Checking the Math on the Pentagon’s ISIS Body Counts

The Obama administration steadily updates the tally of dead combatants in its latest war — but can the numbers be trusted?

SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 30 : A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, near Turkish-Syrian border crossing shows smoke rising from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following the US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets on October 30, 2014. (Photo by Rauf Maltas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 30 : A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, near Turkish-Syrian border crossing shows smoke rising from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following the US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets on October 30, 2014. (Photo by Rauf Maltas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The U.S. military has a long habit of quickly forgetting its principled opposition to touting body counts. In 1962, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) started releasing weekly estimates of Viet Cong killed by U.S. troops, even as senior military and civilian officials doubted their accuracy or pertinence. In March 2002, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then-chief of U.S. Central Command, declared, “You know we don’t do body counts,” when asked about the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan killed in recent airstrikes; they would, in fact, “do” body counts until the policy’s reversal in July 2009. And, in May 2004, the Pentagon started releasing body counts from the Iraq War, just six months after then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed: “We don’t do body counts on other people.”

It’s no secret why military officials tend to overcome their opposition to providing such data: The numbers are influential, at least when it comes to public opinion. A 2006 study by North Carolina State University researchers demonstrates that when Americans hear and read about these numbers, it changes public perceptions of success and progress in war.

It should be no surprise then that President Barack Obama’s administration has been using body counts in the ongoing war against the Islamic State. In January 2015, just 16 days after Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby asserted in a press conference that he wasn’t “getting into an issue of body counts.… It’s simply not a relevant figure,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones, unprompted, told an Al Arabiya interviewer that “the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

Since that first estimate, the administration has steadily released other figures on combatant deaths. What’s less clear is how well those chosen data points line up with one another.

On March 3, 2015, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, then-commander of Centcom, told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had killed 8,500 enemy fighters.

Three months later, that number increased. On June 1, 2015, Air Force Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, the chief of Air Combat Command, informed reporters at an Air Force Association breakfast: “We’ve taken about 13,000 enemy fighters off the battlefield since the September-October time frame.”

Then, on July 29, 2015, USA Today cited military intelligence estimates, which were confirmed by coalition officials, that “15,000 militants [have been] killed in a U.S.-led airstrike campaign.”

On Oct. 12, 2015, an anonymous “senior military officer” told USA Today: “The U.S.-led bombing campaign has killed an estimated 20,000 Islamic State fighters.” The following day, Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), told a reporter about that same figure: “We try to stay away from body counts, generally speaking. I’m not going to argue with those numbers that you just cited.”

The next month, on Nov. 30, 2015, anonymous military officials again told USA Today that “the campaign has killed 23,000 Islamic State fighters.”

On Jan. 6, Warren, who earlier declared his avoidance of body counts, told reporters in prepared remarks: “In December, we estimate approximately 2,500 enemy fighters were killed in coalition airstrikes across Iraq and Syria,” bringing the total to 25,500.

On April 12, the New York Times reported that American airstrikes had killed 25,000 Islamic State fighters, according to unnamed Pentagon officials. CNN’s Jim Sciutto had a slightly higher number from officials, at 26,000.

Finally, on Aug. 10, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-OIR, claimed that “over the past 11 months we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters.… That’s 45,000 enemies taken off the battlefield.”

If the Obama administration’s latest estimates are accurate, that would mean there was a zero percent increase in the number of Islamic State fighters killed during the first four months of the year, followed by a remarkable 80 percent increase during the past four months. This seems highly unlikely, given that there has been little change in the number of bombs dropped over the past eight months. I asked the OIR spokespeople for some clarification, and they replied:

“We would emphasize that this number, due to ongoing operations and ever changing battlefield conditions, is only an estimate. What’s important is the number of fighters on the front line has diminished in both quantity and quality. We don’t see them operating nearly as effectively as they have in the past. As a result, their attrition has accelerated recently.”

This is certainly possible, given the increased number of U.S. forces that are forward-deployed to help direct strikes against dynamic targets. In addition, the Islamic State’s tried-and-true tactics of cover, concealment, and dispersal might have become less effective as the group faces sustained ground offensives. Or perhaps the methods being used to estimate the number of enemy combatants killed have been changed or refined in some manner recently. There are also likely internal disagreements among various Defense Department agencies: For example, during the height of the Vietnam War, Pentagon analysts often determined that there were a third fewer Viet Cong killed than their compatriots at MACV.

Finally, as I have previously noted, the Pentagon may have a bias, unconscious or not, that leaves it unable to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants killed in its own airstrikes. Although the U.S. military professes that 45,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed, it has acknowledged only 55 civilian fatalities after two years and nearly 15,000 airstrikes, with a few casualty investigations still ongoing. This is simply an unbelievable ratio.

No other country currently bombing Iraq or Syria, of which there are 14 — including Russia and Israel — has provided such granular information. For nearly five months into its intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian Ministry of Defense published — in a format that clearly mimicked the Pentagon — near-daily estimates of its own airstrike totals and body counts. But in early February these stopped appearing with no explanation.

The Pentagon deserves partial credit for its limited transparency in comparison to these other militaries, especially for its release of three of its internal investigations into civilian deaths (though it should release all of them). It should also clarify the unexpected jumps in the number of enemies killed, like that announced last week by MacFarland, even if those figures are just estimates. More importantly, it should settle upon its logic for declaring body counts in the first place. If the numbers are a sign of progress, the Defense Department should cease undermining them by declaring them irrelevant — unless that is true, in which case it should stop releasing them entirely.

Photo credit: Rauf Maltas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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