Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kahl on Casualties

As time passes, more and more critiques of the Lancet results are appearing in the peer-reviewed academic literature. One of the first is from Colin Kahl. (Hat tip to Henry Farrell.) The citation is: Colin Kahl (2007), “In the Crossfire or the Crosshairs? Norms, Civilian Casualties, and U.S. Conduct in Iraq,” International Security 32:7-46. These quotes come from pages 11--13.

There are numerous estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq, all of which are problematic. Iraq Body Count (IBC), a nonprofit organization that derives estimates from English-language and translated media sources, suggests that as many as 7,393 civilians may have been killed during major combat. Another estimate by the Project on Defense Alternatives, which corroborated media reports with hospital and burial records and filtered out likely combatant fatalities, suggests that 3,230–4,327 Iraqi civilians were killed.12 In comparative perspective, it is significant to note that the number of Iraqi civilians killed during the 2003 invasion was similar to that of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, even though the mission objectives in 2003 required coalition forces to operate much more extensively in Iraqi cities, where they confronted both regular Iraqi units and irregular Fedayeen fighters largely indistinguishable from the civilian population.13

For the SO/COIN period, the two leading estimates come from IBC and the Brookings Institution. IBC estimates that as many as 54,303 Iraqi civilians were killed from May 1, 2003, through the end of 2006. The maximum number attributed to U.S. forces or crossfire is 4,399. That figure, however, is probably an underestimate because it includes only 87 deaths from U.S. actions at checkpoints and during convoy operations, known as “escalation of force” (EOF) incidents. If estimated EOF fatalities based on U.S. military figures are added to the IBC numbers and adjusted for double counting, the modified IBC total is 5,429 deaths attributable to U.S. forces and crossfire from the declared end of major combat through the end of 2006 (representing 10 percent of the total violent deaths).14 Over the same time period, the Brookings Iraq Index—which supplements IBC data with hospital and morgue records reviewed by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and makes a further upward adjustment to account for likely undercounts from media reporting—estimates that 76,552 Iraqi civilians were killed.15 The Brookings Iraq Index does not provide a comprehensive estimate of deaths attributable to U.S. forces or crossfire, but assuming the same percentage documented by IBC and adding EOF incidents produces an adjusted Brookings estimate of 8,685 deaths in the SO/COIN period through the end of 2006.

Another well-known study, based on an Iraqi household survey and reported in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 2006, estimated 601,000 excess violent deaths since the invasion.16 Although widely cited as an estimate of civilian deaths, the majority of the 300 postinvasion violent deaths recorded in the sample of 1,849 households were military-aged men (59 percent aged 15–44; 78 percent aged 15–59), and no attempt was made to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants. Moreover, the Lancet estimate is so much higher than other available tallies, and its findings suggest so many implausible implications given other available data on the nature of the conflict, that its conclusions seem dubious, perhaps reflecting some significant sampling bias or reporting error.17 Indeed, a much larger household survey funded by the UN Development Programme in 2004 suggests that the IBC and Brookings figures are probably much closer to the actual number of civilian deaths.18 Jon Pedersen, the research director for the UNDP study, recently stated that he believes the Lancet numbers are “high, and probably way too high. I would accept something in the vicinity of 100,000 but 600,000 is too much.”19 Consequently, the Lancet numbers are not used for the analysis here.

The associated footnotes are:

12. Iraq Body Count,; and Carl Conetta, “The Wages of War: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 2003 Confiict,” Research Monograph, No. 8 (Cambridge, Mass.: Project on Defense Alternatives, October 20, 2003),
13. Estimates of direct civilian deaths during the Gulf War range from 3,500 to 15,000. Conetta, “The Wages of War”; and Medact, Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq (London: Grayston Center, November 2002), p. 2.
14. ”Murder Is Certain,” Economist, March 23, 2006; and Josh White, Charles Lane, and Julie Tate, “Homicide Charges Rare in Iraq War,” Washington Post, August 28, 2006.
15. Michael O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell, Iraq Index (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, April 26, 2007), p. 15.
16. Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, and Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey,” Lancet, October 11, 2006, pp. 1–8.
17. Although 92 percent of those asked by the research team provided death certificates, the study’s estimate is 12 times higher than those provided by UNAMI and the Los Angeles Times, based on a review of death certificates from Iraqi morgues and hospitals for the comparable time period. United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, Human Rights Office, “Human Rights Report,” May 1–June 30, 2006; and Louise Roug and Doug Smith, “War’s Iraqi Death Toll Tops 50,000,” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2006. Moreover, the implied number of wounded and car bomb victims, heterogeneous distribution of victims, very high (and historically unusual) ratio of excess violent deaths to nonviolent deaths, mysterious postinvasion drop in child mortality, low estimate of prewar (sanctions era) mortality, and scale and trend in deaths attributed to the coalition all seem highly implausible given everything else that is known about the conºict, suggesting that the Lancet estimate is the by-product of some significant sampling bias or other problem with how the survey was conducted. See Beth Osborne Daponte, “The Civilian Death Toll in IraqWar Proves a Nebulous Statistic,” Taipei Times, January 28, 2007; Hamit Dardagan, John Sloboda, and Josh Dougherty, “Reality Checks: Some Responses to the Latest Lancet Estimates,” Iraq Body Count, October 16, 2006,; Jim Giles, “Death Toll in Iraq: Survey Team Takes on Its Critics,” Nature, March 1, 2007, pp. 6–7; Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks, “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Were Valid and Ethical Field Methods Used in This Survey?” Households in Conflict Network, Research Design Note, No. 3 (Brighton, U.K.: Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, December 2006); Neil F. Johnson, Michael Spagat, Sean Gourley, Jukka-Pekka Onnela, and Gesine Reinert, “Bias in Epidemiological Studies of Conflict Mortality,” Households in Conflict Network, Research Design Note, No. 2 (Brighton, U.K.: Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, 2006); Fred Kaplan, “Number Crunching: Taking Another Look at the Lancet’s Iraq Study,” Slate, October 20, 2006,; Jeffrey White and Loring White, “Death in Iraq: A Critical Examination of the Lancet Paper,” PolicyWatch, No. 1155 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute, October 18, 2006),; and “Correspondence: Mortality in Iraq,” Lancet, January 13, 2007, pp. 101–104.
18. The UNDP-funded study surveyed 21,688 households and estimated that there were 24,000 Iraqi war-related fatalities (both military and civilian) through mid-2004. Central Organization for Statistics and Information and Fafo Institute of Applied International Studies, Iraq Living Conditions Survey, 2004, Vol. 2: Analytical Report (Baghdad: Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation, 2005), p. 54. Although the UNDP estimate is 1.6 times higher than the IBC estimate during the comparable time period (see Hami Dardagan, John Sloboda, and Josh Dougherty, “Speculation Is No Substitute: A Defence of Iraq Body Count,” April 2006,, Table 3), once the estimated 9,200 Iraqi military casualties from the major combat phase identified by the Project on Defense Alternatives are subtracted (Conetta, “The Wages of War”), the difference nearly disappears.
19. Quoted in Jefferson Morley, “Iraq’s Civilian Death Toll ‘Horrible’—Or Worse?” Washington Post, World Opinion Roundup, October 19, 2006,

Apologies for the poor copy-and-paste job. See the actual article for a nicer version.

If Kahl doesn't trust the Lancet numbers, then why do you?


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