“Landmark research proves that the US-led ‘war on terror’ has killed as many as 2 million people, but this is a fraction of Western responsibility for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades.”
by Nafeez Ahmed, Middle East Eye
Wednesday 8 April 2015 16:12 BST
Last month, the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) released a landmark study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million.
The 97-page report by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group is the first to tally up the total number of civilian casualties from US-led counter-terrorism interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The PSR report is authored by an interdisciplinary team of leading public health experts, including Dr. Robert Gould, director of health professional outreach and education at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, and Professor Tim Takaro of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Yet it has been almost completely blacked out by the English-language media, despite being the first effort by a world-leading public health organisation to produce a scientifically robust calculation of the number of people killed by the US-UK-led “war on terror”.
Mind the gaps
The PSR report is described by Dr Hans von Sponeck, former UN assistant secretary-general, as “a significant contribution to narrowing the gap between reliable estimates of victims of war, especially civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and tendentious, manipulated or even fraudulent accounts”.
The report conducts a critical review of previous death toll estimates of “war on terror” casualties. It is heavily critical of the figure most widely cited by mainstream media as authoritative, namely, the Iraq Body Count (IBC) estimate of 110,000 dead. That figure is derived from collating media reports of civilian killings, but the PSR report identifies serious gaps and methodological problems in this approach.
For instance, although 40,000 corpses had been buried in Najaf since the launch of the war, IBC recorded only 1,354 deaths in Najaf for the same period. That example shows how wide the gap is between IBC’s Najaf figure and the actual death toll – in this case, by a factor of over 30.
Such gaps are replete throughout IBC’s database. In another instance, IBC recorded just three airstrikes in a period in 2005, when the number of air attacks had in fact increased from 25 to 120 that year. Again, the gap here is by a factor of 40.
According to the PSR study, the much-disputed Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraq deaths up to 2006 (and over a million until today by extrapolation) was likely to be far more accurate than IBC’s figures. In fact, the report confirms a virtual consensus among epidemiologists on the reliability of the Lancet study.
Despite some legitimate criticisms, the statistical methodology it applied is the universally recognised standard to determine deaths from conflict zones, used by international agencies and governments.
PSR also reviewed the methodology and design of other studies showing a lower death toll, such as a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, which had a range of serious limitations.
That paper ignored the areas subject to the heaviest violence, namely Baghdad, Anbar and Nineveh, relying on flawed IBC data to extrapolate for those regions. It also imposed “politically-motivated restrictions” on collection and analysis of the data – interviews were conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which was “totally dependent on the occupying power” and had refused to release data on Iraqi registered deaths under US pressure.
In particular, PSR assessed the claims of Michael Spaget, John Sloboda and others who questioned the Lancet study data collection methods as potentially fraudulent. All such claims, PSR found, were spurious.
The few “justified criticisms,” PSR concludes, “do not call into question the results of the Lancet studies as a whole. These figures still represent the best estimates that are currently available”. The Lancet findings are also corroborated by the data from a new study in PLOS Medicine, finding 500,000 Iraqi deaths from the war. Overall, PSR concludes that the most likely number for the civilian death toll in Iraq since 2003 to date is about 1 million.
To this, the PSR study adds at least 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, killed as the direct or indirect consequence of US-led war: a “conservative” total of 1.3 million. The real figure could easily be “in excess of 2 million”.
Yet even the PSR study suffers from limitations. Firstly, the post-9/11 “war on terror” was not new, but merely extended previous interventionist policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Secondly, the huge paucity of data on Afghanistan meant the PSR study probably underestimated the Afghan death toll.