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The Human Cost of the War on Terror

Body Counts

by M. REZA PIRBHAI

In the early days of the ‘War on Terror,’ US General Tommy Franks declared, “We don’t do body counts.”  He was referring, of course, to the dead of Afghanistan. That the names of 9/11 victims have been appropriately written in stone, only makes it doubly striking that the war waged in their names generates little interest on non-US or NATO civilian deaths. In fact, a war now in its 11th year, comprising the invasion and occupation of two countries, as well as the ongoing bombing of at least three more, has not produced any holistic studies on its direct and indirect casualties.

That a global war can rage so long with no official will to ascertain the number of ‘others’ killed is indicative of the manner in which the cost of war is calculated by those states prosecuting it. Non-US and NATO dead, maimed, disappeared or displaced can’t be part of the equation if official policy is not to count. That there appears to be little public will to change that policy speaks of a more broadly worrying attitude toward ‘others,’ particularly Muslims. The UN and some NGO’s are attempting to count, however, mostly in the variety of local contexts engulfed in the conflict. Despite the hurdles of official obfuscation and public indifference, a catalogue of deadly consequences has begun to emerge.

Beginning in Afghanistan, most commonly cited studies on the 2001 invasion find that approximately 4,000 to 8,000 Afghani civilians died as a direct result of military operations. There are no figures for 2003-05, but in 2006 Human Rights Watch recorded just under 1,000 civilians killed in fighting. From 2007 to July 2011, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tallies at least 10,292 non-combatants killed. These figures, it should be emphasized, do include indirect deaths or injuries. Some thing of the scope of indirect deaths can be gleaned from a Guardian article – the most thorough journalistic report on the subject – which calculated that at least 20,000 more died as a result of displacement and famine due to the disruption in food supplies in the first year of the war alone. As well, according to Amnesty International, approximately 250,000 people fled to other countries in 2001 and at least 500,000 more have been internally displaced since.

Moving to Iraq, the Iraq Body Count project records approximately 115,000 civilians killed in the cross-fire from 2003 to August 2011. However, the World Health Organization’s Iraq Family Health Survey reports a figure of approximately 150,000 in just the first three years of the occupation. With indirect deaths added, The Lancet Study placed the estimate at approximately 600,000 in the same period. Moreover, an Opinion Research Business study estimated 1,000,000 violent deaths to have occurred by mid-2007. In addition, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported approximately 2,000,000 Iraqis displaced to other countries and 2,000,000 more internally displaced as of 2007. There is no solid information on indirect death or injury rates, but the documented collapse of the Iraqi healthcare system and infrastructure more generally (foremost in the region before 1991) does not suggest anything less than another atrocity.

Beyond the two states under occupation, the ‘War on Terror’ spills into a number of neighboring countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Prime weapons deployed in these theatres have been US ‘drones,’ special operations groups, intelligence agents and the governments/armed forces of the countries involved. Given the often extra-judicial and covert nature of this theatre, calculating casualties is hampered by the virtual absence of independent data. Indeed, this is also a problem in Afghanistan and Iraq, but even so, considering only ‘drones’ thought to have been used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the numbers of strikes is agreed to be on the rise. To date, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that at least 357 strikes have occurred in Pakistan between 2004 and June 2012 (more than 300 under the Obama administration). At least 2,464 people have been killed, including a minimum of 484 civilians (168 children). The Washington Post adds 38 strikes resulting in 241 deaths (56 civilian) in Yemen. There are no figures for Somalia, but the New York Times confirms that operations have been ongoing since at least 2007.

Proponents of the war, official and public, will rush to retort that many of the citations in this article list most civilian deaths as the work of enemy combatants. But how can anyone confirm this when dependent on such a dearth of study? And as best highlighted by the ‘drone’ campaign, how can anyone transparently distinguish between civilians and combatants, when the latter’s assassins are also their judges?  Indeed, even if accepted at face value, these attacks make the US government one of the most prolific, self-professed ‘target killers’ in history. Moreover, as a representative from UMANA commented on his study, “if the non-combatant status of one or more victim(s) remains under significant doubt, such deaths are not included in the overall number of civilian casualties. Thus, there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties.” In fact, such problems are admitted by the authors of every study.

Pasting this patchy set of statistics together, the bottom end of the total non-US and NATO civilian deaths exceeds 140,000. The top end easily reaches 1,100,000. That’s 14,000 to 110,000 per year. To put these figures in some context, it is worth recalling that 40,000 civilians were killed by the Nazi ‘Blitz’ on Britain during WWII. As well, it should be recalled that in both low and high scenarios, figures for direct deaths in Afghanistan for 2003-5, and indirect deaths from 2003 to the present, are not available. Furthermore, civilian deaths caused by means other than drones, such as renditions and disappearances, are not counted from any arena, and casualties stemming from the military campaigns of proxies (e.g., the governments of Pakistan or Yemen) have not been tallied. The number alive, but injured, orphaned or otherwise disenfranchised, let alone those tortured in public and private prisons across the world, is also not tolled. And finally, the suffering of millions of displaced persons from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere remains incalculable.

What has been counted here, even though tragically incomplete, illumines the reason US and NATO officials are reticent to publically do the same. To consider the staggering human cost of the ‘War on Terror’ would mean admitting that ‘terrorism’ is a two-way street and states, not militias, drive the heaviest weapons. General Franks’ preference not to count bodies is egregious, but unsurprising. That his lack of interest is echoed in the public spheres of the US and NATO countries, exposes the more astonishing consent (manufactured or not) of general populations, at least in the case of these Muslim victims. Nothing less than this official and public indifference explains the absence of any holistic study on civilian casualties, particularly while mourning the nearly 3,000 civilians killed on 9/11 and in whose name the ‘War on Terror’ is still waged.

M. Reza Pirbhai is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at 
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at: rpirbhai@lsu.edu