Month: October 2001

Precision, My Ass

It was early evening and the villagers were just sitting down to dinner. It was a cold, clear night, but not as quiet as usual, because the village was swollen with refugees who had escaped from the bombing of Jalabad, 30 miles away. As the prayers finished and the food was served, the meal was suddenly interrupted by the sound of two jets flying overhead, followed quickly by the roar of bombs exploding.

Men ran from their houses to check on the damage, but the women and children stayed indoors. Only a few people were injured. The bombs must have fallen by mistake; there was no military target nearby. This place was safe. But the jets turned and made a second pass over the village, and then a third, each time dropping more ordnance onto the homes of Karam, a rural, mountain village in Afghanistan.

Surviving residents and several reporters say that the village was completely destroyed by US bombs. Over 100 people, perhaps as many as 200, were killed–mostly women, children, and old people. Many of the bodies still remain interred in the ruins.

The US government says that Karam was once a training camp for Al Qaeda. In fact, the site was used to train mujahideen during the 1980s and was run by Sadiq Bacha to train members of the Hezb-i-Islami faction with CIA support.

Some of those men later joined the Taliban, but the base was never used by Al Qaeda. It was closed and abandoned in 1992, before bin Laden moved to Afghanistan. In the 1990s, families moved in and built mud and rock houses on the site. During the winter, nomads also made Karam their temporary home. Obviously, the US military relied on old, outdated, and incorrect information.

This has happened before: take, for example, the October 9th bombing of the Afghan Technical Consultants offices, a UN agency responsible for removing landmines in Afghanistan. The US government claims that ATC was near a military radio tower, but UN officials say the tower was a defunct and abandoned medium and short wave radio station that hadn’t been in operation for over a decade. And the ATC had even given its address to higher-ups at the UN to pass on to the US military, so the ATC offices would not be hit.

Four men were killed in the explosion, including two security guards: Najeebullah, a father of five young children, and Safiullah, a father of four. The other two victims were Nasir Ahmad, a newly married medical nurse, and Abdul Saboor. Only two days before, Saboor had volunteered to make the perilous trip from Pakistan into Afghanistan on foot to deliver much-needed cash salaries to UN employees. Just two hours after he arrived at the ATC offices, his body was blown apart in the explosion, along with the money that was sent with him.

How often has the US military made this kind of mistake? It’s impossible to know, since the Taliban have expelled all western reporters and Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan, making it hard for reporters to get into the country. Pakistani border guards are beating Afghan refugees with sticks and firing guns at them to keep them from crossing into Pakistan, where their stories of the bombing may further enrage the Pakistani populace.

But the refugees who can afford to pay bribes or are well enough to make the hike over mountainous terrain are finally making it into Pakistan and telling their stories. Here is a small collection of the civilian deaths told to reporters so far. None of these accounts come from Taliban sources; all are from refugees and western or Pakistani reporters.

In Jalalabad, the Sultanpur Mosque was hit by a bomb during prayers, with 17 people caught inside. Neighbors rushed into the rubble to help pull out the injured, but as the rescue effort got under way, another bomb fell, killing at least 120 people.

In the village of Darunta near Jalalabad, a US bomb fell on another mosque. Two people were killed and dozens–perhaps as many as 150 people–were injured. Many of those injured are languishing without medical care in the Sehat-e-Ama hospital in Jalalabad, which lacks resources to treat the wounded.

More civilian deaths are being reported in the villages of Torghar and Farmada, north and west of Jalalabad. At least 28 civilians had died in Farmada, which has an abandoned Al Qaeda training camp nearby. In Argandab, north of Kandahar, 10 civilians have died from the bombing and several houses have been destroyed. The same has happened in Karaga, north of Kabul.

A five-year-old child was killed while sleeping in his family’s home outside Kandahar when two bombs fell on a munitions storage area half a mile away. The explosion threw shells and rockets in all directions and one of those shells smashed through the mud-brick wall of his bedroom, slicing open young Taj Muhammed’s abdomen and burning his six-year-old sister, Kambibi. Taj suffered for 12 hours at a nearby hospital before he died.

