Afghanistan War Produces High Civilians-Killed-Per-Bomb-Dropped Ratio

Professor Marc W. Herold

My argument regarding the high rate of Afghan civilian 'impact deaths' caused by U.S. bombing, mirrors though in magnified fashion, precisely what happened in Serbia almost two years ago. A policy update at the time from the World Policy Institute summarized the effects of NATO bombing :

"The high rate of civilian casualties caused by the NATO bombardment of Kosovo and Serbia further undermines any notion that the air war has a "humanitarian" purpose. Fred Kaplan of the Boston Globe has suggested that at least 1,200 civilians have been killed since NATO started its air war, and that the number of civilian casualties per ton of bombs dropped is greater than during the height of the Vietnam War. The reason for the higher civilian casualty rates is simple: more NATO bombing raids are taking place in heavily populated areas, so that even if most of the bombs are close to their intended targets, those that miss the mark and are more likely to hit adjoining apartment buildings, offices, hospitals, old age homes, public markets, and other places where civilians congregate. Add to this the fact that NATO has been consciously targeting civilian infrastructure, including bridges and electric power stations, and it is quite possible that the death toll from NATO bombing could mount for months and years to come, as people die of disease and starvation caused by the demolition of Serbia's economy (as has been happening for many years in Iraq). THE KILLING OF CIVILIANS BY NATO BOMBS IS NOT A "MISTAKE." IT IS A LOGICAL AND PREDICTABLE OUTGROWTH OF THE WAY NATO HAS CHOSEN TO WAGE THE WAR."1

The Afghan air war has been particularly destructive in terms of civilian impact deaths compared with three previous aerial bombing campaigns. The following Table 1 plots figures of civilians killed per 10,000 tons of bombs dropped. In an article in the Boston Globe [May 30, 1999], Fred Kaplan argued that the so-called 'kill ratio' in Serbia was about the same as in the Vietnam campaign---circa one civilian killed for every 10 tons of bombs dropped---whereas in the Iraq war, it was reportedly one-half that, though this seems to be a serious under-estimate.2 The index is, of course, at best suggestive since civilian casualties will reflect type of ordnance used, local demographic factors, topography, emplacement of military facilities, etc..

Table 1. Comparative Data on Range of Civilian 'Impact Deaths' per 10,000 tons of Bombs Dropped by U.S-U.K Forces in Selected Bombing Campaigns, 1969 - 2001

Civilians killed per ten thousand tons of bombs dropped

Sources: derived from a variety of sources. Derivation available by request from the author.
Note: the Afghan figure -- 2.6 civilians killed per 10 tons of bombs, is based upon my estimate of over 3,700 dead civilians. The only other estimate of overall casualties I have been able to locate is a figure not based upon any detailed calculation. The French daily, Le Monde [December 13, 2001], cited the figure of at least 1,000 civilian dead---or .7 dead civilians per 10 tons of bombs -- after two full months of aerial bombardment.3The article argues that the greatest casualties have been experienced in small villages rather than major cities like Kabul, where it claims only 60 casualties -- a highly dubious figure in my judgement [see Appendix 5].

After surveying numerous reports on civilian impact deaths caused by bombing, I estimate the following numbers : Cambodia @ 100,000; Iraq @ 3,000; Serbia @ 1,200; and Afghanistan @ 3,700. These translate into respective kill ratios [civilians killed per 10,000 tons of bombs] of : Afghanistan @ 2,643; Cambodia @ 1,852; Serbia @ 522; and Iraq @ 341.

Along with the U.S military planner's decision to bomb perceived military targets in urban areas, the use of weapons with great destructive blast and fragmentation power, necessarily results in heavy civilian casualties. The weapon of choice during the first three weeks of the air campaign was the 500 lb bomb which has a lethal blast range of 20 meters; later, the 2,000 lb pound became the weapon of choice and it has a lethal blast range of 34 meters.

