Recent research suggests...

By IAIN MURRAY, Special to UPI  |  July 25, 2002 at 6:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 25 (UPI) -- A recent report by the human rights organization Global Exchange is the latest to attempt to quantify the number of civilian casualties caused by the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

The group has compiled a list of the names of 812 civilians they believe were killed by American air strikes during the campaign. While they have visited most of the heavily-targeted areas, they still expect that number to grow as they reach more remote villages that suffered less intense bombing during the conflict. The news has provoked concerned commentary in media outlets across the world, as well it might.

What has been conspicuous by its absence, however, is any reference to the fact that this number is considerably lower than previous estimates of civilian casualty figures. When Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire released his estimate of 4,000 casualties around the new year, media sources also jumped on the figures with barely-concealed outrage. Professor Herold had compiled a detailed list of news reports of civilian casualties from global media outlets. But in including Pakistani and Indian news media he thereby included a large number of reports that drew from Afghan Islamic Press sources -- the official mouthpiece of the Taliban. Professor Herold did this despite the high probability that the Taliban, conscious of the Western desire to minimize innocent casualties, had deliberately exaggerated the number of civilian dead in its propaganda. This suspicion was confirmed beyond contest by the Afghan journalists themselves after the Taliban's fall. They told reporters on Feb. 12 that "Taliban officials systematically doctored reports of civilian deaths ... in an attempt to galvanize opposition to the bombing."

The new figures, however, are smaller even than earlier estimates that were not so gullible. Carl Conetta, of the Massachusetts-based Project on Defense Alternatives, performed a similar press review to Professor Herold, but deliberately kept to reputable sources, and estimated between 1,000 and 1,300 civilian casualties. The Associated Press examined hospital records, visited sites and interviewed eyewitnesses shortly after the conclusion of the main phase of fighting in February and came up with an initial estimate "in the mid-hundreds," although they considered it likely that that figure would rise. If Global Exchange is correct, it seems that the rise was modest.

Part of the problem with estimating civilian casualties in this new sort of war is that it is often hard to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. When Taliban fighters were given refuge in someone's home deliberately to shield them from allied attack, for instance, does that make the homeowner a combatant? A similar problem has been highlighted recently by the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in relation to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It has often been stated recently that the second intifada has seen the deaths of 561 Israelis, but of 1,499 Palestinians. The ICT, however, sought to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants to assess how many "innocent bystanders" have been killed.

The ICT's numbers shed a different light on the story. The organization estimates that 433 non-combatant Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and 579 non-combatant Palestinians have been killed by Israelis so far. Moreover, whereas 39 percent of the Israeli noncombatants were female, the same was true of only 7 percent of the Palestinian noncombatants, the vast majority of which were young men or older boys.

All these studies, however, demonstrate the difficulties inherent in trying to calculate accurate civilian casualty figures in these modern conflicts. With politics coloring the varying definitions of combatants and non-combatants, and with propaganda being repeated as fact by organizations with political interests in play, the journalist's and historian's task in ascertaining the truth is made much more difficult. These new studies seem more reliable than previous estimates, but it may be some time yet before we have a more perfect understanding of how many innocents died in these conflicts.

The recent cluster of disturbing child abductions, including those of 7-year-old Erica Pratt, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, and 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, has led to a state of near panic among American parents, satirized by the creators of South Park in the episode televised on July 24. The panic has been fueled by statements such as that of popular Fox TV host, Bill O'Reilly, who told his viewers that 100,000 children are abducted by strangers each year.

This is, thankfully, a massive over-estimate. While 725,000 children were reported missing in 2001, very few of these had been abducted by strangers. The majority had run away from home for a mercifully short period or had even just lost track of time -- a STATS study in 1995 showed that 73 percent were home within 24 hours. The majority of the rest were taken by someone within the family, most often by another parent engaged in a custody dispute. There are only 3,000 to 5,000 non-family abductions reported each year, but even a substantial proportion of these are short-term or involve someone known to the children or their families. Serious cases, where the intent is ransom, murder or other evil intent, make up about 200 to 300 of this number. In only about 50 is the unfortunate child killed by his or her abductor.

There are about 50 million children under the age of 13 in the United States. Child abduction and murder is therefore literally a one in a million chance. Statements like Bill O'Reilly's or that of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, who once put the number of abducted children at 1.5 million, merely scare the wits out of parents and children unnecessarily. They should know better.

In 1999, a team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California announced the discovery of the world's heaviest atom, Element 118. It has now become apparent, however, that at least one member of the team misreported his data. He has been sacked for misconduct. It only goes to show that an elementary mistake can cost you your job.

(Iain Murray is director of research at STATS --- the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization dedicated to analyzing social, scientific and statistical research. This column examines the facts behind recent statistical studies that have made the news but been misinterpreted, failed to make the news for some reason or are just plain weird.)

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