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Bombing of Farming Village Undermines U.S. Credibility

Both sides agree that the Afghan village of Chowkar-Karez was bombed. But that's where the agreement ends.
The Taliban says between 90 and 100 civilians, almost the entire population of the village, were killed in an attack by U.S. warplanes on Oct. 22. The Pentagon says the community was supporting terrorists from the al-Qaeda network and deserved its fate.

That's where things might have remained were it not for an investigation by a Western human-rights group and a timely tour through Afghanistan by group of Western journalists.

Human Rights Watch concluded that at least 25, and possibly as many as 35 people died in the nighttime raid.

Western journalists taken to the village by the Taliban this week reported finding huge craters, pulverized houses, and bomb fragments strewn everywhere. They also found 18 fresh graves.

The bombing of Chowkar-Karez, a farming village about 60 kilometres north of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, has become the best documented bombing of the four-week-old war. It also has become something of a touchstone in the battle for credibility, and the Pentagon's handling of the information that has emerged has led some observers to wonder whether Washington really knows what is going on in the field.

The Taliban says 1,500 civilians have been killed in the raids, a figure the Pentagon insists is inflated. Confirmation is next to impossible since the Taliban simply hand their estimates to news agencies; the U.S. military can only guess at civilian deaths because it has no observers on the ground.

"It begins to make you question not only the credibility of the information that's coming back to us as members of the public but also the kind of information and intelligence that's going into the selection of targets," said Sidney Jones, the director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based organization has been interviewing civilians who end up in Pakistani hospitals, and has found that in almost all cases, survivors were forthcoming about the presence of Taliban or al-Qaeda military positions near where the bombs fell. Six survivors of Chowkar-Karez interviewed by Human Rights Watch were all adamant that there was nothing in their remote village that ought to have attracted the interest of the U.S. military. They described how the bombing began shortly before midnight on Oct. 22 and lasted for an hour.

Witnesses talked to by the Western reporters claimed there were no Taliban troops in the village and that U.S. planes opened fire on people as they attempted to flee the bombs.

The Pentagon has confirmed that Chowkar-Karez was attacked by AC-130 Spectre gunships, which fly low and are armed with cannons. But it has made no further statements, even though the attack was raised in three different press briefings.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- asked again this week about the incident after the journalists visited the site -- professed ignorance. "I cannot deal with that particular village," he replied.

Later, unidentified Pentagon officials told CNN that Chowkar-Karez was "a fully legitimate target" because it was a nest of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers. "The people there are dead because we wanted them dead," an official said.



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