Military Pressure and Body Counts in Afghanistan
For years, the U.S. military has been reporting how much territory the Afghan government controls as compared to how much the Taliban controls as a measure of how the war in Afghanistan is going. This metric tied directly to its theory of success, as articulated in 2017 by the then-U.S. commander of Operation Resolute Support, Gen. John Nicholson:
So the metric that’s most telling in a counterinsurgency—this is what the Afghans are waging. We’re training, advising and assisting them as they fight a counterinsurgency—is population control. So, currently, they control about two-thirds of the population. So we would like to see that increase to at least 80 percent. Why 80 percent? Because we think that gives them a critical mass where they control 80, the Taliban are driven to less than 10 percent of the population, maybe the rest is contested. And this, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance, meaning they’re living in these remote, outlying areas, or they reconcile, or they die, of course, is the third choice … So this is—this, we think, is going to take about two years to get to this 80 percent. Could go faster than that, but, again, I think it’s — my best military judgment right now is—going to take a couple years to get there.
Recently — only one and a half years after Nicholson made this comment — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction disclosed that “the U.S.-commanded NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan … is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence.” The revelation that the U.S. military was no longer providing — or even keeping track of — data on district control led to a flurry of reporting, a lot of questions, and even some accusations that the Pentagon was hiding information that was likely to be embarrassing or not in keeping with a narrative of progress. (It’s worth noting that the Afghan government has been losing ground to the Taliban since November 2015.)
What could possibly account for this dramatic shift? Is it really a case of the U.S. military wanting to hide embarrassing trends from the American people?
It’s not that simple. I believe there is another, less conspiratorial reason that Headquarters Resolute Support has moved away from this metric. Simply put, the command is no longer primarily interested in counter-insurgency, but rather is now focused on making the Taliban bleed. To understand this, let’s start with the reason that Resolute Support gave for no longer maintaining the district control data (found in Appendix D of the inspector general’s report): “The [Resolute Support] mission said the district-level stability assessments were ‘of limited decision-making value to the [Resolute Support] Commander.’” This was echoed by Resolute Support spokesman Col. Dave Butler, who further stated, “We are focused on setting the conditions for a political settlement to safeguard our national interests,” and that the district assessments “did little to serve our mission of protecting our citizens and allies.” These statements together make clear that Nicholson’s “most telling” metric for counter-insurgency is no longer of interest to Resolute Support because the command’s view is that it is no longer primarily conducting counter-insurgency. Rather, the mission of Resolute Support under its current commander, Gen. Austin “Scottie” Miller, has shifted to one of applying military pressure to try and drive the Taliban to the negotiating table. As Miller stated in his confirmation hearing:
I understand our core goal in Afghanistan is to ensure terrorists can never again use Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States or other members of the international community. I believe military pressure is necessary to create the conditions for political reconciliation.
So what then is military pressure? And how does one assess it? Gen. Joseph Votel, then the commander of Central Command, stated in an interview last year that examples of military pressure in Afghanistan “include increased kinetic strikes in support of the Afghan forces, targeting Taliban revenue-generation mechanisms, and making great progress in expanding the coalition’s train, advise and assist mission.” Let’s take these in reverse order. I have previously addressed the lackluster results being generated by the training mission. And noted counter-narcotics expert David Mansfield recently published a scathing assessment of the failures of Operation Iron Tempest, an attempt to bomb Taliban narcotics facilities and deny the group the associated funding derived from them.
This brings us to increased kinetic strikes. Airstrikes are one example of how Resolute Support has pursued this: “The U.S. military conducted more airstrikes in Afghanistan last year than in the three previous years combined, making 2018 the most kinetic year for airstrikes in the country in at least a decade.” Another example is direct action raids. As reported previously by the New York Times, “American and Afghan commandos more than doubled the number of joint raids conducted from September  to early February , compared with the same five-month period a year earlier.” Based on these figures, it appears that the primary form of military pressure being applied by Resolute Support today is not the training mission or revenue targeting, but rather dramatic increases in direct kinetic strikes against the Taliban. So what is the metric for this?
The answer is Taliban body counts.
Before you recoil in horror from that assertion, allow me to make a few statements about it.
