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Reviewing the Pentagon’s ISIS Body Counts

Strike Eagles Iraq Syria

August 16, 2016

Strike Eagles Iraq Syria
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Four months after President Obama pledged to the nation in September 2014 “we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” reporters challenged Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby about his assertion that “We know that we’ve killed hundreds of their forces.” One reporter asked directly, “can you be more specific on that number?” Kirby replied tersely:

“I cannot give you a more specific number of how many ISIL fighters…[W]e don’t have the ability to count every nose that we shwack [sic]….And we’re not getting into an issue of body counts. And that’s why I don’t have that number handy. I wouldn’t have asked my staff to give me that number before I came out here. It’s simply not a relevant figure.”

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Sixteen days later, a U.S. government official offered just such a number: 6,000. Body counts have a long and infamous history in modern U.S. wars, from Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and now in the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In each of these conflicts, the U.S. government released estimates of enemy fighters killed, all while either doubting the voracity of those numbers or admitting they were largely irrelevant to achieving the longer-term strategic objective. As Gen. Westmoreland said after the Vietnam War: “Statistics were, admittedly, an imperfect gauge of progress, yet in the absence of conventional front lines, how else to measure it?”

I have a piece in Foreign Policy today that reviews and questions the Pentagon’s estimates of Islamic State fighters killed and lists the data points it has released:

March 3, 2015: 8,500

June 1, 2015: 13,000

July 29, 2015: 15,000

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October 12, 2015: 20,000

November 30, 2015: 23,000

January 6, 2016: 25,500

April 12, 2016: 25,000/26,000

August 10, 2016: 45,000

For more on why this recent 80 percent increase is improbable, as well as an official response from the U.S. Central Command, read the full article.

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