the u.s.'s "war on terrorism" is looking more like a war on Afghanistan. It's week four and there's still no end in sight to the U.S.-led bombing. The civilian death toll continues to mount.
Last week, Amnesty International went public for the first time with its concerns about the U.S. military effort.
A statement released by the human rights watchdog's London office calls on the U.S. military "to strengthen measures to ensure that civilians are not killed as a result of military action," and "to investigate thoroughly reports of such incidents and make public their findings."
Amnesty says, "It's difficult to independently verify reported civilian deaths because of the limited access to Afghanistan for impartial observers. (But) reports from UN officials, humanitarian NGOs and refugees fleeing to Pakistan raise enough concern to call for an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international humanitarian law, such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks."
The group also calls for a moratorium on the U.S.'s use of cluster bombs after the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that they were dropped over a village near Herat in western Afghanistan. The village is reportedly littered with unexploded "bomblets."
Amnesty has asked U.S. authorities to investigate a number of attacks, including one on a local radio station, the October 12 air strike on the village of Khorum and two attacks on warehouses where the International Committee of the Red Cross has been storing food and medical supplies near Kabul.
Formal letters from Amnesty have gone out to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George Bush. So far, no response.
Closer to home, Amnesty's call for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs has put Ottawa smack in the middle of a ticklish moral and political dilemma.
It was Canada, after all, that spearheaded the international ban on land mines -- the cluster bomb's close cousin in the anti-personnel arsenal -- that culminated in the signing of what has become known as the Ottawa Treaty.
Canada has also been part of a group of countries urging a broader discussion at the UN on the use of cluster bombs in general. The Second Review Conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons meets in Geneva to discuss the issue in December.
This week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley expressed concern that the mounting civilian death toll in Afghanistan is undermining the fragile coalition lined up behind the U.S.'s "war on terrorism."
The Grits, though, won't be pushing their U.S. allies for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan. Foreign affairs spokesperson Nancy Bergeron offers a military explanation.
"We have to remember," she says, "that the use of weapons other than cluster bombs may well endanger the lives of our Canadian armed forces personnel and increase civilian injury or damage."
It's an interesting spin, since cluster bombs are widely considered among the most dangerous weapons used in the field, for soldiers as well as civilians. Amnesty's secretary general, Alex Neve, says, "Cluster bombs are by their very nature indiscriminate."
Indeed. Where they've been used, they've exacted an enormous toll on innocent civilians.
They are not precision weapons. They cover huge areas when dropped, up to 100 acres in some instances. Thousands of bomblets, usually the size of a baseball, are designed to explode on contact with the ground or shortly before.
But they don't always. The 5 to 30 per cent that typically don't explode on contact become de facto land mines. They continue to kill long after a conflict has ended.
In Laos, for example, where the U.S. conducted a 25-year bombing campaign, an estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance.
An estimated 2,000 Kuwaitis, mostly children, have been injured by unexploded bombs and munitions since the end of the Gulf War. A minimum of 1.5 million unexploded munitions are still strewn across both Iraq and Kuwait.
Also, according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Center, 492 people were killed in the first year after the Kosovo conflict by unexploded ordnance.
"What both sides in this conflict need to understand is that there already are existing limits to war," says Paul Hannon, director of Mines Action Canada. "As Canadians, we should be supporting efforts that are consistent with international humanitarian law to make sure we're not making matters worse and creating a civilian crisis to combat terrorism."
Back in 97, when then Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy was pushing his land mines treaty, NGOs and faith groups quietly worked behind the scenes to include cluster bombs in the treaty.
The U.S., though, was opposed. NGOs dropped their efforts around cluster bombs so as not to jeopardize the land mines agreement. In the end, the U.S. didn't even sign the land mines treaty.
Titus Peachey, staff associate at the Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee, doesn't expect any serious discussion of an outright ban on cluster bombs when delegates meet in Geneva in December, because they've become such a big part of military strategy.
"I'm not sure where the glimmers of support will be coming from," says Peachy, "especially when there are stories coming out that U.S spy operation radio is now warning Afghanis that the yellow food packets dropped by planes must be distinguished from yellow cluster bombs."
Bergeron says Canada is prepared to support technical improvements to reduce the failure rates of the munitions.
Amnesty's Neve wonders why the U.S. won't consider an immediate U.S. moratorium on their use in Afghanistan. The move would blunt growing criticism in the region of the U.S. campaign.
"Obviously, (the U.S.) will continue to come under some criticism as incidents like this (of civilian deaths) mount."
Major Tim Blair, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, wasn't eager to parse the moratorium question. He referred the question to the state department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
What Blair did offer was what U.S. authorities have been saying all along.
"We do not target the civilian population."