Pentagon Defends Strikes as Civilian Toll Rises

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to rebut the growing perception in the Islamic world that U.S. bombs are targeting Afghan civilians, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday offered his most aggressive defense yet of what he called the painstaking care the Pentagon is putting into avoiding nonmilitary casualties.

"No nation in human history has done more to avoid civilian casualties than the United States has in this conflict," Rumsfeld said. "So let there be no doubt: Responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of [the] Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"Their leaderships are the ones that are hiding in mosques and using Afghan civilians as 'human shields' by placing their armor and artillery in close proximity to civilians, schools, hospitals and the like. When the Taliban issue accusations of civilian casualties, they indict themselves."

Rumsfeld's emotional words at a Pentagon briefing were a clear indication that images of stray U.S. bombs striking civilians are jeopardizing Washington's effort to win support in some Islamic countries for its war on terrorism.

But U.S. efforts to fight the propaganda war have been severely limited, constrained by squabbling between the Pentagon and the State Department over the best way to project the right message.

"What have we done so far? Drop leaflets with food packets? That's a pretty darn poor effort on the part of a country like the United States; they are capable of a far more sophisticated effort than they've shown to date," said Jay Farrar, a former congressional liaison for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council.

"We don't have a concentrated effort that points out our successes and points to what we are doing right."

Rumsfeld's comments came after two consecutive days in which errant bombs hit homes in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and elsewhere, killing residents. Red Cross facilities have been mistakenly hit twice. Last week, bombs landed outside a home for the elderly near the western city of Herat and in a residential neighborhood northwest of Kabul.

The Pentagon has acknowledged the errant strikes, although sometimes only after several days have passed. Its attempts to publicize the goals behind the U.S. strikes have been limited to brief statements by Rumsfeld and other officials during briefings and interviews and, in Afghanistan, to leaflets dropped from planes and broadcasts that break into regular Afghan radio programs.

Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban leaders, meanwhile, have repeatedly described carnage they say is the result of U.S. bombing. Images of the dead have filled television screens, radio broadcasts and newspaper reports in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries where public support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism has been tenuous.

Indeed, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who supports the U.S.-led attacks, warned last week against "excessive collateral damage" to civilians--a concern also expressed by several other world leaders, including those of China and Malaysia.

Even as the U.S. airstrikes increasingly come under fire for their unintended victims, Rumsfeld acknowledged Monday that the military's success in targeting intended victims has been, at best, spotty.

He said that while U.S. bombs had not killed any top leaders of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, three weeks of bombing have taken a toll on the Afghan regime and the terrorist organization.

"There's no question but that the Taliban and Al Qaeda people . . . have been killed," Rumsfeld said. "To our knowledge, none of the very top six, eight, 10 people have been included in that."

Rumsfeld was joined Monday by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reported that the airstrikes on Sunday had used about 65 aircraft.

Earlier Monday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters that the bombing had moved north, toward Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan. Targets included the Taliban military's armor and troop concentrations, she said, noting that the United States was trying to systematically zero in on the Taliban's complex system of cave hide-outs.

A Pentagon official who wished to remain anonymous said slow progress in the propaganda war is raising concern at the highest levels of government. The U.S. Information Agency, formerly an independent agency whose primary role was to manage America's image abroad, was folded into the State Department two years ago, and its activities since then have been ill-funded.

The Pentagon, preoccupied with waging the military campaign, is "its own worst enemy," the official said.

Farrar, the former National Security Council and Joint Chiefs aide, suggested dropping battery-powered radios inside Afghanistan to the thousands of people too poor to own one, and aggressively marketing the U.S. perspective elsewhere in the Islamic world.

But Daniel Benjamin, former director of transnational threats for the National Security Council, said that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East may make that an impossible task.

"It's completely natural that the Pentagon and the administration generally are feeling stung and are feeling a need to do everything they can to assure the Islamic world that this is not a campaign against Islam," Benjamin said. "But this is an uphill battle because the impression has been more than laid; it has been cemented by years and years in which this kind of anti-Americanism was the stock in trade of these countries."

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