The Washington Post

Paul Wong
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells reporters yesterday that U.S. airstrikes have weakened the Taliban.<br><br>AP PHOTO

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

“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 Taliban and al-Qaida,” Rumsfeld said.

“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, D.C.”s efforts 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 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 of Kabul, killing residents. Red Cross facilities mistakenly have been 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, repeatedly have 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.

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