How many people have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Somalia? On November 18, a UN Press briefing on the war in Yemen declared authoritatively that it had so far killed 5 700 people, including 830 women and children.
But how precise are these figures, what are they based on, and what relation are they likely to bear to the true numbers of people killed?
Throughout the US-led war in Afghanistan, the media has cited UN updates comparing numbers of Afghans killed by “coalition forces” and the “Taliban.” Following the US escalation of the war in 2009 and 2010, a report by McClatchy in March 2011 was headlined, “UN: US-led forces killed fewer Afghan civilians last year.”
It reported a 26 percent drop in US-led killing of Afghan civilians in 2010, offset by a 28 percent increase in civilians killed by the “Taliban” and “other insurgents.” This was all illustrated in a neat pie-chart slicing up the extraordinarily low reported total of 2 777 Afghan civilians killed in 2010 at the peak of the US-led escalation of the war.
Neither the UN nor the media made any effort to critically examine this reported decrease in civilians killed by US-led forces, even as US troop strength peaked at 100 000 in August 2010, Pentagon data showed a 22 percent increase in US air strikes, from 4 163 in 2009 to 5 100 in 2010, and US special forces “kill or capture” raids exploded from 90 in November 2009 to 600 per month by the summer of 2010, and eventually to over 1 000 raids in April 2011.
Senior US military officers quoted in Dana Priest and William Arkin’s book, “Top Secret America”, told the authors that only half of such special forces raids target the right people or homes, making the reported drop in resulting civilian deaths even more implausible.
If McClatchy had investigated the striking anomaly of a reported decrease in civilian casualties in the midst of a savagely escalating war, it would have raised serious questions regarding the full scale of the slaughter taking place in occupied Afghanistan.
And it would have revealed a disturbing pattern of under-reporting by the UN and the media in which a small number of deaths that happened to be reported to UN officials or foreign reporters in Kabul was deceptively relayed to the world as an estimate of total civilian war deaths.
The reasons for the media’s reluctance to delve into such questions lie buried in Iraq.
During the US military occupation of Iraq, controversy erupted over conflicting estimates of the numbers of Iraqis killed and details of who killed them.
If more UN officials and journalists had dug into those conflicting reports from Iraq and made the effort to really understand the differences between them, they would have been far better equipped to make sense of reports of numbers of people killed in other wars.
The critical thing to understand about reports on numbers of civilians killed in wars is the difference between “passive reporting” and scientific “mortality studies”.
In reality, the huge discrepancy between the results of these mortality studies and “passive reporting” was exactly what epidemiologists expected to find in a conflict zone like occupied Iraq.
As Les Roberts and his colleagues have explained, epidemiologists working in war zones typically find that passive reporting only captures between 5 percent (in Guatemala, for example) and 20 percent of the total deaths revealed by comprehensive mortality studies.
So their finding that passive reporting in Iraq had captured about one in 12 actual deaths was consistent with extensive research in other war-torn countries.
In the UK, Tony Blair dismissed the “Lancet survey ” out of hand, claiming that, “Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is.”
But in 2007, the BBC obtained a set of leaked documents that included a memo from Sir Roy Anderson, the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Defence Ministry, in which he described the epidemiologists’ methods as “close to best practice” and their study design as “robust.”
The document trove included emails between worried British officials admitting that the study was “likely to be right” and that “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.” But the very same official insisted that the government must “not accept the figures quoted in the Lancet survey as accurate.”
Other mortality surveys conducted in Iraq have produced lower figures, but there are legitimate reasons to regard the work of Les Roberts and his colleagues as the gold standard, based on their experience in other conflicts and the thoroughness of their methods.
Other surveys were conducted by the occupation government, not by independent researchers, inevitably making people reluctant to tell survey teams about family members killed by occupation forces.
Some studies excluded the most war-torn parts of Iraq, while one was based only on a single question about deaths in the family as part of a lengthy “living conditions” survey.
The authors of the most recent study, published in the PLOS medical journal in 2013, a decade after the invasion, have acknowledged that it produced a low estimate, because so much time had elapsed and because they did not interview any of the more than 3 million people who had fled their homes in the most devastated areas.
They made adjustments to compensate for such factors, but those adjustments themselves were deliberately conservative. However, their estimate of 500 000 violent civilian deaths is still four times the highest numbers passively reported.