- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Throwing rocks, which is the most fun pundits, academics and “allies” can have standing up, hasn’t been very rewarding so far.

In the beginning the rock-chunkers thought they had just the right conditions at hand: Afghanistan would be a “quagmire,” though buried under so much ice and snow that American forces would be bogged down for a decade. Or was it a generation?

After the usual quick victory Arabs make terrific assassins but lousy soldiers the pundits and academics found themselves shocked by George W.’s naughty rhetoric. He called the evil-doers in Iran, Iraq and North Korea “evil.” This kept the cheese merchants of Europe awake nights for nearly a week. If only Colin Powell, the only man in the Bush inner circle who understands the delicate European psyche, would talk some sense into that Bush boy’s head.

Too bad for the axis of cheese, but Colin Powell understands the axis of evil, too. “The president spoke the truth,” the secretary of state told London’s Financial Times yesterday. “It may have been seized on by leader [Ali] Khamenei [of Iran] and others. … I don’t want to overdramatize it, but they said the same thing about Ronald Reagan’s speech in the 1980s [when he called the Soviet Union the ‘evil empire’]: ‘Shocking, we’re shocked, how can he have said such a thing?’ Do you know who heard it? The Russian people heard it.”

And now more rocks appear to have missed the mark with the disclosures that the infamous air strike on the terrorist camp at Zawar Kili in eastern Afghanistan, in which innocent scrap-metal scavengers were said to have been killed by U.S. bombs, probably didn’t kill innocent scrap-metal scavengers after all. The dead were members of the al Qaeda high command, including the financial director of Osama bin Laden’s terror enterprise.

The notion that American bombers have killed “thousands” of innocent Afghan civilians is dear to the hearts of the naysayers, both here and in Europe. Exact numbers won’t ever be calculated; that’s the nature of war. But what is known is that those who either don’t support the war, or are rooting for the other side, deliberately inflate the grim toll. They put the figure in the “thousands.” A professor at the University of New Hampshire, relying on “news reports” putting the number of civilian deaths at between 3,000 and 5,000, calculated his own number at between 3,100 and 3,800. As vague and fantastical as these figures were, they were quickly accepted in certain quarters as fact, and recycled into conventional wisdom.

But now a survey by the Associated Press, just completed, puts the figure closer to 500. That’s a lot, and measured in terms of personal tragedy, an agonizing excess. But it gives the lie to the notion that nobody in the American high command cares. “Any loss of innocent life is a shame,” says Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. forces arrayed against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The Associated Press reporters, who examined hospital records, interviewed hundreds of villagers and inspected dozens of cemeteries, concluded that the toll was considerably less than anyone anticipated. Some of the early reporting was deliberate misinformation. For example, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, accused the United States of genocide early on, and said 1,500 civilians had been killed in the first three weeks of the war.

Afghan journalists for Bakhtar, the official Taliban news agency on which the enemy based its inflated claims, told the Associated Press that their battlefield reports had been “freely doctored.” One Bakhtar reporter said he went to the scene of an air strike in a Kabul neighborhood and counted eight bodies. “But it was changed in our dispatch to 20,” he says, and when he heard a report later on Taliban radio the figure had been further inflated to 30.

Other correspondents for the Taliban news agency said they had been ordered to report military deaths as civilian casualties. One correspondent recalls that he went to the scene of a devastating air strike on an al Qaeda barracks in Kabul, where 60 fighters were killed. “I saw it with my own eyes,” he says. “There were no civilians anywhere nearby, and I reported this. But the dispatch [as published] said all the dead people were civilians, not fighters.”

Any civilian death is sad, and it can seem heartless and even churlish to quibble over numbers. That’s why the White House, looking to the lesson learned in Vietnam, won’t be drawn into body-counting in this war.

That’s sound strategy so far: Good rocks the ones with sharp edges to open wounds and flat surfaces to make them sail are hard to find. And nobody’s landed one on George W. Bush yet.

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