On Oct. 7, the first night of the bombing, US planes targeted the Hotel Continental in Kabul. Taliban commanders have stayed at the hotel, but civilians also stay there on a regular basis. In the first wave of bombing, at least one private residence in Kabul suffered a direct hit and others were damaged. On the same night, bombs were dropped on the houses of Taliban leaders in Kandahar. Two civilian relatives of Mullah Muhammad Omar were killed: his aged stepfather and his 10-year-old son.

On Oct. 8, the second night of the bombing, three missiles were aimed at the airport in Jalalabad, but only one hit the target. The other two went astray and exploded nearby, killing one civilian, and injuring a second so severely that he needed to be driven to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, to have shrapnel removed from a deep wound in his neck and his spinal injuries treated. He’s not expected to survive. A third 16-year-old boy injured in the same attack was also taken to a hospital in Peshawar; he lost his leg and two fingers, and he says that many more people were injured and may have died in the same incident.

On Oct. 11, a bomb aimed at the Kabul airport went astray and hit Qala-e-Chaman, a village one mile away, destroying several houses and killing a 12-year-old child. Three other houses collapsed from the explosion, and at least four civilians were injured. On the same night, another missile hit a house near the Kabul customs building, killing 10 civilians.

As of Oct. 12, the UN had independently reported at least 20 civilian deaths in Mazar-i-Sharif and 10 civilian deaths in Kandahar.

On Oct. 13, Khushkam Bhat, a residential district between Jalalabad airport and a nearby military area, was accidentally bombed by US planes trying to down a Taliban helicopter. More than 100 houses were flattened.

At least 160 people were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospitals.

On Oct. 16, two bombs fell on two Red Cross warehouses in the center of Kabul. The warehouses, bombed in full daylight, were clearly marked with red crosses on their roofs. US spokesmen claim that the warehouses were hit because there were military vehicles parked nearby. But those were Red Cross transport trucks.

On Oct. 17, a bomb scored a “direct hit” on a boy’s school in Kabul, but fortunately didn’t explode. A US plane, however, dropped a bomb at Mudad Chowk, a residential area of Kandahar, which did explode, destroying two houses and several shops, and killing at least seven people. In Kabul, four bombs fell near the city center; casualties are as yet unknown.

On Oct. 18, a bomb killed four members of a family in the eastern suburb of Qalaye Zaman Khan when it demolished two homes. A half a mile away, another bomb exploded in a housing complex, killing a 16-year-old girl.

The UN reports that Kandahar has fallen into a state of “pre-Taliban lawlessness,” with gangs taking over homes and looting shops.

On Oct. 19, the UN announces that at least 80% of the residents of Kandahar have left the city to escape the bombing and are swamping the surrounding villages, where there are no resources to care for them. Some have moved on to the border and crossed into Pakistan. One refugee said that there are bodies littering the streets of Kandahar and people are dying in the hospitals for lack of drugs. “We know we will lead a miserable life in Pakistan, in tents,” he said. “We have come here just to save our children.”

The civilian death toll is in the hundreds, probably thousands, and sure to rise with two new developments. US Air Force pilots have been given the go ahead to fire “at will”–at anything they desire, without pre authorization from strategists peering at satellite and surveillance photos. In fact, there are now regions of the country that have been designated “kill boxes,” patrolled night and day by low-flying aircraft with the mission to shoot anything that moves within the area. There has been no mention of how Afghan civilians will know where such “kill boxes” are and how to avoid them.

In addition, US planes are now dropping cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are like landmines on steroids; they fall, release hundreds of small “bomblets,” which disperse and explode, slicing through people, cars, trucks, and even certain types of buildings. Notably, about 8-12% of the brightly-colored bomblets don’t explode on impact, leaving behind attractive but deadly toys for children to play with later. Thousands of Afghan children were killed or maimed by similar bombs and attractive booby traps dropped by the Soviets in the 1980’s.

As if that weren’t horrible enough, the UN says that many of the US’s air-dropped food packets have landed on minefields; this will lure starving refugees to gruesome deaths. After two decades of war, Afghanistan still has 10 million landmines buried in the ground.

In Other News…

While the media’s been busy cooking up stories about bioterrorism and reporting every arrest as somehow linked to the World Trade Center attack, there’s a lot of important news that simply hasn’t been reported.

