, September 16, 2006

How the US Makes War: Body counts in Afghanistan and Iraq

For every American who dies in either Afghanistan or Iraq, about 17 innocent Afghan or Iraqi civilians perish.

by Marc W. Herold ( )

For every American who dies in either Afghanistan or Iraq, about 17 innocent Afghan or Iraqi civilians perish. The overall cumulative death count for both Americans and civilians in Iraqi is approximately ten times greater than in Afghanistan (data accessed on September 17, 2006). No inference should here be drawn that therefore the Iraq conflict is more lethal as lethality needs to be computed in terms relative to size of relevant population universe. The similarity of the numbers in the last rows and columns in the Table below is astounding, seemingly revealing that these are the results of the underlying way the United States military carries out its twenty-first century wars.

The data for this assessment is generated from two web-based compilations which present disaggregated figures by incident. Data for Afghanistan comes from three chronological data bases ( ) covering the period October 7, 2001 to the present assembled by the author, whereas Iraqi numbers come from the website of Iraq Body Count ( ).

Though employing a similar methodology, the two compilations are not strictly comparable insofar as the Afghan count only includes Afghan (and some Pakistani) civilians killed by U.S. and NATO military action, whereas the Iraq Body Count compilation has a much broader definition of civilians killed by military intervention, to include those killed by indirect effects on civil security such as rampant crime and inter-communal violence. In other words, a strict comparison of the two counts must be treated with caution insofar as relatively-speaking, the Iraq civilian count will be significantly higher.

In both cases, the reported civilian deaths are floor or minimum numbers. We recognize that many incidents exist where civilians are killed but go unreported (more so in Afghanistan today than in Iraq). In the Afghan case, civilians injured because of bombing and/or fighting who subsequently die, are not included (after December 10, 2001). The higher level of institutional development and the greater level of urbanization in Iraq than in Afghanistan have made the recording and counting of war’s casualties more feasible (e.g., morgues are non-existent in Afghanistan).

American deaths (in theater)Civilian deathsRatio of civilian to American deaths
Gulf War 1991293(3,200 -) 5,000*(10.9 -) 17.1
Afghanistan2764,576 - 5,34216.6/19.3 to 1
Iraq2,67443,154 - 47,93116.1 to 17.9 to 1
Ratio of Iraq to Afghanistan9.7 to 19.4/10.9 to 1-

* The 3,200 figure is inaccurate and was put forth by the Associated Press on the basis of only hospital compilations. A leaked UN report suggests that civilian casualties were 3,500-15,000 (see Jonathan Steele, Counting the Dead (,3604,884289,00.html ),"The Guardian , January 29, 2003.

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