While reports from the war zone run contrary to the spin in Washington, members of the Obama Administration are quite happy to tell you: we are winning the war against ISIS. And they say it with a straight face.
Well, perhaps “winning” is too strong a word, particularly in light of the terrorist army’s recent capture of Ramidi and other key locations in Iraq and Syria. Maybe the preferred term is “making progress,” despite the fact that usually-friendly media outlets are even challenging that vague assertion.
Consider this story, which appeared today at NBC News.com. And it raises a legitimate question: amid claims–from a senior U.S. official–that 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in Iraq and Syria, are those numbers believable? (More on that in a bit).
But first the back story; the official estimating the number of dead terrorists was Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who participated in a meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition in Paris. Mr. Blinken was filling in for his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, who is recovering from a broken leg, suffered in a bicycle crash over the weekend. So, the “body count” can’t be blamed on some low-level staffer at the NSC or the Pentagon.
And, Mr. Blinken simply didn’t pull the number out of thin area. His apparent source was a Pentagon analysis prepared last year. But this is where the math gets a little fuzzy; military intelligence analysts arrived at the ISIS body count by calculating enemy deaths in Iraq and Syria, both in ground combat and from coalition air strikes. Needless to say, the estimate is far from precise, since we don’t have someone on the ground (in most locations) who can provide the exact number of ISIS fighters who have been killed in recent months.
The U.S. military did not plan to release its tally, knowing the number is suspect. Additionally, Pentagon officials learned a long time ago that casualty counts are a poor tool for measuring progress in a conflict. During the Vietnam War, public affairs officers provided weekly summaries of the number of enemy troops who died in battle, as a yardstick of progress. Unfortunately, those body totals didn’t always square with reality on the ground. Our troops killed hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops every week, but the enemy kept coming. Casualties didn’t matter to the enemy, who was willing to fight until the war was won.
Fifty years later, ISIS maintains a similar mindset and there is no shortage of volunteers willing to give their lives for the cause. The CIA recently estimated that the terror group has been able to maintain a fighting force of 20-30,000 men through a very aggressive recruiting campaign that has brought more jihadis to the fight. So, whatever their losses, ISIS is more than capable of replacing them.
Why use such a flawed metric to demonstrate “success” on the battlefield? It would be easy to claim that Mr. Blinken simply made a mistake, but his claims appear to be part of a wider strategy by Team Obama. Six months ago, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, told an Arab TV channel that 6,000 enemy fighters had been killed. But then-Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby told reporters there was no official body count, and it would be “wrong” to claim there was such a tally.
Some of the experts questioned by NBC expressed serious doubts about the ISIS body count:
Laith Alkhouri, of security consulting firm and NBC News partner Flashpoint Intelligence, said he didn’t believe Blinken’s number. The U.S. government hasn’t shared any underlying evidence, such as incremental reports of ISIS deaths, to back it up, he said.
Flashpoint’s own monitoring of jihadist reports doesn’t reflect such a body count, Alkhouri said, also noting that the number doesn’t reflect ISIS’ recent string of military victories.
“The reality on the ground is that ISIS is capturing territory, not losing ground,” he said.
Why make such a dubious claim? Mr. Obama and his advisers are anxious to show “progress” in the battle against ISIS, and it’s hard to prove that case when the terrorists are on the march. So, someone in the administration spin machine (who is clearly not a student of history) decided to fall back on the body count metric. But that strategy is dubious, at best.
Decades ago, as public support for the Vietnam War began to fade, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite made a famous trip to the war zone. His subsequent documentary reportedly convinced President Johnson that he had “lost middle America,” and had no chance of winning the war–or re-election. This time around, the narrative is different; the NBC report casts grave doubts on the administration’s claims and it reflects the new reality of today’s relationship between the media and political leaders.
In 1968, the media was viewed as a conduit to the public; today, the press is an institution unto itself, still capable of exerting great influence on governmental decision-making. This is particularly true in a White House that has relied on a sycophantic media as a pillar of its popular support. Somewhere in the West Wing, they must be wondering if they’ve “lost” NBC News and what can be done to bring them back on the reservation. Sadly, it won’t take much (in terms of persuasion) to bring NBC back in line.