First, I recognize that no U.S. leader has claimed this publicly, nor is the U.S. military issuing statements touting the number of Taliban fighters it’s killing in Afghanistan. In fact, the military deliberately stopped doing this in 2009. But there are hints to indicate that the mission is being guided by this metric nonetheless. For example, this press release from last year noted the death or injury of more than 1,700 insurgents in three weeks. Or this New York Times report from February, which stated that “In recent ‘SecDef weekly’ updates to the acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, military officials said General Miller had highlighted the increasing number of Taliban fighters killed.” Or this description of a recent award ceremony for a returning U.S. Ranger battalion which cited “1,900 terrorists killed or captured” during its deployment. Even the most recent inspector general report contained an intriguing entry under the heading “insurgent casualties,” which stated: “For the first time, SIGAR reported this quarter [the US military’s] estimates of insurgent casualties, which can also be found in the classified annex.” While the U.S. military may not be openly touting the number of dead Taliban, these examples suggest it’s still counting (and possibly reporting) them internally.
Second, Afghan forces are absolutely counting the number of Taliban they kill, and openly publicizing those counts. To see this, look no further than the Afghan Ministry of Defense Twitter feed, which provides daily tallies of the number of Taliban killed or captured. Unlike the U.S. military, the Afghan military apparently has no compunction whatsoever about the use of body counts as a metric of its success.
Third, despite the baggage associated with this metric from the American experience in Vietnam, and whatever you may think about Miller’s “military pressure” theory of success, Taliban body counts do make sense as a metric for that specific theory. If the U.S. government believes that the best way to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorism is to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban that includes some form of verifiable “guarantee” to that end, and if the U.S. military believes pressure via kinetic strikes is the best way to get to that type of settlement, then it follows that the number of Taliban killed in those kinetic strikes is a useful metric to track. The key in doing so, however, is to recognize that enemy dead is not in this case an “outcome” metric — Miller’s theory of success is not purely one of Taliban attrition, and so killing that group’s members is not in and of itself the goal of Resolute Support’s pressure campaign. Rather, it’s an “output” metric — a means of gauging whether Resolute Support’s actions (in this case, kinetic strikes) are having their intended effects. This recognition leads to three final points.
First, to avoid a repeat of the problems that body counts created for the United States in Vietnam, it is imperative that the U.S. military absolutely not allow this metric to become an end unto itself. This means tracking but not trumpeting the numbers. More importantly, it means not allowing units or individuals to be rewarded specifically for racking up the number of enemy dead. This is a fine line to walk, but incentivizing killing in this way will inevitably lead to the types of perverse activities — inflated reporting, indiscriminate killing, and misleading assessments — that occurred in the Vietnam War.
Second, Resolute Support would be well-served by putting a finer point on its military pressure campaign. Is the focus of that campaign simply the mass killing of as many Taliban as possible, in an effort to deliver “maximum hurt” to the entirety of the organization? Or is it more focused, with an intent to pressure (or remove) specific elements of the Taliban that the United States believes to be irreconcilable? And ultimately, is it delivering effects that are helpful to efforts to negotiate with the Taliban? Providing the public with a more nuanced view of what that campaign entails (and how the command is assessing it) would be useful in both maintaining support for that campaign and addressing the chorus of criticism that accompanied the most recent revelations from the inspector general.
Last but not least, Resolute Support needs to recognize that if it’s going to use Taliban body counts as a metric for its theory of success, it needs to also focus on civilian casualty counts as an important complementary metric. For while air strikes and kinetic raids are good for racking up the number of enemy dead, they also tend to increase the number of civilians killed. To wit, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan noted in its April 2019 quarterly report on civilian casualties, “Continuing trends observed in 2018, UNAMA documented increased harm to civilians from aerial and search operations, with the highest number of civilian casualties recorded from each of these tactic types in the first quarter of any year since UNAMA began systematic documentation.” Which is to say, while killing lots of Taliban fighters might be a good way to pressure the organization to negotiate, killing lots of Afghan civilians is bad, and likely to bring prohibitive political pressure onto Resolute Support’s military campaign.
To close, it’s worth recognizing that Resolute Support is no longer focused on conducting counter-insurgency operations, either directly or indirectly via Afghan security forces. As a result, it no longer cares to track counter-insurgency metrics such as government versus insurgent control of Afghanistan’s districts or population. Instead, it’s focused on bleeding the insurgency in the hopes that Taliban leadership will conclude they’re better off pursuing a deal than pursuing a victory on the battlefield. And to understand how it’s doing in that effort, Resolute Support seems to be counting the number of Taliban killed. However, to fully gauge the success of that effort requires more than just tallying the dead — it requires tallying Taliban leadership positions, actions, and concessions to the outcome sought, which is a peace deal. Going forward, it will therefore be critical to hold Resolute Support to account for these indicators as well, which are related not just to its desired outputs, but to the strategic outcome for the United States in Afghanistan.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Center for Stability and Development, and the Special Operations Program, at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.