by formidable mountains painted in reds, purples, browns and grays. Other hamlets were clustered along the plain. The surrounding province of Paktia was long a Taliban stronghold, and a compound said to house its soliders a mile or so away bore the signs of a recent bombing. Gul and another hospital official, Nur Mohammed, said the Taliban in the region were from Kandahar and had fled back to that province after the fall of Kabul in November. “Everybody escaped the area. Nobody is here,” Mohammed said.

Too Close to Tora Bora

The bombing over nearly two weeks in January of a vast complex of caves tucked in a dusty ravine near the Pakistani border was the last sustained, but possibly most inconclusive, attack in the American air war. The Pentagon claims the strikes destroyed dozens of buildings and sealed more than 50 caves that hid Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. Villagers and local commanders say the base was effectively abandoned — by Arab fighters before the air war even began, by Afghans within days of the first bombs falling in the country. “Nobody was here. It was empty,” said Khali Gul, a villager standing amid charred willow trees, red brick and a junkyard of destroyed weaponry — artillery, tanks and a century-old cannon with wooden wheels. More numerous in the Zhawar area were civilians, dangerously exposed in villages perched atop the cliffs that sheltered US-backed mujahideen at the base in the 1980s, then the Taliban, Arabs and other foreign fighters in the 1990s.

Local commanders and villagers say that in Zhawar Kili, less than a mile away, US bombing killed seven people and destroyed at least ten homes. In Zanshura Kili, about a mile away, eight people were killed and three homes destroyed. In other villages — Lali Kili and Shudyac Kili — at least 40 homes were damaged or destroyed, they said. The strikes forced 3,000 people to flee their homes. Many headed for Pakistan.

At one point during the attacks, the bombing was so fierce and the villagers so isolated that a group of them decided to embark on a 20-mile trek through ravines and over hilltops to Khost. They went to the city’s market, where by loudspeaker, they pleaded for help in digging out the bodies and burying the dead. “Only innocent people died in those bombings,” said Zawar Khan, a 38-year old commander who lived in Zhawar Kili. “None of those people are dying,” he said, pointing to the remnants of the base that once housed Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The Pentagon averred even in January that the base remained “a staging point for escaping al-Qaeda members.” But the scenes there told a different story. In Zhawar Kili, a red, blue and green pillow sat in one of four 30-foot craters. The carcass of a cow rotted in the sun, its head still tied to a post laying on the ground. A cot jutted from the side of a hill, like a fractured bone. Along another crater was a broken tea set. Next to it was a child’s red sandal. The other sandal was a few feet away in a box with a yellow comb, beads and a small plate.

Mawla Jan, whose house was destroyed, was digging through the rubble, his black shirt soiled with dirt and sweat. He said he lost 60 sheep and goats and the equivalent of $6,000 in Pakistani rupees that he had safeguarded in the house. “Everything has been destroyed,” he said, waving his dirty hands. “Nothing is left for us. All we have are the clothes we wear. What should I say to the government, what should I say to the United States? They destroyed us. What should I say to them?”

“It’s cruel,” he continued, shaking his head. “The base is there and they hit our house here. It’s cruel. How can I convince the Americans that none of al-Qaeda and Taliban are here?” Echoing others, he added softly, “You have to be sure.”


How to cite this article:

Anthony Shadid "Victims of Circumstance," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).

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