Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that thousands of ISIS fighters had been killed since the bombing campaign began last August but he stopped short of endorsing the U.S. ambassador’s count of more than 6,000.
"We do know that thousands of [ISIS] fighters have been killed, and we do know that some of ISIS’s leadership have been killed," Hagel said while adding that DoD had no “verification” of the estimate of more than 6,000 killed put forward by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones.
Pentagon officials previously, when pressed for numbers on the ISIS death toll, had only given vague estimates that “hundreds” had been killed. The officials made clear that they were uneasy with Jones’ body count and Hagel, an Army veteran of Vietnam, also conveyed his discomfort.
Body counts were not the way to measure the progress of a military campaign, Hagel said. "Is that the measurement or a significant measurement of progress? It is a measurement but I don't think it is 'the' measurement," Hagel said.
“I was in a war where there was a lot of body counts every day, and we lost that war," Hagel said, referring to Vietnam.
In an earlier interview with the Al Arabiya news channel, Jones said that the airstrikes by the U.S. and coalition partners since Aug. 8 “have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.”
Jones said the statistics “were not so important in themselves,” but “they do show the degradation of ISIS.”
Pentagon and U.S. Central Command officials recently have stated that that the coalition’s efforts have put the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the defensive, cut supply chains and disrupted communications. Hagel said those were all more important measurements of success. At a Pentagon news conference, Hagel also expressed his displeasure at the claim by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the U.S. was too slow in arming and equipping the Iraqi national security forces.
Abadi told the Associated Press on Wednesday that “there is a lot being said and spoken” by the allies about the supply effort “but very little on the ground.”
Hagel countered that the U.S. last year had sped up the shipment of 1,500 Hellfire missiles and 250 MRAPs (Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected) vehicles to Iraq along with small arms and ammunition. In addition, four training sites for Iraqi troops had been set up and a fifth would soon be ready, Hagel said.
"We have a coalition of over 60 countries that have come together to help Iraq, and I think the prime minister might want to be a little more mindful of that," Hagel said. "We are doing everything we can possibly do to help the Iraqis."
Rather than criticizing the U.S., Abadi should move faster on building a more inclusive government and healing the sectarian divides among Iraqi Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups, Hagel said. “I think he’s trying to do that, I think he’s making every effort to do that,” Hagel said.
Hagel said the news conference would “most likely be one of my last” before he formally steps down and is succeeded as Defense Secretary by former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Confirmation hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Carter’s nomination were expected to begin in the first week of February.
Hagel used the news conference as possibly a final opportunity to make another pitch for Congress to give DoD relief from the automatic spending cuts of the sequester process.
“Will Congress have the courage to do what they have to do? That’s why we elect them – we’ll see,” Hagel said.