In order to be safe from a 2,000 lb bomb, a person need be close to one half kilometer away. Notwithstanding the GPS 'brain', these precision-guided bombs frequently struck off target. For example, a 2,000 lb JDAM bomb dropped from a B-52 should hit within 13 meters of its target, but on Tuesday, December 4th, it fell within 100 meters of U.S forces, killing three Americans, six anti-Taliban fighters, and wounding another 40. By mid-December after nine weeks of the air war, U.S forces had used up about one-half of their 10,000 JDAM bomb inventory and was ordering more.4

Characteristics Mark 82 500 lb bomb 1,000 lb JDAM bomb 2,000 lb JDAM bomb
Officially reported accuracy range 9 meters 13-30 meters, 39 feet in tests 13-30 meters, 39 feet in tests
Fragmentation range 3,000 feet 3,000 feet
Blast shrapnel range 600 ft. radius 1,200 feet radius
Effective casualty radius* about 60 meters radius Safety at least 400 meters from impact site
Lethal blast range** about 20 meters radius 110 feet
Crater upon impact 12 feet or 4 meters 35 feet wide 50 feet wide and 36 feet deep
Price per unit $19,000 $25,000 $25,000
Manufacturers Texas Instruments and Raytheon Boeing Corp. and Lockheed Martin Boeing Corp. and Lockheed Martin

* meaning 50% of exposed persons will die
**meaning 100% mortality within this range


1 From World Policy Institute, Arms Trade Resources Center, Policy Updates [June 4, 1999].

2 Fred Kaplan, "Bombs Killing More Civilians Than Expected," Boston Globe [May 30, 1999]

3 Francoise Chipaux, "Afghanistan: Deux Mois de Frappes Auraient Fait au Moins un Miller de Vie Civiles," Le Monde [December 13, 2001].

4 "More Satellite Bombs Ordered," [December 13, 2001].


Back to Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan

Appendix 5
Spatial Distribution of Afghan Civilian Casualties Caused by the U.S. Air War, October 7 - December 6th.

Appendix 4
Daily Casualty Count of Afghan Civilians Killed in U.S Bombing Attacks

* Cursor exclusive *
December 29, 2001
An Average Day
65 Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombs on December 20th

January 4, 2002
Afghan Government Silent on U.S. Bombing Casualties

January 4, 2002
Trolling the Web for Afghan Dead

Washington Post
January 4, 2002
More Bombing Casualties Alleged

Times of London
January 2, 2002
'Precision Weapons Fail to Prevent Mass Civilian Casualties

Agence France-Presse
December 30, 2001
Terror From the Sky
Survivors return to the village that still smells of death

December 28, 2001
Civilian Bodies
On the recognition of death

Chicago Tribune
December 28, 2001
U.S. Bombs Leave Wasteland
Fierce attacks anger villagers, raise questions

Al-Ahram Weekly
December 27, 2001
Killing Off the Extras

December 27, 2001
Inviting Future Terrorism
Rising Afghan death count and U.S. policy on Mideast

The Guardian
December 20, 2001
The Innocent Dead in a Coward's War
Estimates suggest US bombs have killed at least 3,767 civilians

Houston Chronicle
December 20, 2001
We Can't Just Forget About Dead Afghan Civilians

San Francisco Bay Guardian
December 20, 2001
Life During Wartime
Destroying Afghanistan to save it

December 18, 2001
The Forgotten Dead
Do you know how many have died? Didnšt think so.

December 17, 2001
Civilian Casualties: Theirs and Ours

New York Times
December 15, 2001
An Unlucky Place
An Afghan village where errant bombs fell and killed, and still lurk in wait
December 13, 2001
Bombing & Starvation
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan
December 13, 2001
What's Not In The News
Why we aren't hearing the whole story from Afghanistan

Common Dreams
December 13, 2001
Ari & I
White House press briefing with Ari Fleischer: Second question, a professor at the University of New Hampshire reported...

December 12, 2001
How Many Dead?
U.S. TV networks aren't counting

December 11, 2001
U.S. Wages Overkill in Afghanistan

Common Dreams
December 10, 2001
More Than 3,500 Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombs
University of New Hampshire Economics professor releases study of civilian casualties in Afghanistan
December 7. 2001
Denying the Dead
In Pentagon reports of Afghan dead, truth is the first casualty

November 8, 2001
Civilian Casualties Not News on FOX News

November 2, 2001
Moral Equivalence
How many Afghan civilians is the life of one American soldier worth?

(New Zealand)
October 26, 2001
Bush's War Threatens Millions With Starvation
Norm Dixon

Coming in January from Freedom Voices Press & City Lights Publishers:

"September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke"

Contributors include:
Wendell Berry
Jeff Cohen
Robert Fisk
Eduardo Galeano
Marc Herold
Michael Klare
Ted Rall
Norman Solomon