To counter the perception that America is losing the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. command has adopted the practice of releasing a detailed daily accounting of enemies killed. The P.R. campaign started in April of last year and has since announced nearly 2,000 insurgent casualties. Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips says that body counting is controversial in military circles and hasn’t been done this way since the Vietnam War.
Giving Up The Ghost
Artist: DJ Shadow
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, General Stanley A. McChrystal, President Obama’s nominee to become Commander of American and Allied Troops in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Tucked into his testimony was this remark about how we ought to measure military success in Afghanistan.
GENERAL STANLEY A: McCHRYSTAL: Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The general’s comment seems perhaps at odds with the ongoing PR campaign by the U.S. command in Afghanistan to count and publicize the number of enemy dead. Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips, who broke news about this policy on Monday, says the body counts started to be released regularly in April of 2008 to counter the impression in the U.S. that the war in Afghanistan was being lost. In the first phase of this PR push, the military just publicized the big fights.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: The second phase came after an August, 2008 fight in Helmand Province, in which there were allegations of large scale civilian casualties, and the president of Afghanistan said the Americans killed 90 civilians. The Americans said, no, we killed many fewer, something like five. In the end, they did a new investigation and it turned out that the Americans had killed more civilians then they had admitted to and not as many as the Afghans had said. The Public Affairs officers for the military saw this as a real PR disaster for them. They seemed dishonest. They seemed like they were callous towards civilians. And they decided their approach would be to release as much information about each fight as possible. That includes whether there were civilian casualties or not, but also how many enemy were there and how many were killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It does seem, you know, if they've been doing this for 14 months now, 2,000 reported insurgent deaths? And has that had any effect on our perception of the war?
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: I honestly don't know the answer to that. It’s a very good question whether the public looks at that and thinks the war is making progress or if they see those numbers and wonder the next day, well, how come those insurgents are still fighting? That was a problem in Vietnam. The military would report body counts and they'd be large numbers you know, the Americans killed 200 Vietcong today and the next day there would be another fight. And in 1968 there was the Tet Offensive, which really, I think, shook public confidence in that military reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm glad you brought up Vietnam because you wrote that the last time the military made this much effort to count the number of enemy dead, was in Vietnam, and that’s because, you said, you couldn't measure the progress of the war in territory gained. Right?
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Exactly. The traditional ways that military victory is measured is, well, where does the front line move? If it starts in Normandy and moves its way back towards Berlin, well, then the Allies are winning. If it’s going the other way, then the Allies are not winning. And Vietnam threw off that calculation. If the enemy is mixed in with the public, if they're all around you, then moving one block or one mile or one village in one direction or another really doesn't tell you much about how the war is going. The way that the military addressed that at the time was counting bodies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you've observed, the Europeans really don't like this idea, and the NATO led International Security Assistance Force, which is made up of U.S. allies, seems to have almost a complete aversion to the idea because of the political issues that body counts raise. And there is also still a large part of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that won't report body counts. So dissension even on the ground?
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Absolutely. And a number of people feel like counting the number of enemy dead is a mistake. It focuses on the wrong part of a war that’s against an insurgency. It’s a war for the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people. So if you put out a press release that says, we killed 10 Afghans today, that’s really sending the wrong message.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder if there is a better public relations metric out there with which to persuade the American people that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting? Is there something else out there besides stacking up the enemy dead, you think, that might do the trick?
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Well, it’s a remarkably difficult thing to measure progress in a counterinsurgency. There are things that the military looks at that can give an indication — for example, school attendance by girls. If girls go to school, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, in safety and get home at the end of the day, well, that’s a sign of progress. It might be such things as clinic construction, school construction. That makes a certain amount of sense. But it’s hard to present in a news format. You'd read the first story in the newspaper that said American troops built 37 schools, but the second story, which said they built 38 more, you'd kind of roll your eyes and say, well, that’s not really news. So it’s a hard thing to present those kind of metrics in an enduring kind of way that makes people interested in the war, supportive of the war and follow it through over the course of a long period of time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the military reckons that more enemy dead is always news.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: More enemy dead is always news. And I don't know this from any polling, but I suspect that Americans who connect 9/11 to Afghanistan directly look at the war and think, well, we want to kill our enemies, the people who attacked us or the people who are attacking our troops in Afghanistan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Phillips is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal.