- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

NEW YORK A top diplomat of Afghanistan's Taliban regime called a press conference in Pakistan to announce that the U.S.-led alliance had intentionally bombed a hospital in western Afghanistan, killing more than 100 doctors, nurses and patients and strafing the area with chemical and biological weapons.
"It is now clear that American plans are intentionally targeting the Afghan people," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, estimating Monday that at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in nearly three weeks of military strikes.
"The goal is to punish the Afghan people for having a chosen an Islamic system."
While more than 5,000 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States finds itself in an unexpectedly difficult global public relations war over who is the greater victim in the global anti-terrorism campaign.
U.S. officials have denounced the Taliban's casualty counts as inflated, but the regime's constant claims and comments have greatly alarmed Muslims throughout the region.
A fundamentalist Islamic regime that bans radios and shocked the world with its destruction earlier this year of ancient Buddhist statues has proven surprisingly astute at waging a modern media campaign to discredit the U.S.-led bombing and now ground attacks.
The Pentagon which has forcefully denied using chemical or biological weapons also has rejected the Taliban's casualty figures.
"The numbers the Taliban has been floating out in the media are, we are certain, false," said Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at a press briefing last week. "The information from the ground tends to be self-serving."
In many Arab and Muslim nations, however, demonstrations against the U.S.-led bombardment have grown larger and more urgent as pictures of dead children and bombed homes are disseminated.
The Pentagon yesterday conceded hitting a senior citizens' facility in Herat, less than 300 yards from an intended military target. There was no estimate on casualties.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials say the Taliban regime is manipulating the casualty figures to enhance sympathy for its cause, and foment resentment of the West.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, which both condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, are not likely to be shaken, said analysts, because they want to see bin Laden and the Taliban regime neutralized as much as the United States does.
"They'll probably still cooperate, but cautiously," said Michael Dunn, editor of the Middle East Journal. "And they'll continue to underplay their involvement for reasons of internal consumption."
There is almost no way to document Taliban casualty claims. Independent verification is nearly impossible without reporters, aid workers, diplomats or other reliable witnesses on the scene.
But Mr. Dunn said that Washington could do more to counter the Taliban claims, and be more aggressive in winning over terrified Afghans and furious Pakistanis.
"We may not have [been] quick enough in some cases here to respond to reports of civilian casualties," he said yesterday. "We may not be moving as quickly as our adversaries in explaining it."
Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, warned yesterday that Washington will find it very difficult to win over the Arabs and Muslims who are convinced that the United States has unconditionally supported Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and manipulated U.N. sanctions to punish ordinary Iraqis.
"The images that are coming out of Afghanistan reinforce that popular opinion, and inflame it," concurred Ray Takeyh, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Institute.
He said that the Middle East and Iraq aren't connected to the Afghanistan action, "but they reinforce the perception of an imperious American attitude toward Arab suffering."

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