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The newspaper USA Today has reported that, for the first time, US forces have released figures for the number of insurgents killed in Iraq. Seemingly in response to a request from USA Today, the Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) provided data which estimates that over 19,400 insurgents have died in Iraq since June 2003.
The validity of the figures is difficult to judge beyond the certainty that they will not be accurate. The very difficult 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. Unlike set-piece battles between conventional armies which have a reasonable idea of how many troops they have under command before and after the battle, and which routinely take place on specific battlefields from which casualties can be recovered and catalogued, parameters for gauging casualties amongst insurgents are indeterminate.
This is especially the case when the insurgency is not being conducted by a single entity with a formal organization and order of battle. In assessing how many insurgents have been killed, MNC-I 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 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’)? Given the complexity and uncertainty underpinning the challenge of accurately assessing insurgent casualties it is clear commentators should not place undue importance on the figures provided by MNC-I. In addition, even if the level of insurgent casualties could be determined with a high degree of confidence in its authenticity, its value as an indicator of how the counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign was developing is questionable. For instance, if there is a marked increase in the number of insurgents killed (or captured) over a set period is that upsurge an indication that coalition operations are becoming more effective, or is it a manifestation that the insurgency is escalating? The former would be an indication that the COIN campaign may be progressing well, the latter that the situation is seriously deteriorating.
In summary, although MNC-I may have been pressured into putting its enemy casualty figures into the public domain, it is important that observers beyond the theatre of operations do not fall into the trap of making erroneous judgments on an hasty and invalid interpretation of the released data. To do so would be unwise and potentially unhelpful to the forces engaged in the most complex of conflicts.
Head, Operational Studies Programme
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.