On Aug. 29, an independent hearing board quietly scrapped Washington State’s new shoreline protection rules. Responding to farmers and logging interests, the Shoreline Hearings Board suspended the new rules, which took effect last November and replaced less stringent guidelines written 30 years ago. The new rules were written by the Department of Ecology with input from environmental groups like People For Puget Sound. The next step, of course, is a court challenge.

The city of Seattle’s Salmon Team, a group of city-funded researchers, have discovered that two endangered fish species–chinook salmon and bull trout–use Seattle’s waterways (surprise!). Both fish prefer undisturbed, rocky shorelines, which brings them in direct conflict with businesses and homeowners who want to use local shorelines without restrictions. Up to 800 wild chinook annually make the journey through the Ballard Locks and the Montlake Cut into Lake Washington and the Cedar River, where they lay eggs in the gravelly riverbed. The hatchlings swim down to Lake Washington, where they feed for four or five months before heading out to sea.

The Duwamish waterway has been officially added to the federal Superfund List. The EPA and the state Department of Ecology will oversee cleanup of the waterway and attempt to recover the cost of the cleanup from businesses located on a five-mile stretch of the Lower Duwamish. The two largest property owners are the Port of Seattle (250 fetid acres) and Boeing (several parcels that add up to 110 toxic acres). Part of Boeing’s Plant No. 2 squats on pilings directly over the waterway.

On Sept. 27, the federal government denied recognition for the Duwamish Tribe, reversing a decision granted by Bill Clinton as he was leaving office. The Duwamish are the original inhabitants of Seattle. Chief Seattle was a member of the Duwamish Tribe.

Speaking of water quality, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that says the Clinton administration’s proposed arsenic standards may not be strict enough. The report is based on 300 recent arsenic studies. For decades, the standard set by the EPA was 50 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water. After months of pressure from environmental groups and scientists, Clinton finally set a standard of 10 ppb just as he was leaving office. One of Bush’s first acts in office was to suspend the new standard. Congress, however, passed legislation calling for a new standard to be instituted–one that’s no higher than 10 ppb. Bush has yet to act, so the Academy of Sciences is pouring on the pressure again. Meanwhile, an estimated 13 million people in the US drink water with more than 10 ppb of arsenic in it.

In other water-related news, the UN’s Environment Program has documented the accelerated destruction of coral reefs. The world’s reefs cover 113,720 square miles (much less than was previously thought) and provide important habitat for marine life, as well as the chemical compounds used to make the HIV drug AZT. Pollution is a major cause of damage to coral reefs, particularly sewage and fertilizer runoff, which breeds a type of algae that smothers reefs. Global warming also bleaches reefs, killing the beneficial algae that supports the coral. Fishermen often use dynamite or cyanide to kill or stun fish that live in reefs, destroying coral in the process. The US has about 1,500 square miles of coral reefs.

The decision to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hangs by a thread in the Senate. Three business groups–the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Small Business Survival Committee–have joined with the Teamsters’ Union and Senate Republicans to push legislation that would open up the ANWR for drilling. In addition to the argument that the US shouldn’t rely on the Middle East for oil, businesses are whining about the bogeyman of “future price shocks,” which could be the last nail in the coffin for some businesses suffering from the recession. In the name of spurring an economic recovery, we could lose the ANWR to the oil barons.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit approved a $2.1 billion light rail plan to build an abbreviated route from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. The route would stop one mile short of SeaTac airport; rail commuters would have to get off the train and take shuttle buses to the airport. Why bother when there are already several express buses that run non-stop from downtown to the airport? As Greg Nickels, who may soon be our new mayor, said: “you have to start with something.” That’s lame. But even worse is the reason why the trains stop short of their goal: the Port of Seattle doesn’t want a rail station built until it’s finished building the third runway, which still doesn’t have the required environmental permits and waivers. Can you say Catch-22?

Emory Bundy, a critic of Sound Transit’s light rail project, described the decision: “It was a depressing experience. It is painful to witness how vast a sum the board is prepared to invest in such a tiny piece of the region’s transportation problem–and how indifferent the board is to the most elemental relationship between costs and benefits.”

And speaking of costs and benefits, local charities are reporting that donations have dried up since Sept. 11. National charities have raised more than $700 million for the families of the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Congress just approved a bill that would pay the families an additional $1 million each. It’s past time we turn our attention back to the people in our own community who need our help (and who won’t be getting a million bucks from the government any time soon).

