The Magazine

The Prof Who Can't Count Straight

And the journalists who cite him.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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THE TALIBAN MAY BE DEAD, but its propaganda lives on in the European and Middle Eastern press--thanks in part to the tireless machinations of one hard-left professor at the University of New Hampshire and to the willingness, nay, eagerness, of some of our foreign "friends" to believe the worst about America.

On December 10, Marc Herold, an associate professor of economics and women's studies, released a "dossier," claiming to have "documented" 3,767 civilian deaths in the American air campaign in Afghanistan. The count is updated daily in a database on the web (www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm). Herold's claims have been little reported in the United States because journalists--at least those who work for what Herold contemptuously calls the "mainstream corporate media"--have been skeptical of his peculiar methods of counting. But outside this country, his statistics continue to receive credulous respect.

In mid-July, the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, arguably Germany's most respected newspaper, commented that in contrast to U.S. government reticence on the subject, "a study published in January by the University of New Hampshire speaks of nearly 4,000 civilians killed since October 2001. Since then, the number is said to have reached 5,000 victims. This would mean more people have been killed in Afghanistan than through the attacks in NY on Sept. 11." The same comparison was drawn in Der Spiegel some months back, and that magazine recently reiterated Herold's claims.

In Britain, the Guardian called Herold's work "a systematic independent study . . . based on corroborated reports," while a Times story headed "'Precision Weapons' Fail to Prevent Mass Civilian Casualties" cited the 4,000 figure sympathetically. The BBC reported Herold's conclusions and described his methodology in terms that make it sound highly credible. Bolstering Herold's claim that his was a "very conservative estimate," the network explained that "when there were different casualty figures from the same incident, in 90 percent of cases Professor Herold chose a lower figure."

In France, Le Monde Diplomatique carried a long essay by the American journalist Selig Harrison characterizing Herold's work as based on "meticulously gathered evidence on the ground from relief workers and journalists." Harrison returned to the subject in a piece in the International Herald Tribune, this time calling Herold's count "a credible University of New Hampshire study." Still closer to home, Canada's leading national newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, reported Herold's numbers as well as those of Human Rights Watch and Reuters--which were less than one quarter as large--but commented that those organizations' "monitoring has been less rigorous" than Herold's.

Perhaps of greater consequence, Herold's work has been enthusiastically embraced in the Muslim world. Islam Online recites Herold's death count as if it were an established fact, and Egypt's leading daily, Al-Ahram, reports that while "the Pentagon has falsified the facts about its war . . . one American academic is setting the record straight."

What is this report that has commanded so little attention here and so much abroad? Herold's "dossier" begins with this:

"When U.S. warplanes strafed . . . the farming village of Chowkar-Karez . . . on October 22-23rd, killing at least 93 civilians, a Pentagon official said, 'the people there are dead because we wanted them dead.' The reason? They sympathized with the Taliban."

I tried to follow these three sentences to their evidentiary bases, and soon I felt like Alice chasing the rabbit down the hole. The above passage is graced with a footnote explaining that "the figure of 93 comes from our data compilation." This is none too helpful but is followed by a note in parentheses: "see chart later, citing reports from Al Jazeera, the BBC, Dawn (November 1, 2001) and the Hindu." Alas, there is no chart.

So I began to search. Al Jazeera--the Qatar-based satellite TV network--did indeed report the 93 civilian deaths, but the only stories in the Hindu (an Indian daily) or the BBC that I could find via Nexis and Google were about a Human Rights Watch report on the incident. Human Rights Watch, a liberal group aiming to hold Washington's feet to the fire, concluded that "at least 25, and possibly as many as 35, Afghan civilians died" in the village. Dawn is an English language Pakistani newspaper. Its search engine yielded nothing for November 1, but did turn up a story from October 31, also about the Human Rights Watch report.

Herold's footnote had alluded to this report: "Human Rights Watch reported a figure of 35 deaths, but this was based only upon interviews with survivors in a Quetta hospital." This dismissal is odd since even if HRW's sources were limited to the hospital, it had conducted the only systematic investigation of what happened in the village. Moreover, as Herold must have known, Human Rights Watch made clear that its sources included more than the Quetta patients. To buttress his impugnment of HRW, Herold's footnote referred readers to an article in the webzine Swans, which describes Human Rights Watch mystifyingly as "well-funded and . . . well-connected. Its links snake through the foreign policy establishment . . . , through the State Department, and through the government's propaganda arm, Radio Free Europe."

