Murphy's Law: March 19, 2002


How many Afghan civilians were killed by US and allied bombs in the war on terrorism? The most commonly-cited figure is 4,000. Professor Herold of the University of New Hampshire actually produced this number by adding up those listed in all of the media reports. Many of these news stories originated with the Afghan Islamic Press, which repeated Taliban claims of civilian casualties (which were apparently inflated to inspire moral opposition to the bombing attacks) The Herold accounting, besides being based on Taliban propaganda, is full of mistakes. Where people are named, they are often counted two or three
times, often in the same place on different dates. Some of this is due to clerical errors, others to confusion of war, others due to conflicting and duplicated reports, and others to situations in which several people were killed on one day and another person died days later of wounds from that attack (causing the total number to be reported on both days). Some of those counted in the Herold total of 4,000 were in fact Taliban troops (and in one case, Northern Alliance troops), while others were Taliban government employees (whose status as civilians is arguable). Some of those listed as killed in the Herold total are quoted in later reports as having survived the attack. The actual number is probably somewhere between 700 and 1300, still a tragedy, but civilians have been killed (unintentionally and otherwise) in every war in human history. The STATS organization could confirm only 650 of those cited by Herold as actually being killed, but suggested that other cases could push this to just over 1,000. The Project on Defense Alternatives (a "peace" group which opposes most military activities) came up with between 1,000 and 1,300 dead by using only reliable sources and excluding the Afghan Islamic Press. Media organizations reviewing their own reports could find only 700 confirmed dead and estimate (by counting graves) that another 500 (some of them Taliban fighters, some civilians) were killed.--Stephen V Cole


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