Facts on Afghanistan:

(From the CIA Factbook)

Population: 26.8 million (as of July 2001)

Natural Resources: natural gas, petroleum (oil), coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious stones

Geography: 12% arable land, 46% pasture land, 3% forests and woodlands, 39% bare rock, mountain, desert, and other unproductive land.

Life expectancy: 46.97 years for men and 45.47 years for women

Ethnic groups: Pashtun 38%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 19%, Uzbek 6%, and minor groups (Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch and others) 12%.

Religions: Sunni Muslim 84%, Shi’a 15%, other 1%

Literacy: 47.2% of men and 15% of women

Per capita income: $800

Labor force: 70% agriculture, 15% industry, 15% service

Debt: $5.5 billion (as of 1996)

Exports: opium, fruits and nuts, handmade carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, and gems

Export partners: former Soviet states, Pakistan, Iran, Germany, India, Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czech Republic

Imports: food, most consumer goods, and capital goods (for example, machinery, electronics, trucks, parts, etc.)

Infrastructure:

21,000 km of roads, but only 2,793 km are paved 1 natural gas pipeline 10 airports with paved runways and 3 helicopter pads 1 active AM radio station (in Kabul) 1 active FM radio station 10 TV stations in various cities (1 in Kabul run by the Taliban) electricity production: 64.29% hydropower and 35.71 fossil fuels 55 military training bases and installations (according to press accounts)–none of them are significant, according to the Bush administration

Bin Laden: Scanty Evidence

Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, released a report last week that leaves “absolutely no doubt that bin Laden and his network are responsible” for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But a closer look at the report reveals inconsistencies and untruths that leave a lot of doubt as to who planned the attacks.

Most of the report is devoted to linking bin Laden to the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya in Tanzania in 1998. Testimony in the trial of the men who carried out the embassy bombings implicates two groups: bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Most of the FBI’s and the CIA’s understanding of Al Qaeda, its operatives, and their links to other terrorist groups comes from the testimony in this trial. The FBI’s star witness, Jamal Al-Fadl, described a pyramid of political, military, business, and charitable organizations with bin Laden seated firmly at the top. Beneath bin Laden is a council called the Shura, which consists of a group of senior members of several different terrorist groups who share resources and run the committees. Notably, none of the defendants on trial described this structure. Al-Fadl himself was a defector from Al Qaeda; he had a falling out with bin Laden in 1998, then stole some of Al Qaeda’s funds and fled.

Al-Fadl then meandered around the Middle East, visiting Syria, Saudia Arabia, and Israel. In each country, he tried to get the government to take him seriously and listen to his story, to no avail. But then he approached the US, which jumped at the chance to use him in the embassy bombings trial.

In fact, videotapes seized in raids on suspected terrorists in Europe have shown bin Laden and others issuing fatwas against the US in unison, in support of each other. This points to a network of terrorist groups in which the senior members are equals, not a corporate-style pyramidal structure with bin Laden at the top.

It is difficult to believe that the senior members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that is twice as old as Al Qaeda and has accomplished the assassination of Anwar Sadat, bombings of Egyptian government buildings, and devastating attacks on tourist sites, would defer to bin Laden.

The Blair report says: “Al-Qaida operatives … have described how the group spends years preparing for an attack. They conduct repeated surveillance, patiently gather materials, and identify and vet operatives, who have the skills to participate in the attack and the willingness to die for their cause.” The report states that this is a unique characteristic of Al Qaeda, which is untrue. The same words can be used to describe Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Army of Aden (which claimed credit for the USS Cole bombing), Hezbollah (which blew up the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983 and bombed the US army barracks in Beirut), the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (responsible for bombings in Algeria and France), and dozens of other terrorist groups.

The other evidence falls apart upon examination. Here’s a quick rundown:

–Intercepted phone messages. Suspected Al Qaeda members discussed an attack against US targets “on or around Sept. 11” before the WTC attack happened. No support is given for this assertion. There’s no explanation why these messages are now being said to have occurred before the attack and not afterwards, as originally reported.

Bin Laden called his mother on Sept. 10 saying that he wouldn’t be able to meet her in Damascus because something big was planned. This could have been anything, including the suicide bombing that killed the main opposition leader in Afghanistan the day before the WTC attack.

