Military Fatality Rates (By Cause) in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Measure of Hostilities

Sheila M Bird; Clive B Fairweather


Int J Epidemiol. 2007;36(4):841-846. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Background: Military fatalities occur in clusters, and causes differ between theatres of operation or within-theatre over time.
Aim: Based on around 500 coalition deaths, identify major causes in Iraq and Afghanistan. For consecutive periods (1: May 1 to September 17, 2006, 2: September 18, 2006 to February 4, 2007), ascertain UK and others' numbers deployed to compare fatality rates per 1000-personnel years. Take account of clustering: deaths per fatal improvised explosive device (IED) incident, and in making short-term projections for Afghanistan.
Methods: Cause and date of coalition deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are as listed in, where each death is designated as hostile or non-hostile. Numbers deployed in 2006 were available for UK and Canada, and for US to Iraq.
Findings: Out of 537 coalition fatalities in Iraq in 2006 to September 17, 2006, 457 (85%) were hostile, but only half were in Afghanistan (October 2001 to September 17, 2006: 52%, 249/478). Air losses accounted for 5% fatalities in Iraq, but 32% in Afghanistan. IEDs claimed three out of five hostile deaths in Iraq, only a quarter in Afghanistan. Deaths per fatal IED incident averaged 1.5.
In period 1, 50/117 military deaths in Afghanistan were UK or Canadian from 6750 personnel, a fatality rate of 19/1000/year, nearly four times the US rate of 5/1000/year in Iraq (based on 280 deaths). Sixty out of 117 fatalities in Afghanistan occurred as clusters of two or more deaths.
In period 2, fatality rates changed: down by two-thirds in Afghanistan for UK and Canadian forces to 6/1000/year (18 deaths), up by 46% for US troops in Iraq to 7.5/1000/year (416 deaths).
Interpretation: Rate, and cause, of military fatalities are capable of abrupt change, as happened in Iraq (rate) and Afghanistan (rate and cause) between consecutive 140-day periods. Forecasts can be wide of the mark.

Keeping a track on fatalities and injuries by cause,[1] and on variations in the number of troops deployed to a theatre of war, such as Iraq[2] or Afghanistan,[3,4] provides indications of cause-specific trends; and serves as a reference from which to monitor major changes, some of them sudden. Trends in military fatalities due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or suicide bombings[1,4] are of military or media interest respectively.

For analysis purposes, a force of 1000 servicemen and women on operations for 1 year constitutes 1000 personnel-years (pys); and so too does a deployment of 4000 personnel for a quarter year. Insightful analysis involves not only the numbers of military fatalities by nationality and cause, but computation of rates per 1000 pys.[2]

An equivalent tally should be kept up for other nations[4] besides our own because the combined data may offer a more secure platform for drawing inferences, and making projections.[1,4] Corresponding period-specific counts for the enemy (of fatalities, casualties and numbers deployed) and of civilian collateral damage -- both direct[5,6,7] and indirectly[6,7,8] -- give a rounded, quantitative understanding of fighting efficiencies, and the broader impact of war. The fatality rate of the Taliban's 'foot soldiers from among the poor, ordinary Afghan tribesmen,'[9] the extent of their losses,[10] and how readily those who die can be replaced by new recruits are critical questions, both epidemiologically and militarily, but are beyond the scope of this article.

Our analysis of the rate, causes and clustering of military deaths in Afghanistan and, in 2006, in Iraq updates earlier articles on UK's military fatality rates per 1000 pys since March 20, 2003 in Iraq,[2] and on the need for military and public health sciences to collaborate.[5,6,7] Clustering was tragically evident on September 2, 2006 when a Nimrod came down in southern Afghanistan with the loss of 14 British lives.

Moderately sophisticated analysis should be publicly reported for democratic assurance[11] that statistical science is being deployed in the service of our forces -- as diligently as medico-surgical skills are.[12] Anticipated or empirical risks can then be rapidly redressed.[13,14,15] In Afghanistan, by straightforward empirical measures, the threat to our forces was major in mid 2006.[3]

Coalition fatalities were approximately 500 in markedly different theatres and periods of operation (Afghanistan from October 1, 2001 to September 17, 2006, and Iraq from January 1, 2006 to September 17, 2006). Differences between these theatres of operation include that the coalition entered Iraq as an invasion force, not so Afghanistan. Terrain and seasonality are quite diverse between Afghanistan and Iraq. An urban focus to military operations in Iraq necessitates the use of central road configurations. Different cross-border and illegal supply lines to the enemy apply in Afghanistan and Iraq. And eradication of the opium poppy crop threatens livelihoods in Afghanistan, which has a long-established fighting tradition.


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