When it comes to air strikes against the Taliban, there's something about the number 30, says the Security Crank blog.
The unnamed military affairs blogger has published a list of recent air strikes against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an amazing pattern has emerged: It seems that just about every time an air strike is reported in the news, the Taliban casualty figure cited is 30.
Citing the Moon of Alabama blog, which made a similar argument this spring, Security Crank linked to 12 news reports of separate air strike incidents since the start of the year in which the number of Taliban or insurgent casualties was reported to be 30, in most cases citing US military officials.
Not 29, not 31. Thirty.
What does this mean? For the Security Crank, it means we just shouldn't believe the numbers.
How could we possibly have any idea how the war is going, here or anywhere else, when the bad guys seem only to die in groups of 30? The sheer ubiquity of that number in fatality and casualty counts is astounding, to the point where I don’t even pay attention to a story anymore when they use that magic number 30. It is an indicator either of ignorance or deliberate spin … but no matter the case, whenever you see the number 30 used in reference to the Taliban, you should probably close the tab and move onto something else, because you just won’t get a good sense of what happened there.
Megan Carpentier, writing at Air America, believes there's more to this than just fudged numbers. Carpentier points to a story in the Los Angeles Times this past summer that reports that the US has, or at least had, during the Bush administration, a policy of requiring the secretary of defense to sign off on any air strike that was likely to kill more than 30 civilians.
The Times reported:
In a grisly calculus known as the "collateral damage estimate," US military commanders and lawyers often work together in advance of a military strike, using very specific, Pentagon-imposed protocols to determine whether the good that will come of it outweighs the cost.
We don't know much about how it works, but in 2007, Marc Garlasco, the Pentagon's former chief of high-value targeting, offered a glimpse when he told Salon magazine that in 2003, "the magic number was 30." That meant that if an attack was anticipated to kill more than 30 civilians, it needed the explicit approval of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or President George W. Bush. If the expected civilian death toll was less than 30, the strike could be OKd by the legal and military commanders on the ground.
Carpentier posits that 30 remains the magic casualty number for the Pentagon to this day, and implies that the casualty numbers are being fudged so that they are "acceptable" to the public.
"That PR calculus of how many deaths matter to the average American has apparently carried over from the Bush Administration to the Obama Adminstration, at least insofar as ground commanders are concerned," she writes.
But Carpentier's argument raises as many questions as it answers. For one, the Rumsfeld-era casualty policy applied to civilian casualties, not insurgent casualties. Yet the series of news reports this year cite the 30 number for Taliban casualties, and cite varying figures for civilian casualties, if any are cited at all. It would be hard to argue that the Pentagon believes the American public can only stomach 30 Taliban casualties at a time.
So the likelier explanation is that the Pentagon doesn't know how many insurgents were killed -- perhaps because distinguishing insurgents from civilians is no easy task. And the 30 number seems like a safe bet: High enough to justify the air strike, but not so high as to seem suspicious or overblown.
Of course, that's all just speculation. So long as military officials continue to insist that it's destroying the Taliban exactly 30 insurgents at a time, there won't be much the public will be able to glean from the gory reports of death and destruction in Central Asia.