BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Body counts are back, reigniting the decades-old debate about whether victory in war can be judged by measuring the stack of enemy dead.
In recent months, the U.S. command in Afghanistan has begun publicizing every single enemy fighter killed in combat, the most detailed body counts the military has released since the practice fell into disrepute during the Vietnam War.
The practice has revealed deep divides in military circles over the value of keeping such a score in a war being waged not over turf, but over the allegiance of the Afghan people. Does it buck up the troops and the home front to let them know the enemy is suffering, too? Or does the focus on killing distract from the goals of generating legitimacy and economic development?
American commanders have detailed nearly 2,000 insurgent deaths in Afghanistan over the past 14 months. U.S. officers say they’ve embraced body counts to undermine insurgent propaganda, and stiffen the resolve of the American public.
"It’s a concern that at home, the common perception is this war is being lost," says Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the 101st Airborne Division, which initiated the policy.
Still, the practice has led the U.S. into an impasse with military allies, who don’t release body counts for fear it would prove politically unpalatable at home and counterproductive in Afghanistan.
"Recording an ongoing body count is hardly going to endear us to the people of Afghanistan," says British Royal Navy Capt. Mark Durkin, spokesman for the 42-nation, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or ISAF.
U.S. Army public-affairs officers routinely release body counts for fights involving the 17,000 special-operations troops, Air Force crew members and U.S. trainers in Afghanistan, a force led by an American general.
But ISAF — which is led by the same American general — almost never releases enemy-casualty figures for fights involving forces under its command, including French, British, Dutch and Canadian units, as well as roughly 24,000 U.S. troops wearing the ISAF patch.
Even those who endorse the idea face the challenge of actually counting the bodies. Commanders know there’s a good deal of uncertainty when firefights often take place at ranges of up to 1,000 yards and end with aerial bombardments. Insurgents frequently remove their dead, in what Lt. Col. Nielson-Green calls the "self-cleaning battlefield."
That forces U.S. troops to use other methods — such as intercepting insurgent communications, monitoring funerals or surveillance from unmanned spy planes — to confirm the enemy body count. Some commanders are wary of such indirect methods. "My policy is when you stand with your legs astride a dead body, call me and tell me you killed one person," says Col. Chris Cavoli, who commanded an infantry battalion on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2006-07.
Enemy death tolls have been a feature of war ever since armies stuck heads on pikes. They appear in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and in the Old Testament, which enumerates the casualties of King David’s wars, including 360 Benjamites, 18,000 Edomites and 22,000 Arameans of Damascus.
In modern warfare, combatants have usually measured success by territory held. German progress during World War II was marked by front lines that advanced east and west across Europe. Allied progress was marked by pushing those lines back toward Berlin from the beaches of Normandy and the suburbs of Moscow.
That changed when the U.S. found itself mired in a guerrilla war in Vietnam, where front lines were blurred and villages taken or lost didn’t indicate who was winning, says Dale Andrade, senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. "Vietnam was the first war in which the body count became the one and only statistic on which victory was measured," he says.
Some battlefield commanders inflated body counts to appear more successful than they were. The American public "kept hearing these stories about how two of our soldiers were killed and 100 Viet Cong were killed," says Mr. Andrade. He says that eventually Americans wondered: "If we’re killing so many people, why aren’t we winning?"
In the wars that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, body counts resurfaced in fits and starts as military authorities wrestled with their usefulness.
"We made a deliberate decision to stay away from body counts and not get caught up in that Vietnam predicament," says Col. Greg Julian, who was a public-affairs officer in Kuwait before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in Baghdad after it.
Besides, metrics of success were readily available in Iraq: The march of U.S. divisions across Iraqi territory, the fall of Baghdad, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Even as insurgents began to chip away at the initial sense of accomplishment, the Pentagon declined to enumerate the enemy dead. "We don’t do body counts on other people," then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
As the insurgency intensified and American combat deaths rose, however, the U.S.-led military command in Iraq began releasing enemy casualty counts on occasion, generally after a big battle. Sometimes individual units detailed such information in press releases. But the military as a whole had no body-count policy. And senior commanders in Iraq discouraged using enemy casualties as a public measure of success, according to a general involved in those decisions in 2005 and 2006.
In fact, the military kept classified its running tally of enemy deaths in Iraq between June 2003 and September 2007 — 18,832 — and only revealed the figure in 2007 when forced to do so under a Freedom of Information Act petition. That number hasn’t been publicly updated.
In Afghanistan, counting bodies is now more prevalent than it ever was in Iraq.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the military saw itself as fighting a few holdouts and, as often as not, reported their deaths. By 2005, however, commanders decided to avoid body counts, largely on the grounds they had proved unreliable, according to James Yonts, military spokesman at the time.
By 2007, it was apparent that Taliban, al Qaeda and other holdouts were actually conducting a full-fledged insurgency. The U.S.-led coalition realized that it — and the Afghan government — had to win the battle for legitimacy. At that point, public-affairs officers usually eschewed casualty reports because they feared that by focusing on killing, they would distract from the improvements Afghan authorities and their coalition backers were bringing to people’s lives.
