Afghan Wikileaks War Diary Part 2: Updated

Yesterday, Wikileaks posted more than 76,000 records of military actions in Afghanistan covering the years 2004 through the end of 2009. At this point, just about everyone in the world has heard about the data set and discussion as to potential damage to military strategy and policy in Afghanistan has already begun. My opinion is, that no matter how damning the records may be, these are records of historical incidents and if we be damned, then we be damned. Whoever leaked this data should get a medal. This is what we as tax-payers in a free democracy demand. Remaining above board and transparent in our military efforts will go a long way to keeping the world straight.

However, news coverage of the Afghanistan conflict vastly overlooks the incredible human cost that has been incurred in the nearly 10 years that the United States military has been there. How can it not? Media coverage of foreign wars is like watching a kung fu movie without subtitles. The average American feels no common ground with the persons depicted, and a war torn, impoverished country is about as far away from typical American life as the moon is. This data set is important because it carefully details the wounded and the killed among the civilian population in frighteningly precise numbers. Our military has kept a careful and meticulous count of a populace who mostly seem to be caught in the crossfire from elements who have little interest in Afghanistan’s future (ourselves included).

Last post, I presented two maps, one representing civilian wounded and the other civilians killed. To create context for what follows, I present them again:

The center of Afghanistan is largely mountainous and uninhabited. From these maps, it’s clear that the Afghan conflict has touched nearly every community across the entire country. Given the extended conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980′s, the brutally medieval Taliban regime of the 90′s and the ubiuitous nature of the present conflict, it’s hard to believe that the average Afghani knows anything but war and violence at this point.

District Level Civilian Deaths

Afghanistan is divided into 388 administrative districts much like the United States is divided into 50 states. Boiling the point data down to the district level, we can sum the number of civilians killed, divide that number by the size of the surrounding population and generate a map of the percentage of the population that has been killed in a district. Raw counts of deaths are interesting, but we also would like to know how that raw number stands in relation to the size of the surrounding population. We can extend this pseudo-percentage to represent a probability of being killed as a civilian in these district. Most of the killing occurs in the southern part of the country along the Pakistani border as could be seen in the point based map above. In this map, however, we can spot a couple of hot spots in the north, that have experience a disproportionate number of civilian deaths relative to their population size. The populations that reside in the darker areas experience the greatest risk of being killed in a conflict event.

Civilian Casualties in Events Instigated by Friends and Enemies

The data includes not only the numbers killed, but also the instigator of the event, be it “Friend” (the US and other Coalition forces) or “Enemy” (presumably, everyone else). There were 3255 events that involved wounded civilians and 1718 which included civilian deaths. Apparently, the “Enemy” is much better at killing and wounding civilians than the United States, assuming that the party that fired first was responsible for the brunt of the civilian deaths. In overall numbers, enemy led events resulted in more than 7 times the number of wounded as coalition led events, and more than 20 times the number killed. Enemy instigated events resulted in a 1 to 2 ratio of deaths to wounded, where coalition led events were 1 to 5. Comparing the data to the number of operations, I found that that enemy instigated events involving 1 or more civilian casualties resulted in twice as many deaths as US instigated events and three times as many wounded. Of course, the designation of the instigating party lies in the American military’s hand, and could very well be up to interpretation. However, given the incredible amount of data, we can at least assume that it’s correct at least some percentage of the time.

Civilian Wounded and Killed over Time

The United States entered Afghanistan shortly after Sept 11, 2001. The data begins at January 1st, 2004, leaving a three year blank. However, it is clear from a time-series plot of the data that the conflict has only increased since 2004. Below is a time series decomposition of the data from Jan 1st, 2004 to Dec 31st, 2009. The first of the four plots is the raw time series of civilians killed daily by all instigators. All time series are made up of three components: trend, seasonality and noise. Trend is what you would think; it is an increasing or decreasing pattern of change over time. Seasonality is like the weather seasons; it is a predictable pattern of events over a cycle. Noise is just what is says, random events that happen without any discernible pattern. The trend component is the most striking. Not only are civilians at risk for death from armed conflicts, but this pattern of death has only increased over the past 6 years. If you look at the seasonal plot, you can spot 6 fairly distinct humps; deaths increase in the summer months and wane in the winter.

Combatants Wounded and Killed Over Time

That civilians are meaninglessly killed and wounded is unforgivable. However, the costs in human life and welfare do not stop at the civilian body count. Combatants on both sides (all sides?) of the conflict has exhibited massive casualties over the course of the conflict and this will be of particular interest to policy makers on this end of the globe. The benefits and costs of continuing the war will likely hinge on the American body count, which is inherently related to the American electorate.

The spatial distribution of US and coalition forces killed indicates that the highest numbers of casualties are southwest region of the country. Specifically, the brunt of the killing occurs in the Hilmand, Kadahar, Farah and Uruzgam provinces.

Below, I present a time series decomposition of the number of Coalition combatants killed over time, i.e. US and other NATO forces. Trend is evident. The number of coalition combatants being killed has been increasing over the course of the war and shows no evidence of stopping. Seasonal patterns are frighteningly clear. More coalition forces are killed in summer than winter, and the pattern is easily predictable.

