A recent report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility puts the number of civilians killed in the War on Terror between 2006 and 2013 at 1.2 million, or at least as much as 2 million. The UN declared the massacre of 200,000 civilians in Sudan ‘genocide’, Karen Jayes of CAGE Africa explores the truth of such figures and questions why the UN won’t recognise the West’s ‘war’ in the Middle East as precisely the same thing? Reiterating CAGE’s stance, calling for full accountability for all perpetrators and for full disclosure of the true toll of the War on Terror on humanity.
CAGE would like to call attention to the first active attempt to count the number of civilian casualties from US-led counter-terrorism interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: a 97-page report released by the Nobel Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).
The PSR report calculates that the ‘War on Terror’ has ‘directly or indirectly, killed 1 million people in Iraq (5% of the population), 220 000 in Afghanistan, and 80 000 in Pakistan’.
CAGE has repeatedly called for, and continues to call for, full accountability for the perpetrators of such violence, despite attempts by the media and other interest groups to shroud the full weight of numbers killed as part of the War on Terror.
‘The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs,’ states the report. ‘And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries could be in excess of 2 million, while a figure less than 1 million is extremely unlikely.’
More recent war zones such as Yemen and Somalia have not been included. Nor have the years of economic war on Iraq, when the UN sanctions regime killed 1.7 million Iraqis.
This means that the number of civilians killed as a result of US-led action in the Middle East is much higher, and could in fact be as high as 4 million people according to a report by Nafeez Ahmed.
Most striking about these figures are their magnitude, and in the face of their sheer human catastrophe, the West’s continued procrastination in bringing perpetrators to justice.
Much of the PSR report closely examines various death count reports. Broadly, it lends support to the 2006 Lancet study, while calling into question the Iraq Body Count (IBC) study, most cited by the mainstream media.
The power of numbers
Time and again, the authors remind us of the disparity between the public perception of the number of dead in Iraq and reality. In an era where War on Terror propaganda lines the airwaves of all the world’s media, numbers hold power.
‘A poll carried out by Associated Press two years ago, found that on average, US citizens believe that only 9900 Iraqis were killed during the occupation,’ writes report author Joachim Guilliard. ‘With such distorted figures, outrage about the war is hardly to be expected.’
‘Underreporting of the human toll attributable to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate, or through self-censorship, has been key to removing the “fingerprints” of responsibility,’ writes Dr. Robert Gould, director of health professional outreach and education at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.
It is essential that the world understands the true toll of the US-led War on Terror on humanity.
Problems with the Iraq Body Count (IBC)
The IBC report most often cited by mainstream media concludes that 112,000 Iraqis have died before September 2011. However, IBC figures are based on death tolls reported by English media outlets. Journalists tally figures registered in morgues, hospitals and by other authorities, and are themselves under pressure to under report US atrocities. This method of data collection is known as a passive method and, according to the PSR report, ‘can only serve as a minimum’.
IBC figures do not take into account the fact that local authorities often underestimate deaths due to pressure from occupying forces. Many deaths also go unregistered, as families, in complying with sharia, often bury their dead at home.
The IBC also has a bias towards the major cities – the city of al-Qaim, the site of a major US operation is cited as an example. A physician in the town reported that over 12000 people had fled and ‘some observers compared the situation to Fallujah in 2004’. ‘For the entire period, however, there is not a single death in al-Qaim recorded in the IBC database.’
There are also cases where whole families flee areas where journalists are posted – most often the major cities like Baghdad – and also cases where entire families are wiped out: these factors affect all death count studies, with the result that all estimates of deaths, including those of the PSR, are more than likely to be underestimates, rather than overestimates.
The Lancet 2006 study
In comparison to the IBC, the 2006 Lancet study, held up by numerous experts as being the most reliable to date, estimated some 655 000 Iraqi dead up to 2006, and extrapolated over a million dead due to conflict today.
The Lancet study was based on active methods of number-gathering. The survey consisted of interviewees going out to households and actively counting the dead per family. It selected 1850 Iraqi households across the country, included 13,000 people, and in over 90% of cases, deaths were backed up by a death certificate.
Even so, the Lancet study has been whitewashed by the mainstream media, and those who co-ordinated it, increasingly personally attacked. This, despite the fact that ‘the method applied here is standard. It was also applied in the DRC, Angola and Bosnia and was widely accepted’.
The PSR report also comments on the fact that since 2006 – when most recent studies ended – the situation in Iraq has worsened, with deaths to do unexploded ordinances and the residue of chemical weapons (depleted uranium) exacting a critical toll on the population. It is therefore more likely that the death toll in Iraq due to conflict is closer to 2 million people.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
For Afghanistan and Pakistan, only the more under-representative passive methods of counting the dead are available – and in the case of Pakistan, regional conflicts and in some cases gang-related deaths blur the line between ‘War on Terror’ deaths and regional deaths. The numbers also do not focus on indirect deaths as a result of occupation, which include deaths due to malnutrition and other health issues.
