SIGAR releases report, The Human Cost of Reconstruction in Afghanistan

ASHWA JUWAYN, Afghanistan - Akhtar Mohammed, owner and chief engineer of Watan Kar Construction Company, had six of his workers kidnapped and all of his equipment burned or stolen by insurgents, Mar. 3. Three have since been returned, but three remain in insurgent custody. Mohammed is waiting to start construction again until he replaces his equipment. ISAF Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communications Specialist Petty Officer 1st Class Monica R. Nelson. 2007

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report identifying the casualty numbers (killed, wounded, missing or kidnapped) directly related to the reconstruction effort between April 17, 2002 and December 31, 2018. Contractor casualties made up the bulk of the casualties, with Afghan local national employees carrying most of the risk.

The full report can be downloaded here.

From the report

Key points:

  • Using multiple casualty-related sources, SIGAR conservatively identifies 5,135 casualties in Afghanistan associated with reconstruction or stabilization missions, from 2002 through Dec. 31, 2018.
  • The total reconstruction-related casualties include 2,214 killed and 2,921 wounded; the report also identifies 1,182 individuals who were kidnapped or went missing.
  • During this period, at least 284 Americans were killed in Afghanistan while performing reconstruction or stabilization missions. This includes 216 U.S. service members and 68 U.S. civilians (government employees, contractors, and those with unknown statuses).
  • An additional 245 U.S. service members and 76 U.S. civilians were wounded; 100 other Coalition service members were killed and 105 wounded; another 124 third country nationals were killed, 87 wounded and 59 kidnapped.
  • 1,578 Afghans were killed, 2,246 wounded, and 1,004 kidnapped. These include 1,447 Afghan civilians killed, 2,008 wounded, and 1,003 kidnapped. Of the Afghans killed, 65 were bystanders.
  • Data collected by SIGAR shows that the majority of casualties occurred during the height of the reconstruction efforts between 2008 and 2011.
  • There were 818 casualties related to security activities: 346 killed and 472 wounded. This was the most dangerous activity for Americans. Of the 346 people killed while performing security related activities, 195 were Americans, including 154 U.S. service members and 41 U.S. civilians.
  • There were 257 casualties related to humanitarian activities. This category include casualties and kidnappings that occurred while providing health and education services to local communities, providing food aid, supporting displaced populations, and other activities aimed at alleviating the suffering of the Afghan people.
  • SIGAR concludes that unless the U.S. government considers the human costs, the true costs of reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan are not accurately captured.

Other key points of interest to the stability operations industry:

  • SIGAR obtained its information from a litany of sources. Partial data came from insurance claims under the Defense Base Act (DBA), but “analysis showed this data was…incomplete”. The report notes, “346 contractors … that were killed on U.S. funded contracts did not appear on [Department of Labor] list of insurance claims submitted for contractor deaths in Afghanistan.” In a footnote, the report commented, “The SPOT database [the Department of Defense Synchronized Predeployment & Operational Tracker] listed only 127 contractor deaths in Afghanistan recorded from April 17, 2002 to December 31, 2018.” The report contains significantly more detail regarding the sources they used to determine their numbers.
  • 30% of the casualties were related to road construction, emphasizing the vulnerability and risk contractors face performing core reconstruction work in stability operations.
  • For local nationals, 1,578 Afghans were killed, 2,246 wounded, and an astonishing 1,004 were kidnapped.
  • The casualties reflect the policies of the time, for example casualties related to counternarcotics operations spike in 2014 and 2018, while road building and construction suffer the greatest casualties between 2005 and 2013.

SIGAR limited who would be included as reconstruction-related casualties:

For this review, we counted a casualty as reconstruction or stabilization related if: (1) the casualty’s primary mission at the time was specifically related to conducting reconstruction or stabilization activities. Examples include service members and civilians deployed to train Afghan National Defense Security Forces, USAID employees or contractors, and local nationals working on road construction projects or election activities; or, (2) the casualty was a bystander at the site of these activities.

And to be clear, some casualties not included in the report:

  • Casualties that occurred during combat and counter-terrorism missions, such as patrols, raids, and ambushes;
  • Casualties that occurred during combat support missions unrelated to reconstruction;
  • Military and civilian logistics resupply missions unless the casualty occurred during missions where the convoys were specifically carrying reconstruction materials;
  • Enemy attacks on Afghan government or military sites;
  • Casualties that occurred from accidents;
  • Suicides or homicides;
  • Deaths from natural causes;
  • Enemy casualties, including suicide bombers;
  • Attacks at locations unrelated to reconstruction activities such as private homes, businesses, bazaars, banks, mosques or other public gathering places.


Stability operations within Afghanistan began roughly two decades ago and have persisted despite an active insurgency doing its best to thwart development.  Contractors working inside Afghanistan are well aware of their vulnerability to attacks, and indeed nature of stability operations obligates a necessary amount of risk. Members of the Stability Operations Industry attempt to mitigate exposure to danger, but no missions are free of risk. This SIGAR report serves as a stark reminder of reconstruction costs.

With the human toll in mind, the international community should recognize the accomplishments of stability operations industry within Afghanistan that continues to serve as the primary implementer of international policies aimed at transforming a country. In 2001, war torn Afghanistan resembled a pre-industrial state with collapsed infrastructure, high illiteracy rates, lack of health care, and numerous other problems. While the country faced these internal problems, it willingly served as a launch pad for international terrorism. Despite these challenges, the multinational effort lifted Afghanistan from a dismal ranking of 232 on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) all the way up to 170. There is plenty of room for improvement, but Afghanistan made significant progress establishing a thriving democratic society with a broad education system for all, vastly improved healthcare, and infrastructure focused on fostering business and industrial growth.

This SIGAR report reminds the international community of the very real costs associated with stability operations. Afghanistan continues to be a challenging operation: there is a presidential election in the country which is already in dispute, an ongoing peace process that is characterized by fits and starts, and the United States is seeking to reduce or even eliminate its own involvement. Whether the cost is worth the outcome will continue to be debated, but now we hold a better understanding of the human toll.


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