Feb 1 2002

New York Times Buries Story of Airstrikes on Civilians

Extra! Update February 2002

On December 30, U.S. airstrikes hit the village of Niazi Kala (also called Qalaye Niaze) in eastern Afghanistan, killing dozens of civil­ians. The attack was major news in several British newspapers, with the Guardian and the Independent running front-page sto­ries. The headlines were straightforward: “U.S. Accused of Killing Over 100 Villagers in Airstrike” (Guardian, 1/1/02); “U.S. Accused of Killing 100 Civilians in Afghan Bombing Raid” (Independent, 1/1/02); 100 Villagers Killed’ in U.S. Airstrike” (London Times, 1/1/02).

In contrast, the New York Times first reported the civilian deaths at Niazi Kala under the bland headline “Afghan Leader Warily Backs U.S. Bombing” (1/2/02).

The U.N. estimated that 52 civilians were killed by the U.S. attack, including 25 children, and disputed Pentagon claims that those killed were linked to Al Qaeda. According to the U.N., “unarmed women and children” were “chased and killed by American helicopters,” some “as they fled to shelter” and others “as they tried to rescue survivors” (London Times, 1/4/02). Noting that “innumeracy, rapid burial, damage to bodies, propaganda” and “remoteness” make it difficult to reach a precise count of any of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the Guardian reported (1/7/02) that surviving villagers estimated anywhere between 32 and 107 dead, with the higher number coming from staff at the local hospital.

The Pentagon contends that the vil­lage was a legitimate military target because it sheltered Taliban leaders, Al Qaeda fighters and an ammunition dump, and reporters who toured the destruction saw evidence of a substantial weapons cache. But local residents denied that those killed had links to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, noting that many of those killed were guests in town for a wedding. As the Los Angeles Times has pointed out (1/8/02), the attack “raises difficult questions about the accuracy of the local information the United States is getting about the whereabouts of remain­ing Al Qaeda fighters.”

Descriptions of the destruction in Niazi Kala from reporters on the scene have been shocking. Guardian corre­spondent Rory Carroll (1/7/02) report­ed seeing “bloodied children’s shoes and skirts, bloodied school books, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, butter toffees in red wrappers, wedding decora­tions.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Times’ Alissa J. Rubin (1/8/02) reported “frag­ments of skull with black braided hair decorated with silver thread—an accesso­ry common among women in this region,” a child’s “severed shoe” and other evidence that “makes clear that women and children were killed by the U.S. bombing.”

The New York Times, however, has shied away from such graphic accounts. In its January 2 article, the paper treated reports that “up to 100 villagers in Paktia Province had been killed” not so much as a story in its own right, but as background to the issue of whether Hamid Karzai, head of the interim Afghan government, was holding firm in “his support for the war against terrorism.” Further details on the killings at Niazi Rah were scarce, but Times readers did learn that “part way through the interview, an aide entered carrying two scones” sent by Karzai’s sis­ter-in-law in Baltimore. The paper appar­ently included this information to sup­port Karzai’s contention that “things now seemed quite organized and civilized” in Afghanistan.

The following day (1/3/02), the New York Times provided more information about Niazi Kala, but once again nestled the story within an article on a related topic, this one about accusations that warlord Pacha Khan Zadran has provided false information to the U.S., leading to the airstrikes that last month struck a convoy of tribal leaders. The attack on Niazi Kala—which some have suggested was also targeted on Zadran’s recommen­dation (Independent, 1/4/02)—came up when the Times reported Zadran’s “assessment” that the villagers had been linked to the Taliban and were therefore legitimate targets. Commendably, the Times did contrast Zadran’s version of the story with the U.N.’s “far more chill­ing account of the human cost of destroy­ing the weapons stash,” quoting the report at some length. Unfortunately, these important details were buried in the middle of the page-A15 story, reflect­ed neither in its headline nor its lead.

In response to international pressure, including a British member of Parliament’s formal demands for an inquiry, the Pentagon has agreed to investigate the attack on Niazi Kala (Guardian, 1/4/02, 1/7/02). So far, the New York Times has not reported this fact.

The Times’ limited reporting of this story comes in the midst of a general fail­ure of the mainstream U.S. press to seri­ously investigate the extent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and the legality of the U.S. attacks.