Adding to the confusion, the footnote also mentions that a "detailed on-the-scene account" of the tragedy at Chowkar-Karez could be found in another article in Dawn. This turned out to be an Agence France-Presse dispatch from one of a group of reporters taken to the village by the Taliban. No bodies were reported seen, but villagers told the group that 60 people had been killed there. Muddling the story further, a sidebar in Herold's dossier lists the figure 93 as the combined toll of raids on Chowkar-Karez and a neighboring village. It cites as its source a single article in the Chicago Tribune. That article, however, mentioned only the neighboring village, not Chowkar-Karez. Moreover, it gave no casualty figures for either village, and it pointed out that "reports [of civilian casualties] could not be independently verified."

So I e-mailed Herold, copying his footnote and asking "what chart?" He replied: "I am not quite sure which text you are quoting." He added that his death estimate for the village was now 52 to 93 and referred me to his "massive database" on the web (www.cursor.org/stories/casualty_count.htm).

There I found a table with an entry for Chowkar-Karez (now spelled Kariz) listing "52-90-93" as the count of civilian deaths. Seven sources were given. The BBC and the Hindu were no longer mentioned, but in addition to Al Jazeera and Dawn (now up to three separate articles), there were references to Singapore News, the Independent, and Agence France-Presse. For all but Al Jazeera, dates were given, but in no case was there an author or title. So it was back to the search engines.

I found the piece in the Independent. It reported that Al Jazeera claimed there had been 93 deaths, and it also said that "journalists and human rights advocates who interviewed eyewitnesses estimated 25 to 35 civilians were killed." The Agence France-Presse item at least served to explain where the number 52 had come from. It said: "The Taliban . . . also reported that . . . 52 people died when a village . . . was attacked. None of these claims have been independently confirmed." The newly referenced item in Dawn only mentioned civilian casualties in general--no numbers and nothing about the specific case. I could not find anything in Singapore News.

I wrote Herold again, asking for the sources I could not find and the method of his own "data compilation." He began his reply by wondering "why you are so interested" and said his failure to give authors and titles was because "I do not have a staff to assist." My other questions about sources and methods went unanswered, but he appended a brief text, explaining that its "purpose . . . is to cast doubt upon both the method and reported results of Human Rights Watch." It cited new sources: the Oman Daily Observer, Al-Ahram, the Hindustan Times, the Jordan Times, and the BBC Online. The only piece I could find in the BBC Online was one citing Herold's own account. I could not find the others through Nexis or Google or the search engines of the individual papers. Presumably they repeat the same unverified assertions that have appeared elsewhere.

Herold provided no further information. He e-mailed that he had learned I am a neoconservative and therefore answering my queries did not justify "the opportunity cost of my time. . . . I 'owe' you absolutely nothing." To top it off, he accused me of "dissimulation" in signing my e-mails to him, Josh Muravchik. "I wonder why you did not 'sign' your full name (Joshua Muravchik)," he wrote, suggesting that by omitting the "ua" I had slyly cloaked my identity.

Although stymied, I have looked into the episode enough to feel certain that these other stories, if they exist, will add no new information. There were, in sum, essentially four versions of civilian casualties at Chowkar-Karez. The Taliban's initial claim was 52 dead, which was upped by Al Jazeera to 93. Human Rights Watch put it between 25 and 35. Then there was the Pentagon, which claimed that Chowkar-Karez had been "positively identified as a Taliban encampment including al Qaeda collaborators." (This was the description that Herold paraphrased as "civilians [who] sympathized with the Taliban.")

From these four versions, Herold concluded that the toll was 52 to 93, in other words, the Taliban version and up. Indeed, this is the "method" for all his research. Notwithstanding reports from Afghan journalists after the Taliban's ouster that under its rule they were forced to doctor reports of civilian casualties ("We could not tell the truth," one told AP), Herold's "dossier" contains a graph whose civilian casualty count, for every week of the war, exceeds Taliban claims.

The White House is reportedly considering setting up a new communications agency. It might begin by offering classes to Europeans (and Selig Harrison) on the elementary canons of journalism and scholarship. And someone might tell the state of New Hampshire how its name is being used and how its children are being taught.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism" (Encounter).