A plot of enemy killed vs. coalition members killed indicates that the number of number of enemy combatants killed increases slightly as the body count of coalition forces increases, but that this relationship may be a 1/x sort of relationship (although I couldn’t get the line to plot. later!). Basically, overall, enemy casualties increase with larger numbers of dead coalition combatants, but generally, when the number of enemy combatants killed is very high, coalition members don’t die very much, but when the number of dead coalition members is very high, there are low numbers of combatant casualties. So we play this game, and somehow we meet in the middle and neither gets anywhere.


What’s the conclusion here? War is bad. Period. People die and suffer and the wounded often remain that way for life. From the data here, we can learn at least that. We can also assume that non US and Coalition groups are responsible for not only larger numbers of casualties, but are also better at getting a good amount of civilian blood for their buck. While much of the point of releasing the data is to demonstrate that the US military is evil and hell bent on killing people wherever it can for money and gold, an idea which I may or may not always agree with, I think that we can conclude that the data is even more damning for those who seem to want to take control of the country at the expense of it’s local population. While it is certainly true that the US forces there cause death and destruction merely by being there, I think that everyone can agree that the killing just needs to stop and the solution may not be to simply for the US to pack up, leave and let it be someone else’s problem. The troubles in Afghanistan go much deeper than simply flawed American policy. Staying is obviously not much of an option either. I am no expert on the Afghan war, nor on Afghan history and politics, nor even on military policy. Regardless, the facts stand that the great costs in human welfare and life are increasing and showing little sign of letting up. My conclusion? Stop the killing, please.

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About Peter Larson

Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology

7 responses to “Afghan Wikileaks War Diary Part 2: Updated”

  1. Kirkpad says :

    An interesting read to say the least. The US troops have been painted as being the “civilian killers” after the Baghdad Apache helicopter video was released in April by Wikileaks. Your data says otherwise, in that the enemy was the one who usually caused civilian death.

    However these data reports are done by U.S. soldiers, and therefore could be incorrect. Many of the attack reports claim the attack was started by the enemy, but they could have been started by the friendly side. If I were a US soldier in charge of writing up the log, I wouldn’t want to admit that I killed over 100 civilians in one go either.

    • Pete Larson says :

      I agree. I don’t think that the categorization of who instigated the event can be considered to be 100% accurate. Nor does the categorization even imply that the party who initiated the event did the civilian killing. However, given the incredible breadth of data, we can at least assume that it’s a correct characterization at least some percentage of the time particularly when the event consists of activities such as leaving an IED in a hotel lobby that kills 42 people. This does not let the US off the hook. I am not an apologist for the US military. But it’s a mischaracterization to indicate that the data is entirely damning to the US and entirely vindicating of people who plant IED’s in kindergartens. Both sides have much to answer to.

  2. Dale says :

    I enjoyed reading your interpretation of the “war logs”. How accurate this data is can only be classified as “unknown”. With that being said, I think this leak paints a pretty solid picture explaining what “war” is all about. Every war will certainly have civilian deaths and injuries. The United States and Allied Nations strive to limit these civilian causalities of war. Although it’s a given that there will be a percentage of them as a result of this type of conflict on this scale. People need to understand that in war, no matter what intelligence you have, there will always be some level of chaos and the unknown.

    “A motorcycle traveling down the road towards a US convoy, failing to stop after several warnings to stop. They open fire on the driver killing him. The search of the body and vehicle discovers no weapons or immediate threat The driver turns out to be a civilian rushing home for dinner.” – Is the US wrong for killing a civilian? I think they are justified. If you are told to stop by a military force and do not stop, you will be seen as hostile. At which point, shoot first ask questions later becomes the policy. Put yourself in soldiers boots. Do you chance this driver isn’t speeding at you with a VBIED? Based on the number of VBIED & IED entries in the logs, my answer is shoot first.

  3. Am says :

    “shoot first ask questions later becomes the policy” is a bad policy.

    You come in my country without my invitation and then you start dictating in the way I should conduct myself. NO! it is not right. You end up killing the people you need to support you.

    The Afghan people should be left to deal with their problem in ways they deem fit.They should be given advice and other forms of assistance. There should also not be any hidden agenda from the foreign nations providing assistance.

    A war where there is occupation has never, never been won.

  4. Kevin Clark says :

    Time to pack up and go home. I supported military intervention in Afghanistan, but like many others, I didn’t sign up for a 10 year occupation. What happened to the notion of only fighting wars when absolutely necessary, and if deemed necessary, fighting to utterly demoralize and destroy enemy capabilities and then …calling it a day?

    Give Afghanistan back to the people…with a warning: “Should domestic or international terrorists find comfort within your borders, use your soil to carry out attacks on American civilians, and then continue to enjoy hospitable refuge, we will return. This time however, we will return with BIG SCARY BOMBS and kill indiscriminately until you are either extinct, or realize the folly of harboring groups that may attract our attention.”

    “Nation building”, “winning hearts & minds”; it sounds good on paper, but it has never worked in modern warfare. Build your own nation, elect/install leaders who represent the desires of the populace, otherwise…face the consequences.

  5. Robert Litfin says :

    Am says occupation has never worked, but what about Germany, Italy, and Japan 65 years ago? After totally demoralizing defeats, some years of occupation seem to have been effective. Even “nation-building” to some extent, we might say.

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