By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2005
Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.
The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon's leadership. Military spokesmen in Washington and Baghdad said they knew of no written directive detailing the circumstances under which such figures should be released or the steps that should be taken to ensure accuracy.
Instead, they described an ad hoc process that has emerged over the past year, with authority to issue death tolls pushed out to the field and down to the level of division staffs.
So far, the releases have tended to be associated either with major attacks that netted significant numbers of enemy fighters or with lengthy operations that have spanned days or weeks. On Saturday, for instance, the U.S. military reported 20 insurgents killed and one captured in raids on five houses suspected of sheltering foreign fighters in a town near the Syrian border. Six days earlier, the 2nd Marine Division issued a statement saying an estimated 70 suspected insurgents had died in the Ramadi area as a result of three separate airstrikes by fighter jets and helicopters.
That Oct. 16 statement reflected some of the pitfalls associated with releasing such statistics. The number was immediately challenged by witnesses, who said many of those killed were not insurgents but civilians, including women and children.
Privately, several uniformed military and civilian defense officials expressed concern that the pendulum may have swung too far, with body counts now creeping into too many news releases from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also questioned the effectiveness of citing such figures in conflicts where the enemy has shown itself capable of rapidly replacing dead fighters and where commanders acknowledge great uncertainty about the total size of the enemy force.
Nevertheless, no formal review of the practice has been ordered, according to spokesmen at the Pentagon and in Baghdad. Several senior officers and Pentagon officials involved in shaping communications strategies argued that the occasional release of body counts has important value, particularly when used to convey the scale of individual operations.
"Specific numbers are used to periodically provide context and help frame particular engagements," said Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, director of communications for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. He added, however, that there is no plan "to issue such numbers on a regular basis to score progress."
During the Vietnam War, enemy body counts became a regular feature in military statements intended to demonstrate progress. But the statistics ended up proving poor indicators of the war's course. Pressure on U.S. units to produce high death tolls led to inflated tallies, which tore at Pentagon credibility.
"In Vietnam, we were pursuing a strategy of attrition, so body counts became the measure of performance for military units," said Conrad C. Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College. "But the numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified."
The Vietnam experience led U.S. commanders to shun issuing enemy death tallies in later conflicts, through the initial stages of the Iraq war. "We don't do body counts on other people," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in November 2003, when asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether the number of enemy dead exceeded the U.S. toll.
That policy appeared to shift with the assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November, an operation considered crucial at the time to denying safe havens to enemy fighters. U.S. military officials reported 1,200 to 1,600 enemy fighters killed, although reporters on the scene noted far fewer corpses were found by Marines after the fighting.
A surge in enemy activity this year has generated a corresponding increase in offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces -- and a rise in the number of U.S. military statements containing numbers of enemy killed.
High-ranking commanders also have contributed to the trend. In January, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, said U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 people last year. In May, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the killing of 250 of insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's "closest lieutenants" as evidence of progress in Iraq.
The Pentagon says its policy is still to try to avoid publicizing enemy body counts. But the U.S. military command in Baghdad does keep a running tally of enemy dead that is classified, and field commanders now have authority to release death tolls for isolated engagements in the interest, officials said, of countering enemy propaganda and conveying the size and presumed effectiveness of some U.S. military operations.
"For a discrete operation, it's a metric that can help convey magnitude and context," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
The release of such figures also can serve to boost the morale of U.S. forces and bolster confidence "that their plans and weapons work effectively," said Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, which operates in western Iraq.
Lapan said in an e-mail message that no "threshold" exists for deciding when to release an enemy death toll, adding that such decisions are made "on a case-by-case basis."
He indicated that the numbers are frequently derived from advance estimates of how many enemy fighters are at a targeted site, which explains why the death counts can sometimes get released so soon after an attack. Lapan said improvements in surveillance and targeting techniques allow for "greater certainty about the numbers of casualties we inflict in some situations."
In the case of the disputed Oct. 16 tally in Ramadi, Lapan stood by the figure of 70 enemy dead, saying the Marines "had information from a variety of sources that gave us confidence in the number of enemy fighters killed in the engagements."
Still, defense specialists such as Crane cautioned that enemy body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan are prone to inaccuracy and are of questionable significance. The murky nature of the conflicts, they said, make it difficult to know at times who is an insurgent, a criminal or an innocent civilian.
"There still are problems in identifying who is who, just as there were in Vietnam," Crane said.