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U.S. stops giving militant death tolls in Afghanistan

The military alters its policy as part of a new focus in the war.

July 24, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have halted the practice of releasing the number of militants killed in fighting with American-led forces as part of an overall strategy shift that emphasizes concern for the local civilian population's well-being rather than hunting insurgent groups.

The decision has triggered a quiet but fierce debate among military officers comparing the current situation with the U.S. experience in Vietnam, when military officials exaggerated body counts and used them as a measure of success.

Under the order, issued last month by Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the military will not release specifics on how many insurgents are killed in fighting, and instead will give general estimates.

The change is part of the focus on making the Afghan population feel safer and comes as U.S. commanders are taking new steps to avoid civilian casualties.

"We send the wrong message if all we talk about is the number of insurgents killed. It doesn't demonstrate anything about whether we have made progress," said Smith, who arrived six weeks ago to overhaul U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization communications efforts. "We want to shift the mind-set."

Smith has asked commanders to issue fewer news releases and to focus on improvements in security where international forces are operating.

"We have to show we are here to protect the people," he said.

The changes come as the Obama administration is adjusting the U.S. role in Afghanistan. A troop buildup is expected to boost the number of U.S. military personnel in the country to 68,000 by year's end.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this month that U.S.-led forces must show progress by next summer to avoid the public perception that the conflict has become unwinnable.

Officers who have favored releasing insurgent death tolls said the disclosures were not intended to demonstrate military progress, but to counter and even preempt extremist propaganda alleging that international forces are killing innocent civilians.

"It is the first version that sticks," said Col. Greg Julian, outgoing military spokesman. He favored releasing the information, but he agreed that the policy should be changed under the new strategy emphasizing protection of the population.

Afghan and U.S. officials have sometimes disagreed sharply on civilian casualties.

In May, Afghan officials said at least 140 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed in the village of Garani. They said it might be the worst case of civilian casualties since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Although residents insisted that U.S. bombardment killed the civilians, the U.S. military disputed the death toll and said Taliban fighters were responsible for at least some of the deaths.

Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has periodically taken to reporting insurgent death tolls for specific clashes.

Last year, the 101st Airborne Division began releasing numbers of militants killed, and the practice soon spread among U.S. forces. Public affairs officials in the 101st Airborne began publicizing militant deaths to counter the perception among Americans that the U.S. military was losing in Afghanistan.

The division command never used casualty figures as a measure of its progress, believing they had little relevancy. But public affairs officers considered a high enemy death toll an easy way for the American public to understand that U.S. forces had won an engagement.

Army Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, the former spokeswoman for the 101st, said the reports were necessary to undercut insurgents' propaganda.

"Without our reports, the absence of enemy fatalities could leave a false impression that the only ones that suffer losses are the Americans and NATO," she said in an e-mail.

"When we know what we inflict upon the enemy and report the facts without embellishment or exaggeration or spin then I believe it is the right thing to do -- not because the winner is the one with the least amount of dead, but because we can be counted upon to tell the truth and the enemy cannot," she said.

In 2005, as U.S. fortunes in Iraq spiraled downward, body counts crept into military news releases. Similarly, public affairs officials said then that although casualty counts were not a measure of overall progress, they served the purpose of showing the success of individual missions.

Aides to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, believe that, as in Vietnam, measuring or discussing the numbers of insurgents killed can undermine the war effort.

It is a tenet of counterinsurgency warfare that operations designed to kill militants end up creating more fighters than they eliminate.

"If you are focused on killing the enemy, you are going to kill millions of them, and there is always going to be more of them," said Army Col. James Creighton, an advisor to McChrystal.

Julian, the outgoing spokesman, agreed that using casualty figures to show military success would be ill advised. He said he released the figures to offset extremist propaganda.

"I felt we were reporting each discrete incident like a police report: one robber was killed, one was captured, one got away," Julian said. "We were clear and transparent about it."

NATO's International Security Assistance Force has at times kept careful track of the number of insurgents killed in confrontations with international forces, but it no longer does.

Nicholas Williams, a NATO official in Afghanistan, called the counts "a false metric."

Afghanistan's own security forces routinely report how many militants they have killed in their engagements. For the Afghan forces, it is a sign of their determination and bravery in the face of sometimes steep losses, alliance officials said.

"The Afghans have a different perspective," said Brig. Gen. Eric G. Tremblay, ISAF spokesman.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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