Pentagon leaders agree to a person that the U.S. war against ISIS is succeeding. The problem is, no one can actually prove it.
In an interview with The Daily Beast last month, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said that is because ISIS cannot fly its flag over stolen U.S. tanks with the bravado it once did. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the campaign is working because ISIS has not gained significant ground in the six months since the airstrikes began. In congressional testimony, press conferences, and interviews in between, the leadership often offers an amalgam of anecdotes to illustrate positive momentum.
No one has put forth statistics on the impact of the strikes—what percentage of ISIS equipment, personnel, or revenue sources have been destroyed by the barrage of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, even as leaders like James told The Daily Beast they have asked for that breakdown.
As James, whose forces have conducted 60 percent of the strikes and 90 percent of the drone war, explained: “I don’t think [those numbers] exist.”
“We are disrupting and degrading,” she added. “What does that mean? They are not quantified.”
Granted, James is in an office in the Pentagon, and not on the front lines. But the inability to measure progress in the ISIS campaign is widespread. In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.
“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon for killing. “That’s not the goal.”
Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS. On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command said it had investigated 18 charges so far of civilian casualties from the start of the air campaign against ISIS. Two of those cases are pending.
“I cannot give you a specific number of ISIL fighters [killed],” Kirby noted, using the Pentagon’s preferred acronym. “We just know it is hundreds—several hundreds.”
Meanwhile, progress in this war continues to be measured on fluid standards—where ISIS is trying to go, whether it can go there, and if local forces can fend them off. It is not a decisive war, with a single, signature victory, but a war of attrition. But there is no consensus about what the attrition of ISIS looks like. Success—and failure—is in the eye of the beholder.
In the northern Syrian city of Kobani, for example, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, has seen 31 percent of U.S. and coalition strikes, Kurdish and local forces appear to be taking back parts of the city. But how much they have regained or how durable their hold is remains unclear. Kirby said that while the Kurdish forces control the majority of the city, it “remains contested.”
Breaking the will of ISIS, the military argues, is not a statistic. And too much of a focus on numbers can obscure strategic truths. Take the chief metric of the war in Vietnam—body counts, which ultimately did not answer whether the strategy was working.
Daniel Bolger, a retired lieutenant general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast such thinking constricts how the U.S. thinks of war.
“You are applying Western metrics to someone who is not using that metric against you,” referring to ISIS, Bolger said. “How long we hang in there? That is the metric ISIS is watching.”
But in Bolger’s irregular wars, the military generated all sorts of statistics: the number of enemy bombs defused; the number of militants captured; the amount of money handed out to local chieftains; the number of surveillance flights overhead. The Pentagon’s research division even tried to used indirect metrics, like the price of fruit in local markets, to gauge the depth of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
And when hard numbers weren’t available, there were more than 100,00 troops in each theater to collect anecdotes about how things were going.
Today, there are only 2,140 U.S. troops in Iraq.
That makes it incredibly difficult to determine the effects of airstrikes, for example. At the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, U.S. ground troops were essential in not only determining targets, but then assessing the damage. In this war, the targeting is often happening on computer monitors thousands of miles away, capturing images from drones. The assessment of the strikes comes in real-time video from the aircraft. And Air Force assessors are the first to say such imaging never tells the whole story.
For Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress, the military argument that statistics don’t tell the story is nothing more than an excuse, one that potentially leads the United States to endless war. As he told The Daily Beast: “I think what they are doing is they are using the mistakes of the past to justify what they can’t measure now. That is essentially what is going on. They don’t have the data.”
It is part of the move away from decisive warfare. Iraq may have been an irregular fight, but it had major moments. The U.S. launched campaigns in the restive Iraqi city of Fallujah and a surge campaign in Baghdad. In Afghanistan, there was a push to take back the southern province Helmand. But this war jumps from city to city, depending the threat of the day. According to daily battlefield press releases, in just the first six days of this year, the airstrikes have targeted four cities in Syria and eight in Iraq. With that, there is no means to consistently measure progress. Each day the war moves to a new front line.
Part of the problem is the mandate of the war and the means with which the U.S. is fighting it do not match up. In his Sept. 10 national address announcing the addition of ground troops, President Obama said the coalition would “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS.
And yet Dempsey and others have repeatedly said ISIS cannot be defeated militarily. So however detailed the statistics of the battlefield are, they cannot achieve the goal. If thousands of tanks are destroyed, for example, and ISIS can still successfully draw fighters from around the world, the numbers don’t matter.
The U.S. military has said it is too early to make any conclusions, other than the war is on course. Officials have said the war to reclaim upward of a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria from ISIS could take years.
“I think it is important to say it is too soon to judge success or failure,” said Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Korb believes the very number that once haunted the generals of Vietnam could change the overall indifference to the lack of details about the latest effort—U.S. troop deaths.
If ISIS “came into a base and killed hundreds of troops, then people would ask a lot more questions.”