–Three of the hijackers have links to bin Laden. British and US intelligence disagree on this. The US says Wali Mohamed al-Shehri and Hamza Al-Ghamdi were trained by bin Laden, even though the evidence, which is vague at best, places them at only one of the estimated 55 (or more) training camps and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The camp where the two men supposedly trained is run by a different Islamic group that trains guerrillas to fight in Kashmir.

The Blair report doesn’t name the three hijackers, but British officials say the three men are Mohamed Atta, Majed Moqed, and Khalid Almihdhar. The report also says that Almihdhar is the Al Qaeda link to the Cole and embassy bombings, but US officials dispute that. Almihdhar once met someone in Malaysia who may have been linked to the Cole attack, but he didn’t play a part in either the Cole or embassy bombings.

–One of bin Laden’s closest and most senior associates planned the WTC attack. Again, the Blair report doesn’t name this person. US intelligence officials don’t know who the report is referring to. They are puzzled by it and think Tony Blair misread efforts to investigate bin Laden’s associates as an assertion that at least one of them planned the attack.

Other evidence cited in the media is equally flimsy:

–Suspicious short-selling of European airline and insurance stocks. The CIA claims that bin Laden and Al Qaeda deal mostly in cash, so how could they sell stock they don’t own? The three companies whose stocks were “targeted” had just issued financial information about lower-than-expected profit levels, which is why their stock traded at a higher volume on Sept. 10.

–The French and Spanish links. Two groups of Islamic extremists recently arrested in France and Spain are closely linked to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and not to Al Qaeda.

On the other hand, Djamel Beghal, recently arrested in the United Arab Emirates, has confessed that he was part of an “Al Qaeda” plot to bomb the US embassy in Paris and other US targets in France. Beghal doesn’t name bin Laden specifically; instead, he was recruited by Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian with links to Hamas. Abu Zubaydah is one of several men living in exile in Afghanistan who’s often described as the “brains behind bin Laden.” (This implies that the term “mastermind” is an inaccurate description of Osama bin Laden.)

–The German link. Several of the hijackers lived and studied at universities in Hamburg, Germany. The German secret police believe they may have had contact with a Syrian businessman named Mamoun Darkazanli, who at one time managed some of bin Laden’s financial assets, but they have no proof other than “joint membership in Islamic clubs.” German police detained and questioned Darkazanli, but let him go for lack of evidence.

–And, finally, the money transfers. Mustafa Mohamed Ahmad, a man suspected of being an Al Qaeda financial operative, transferred money to one of the hijackers before the attacks. Three of the hijackers transferred $15,000 back to Ahmad’s account in the UAE. Then a man–no name is given–took the cash and bought an airline ticket to Karachi, Pakistan, where his trail disappeared. No evidence is given regarding Ahmad’s links to bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Notably, Pakistan, with its cash-based, black market economy, is a perfect place to launder money. It’s also the main route for money to travel to reach Afghan charities or the Taliban for its war effort.

It’s possible that US intelligence agencies have more classified material that the press and Tony Blair haven’t seen, but that’s unlikely. When the US recently made its case for bin Laden’s guilt to NATO, European diplomats were quoted as saying that the evidence contained “no smoking gun,” was “circumstantial at best,” and that much of it was already in the public domain.

Some of the many sources for this article: “Allied Detail Case Against Bin Laden,” Los Angeles Times, 10/5/01; “Text of Evidence Against bin Laden,” AP, 10/4/01; “Witness Revealed bin Laden’s World,” AP, 9/30/01; “Following the money trail,” BBC News Online, 9/19/01; “French trials expose bin Laden tentacles,” The Times of London, 9/28/01; “Paris suspect denies Bin Laden link,” BBC News Online, 10/2/01; “German Officials Link Hijackers To Al Qaeda Group,” Washington Post, 9/27/01, A1; “Bin Laden’s ‘cash link’ to hijackers,” BBC News Online, 10/1/01; “NATO: U.S. Evidence on Bin Laden ‘Compelling,'” Washington Post, 10/3/01, A11; and “Five Egyptian Islamic militants appear on Bush’s wanted list,” Agence France Presse, 9/25/01.

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