When Is a Body Count Not a Body Count?

The Obama administration claims to have killed 6,000 Islamic State fighters, but the military worries that tallying up the dead will bring up bad memories of the lost war in Vietnam.

Defense Secretary Hagel Gives Briefing At The Pentagon
ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 22: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers questions during a press briefing at the Pentagon January 22, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. The press briefing was believed to be one of Hagel's last before he departs his role as Secretary of Defense. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

While a U.S. diplomatic official bragged Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition had killed 6,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon was quick to quash the statistic, not necessarily because it was wrong, but because the military wants to avoid anything reminiscent of the famously inflated “body counts” used during Vietnam.

The back-and-forth is the latest evidence of an administration that is not on the same page with its talking points about the Islamic State. That matters as the White House tries to maintain public and congressional support for an expanding military campaign that has so far failed to push the group out of the broad expanses of territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

The Obama administration’s line about its strategy to defeat the Islamic State has been marked by confusion and conflicting messages since the U.S. first got involved in the fight this summer. The group either posed a threat to the U.S. scarier than al Qaeda did before 9/11 or it was a regional danger that could morph into something more powerful if not kept in check. The United States was going to chase the group “to the gates of hell,” or “shrink” the group until it became a “manageable problem.”

The latest episode of administration officials talking past each other came Thursday when U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones tried to push back against criticism that the U.S. and its partners weren’t doing enough to fight the Islamic State by telling the Al Arabiya News Channel that the airstrikes have killed more than 6,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq and eliminated significant numbers of its high-ranking commanders.

But at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that he had not seen that number verified anywhere — and that he opposed the very idea of tallying up the dead.

Hagel, who was an an Army squad leader in Vietnam, said that body counts were an unreliable metric of progress. “I was in a war where there were body counts every day and we lost that war,” he said.

But there are other signs that the Islamic State, or ISIL, is now on the defensive, Hagel said. The group is having trouble recruiting, and its command and control networks and supply lines have been disrupted, he said.

Here, the administration’s message is unified.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday night during his State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Hagel when speaking to reporters in London Thursday, saying, “ground forces, supported by nearly 2,000 airstrikes now, have reclaimed more than 700 square kilometers,” in Iraq.

Iraqi officials, however, complained this week that the U.S.-led coalition is not doing enough to help their battered security forces take on the well-funded and well-armed Islamic State.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that airstrikes weren’t enough and that the U.S.-led coalition could be doing much more on the ground to help in the fight against the militants.

“We want to see an acceleration of the training, acceleration of the delivery of arms,” al-Abadi said.

He acknowledged that airstrikes have been “very, very effective,” but added, “I think you cannot achieve big things without a real fight on the ground.”

Hagel disagreed with Abadi using strong language for a senior cabinet official.

“I disagree with the prime minister’s comments, but I would go even further: I don’t think they’re helpful,” Hagel said. “We have a coalition of over 60 countries that have come together to help Iraq, and I think the prime minister might want to be a little more mindful of that.”

More specifically, the defense chief cited the expedited delivery of more than 1,500 Hellfire missiles, 250 bomb-resistant trucks, and “tens of thousands” of smaller arms to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.

Either way, there is no doubt that the U.S. mission in Iraq, which began with the deployment of a few hundred soldiers, has significantly expanded. Today, according to the Defense Department’s latest estimate, 2,338 U.S. troops are deployed there: 1,538 on a mission to support Iraqi security forces, while roughly 800 protect U.S. personnel and facilities. Hagel said about a dozen coalition partners have also sent military trainers to Iraq.

“We’re doing everything we can possibly do to help the Iraqis,” Hagel said.

But Abadi is not the only one saying that more can be done. Republicans on Capitol Hill are not satisfied with the White House’s approach either, especially because while the Islamic State’s momentum has been halted in Iraq, reports indicate that the opposite is true in Syria.

“On the Syria side, they have grown in territory,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “We shouldn’t pretend that we’ve got them on the run. One of the lessons of history is you need to tell people the truth even when it’s ugly, and this is a pretty ugly truth.”

Thornberry said an expanded role for U.S. ground forces — from calling in U.S. airstrikes to advising Iraqi and Kurdish security forces on the battlefield —  should be considered.

“Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who was involved in training in Iraq and Afghanistan believes that those forces are much more effective, especially in the early- to mid-phase of their training if they go to the front with U.S. advisers. In other words, us being at the camp saying, ‘OK, go get ‘em, boys,’ is not nearly as effective as not us fighting, but moving out with them to help advise them,” he said.

U.S. ground forces could even have a role in Syria, Thornberry suggested. “I think we ought to look at restrictions on where U.S. people can go to collect intelligence and help guide airstrikes.”

Thornberry is also concerned with what he sees as the Obama administration’s changing message on the role that Syrian President Bashar Assad could play in his country’s future.

Rather than call for Assad’s resignation, as he’s done previously, Kerry said last week that the U.S. supports a Russian effort to renew peace talks and suggested Assad should think about putting Syria’s people first.

“Who’s going to trust us when our positions flip flop around back and forth. And who’s going to risk their lives to work with us, if you can’t be reasonably confident that we’re a reliable entity to work with,” Thornberry said.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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