In both regions, the PSR report focusses on drone attacks, and the difficulty in attaining the correct numbers of dead in the wake of a drone attack – this is due to US forces not declaring deaths. ‘The US Special Operations Forces operate so secretly that even the US military has no information about the operations, never mind about the number of civilian deaths,’ reads the report.
Urbanisation is also more pronounced in Iraq, while conflict areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan are remote. The indiscriminate nature of drone attacks, says the PSR report, ‘suggests that the lion’s share of attacks have been totally random’ and are often directed at crowds such as wedding parties and funerals – this goes against the US coined term ‘targeted killings’ which the report suggests is a lie.
The estimates, therefore, for direct civilian deaths, for both Afghanistan and Pakistan are conservative, even by the report’s own admittance.
The Dirty War on Terror
The findings of the PSR into Afghanistan and Pakistan are cause for alarm. As Americans tire of military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, so the Obama administration has responded in kind and heralded in the second phase of the War on Terror, characterised by increasingly expanded drone strikes, a broad and judicially grey definition of‘imminent threat’, males who qualify as ‘militants’ by simply being of military age, and ‘kill lists’ compiled and edited far from judicial scrutiny.
The Obama administration is riding on what Jeremy Scahill in his book ‘Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield’ (excerpted here) calls ‘the fantasy of a clean war’ perpetrated by drones and drone operators positioned thousands of kilometres away, sanitised from their killings.
‘A 2012 poll found that 83 percent of Americans supported Obama’s drone program, with 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats supporting such strikes,’ he writes. ‘The Washington Post/ABC News poll determined that support for drone strikes declined “only somewhat” in cases where a citizen was the target.’
A pliant public together with a war-bent administration, has only to turn to an arms industry that is profit-driven and expedient in order to make a lethal combination – not only for the Middle East, but for the world.
In 2013, Scahill writes, Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign’s counterterrorism experts group and a professor at LaSalle University, said the United States drone program was “encouraging a new arms race for drones that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent”.
The deaths in the hinterlands of Afghanistan are a warning light to us all.
Statements made in April by Andrew Warden, a Justice Department attorney, in response to a legal challenge by Guantanamo detainee Mukhtar YahiNaji al-Warafi, suggest that the war in Afghanistan has moved into another phase. In what appears to be a contradictive sentence, Warden wrote: “Although the United States has ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, the fighting there certainly has not stopped.”
A sworn declaration from Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair M. Harris, vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said while Operation Enduring Freedom had ended, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel had begun, which would be “executed under specified rules of engagement that delineate the circumstances and conditions under which the U.S. forces may engage …”.
One only has to look at the military laboratory of Palestine to know that nothing encourages terrorism more than sustained occupation. “Many senior coalition and Afghan officials are now concluding that after nearly 12 years of war, the view of foreigners held by many Afghans has come to mirror that of the Taliban,” wrote Matthew Rosenberg two years ago in a New York Times article tracing the journey of young Afghani from American ally to Taliban recruit.
The dynamics in Afghanistan are repeated in various guises in different war ‘theatres’ around the world. Indeed, it is precisely the relationship between torture and terror that fuels the US-led War on Terror and makes it self-sustaining. Torture and illegal detention, combined with sustained military action, whether by drones or air strikes, work together to fuel terrorism, with the common casualties of both being unarmed civilians.
The casualty numbers in the PSR report will seem paltry to our children if this cycle of violence is not stopped now, through a return to due process and the boundaries of international law.
The figures for civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, even though likely underestimates, point to a scale of human catastrophe that demands all the world’s attention and action. Such scale of death only makes the path to extremism more inviting for those who feel marginalised within a system that seeks to sustain it.
CAGE calls for full disclosure and accountability
‘Decisive for the publishers of this paper is not the exact number of victims, but their order of magnitude,’ write the authors of the PSR report. ‘They believe it critical from the humanitarian aspect, as well as in the interests of peace, that the public will become aware of this magnitude and that those responsible in governments and parliaments are held accountable.’
The facts are clear: two million in Iraq and up to four million in the region combined, is genocide. The War on Terror is the greatest threat to our humanity on earth. It is crucial that the vast amount of resources required to keep it alive, is rather diverted to truly build nations and combat climate change.
When 1 million people were displaced and 200,000 killed in violence in Sudan, the UN was quick to demand sanctions against the perpetrators – in this case the government of Omar al-Bashir – even though at the same time, the 2006 Lancet study revealed already 655,000 dead in Iraq, more than double that of Sudan.
Now, the UN hesitates to hold the perpetrators in the War on Terror to justice because it cannot, by its very functioning, stand up to the United States and its allies. As the War on Terror ticks lethally over into its second phase – that of a perpetual and far-reaching drone-led global war – the international bodies that are meant to keep peace are impotent against it.
CAGE stands for full disclosure of the true toll of the War on Terror on humanity, and full accountability for all perpetrators. We call for action on the part of leaders and civilians to stand united against the cycles of violence that keep it alive. This is the only way to a more just and equal world where borders are respected and nations may engage equally, and in peace.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)