by JASON REICH
“Don’t rely on body counts.” That’s probably one of the most worn-out clichés of modern warfare. But body counts are a surprisingly hard habit to break, as this post from the Security Crank shows us. According to the author’s calculation, 30 is the magic number for enemy dead in a successful engagement: low enough to escape too much critical analysis, but large enough to inflict significant attrition on an enemy that’s known to travel in small groups. Running a quick Google news search for “30 Taliban” seems to back up his claim.
In my own experience embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, we never had an engagement that claimed 30 enemy fighters, but I did see the urge to inflate body counts. When the fighting is so sparse and indirect in nature — that is, mortars versus rockets instead of rifles versus rifles — it can be very difficult to gauge the outcome of a firefight. This affects the moral of the soldiers who can plainly see their own KIAs and WIAs, but not the enemy’s. To put it bluntly, over the course of at least a dozen firefights, I saw only one dead Taliban fighter. Usually the statistics on enemy dead are gleaned from intel reports after the fact. Some of these reports come from the Taliban themselves.
The obvious truth is that NATO forces have probably never “lost” an engagement, in terms of bodies. Even the disastrous battle of Wanat that took nine American lives cost the Taliban between 21 and 52 fighters, according to U.S. sources (note the average). But this shouldn’t be news to anyone. We’ve been talking about it since Vietnam. The core of the problem isn’t inflating the number of enemy dead, it’s simply counting them. Our counter-insurgency doctrine demands a Zen-like nonchalance when counting enemy dead, yet our addiction to the attrition-based metric for success seems to be a hard one to break.
(Photo: Duane Kaiser)