The U.S. military violated international law in Afghanistan by indiscriminately dropping cluster bombs on populated areas, killing at least 25 civilians and injuring numerous others, Human Rights Watch said in a report scheduled for release today.
The group also said that another 127 civilians have been killed or injured in Afghanistan by unexploded cluster "bomblets" that have become "de facto antipersonnel landmines" across large areas of the country. Sixty-nine percent of those killed or injured, the group said, were children.
"While U.S. modifications in targeting and technology appear to have reduced the adverse humanitarian side effects of the cluster bombs used in Afghanistan to some degree," the Human Rights Watch report said, "the weapon still poses a danger to civilians in future conflicts because of its broad footprint, lack of accuracy, and high number of explosive duds left behind."
Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, denied that the United States indiscriminately uses cluster bombs and faulted the Taliban and al Qaeda for conducting military operations in populated areas.
He said the use of cluster bombs requires higher-level approval than the use of noncluster munitions. He noted that the United States had dropped thousands of leaflets in Afghanistan warning civilians to stay away from the unexploded bomblets.
"The biggest casualty in this misleading report is the truth," Wilkinson said. "The truth is, no military in the history of war has done more to protect the innocent than we have in Afghanistan. On many occasions, legitimate targets were bypassed because of potential collateral damage. The U.S. restrained its force well beyond that required by the law of armed conflict."
Dropped from an aircraft, a cluster bomb releases 202 bomblets at a preset altitude. The bomblets float down to the battlefield on tiny parachutes and detonate when they hit the ground, spraying an oval area as large as 400 feet by 800 feet with steel fragments designed to kill people, molten slugs that penetrate tanks and incendiary fragments that can burn through metal vehicles.
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, based its conclusions on Pentagon statistics and site visits at 250 locations in Afghanistan earlier this year. In the report, "Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United States in Afghanistan," the group urged the Pentagon to stop using cluster bombs until the "dud rate" is reduced from more than 5 percent to less than 1 percent of bomblets.
The group also recommended that the U.S. military rewrite its targeting practices so that cluster bombs would no longer be dropped on or near inhabited areas, since international humanitarian law requires that combatants take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties in war time.
"When cluster bombs are used in civilian areas, the U.S. is not doing what it can to avoid civilian casualties," said Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director. "Cluster bombs are the only 'dumb' weapons that the Pentagon still uses in populated areas. When a modern Air Force has precision weapons in significant supply, it has a duty to use them when civilians are nearby."
The group's report said that the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs on Afghanistan -- 5 percent of the 26,000 bombs dropped between October 2001 and March 2002. The cluster bombs contained 248,056 bomblets. The group estimated that at least 12,400 unexploded bomblets remain on the ground, using what the group said was the Pentagon's "conservative" dud rate of 5 percent.
Bonnie Docherty, one of the report's authors, said those statistics were obtained from the Pentagon and from reports the Pentagon supplied to humanitarian organizations working to clear land mines in Afghanistan.
Wilkinson disputed the number of cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. military, saying the Human Rights Watch figure overstates the actual total by almost 40 percent.