Noel King here, producing on The Takeaway’s day shift.
On Tuesday afternoon a number of news organizations reported that U.S. forces in Afghanistan had reached the grim milestone of 1,000 troop deaths. That's because the website icasualties.org changed its tally to 1000. The Pentagon called those reports incorrect - and they are. I’d begun digging into this story on Sunday and, with some phone calls, discovered what's contributing to these false reports. It's all laid out below.
The process of tallying troop deaths is complex and confusing, and the numbers reported by different news sources are often at odds. It helps to have a centralized source to depend upon for a death toll, and journalists generally like independent sources. Some news organizations rely on the well-known website, icasualties.org.
HOW ICASUALTIES.ORG WORKS
The site is the brainchild and project of Michael White, a software engineer from Georgia who was frustrated by wildly conflicting reported numbers on troop deaths during the early days of the war in Iraq. White set out to accurately calculate the number of troop deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan using reports from the Department of Defense, smaller local newspapers reporting the deaths of local men and women, and tips from his readers.
But as for the 1000 figure being widely reported today, White doesn’t just calculate the number of troop deaths in Afghanistan. He tallies the number of deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom – which includes the War in Afghanistan and separate operations in the Philippines, Cuba and the Horn of Africa – among others.
White admits that if you don’t look closely enough, his website is easily misread - and it appears that for many, "Operation Enduring Freedom" is synonymous with "the war in Afghanistan."
After I called White on Monday to ask why his numbers did not match those of the Department of Defense, he added a note to icasualties.org saying:
“Our count of U.S. fatalities in Operation Enduring Freedom has passed 1,000, however U.S. fatalities in and around Afghanistan remain under this benchmark.”
The catch is that you’ve got to click on the Operation Enduring Freedom link to get that notice – and if you’re in a hurry or if you’re used to reading quickly to get information, you’re likely to miss it.
WHAT'S THE RIGHT NUMBER?
At this writing, icasualties reports the US has lost 930 troops in Afghanistan since 2001. The Pentagon told Reuters on Tuesday that the US has lost 916 troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since 2001.
As for Michael White, he told me that he’s frustrated to have, in a sense, become part of the problem – rather than icasualties being a place where people go for clarity, it is yet another source offering conflicting numbers.
An earlier version of this post specifically used the word "servicemen" in a sub-head, rather than "service members." Both men and women have, of course, served and died in service to our country. Thanks to Kristen Rouse for bringing this to our attention.