By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
WASHINGTON — Taking a page from Vietnam War propaganda, the American military in Afghanistan has been widely publicizing body counts of Taliban and Islamic State fighters killed in battle. Officials described the practice, which began in January, as part of an apparent strategy to rally White House support for remaining in the conflict.
In roughly three dozen statements, the military announced the deaths or wounding of more than 2,500 enemy fighters. The media releases were posted online, where they could have been seen by at least hundreds of thousands of internet followers, including on Facebook and Twitter.
On Thursday morning, in response to questions from The New York Times, the practice abruptly stopped.
The body counts served as a grisly contrast to other metrics that paint a grimmer reality of the war effort — including high attrition rates in the Afghan military and the loss of territory to Taliban militants.
In one example, the military headquarters in Kabul announced that at least 1,700 enemy fighters had been killed or hurt in 90 operations over a three-week period in late June and early July.
“The results seen on the battlefield are obvious,” Maj. Gen. Andrew Poppas, the chief of operations for the American-led campaign in Afghanistan, said in the July 21 news release.
He said Afghan security forces “take the fight to the enemy and continue to remove all who oppose them at every turn.”
Top Pentagon officials have flatly said they oppose using body counts as a way to drum up public — and political — backing for the 17-year war that President Trump has repeatedly threatened to leave.
As recently as last year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis openly disagreed with using body counts as propaganda.
“You all know of the corrosive effect of that sort of metric back in the Vietnam War,” Mr. Mattis told journalists after declining to release the number of Islamic State fighters killed in an enormous American bombing in April 2017 in eastern Afghanistan. “It’s something that has stayed with us all these years.”
“For many years, we have not been calculating the results of warfare by simply quantifying the number of enemy killed,” Mr. Mattis said.
It is not clear who decided to start publicizing the enemy body count in Afghanistan this year. Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday it was done to highlight “the ever-increasing capabilities” of Afghan security forces. The “defensive progress” of the Afghans, Colonel Manning said in a statement, “demonstrates that terrorists cannot win militarily.”
Current and former Defense Department officials said the propaganda campaign appeared to be part of a larger strategy to convince Mr. Trump of gains in the war — and the military power invested in it.