at the start of the daily pentagon press briefing on December 4, the defence secretary delivered a short lecture on the subject of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. "One of the unpleasant aspects of war is the reality that innocent bystanders are sometimes caught in the crossfire," Donald Rumsfeld said, "and we're often asked to answer Taliban accusations about civilian casualties. Indeed, one of today's headlines is, "Pentagon Avoids Subject Of Civilian Deaths.' The short answer is that that's simply not so." He then proceeded to prove, in a way, the offending headline's point: "With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties. First, the Taliban have lied repeatedly. They intentionally mislead the press for their own purposes. Second, we generally do not have access to sites of alleged civilian casualties on the ground. Third, in cases where someone does have access to a site, it is often impossible to know how many people were killed, how they died and by whose hand they did die."
Look at the World Trade Center, Rumsfeld declared. The number of dead there keeps shifting: "If we cannot know for certain how many people were killed in Lower Manhattan, where we have full access to the site, thousands of reporters, investigators, rescue workers combing the wreckage and no enemy propaganda to confuse the situation, one ought to be sensitive to how difficult it is to know with certainty, in real time, what may have happened in any given situation in Afghanistan. We mourn every civilian death."
Rumsfeld's remarks, seemingly heartfelt, were an exercise in profound cynicism. If we can't count the dead in New York, how can you expect us to know anything about civilian casualties in Afghanistan? He portrayed it as an impossible task, and he suggested that claims of civilian casualties were only coming from Taliban scumbags. Of course, you can't believe them.
Two days earlier, the New York Times had run a dispatch from Tim Weiner reporting that, according to witnesses and local officials, U.S. bombers flying over the Tora Bora area had struck three villages, killing dozens of civilians. Weiner quoted the local law-and-order minister and the region's defence minister.
"The village is no more," said a man named Khalil. "All my family, 12 people, were killed." Another survivor said she had lost 38 relatives; another estimated that up to 200 were dead.
The Pentagon denied everything. Weiner quoted Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, chief spokesperson for the Central Command, asserting that American bombers had hit their targets 20 miles away from these villages: "If we had hit a village, causing widespread death that was unintended, we would have said so. We have been meticulous."
The day after Weiner's account appeared, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem was questioned about the reports of civilian deaths around Tora Bora. He replied, "It's not clear to us that there were innocent civilians who may have been injured."
The admiral added, "We know for a fact that these were legitimate military targets in that area that were struck. We know there were no off-target hits, so there were no collateral- damage worries in this series of strikes. Therefore, I can't comment on the civilian casualties because I don't know them to be true." A few moments later he added, "I find it a little bit suspect to hear that villages are being flattened."
Yet Richard Lloyd Parry, a reporter for the London-based Independent, visited the area and found homes replaced by craters, a cemetery containing 40 freshly dug graves (some, he was told, contained only body parts) and a fragment bearing the words "Surface Attack Guided Missile AGM 114."
Truth is often difficult to ascertain in war. But it is clear that Stufflebeem and Rumsfeld were not speaking truthfully. The reports of these casualties were not "orchestrated by the Taliban." In fact, as the admiral might say, the information was coming from officials of a government that replaced the Taliban.
The reports filed by Weiner and Parry demonstrate that Rumsfeld was engaging in champion dissembling when he maintained that the Pentagon cannot possibly keep track of civilian casualties in wild and woolly Afghanistan. The U.S. military may not be able to discern the numbers with the same precision it claims for its bombing. Yet in many instances it can determine if civilian casualties have happened by doing what Weiner and the other reporters did: asking people on the ground.
Instead, in this latest episode, the Pentagon rushed out a denial and waited for that news cycle to whiz by.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.