The Uncounted Dead
BY R A F I A Z A K A R I A | 4/15/2015

`I BELIEVE that the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies that we face.` These words were spoken in 2009 by then International Security Assistance Force commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal. They are quoted again at the beginning of a report produced by a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility in collaboration with two others.

The report, entitled Body Count: Casualty Figures after10yearsofthe`WaronTerror`-Iraq,Afghanistan, Pakistan, begins with what has been one of the most ignored aspects of the conflict: the fact that the US and international forces have made great efforts at counting their own bodies, but few such attempts have been made to count the total number of others killed in this decade of conflict.

The task of counting `the others` who have died the Pakistanis, the Afghans and the Iraqis is predictably a complicated one. The authors of the report recognise this, and the quote selected for its title page impresses on readers the truth that the failure to count these `other`bodies has been deliberate.InIraq,the reportnotes,the countingofdead and injured soldiers ended in 2012, when the of ficial withdrawal of coalition troops was concluded. In Afghanistan, the collection of numbers for US soldiers dead and injured continues. Pakistan, which has never had an official presence of US soldiers on the ground, is the biggest mystery, with few publically available numbers available at all. The omissions, of course, are deliberate, for they all enable the lie that all these sites of US intervention are consequently `better off` than they were before.

It is this gap of uncounted bodies that the report tackles, and its contribution is a formidable one. Its authors scientists, journalists, activists and doctors make the argument that the methods of collecting numbers of the total casualties in these wartorn regions are suspect, because they rely on passive means of counting the dead.

The term `passive` refers to the limiting of casualties to those reported by `news agencies, hospital registers, police records, ete`. As opposed to this, `active methods`, such as the ones used by the report, `try to determine all victims in a certainarea by investigations on the spot, eg by asking families after relatives have been killed`.

Citing an example of a German air strike in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan, the report cites how a passive investigation reported only that 56 Taliban had been killed. When an active investigation was carried out, it was discovered that there had been in fact a 100 civilian casualties from the strike.The report`s own methodology hence focuses on investigations that use statistical methods based on mortality rates of a certain society when it was not in the throes of war and then comparing it with mortality rates during conflict to come up with an active and more precise number of casualties.

It says: `It is indeed possible to determine with sufficient precision the rise in mortality of the general population during and after military intervention. From a change in the mortality rate, ie the percentage of the population that died within one year, one can determine the aggregate number of persons who would be still alive in absence of war, and who thus directly or indirectly fell victim to that war.

The mortality rate is an epidemiological figure that can be established by active, standardised statistical methods with definable precision, even in war zones.

The new system of counting bodies produces alarming results. The casualties are not just a few hundred or a few thousand more, but a staggering hundreds of thousands more. In Iraq, the report estimates, the number of civilian casualties between the 2003 and 2012 invasion have been close to a mil-lion, or 5pc of Iraq`s total population. Furthermore, according to the report, nearly 220,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan.

The methodology in the last two countries still relied on conservative passive reporting and not on mortality calculations. The total number of dead civilians from the `war on terror`, therefore, is close to 1.3m, a number that is 10 times greater than that cited by the experts and analysts who usually report on these demographics. And this, the report`s authors conclude, is a `conservative` estimate, and `the total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2m, whereas a figure below 1m is extremely unlikely.

To those who have been witness to the carnage in any of the three countries, the new numbers are unlikely to surprise. The extent of upheavals being faced in countries like Pakistan, from changes in ethnic demography to the creation of new political rifts and vendettas, are allborne of the uncounted and often unacknowledged deaths that have wracked the nation.

The condition in Iraq and Afghanistan is undoubtedly similar. Yemen now stands poised to be inducted into this club of hapless nations. Whether it is by dereliction or design, a failure to count the dead does not in turn eliminate the wounds they leave behind on the body politic from whence they are wrest.

The report comes at a useful time, when Western frenzy over the threat posed by groups like Daesh is at fever pitch. From dissections of the tweets produced by the Daesh members to verbose analyses of the varying motivations of their ever inflating numbers of recruits, every terror analyst is intent on coming up with the recipe that has led yet another extremist group to flourish. The answer, it seems, is simply in the casualty figures cited in this report, which rests on the singular cruelty of tremendous loss, in this case the deaths of nearly 1.3m innocent people, whose blood stains the soil even if it does not appear in the numbers. • The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn