For well over a decade, American troops have launched strikes around the world against often vague extremist groups. Despite serious concerns about the strategy’s effectiveness, Washington has increasingly focused on killing or capturing specific people, commonly referred to as high-value individuals or HVIs.
“Targeted strikes against I.S. leadership and key operators are a critical component of the coalition’s approach,” Melissa Dalton, chief of staff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, told War Is Boring in an email.
Dalton was referring specifically to the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State. It’s the latest battlefield where American commanders have come to see HVIs as a target of choice. “But counting them does not provide indications of how the strikes are affecting I.S.’ ability to hold territory, function as a proto-state, or expand its influence,” Dalton added.
The Pentagon is well aware that body counts are an inadequate — and self-defeating — way to measure success. During the Vietnam War, American spokesmen regularly touted how many Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops the United States killed in action. But these optimistic statements often conflicted with other reporting, and earned the derision of the press and public alike.
The press conferences were “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,” Richard Pyle, the Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon, wrote in Time in 1973. Since that war ended, the Pentagon said on numerous occasions that the sheer volume of enemy fighters killed isn’t a useful statistic and that the military can’t kill its way to victory.
“I was in a war where there was a lot of body counts every day,” then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Jan. 22, specifically referencing his service as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam. “And we lost that war.”
But despite these public pronouncements, attacking HVIs — whether you call it “targeted killing” or “assassination” — has become a core component of America’s new way of war. “Coalition HVI strikes are depleting ISIL’s bench,” Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesmen for the American task force fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, told reporters at the Pentagon during a teleconference on Oct. 13.
Warren’s sports metaphor was particularly apt since the Pentagon refers to the dossiers it compiles on suspected terrorists as “baseball cards,” according to secret documents originally leaked to The Intercept. “HVI strikes have killed approximately 70 senior and mid-level leaders since the beginning of May,” the Army officer added, touting a clear body count. “That equates to one HVI killed every two days.”
The tactic is hardly new. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Washington has been gunning for extremists from North Africa to the Middle East to the Philippines.
In 2012 alone, U.S. Air Force linguists and intelligence analysts helped commandos kill more than 1,000 suspected terrorists and capture nearly 4,000 more, according to a history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The historical review also revealed that the the flying branch’s spy planes were scooping up hundreds of hours of video footage every day.
Between 2007 and 2008, the Pentagon conducted some eight “finishing actions” — a euphemism for strikes against particular individuals — every day in Iraq, according to one of the items in The Intercept’s document cache. American commanders were averaging six targeted attacks in Afghanistan on a daily basis.
Comparatively, “the pace … in HOA(EA) and Yemen … is extremely low,” the briefing’s bullet points noted, using an abbreviation for the Horn of Africa and East Africa. American forces were only killing someone once every week in Yemen and had only hit three people in East Africa — meaning Somalia — in 18 months.
Drones are an important part of these missions, but America’s war involves far more — regular troops, commandos, F-15E Strike Eagle warplanes and other aircraft. On April 12, an A-10 Warthog ground attack plane blasted an HVI codenamed “Anders Mesa” near Hawija, Iraq, according to data in a spreadsheet we obtained via FOIA.
“This has echoes of the ‘Five O’ Clock Follies’ and body count metrics of the Vietnam period,” New America Foundation strategist Peter Singer wrote in an email to War Is Boring. Reporters had dubbed the Saigon press conferences the “Five O’Clock Follies” in reference to old comedy radio programs.
However, the strategy and how its playing out are indicative of bigger problems than just exaggerating victories. “We shouldn’t beat up too much on them,” Singer added, speaking specifically about the campaign against Islamic State. “They get it. It is just that there aren’t many other metrics for them to grab on to for the narrative of success they are trying hard to push.”
Islamic State actively seeks to seize territory and establish its own governing system, but it has few traditional military assets — such as massed tank formations or formal bases — to blow up. Instead, the Pentagon has listed a host of vague or seemingly minor targets including undefined “buildings,” “checkpoints,” “an ISIL motorcycle” and “an ISIL rocket propelled grenade” in regular press releases.
In short — American pilots simply don’t have much else to bomb except Islamic State fighters. The other problem? The Pentagon found a “critical shortfall of capabilities providing PID and HVI location information,” one of the recently leaked briefings to The Intercept explained, using an acronym for “positive identification.”
In particular, the powerful, the full-motion video cameras on drones and other spy planes are notoriously poor at identifying particular people.
To make up for this shortfall, the Pentagon tracks cellphones linked to potential targets, with the help of the National Security Agency’s controversial intelligence programs. But even with thousands of troops on the ground in Iraq, Washington cannot immediately confirm every time whether the person holding the phone was the intended victim after a strike.
Innocent civilians can easily get caught in the crossfire. In the case of Anders Mesa, the Pentagon received word that two innocent bystanders might have been killed or injured when the Warthog struck. As of April 13, American commanders were investigating the incident.
Since August 2014, American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria may have killed more than 1,000 civilians. The Pentagon has deemed many of the allegations “not credible” based solely on ““insufficient information,” according to the official data. If new sources emerge, U.S. Central Command — the main U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East — says it is willing to reopen any of the cases.
In the meantime, it is hard not to be skeptical of the Pentagon’s new body counts. If Warren’s statistics are correct, there seems to be a never ending stream of “high value” targets.