Counting The Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan

As if proving a widely held view that Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be trigger happy, Blackwater USA, a private security firm, is embroiled in a controversy over its involvement in a roadside shootout in Baghdad that killed eight Iraqis.

It turns out that the 30,000 American private security personnel in Iraq are among those immune from local prosecution.

That reminded me of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In October 1964, in the early stages of his anti-Shah agitation, he gave a colourful speech attacking the legal immunity enjoyed by Americans in Iran.

"If an American's servant or cook assassinates your marja (religious leader), the Iranian police do not have the right to apprehend him.

"But if someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he'd be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he'd be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, no one would have the right to interfere with him."

Khomeini's words spread like wildfire. Within a month, he was exiled. He returned 15 years later, triumphant, having engineered a revolution that toppled the Shah and ended America's hold on Iran.

The ayatollah remains a reviled figure in the West. But his point is relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and its allies do not even count the local dead.

"Imagine the U.S. not investigating who died on Sept, 11, 2001 - it's unthinkable," says John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count, the U.K.-based group that tracks the Iraqi death toll, which as of Friday stood at between 73,390 and 79,999.

Last week, a British polling firm, ORB, estimated the toll at a staggering 1.2 million. Last fall, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health pegged it at 654,965.

In the case of Afghanistan, Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, has been tracking casualties since 2001 and posting them on a website. In fact, it was his Afghan Victim Memorial Project that inspired Sloboda's.

Herold's "most conservative estimate" of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from American/NATO operations is between 5,700 and 6,500.

"This is the absolute minimum," he said over the phone. "It's probably a vast underestimate," because it does not include:

The dead among the tens of thousands displaced during the initial military operation in 2001-2002 and who ended up in refugee camps or elsewhere, with little or no supplies for long periods.

The victims of bombing in mountainous areas, which have few or no communications links or which the U.S./NATO forces "cordon off as part of news management."

Herold's figures also do not include the victims of the Taliban. Those are "significantly smaller," even though they are the ones highly publicized.

"If one were to believe the numbers of Taliban killed as reported, I dare say Afghanistan would have been depopulated!"

As in Iraq, there are conflicting estimates in Afghanistan. Reuters news agency, for example, reports that more than 7,000 have been killed in the last 19 months alone.

As for the number of Afghans injured, Herold says it's at least double the death toll. That would make it between 11,400 and 13,000.

How many displaced? Between 19,000 and 42,000, at a minimum.

The range of these estimates illustrates the difficulty of working in the official blackout. But Sloboda, Herold and others keep up their heroic efforts on shoestring budgets.

"It's a means of holding our governments accountable," says Sloboda, an internationally renowned professor of psychology at Keele University.

"As citizens, we bear watchdog responsibility. We are doing this so that at some later date, we can hand it over to some international tribunal or those undertaking truth and reconciliation and reparations work."

Herold adds that the more our governments hide the Afghan and Iraqi casualties, the more important it is to expose the grim details of what they have unleashed.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday in the World & Comment section and Sunday in the A section.

(c) 2007 The Toronto Star

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