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Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency

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Neta C. Crawford

All told, between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This tally of the counts and estimates of direct deaths caused by war violence does not include the more than 500,000 deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011, which the US joined in August 2014.

The wars are ongoing, although the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are less intense than in recent years. Still, the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2018 is on track to be one of the highest death tolls in the war.

This tally is an incomplete estimate of the human toll of killing in these wars. There are United Nations efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq to track war casualties and to identify the perpetrators of those deaths and injuries. In Iraq, the UN publishes monthly reports, and in Afghanistan, the UN makes annual and semi-annual reports. Nongovernmental organizations, the Congressional Research Service, and journalists also attempt to understand the human toll of these wars by using official US government reports, other governments’ data, and on the ground reporting.

But, because of limits in reporting, the numbers of people killed in the United States post-9/11 wars, tallied in this chart, are an undercount. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempt to track civilian, militant, and armed forces and police deaths in wars. Yet there is usually great uncertainty in any count of killing in war. While we often know how many US soldiers die, most other numbers are to a degree uncertain. Indeed, we may never know the total direct death toll in these wars. For example, tens of thousands of civilians may have died in retaking Mosul and other cities from ISIS but their bodies have likely not been recovered.

In addition, this tally does not include “indirect deaths.” Indirect harm occurs when wars’ destruction leads to long term, “indirect,” consequences for people’s health in war zones, for example because of loss of access to food, water, health facilities, electricity or other infrastructure.

Most direct war deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria have been caused by militants, but the US and its coalition partners have also killed civilians. Since the start of the post-9/11 wars, the Department of Defense has not been consistent in reporting on when and how civilians have been harmed in US operations. The US has attempted to avoid harming civilians in air strikes and other uses of force throughout these wars, to varying degrees of success, and has begun to understand civilian casualty prevention and mitigation as an essential part of US doctrine. In July 2016, the Presidential Executive Order on Measures to Address Civilian Casualties stated: “The protection of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests. Minimizing civilian casualties can further mission objectives; help maintain the support of partner governments and vulnerable populations, especially in the conduct of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations; and enhance the legitimacy and sustainability of U.S. operations critical to our national security.”

The Obama administration executive order and the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required reporting on civilian casualties. Specifically, the DOD is required to report on May 1 of each year, for the next five years, all military operations that were “confirmed, or reasonably suspected to have resulted in civilian casualties.” The first such DOD report was released in June 2018. It reported that in 2017, 499 civilians were killed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen and 167 civilians were injured in US operations. An additional 450 reports of civilian casualties for that year “remained to be assessed.”

According to NGO observers, the numbers in the Pentagon report may be a significant understatement of the effects of US operations in 2017. In June, a spokesperson for the US military said, “We acknowledge differences exist between U.S. military assessments of the number of civilian casualties and reporting from NGOs.” Moreover, the total number of US caused civilian deaths is growing in some regions.

According to Air Wars, in Operation Inherent Resolve, the Coalition has killed at least 6,575 civilians since August 2014 in air strikes and the Russians may have killed between 12,000 and 19,000 civilians in their war in Syria.

Further, in some operations, the US commitment to reducing civilian casualties may be slipping. In Afghanistan specifically, the US and its allies were able to reduce the number of civilians killed in airstrikes, but in the last few years, more civilians have been killed by “pro-government forces” (Coalition and Afghan military) airstrikes.