Body counts were "kind of a politically sensitive issue," says former Lt. Col. David Accetta, director of the 82nd Airborne Division’s media operation at Bagram Airfield in 2007. Death tallies aren’t "any kind of measurement or metric of success," says Mr. Accetta, who has since retired from the military.
Col. Cavoli, the former battalion commander, says his men fired thousands of rounds of artillery at insurgents along the Pakistan border during a tour lasting more than a year, ending in 2007. But "making the enemy irrelevant in the minds of the people was a much more profound defeat for the enemy than killing some of his members or even killing a lot of his people," says Col. Cavoli, who went on to teach counterinsurgency techniques to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officers.
The Army began a rethink when the 101st Airborne Division took over Afghan media operations in April 2008. Commanders worried the U.S.-led coalition appeared to be losing ground. The U.S. military routinely releases information about Americans killed in action. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 618 Americans have died in and around Afghanistan, 456 killed in combat. Remaining silent about enemy deaths gave the false impression that the U.S. was losing, says Lt. Col. Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the 101st and a proponent of the new approach.
Commanders first decided to publicize body counts from major engagements. "You’d have nights when you literally had 50 or 100 insurgents killed in a single event," Lt. Col. Nielson-Green says. Publicizing that makes it harder for insurgents to credibly claim victory, she says.
Then the publicity battlefield shifted to the issue of civilian casualties. Time and again, American forces found themselves defending against allegations that bad intelligence and reckless tactics caused large-scale civilian casualties. The insurgents’ media campaigns were often a step ahead of the U.S., according to U.S. officers, making it difficult for the Americans to debunk what they saw as enemy propaganda.
A pivotal moment came last August, when U.S. Special Forces troops and Afghan commandos conducted a raid to seize a suspected insurgent leader from a house in Azizabad. A firefight ensued and the Americans called in airstrikes.
The Afghan government and human-rights organizations said the assault killed 90 civilians, including 60 children. The American military conducted its own review and concluded five civilians had died, with two others wounded.
Four days after the incident, Col. Julian — the same Army press officer who had shunned body counts at the start of the Iraq war — arrived in Kabul. He saw the public-relations chaos that ensued. U.S. forces protested their innocence. President Hamid Karzai, handpicked for his job by the Bush administration, visited Azizabad to express condolences and outrage.
Amid the uproar, the senior military commander in Afghanistan asked a U.S. Air Force general to conduct a second investigation. He concluded American and Afghan troops fired in self-defense, killing 22 insurgents. But, he said, 33 civilians had died in the crossfire, far more than the Americans had reported.
In October, Col. Julian assumed responsibility for public affairs for a new unified command, U.S. Forces — Afghanistan, taking over much of the work done by the 101st Airborne. He immediately ordered his staff to get ahead of their Taliban counterparts by reporting enemy casualties, no matter how small. From now on, he decided, news releases would provide ample detail about each fight to add to their credibility.
On a given day, the military might announce that a single militant died when coalition forces tried to seize a foreign fighter in Paktika Province, or that allied soldiers killed an insurgent hiding among the livestock at a compound used by bomb makers in Logar Province.
"We have decided to combat by being accurate with our information," says Col. Julian.
For instance, the military reported last month that Afghan commandos and U.S. troops killed 60 insurgents during four days of fighting in the town of Marjeh. Three of the militants were killed while planting a bomb in a road; two suicide bombers detonated themselves trying to sneak into allied positions, the military reported.
Such reports, Col. Julian says, extend to incidents in which civilians are killed. In April, the U.S. issued a news release offering condolences and promising compensation after a raid on the home of a suspected insurgent in Khowst Province killed neighbors who opened fire in the belief that the soldiers were attacking their house.
The U.S. does not, Col. Julian says, keep an official running tally of how many Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents are killed. A review of the record, however, shows U.S. officers have released details of at least 1,971 insurgent deaths since April 10, 2008, the day the 101st Airborne took over press operations.
The Vietnam analogy, Col. Julian adds, is misleading in the Afghan context. In Vietnam, "there were exaggerations — the bigger the number, the better you’ve done. That’s not the case here."
Col. Julian says neither the Pentagon nor the White House has objected to his practice of releasing detailed body counts.
America’s ISAF allies, however, decline to follow suit. Many face public skepticism about the war and prefer to emphasize their efforts to fight poverty and disease in Afghanistan. Some, including NATO stalwarts such as Germany, work under strict national rules limiting their combat activities. Some Arab leaders don’t want their populations to know they’re participating at all, much less that they’re killing fellow Muslims.
"It ended up working against the American forces," Capt. Durkin, the British ISAF spokesman, says of body-count reporting in Vietnam. "It just seemed as though it was a sort of slaughter going on."
ISAF did make one exception. In mid-March, a French battalion fought its way through the Alasai Valley in a two-day battle. One French soldier died, while the insurgents lost 29 killed and 12 wounded.
When the fighting quieted, Lt. Col. Nielson-Green of the 101st Airborne called ISAF’s Capt. Durkin and urged him to release the count of enemy fallen. It was, she argued, an exceptionally large number of insurgent dead and signaled a major allied victory.
ISAF officials agreed to put out a brief press release, but reluctantly. They did so in large part because they didn’t want the French public, unaccustomed to combat deaths, to think their soldier died in vain.
—Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]