In news reports about skirmishes or operations by coalition forces in Iraq, we often hear of insurgents being killed. To illustrate what I am referring to, here are two examples from recent articles:
“Coalition forces backed by a helicopter and jets attacked a safe house being used by suspected foreign insurgents in Iraq, killing 12 militants and a woman, the US military said today.”
“Upon arrival, coalition forces took direct fire and fought back with the support of coalition helicopters and jets, killing five male militants outside a safe house, including one armed with a shoulder-fired rocket, the US military statement said.”
A few insurgents here and a few insurgents there on a daily basis starts to add up. This led me to wonder, approximately, how many insurgents have been killed over in Iraq?
The first hint of data came in 2005 when Senator Carl M. Levin (Michigan), said General George W. Casey Jr., head of the Multinational Force Iraq, reported during a closed hearing that the coalition forces killed or captured 15,000 suspected insurgents in 2004. Now, a breakdown of how many were killed versus how many were captured was not offered, but it does at least give us a crude idea of the numbers involved.
In early 2007, an al Qaeda affiliate allegedly released an estimate that 4,000 foreign fighters had been killed in Iraq. Since they were referring to their own numbers can this serve as a base reference point? As the number of foreign fighters in the insurgent ranks has been estimated at between 10 and up to 20%, this implies a possible 20,000 to 40,000 total number of insurgents killed.
Then, in late 2007, the U.S. Military under pressure from multiple USA Today Freedom of Information Act requests released statistics on militants killed since the insurgency began after Baghdad fell in early 2003 (the numbers do not include enemy personnel killed during the initial invasion). The U.S. Military’s number of insurgents killed? 19,429 (Remember this is as of late 2007 – no additional data has been released since that time).
The statistics were retrieved from a coalition database that tracks “significant acts.” Militants are identified in the database because they are linked to “hostile action,” according to Capt. Michael Greenberger, a Freedom of Information Act officer in Baghdad. Obviously, as with the al Qaeda numbers above, there is no way to independently verify the data.
“The information in the database is only as good as the information entered into it by operators on the ground at the time,” Greenberger said. “Follow-up information to make corrections is done whenever possible.”
As an interesting “oh by the way”, the deadliest month for insurgents was August of 2004 when thousands of militia fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with American forces in Najaf in southern Iraq. That month, 1,623 militants were killed.
To put things in perspective though, Paul Smyth, Head of the Operational Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) weighs in on the difficulty of coming up with accurate numbers. He points out, simply, that the task of tracking casualties in a complex insurgency which is taking place across a large country is made almost impossible by the simultaneous execution of an international terrorist campaign, sectarian conflict and violent criminal activity.
To be more specific, in assessing how many insurgents have been killed, coalition forces must rely on the number of bodies recovered after engagements, estimates by its own forces and reports from captured insurgents. Each is unreliable or an incomplete source of information, for not all enemy corpses may be recovered from battle (especially those from destroyed buildings or in areas under insurgent control), friendly estimates made in the heat of battle are understandably open to confusion and subjective influence, and few prisoners will have access to more than local or anecdotal information. Not least is the difficulty of confirming whether dead Iraqis were insurgents, victims of sectarian killings or innocent civilians caught up in the fighting.
The cataloguing of insurgent casualties is also complicated by the transient commitment of those involved. For example, is a teenager who accepts $50 to fire an AK-47 at a passing military convoy really an insurgent or an unemployed delinquent who needs money (and ‘street cred’)?
The validity of the figures is difficult to judge beyond the certainty that they will not be accurate.
My take? I think, taking the data above into account, as well as some additional thoughts I will offer below, that the number is, indeed, probably above 50,000.
How do I arrive at that number? Well, I follow the trend line of the numbers above (including the post-Sunni Awakening decrease in violence which is not represented above) and then take the following issues into account: First of all, I want to know the TOTAL number of insurgents killed, not just those killed by coalition forces. Therefore, I am including in my estimate the number of insurgents killed by other insurgents in territorial or ideological clashes, the number of suicide bombers (a relatively easy number since the individual is obviously killed and attracts a lot of attention in the process) which stands at 1,772 through 2009 as well as the Sunni insurgents killed by fellow Sunnis (the Sons of Iraq) during the so-called Sunni Awakening and, lastly, the number of insurgents killed by private security contractors. None of these numbers show up on the U.S. Military estimates and so my number is higher than that produced by the U.S. Military because I am trying to include all insurgents killed and not just those killed by coalition forces.
You see, my thinking is that a dead fanatic is a dead fanatic and is, therefore, one less to worry about because fanatics of any kind are dangerous. The fact that they are dead is what is relevant to me, not how they were killed.
Is there a reason there is not more data on this subject out there? Or am I just morbid?