The Pentagon Says Islamic State Body Counts Aren’t Important
That is, until they are
In November 2015, American aircraft started hammering refineries and other oil infrastructure that were funneling funds into the Islamic State’s coffers. Since then, the Pentagon has made a point of going after the organization’s finances and quasi-government institutions in areas under its control.
“We are dismantling ISIL’s war-sustaining finances, targeting its oil production and its industrial base, and we’re using some new methods to hit ISIL in its wallet,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on Jan. 13, using a common acronym for the extremist group.
Carter was referring to major airstrikes on oil facilities and tanker trucks, predominantly in Iraq. On Nov. 15, 2015, A-10 ground attack planes and AC-130 gunships annihilated a truck park, blowing up more than 100 vehicles in total.
By the end of the next month, the Pentagon estimated it had cut 90 percent of Islamic State’s oil production, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in potential revenue. On Jan. 11, American jets bombed what Carter later called a “bulk cash center” — essentially a building packed full of money to support the terrorist group’s activities — near Mosul in northern Iraq.
These attacks have been part of Washington’s overall plan to “disrupt, dismantle and degrade” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. At the Pentagon, the hope is clearly to focus on more useful tallies than the much maligned body count of dead militants.
“EKIA is a bad metric,” the official account of Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the American task force fighting Islamic State, posted on Twitter on Jan. 13, referring to “enemies killed in action.” “Enemy capability is less.”
Warren was responding to a question posed by the independent monitoring group Airwars, which tracks airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and keeps an eye out for possible civilian casualties. In November 2015, USA Today reported that unnamed Pentagon officials had estimated that more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters had died in the Washington-led aerial campaign by that point.
But despite the attacks on oil sites and impromptu banks, when the Pentagon talks about “degrading” Islamic State, what they’re often talking about is killing the group’s members.
U.S. Central Command — the top Pentagon headquarters for the Middle East — regularly updates a infographic highlighting the results of American and other coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. As of Jan. 10, 2016, airstrikes had blown apart more than 20,000 targets across seven widely divergent categories. In 2015, coalition jets lobbed more than 28,000 bombs and missiles at Islamic State positions over the course of more than 20,000 individual missions, according to official statistics.
“Many of the coalition’s targets are clearly not primarily personnel related, as their monthly tally of ‘things we’ve blown up’ shows,'” Chris Woods of Airwars told War Is Boring in an email. “Oil industry, fuel trucks, bridges and so on are all infrastructure targets aimed at weakening Daesh’s capabilities beyond simply directly focusing on enemy combatants.”
However, the top two categories are more than 6,000 undefined “fighting positions” and more than 6,000 nebulous “other targets.” The third category includes nearly 5,500 Islamic State “buildings.” Less than 1,200 “oil infrastructure” sites rank a distant fourth on the list.
Even these categories are unclear. In a May 2015 FOIA request, Central Command responded it could not find a single source for official definitions for the terms used in its airstrike reports. Officially, a building is “a usually roofed and walled structure built for permanent use,” according to one Pentagon manual dealing with estimating collateral damage. A structure is “something constructed or arranged in a definite pattern of organization.”
Above — a B-1 bomber on a mission against the Islamic State. At top — an A-10 takes on fuel during a mission over Iraq or Syria. Air Force photos
It’s impossible to tell whether or not these blown-up targets had any significance in and of themselves. And official investigations into possible civilian deaths show that at least in some cases, Islamic State fighters inside buildings were the primary targets, rather than the structures per se. The Pentagon has released two of these reports with redactions to the general public.
On the morning of Nov. 5-6, 2015, American jets hit a bomb factory near Harim, Syria. Two civilians died and two more sustained injuries in the attack. According to the subsequent investigation, the target was the explosive stockpile, but also “killed known fighters.”
On March 13, 2015, A-10 ground attackers destroyed an Islamic State checkpoint near Al Hatra, Iraq, likely killing at least four bystanders. In their review of the incident, investigators pointed out that the structure and associated “enemy personnel” were the intended targets.
Despite his later comments, Warren himself gave a body count for the month of December during a Jan. 6 press briefing. “In December, we estimate approximately 2,500 enemy fighters were killed in coalition airstrikes across Iraq and Syria,” the spokesman told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite.
“When you’re looking at these video screens, you can see exactly how many fighters are there and you can count them,” Warren added, after being asked how American officials had arrived at that number. “One, two, three, four, five, six. Drop the bomb. You watch for a couple more minutes. Nobody’s moving. Scratch six.”
Warren had previously cited the number of so-called “high value targets” the coalition had killed in the course of the bombing campaign during another briefing.
“It appears EKIA s a bad metric only until CENTCOM thinks it’s a good metric to cite,” Chris Woods of Airwars added in an email, referring to Central Command.
In a way, the use of a body count in the fight against the Islamic State makes perfect sense. While the terrorist group aspires to be a fully fledged nation state, its forces generally lack the sort of heavy weaponry that goes along with a standing military.
Despite capturing significant stockpiles from both the Iraqi and Syrian armies, the group’s fighters are generally armed with light automatic weapons and suicide explosives. Coalition warplanes make quick work of captured tanks and other armored vehicles.
Having lost hundreds of military vehicles, the Islamic State frequently relies on civilian cars and trucks to move around. And this is one of the reasons why the coalition often has difficulties telling militants apart from the general population.
Pilots have routinely targeted construction equipment — including mobile cranes, front end loaders and backhoes — to prevent the group from constructing or repairing fighting positions, oil facilities and other sites.
But, by and large, manpower appears to be the Islamic State’s greatest asset — and therefore the Pentagon’s biggest target. “We’re in the business of killing terrorists and business is good,” Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah Lee James said in statement in December 2015, according to USA Today.
Unfortunately, American pilots haven’t been able to make a serious dent in this part of Islamic State’s arsenal. “The problem with this ‘kill-em’-all with airstrikes’ rule, is that it is not working,” Dr. Micah Zenko wrote on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations on Jan. 7.
Zenko explained that official estimates of the group’s overall size in Iraq and Syria have remained largely unchanged, despite months of bombing and major victories by Iraqi troops. The Pentagon still estimates the Islamic State has some 30,000 fighters in both countries — roughly the same as two years ago.
In the end, Warren seems to be in a difficult position. He’s entirely right to say that dead militants have been a bad metric to measure the war’s progress — but it might be the only real metric available.