January 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Numbed by Numbers: Giving Context to 2014

• The scale of the suffering in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in 2014 resists a proper understanding or framing, as statistics fail to provide the necessary context and urgency

• At least 76,000 people died in the Syrian civil war last year; that’s the equivalent of losing every single spectator in Maracanã Stadium, at the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, along with the players and vendors

• An estimated 3,500 Syrian children were killed in the civil war last year; that’s the equivalent of taking the recent Taliban massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan and repeating it 24 times

• The 3,188 Afghan civilians killed in the continued fighting in one year (2014) are only slightly less than the 3,526 civilians killed in the fighting in Northern Ireland over a span of over 30 years (1969-2001)

• Between 15,000-17,000 people were killed in extremist violence in Iraq in 2014; that’s 300% more in one year than all the Iraq-related U.S. military deaths over 11 years.

It is easy to become numb to the numbers, when reading the 2014 statistics for those killed in fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Syria has just witnessed its worst death toll since the civil war began almost four years ago. Iraq has just ended its bloodiest year since 2007, at the height of the sectarian and U.S. military fighting. Despite four years of ‘surged efforts,’ 2014 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan since 2009, before the increased peacekeeping efforts. These numbers are disappointing, but they fail to place the issues in proper context. With the trend lines heading for additional catastrophes in all three countries (as well as in Libya and Nigeria), 2015 will likely see worse numbers unless fundamental changes in conflict resolution are enacted. And one of the first steps in crafting better conflict resolution strategies is understanding the impact of the conflict.

An estimated 76,000 people were killed in 2014 in Syria due to the fighting, with the total casualties of the nearly four-year civil war now exceeding 200,000. To put that into an American context: the war in Vietnam is among the most traumatic in U.S. history, with resounding societal, political, and individual impact. The U.S lost 58,209 personnel as a result of the combat in Vietnam from 1955-1975, a span of 20 years. The Syrian population, much smaller than that of the United States, lost 76,000 in just the past year, after losing nearly as many in the previous year. The societal, political, and individual impact of 20 years of casualties compressed into one year, and with no end in sight, will no doubt be far more traumatic for those directly affected and the region as a whole.

To understand the scale but not the depth of the horror, imagine watching the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil. Last year, Syria lost the equivalent of every single spectator in Maracanã Stadium during the last match, including the players and the vendors. That Syria’s losses didn’t happen all at once in one place doesn’t negate the negative impacts; it just makes it easier to minimize. Any humble but urgent efforts to resolve the conflict and repair the damage must begin with an understanding of the scale of this loss. The West tends to honor significant and horrific tragedies by listing the names of each of the fallen, in recognition that numbers are not people. The scale of tragedies in Syria and other places threatens to leave only numbers and no names behind. The negative impact on future peace efforts when only numbers are involved cannot be overestimated.

The recent slaughter of 142 school children by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan, understandably outraged the world. The single-incident atrocity is easy to visualize and conceptualize. However, deaths spread out over months defy visualization. An estimated 3,500 Syrian children died as a result of the civil war in 2014. That’s as if the Taliban attacked not just one, but 24 schools in Peshawar. Or if Norway experienced not one horrific 2011 massacre of young people at an island camp, but 50; or America suffered not just one 2012 Sandy Hook shooting but 175 of them. When the numbers grow larger over the course of the year, their scale becomes mere trivia while the horror remains personal and immediate.

Northern Ireland is still dealing with the toxic aftermath of its long period of ‘The Troubles,’ in which 3,526 civilians died over a 32-year period between 1969-2001. The cost in lives lost and opportunities wasted is immeasurable. In 2014, Afghanistan lost 3,188 civilians to its own version of ‘The Troubles,’ nearly equaling in one year the three-decades of Northern Ireland’s tragedy. The effective conflict resolution efforts that went into ending and subduing the conflict in Northern Ireland will need to be studied and scaled up for places like Afghanistan.

The phrase “worst year in violence since 2007” is accurate when talking about the level of Iraqi deaths in 2014, but it does not provide the full picture. Between 15,000-17,000 Iraqis were killed in the renewed fighting, with the Islamic State bearing the responsibility for a majority of the deaths. That figure is 300% more for one year than the total of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq between 2003-2014. It’s slightly less than the estimated 16,000-18,000 New Zealanders who died fighting in all of World War One, with an impact that is equally as traumatic.

The danger in analyzing sustained negative trend lines along the likes of what we’re seeing in Syria, Iraq, and in Afghanistan is that the comparisons cease being honest since they’re compared only to the horrors before it. The scale of death in these, and other countries—as well as the year-after-year repetition of death and misery—makes it vital to take these numbers out of isolation and put them into some context that will ignite renewed regional and international efforts at modern conflict resolution.


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