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.