The Pentagon admits innocent bystanders are sometimes caught up in the crossfire in the war in Afghanistan. But defense officials bristle at the notion that they are trying to avoid the subject of civilian deaths.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is an unfortunate reality that civilians sometimes become the casualties of war.
But Mr. Rumsfeld denies that when it comes to the conflict in Afghanistan, civilian deaths are a subject the Pentagon considers taboo. "One of today's headlines is 'Pentagon Avoids Subject of Civilian Deaths'. The short answer is that that's simply not so," he said.
The headline in question appears in the Wall Street Journal. The article notes how the Pentagon's daily briefings reveal the number and type of aircraft that fly over Afghanistan and the targets the planes attack. What it says Pentagon officials do not talk about are the people who died on any given day.
Mr. Rumsfeld says there are big hurdles to answering questions about civilian casualties. "With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties," he said. "First the Taleban 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, it is often impossible to know how many people were killed, how they died and by whose hand they did die."
In recent days, there have been a number of detailed and apparently credible firsthand news reports from the vicinity of Jalalabad, suggesting U.S. bombing attacks have pulverized villages and killed scores of civilians.
Pentagon officials concede it is possible there were civilian casualties resulting from these latest attacks on suspected Taleban and al-Qaida targets in the vicinity of Jalalabad.
But they say if there were any, they were most probably Taleban and al-Qaida family members who were, said one official, "in the wrong place at the wrong time." They liken what happened to an attack on a U.S. base, noting there is often family housing at American military installations.
Rear Admiral John Stufflebeen of the Pentagon's joint staff insists the U.S. strikes were on legitimate military targets. "We know for a fact that these were legitimate military targets in that area that were struck. We know that there was terrific traditional, consistent planning to ensure that only these targets were struck," he said. "We know there were no off-target hits, so there were no collateral damage worries in this series of strikes. And therefore I can't comment on the civilian casualties because I don't know them to be true."
The monitoring group Human Rights Watch has voiced concern over the risks faced by the women and children of foreign Taleban fighters who have been left stranded by the fighting. It is asking Afghan anti-Taleban forces, the United States and the international community to facilitate the exit of these civilians from combat zones. Human Rights Watch says civilians are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law, regardless of what their husbands and fathers may have done.
In the meantime, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says U.S. forces are going to exceptional lengths to avoid hitting civilians even as American forces risk their lives to deliver humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.
He also says the United States knows the pain of losing innocent civilian lives, like those killed in the September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.