Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part One: The US Failures That Shaped Today's War

Drawing on Unclassified Official Reporting Lacking in Credibility and Transparency

The war in Afghanistan is now in its tenth year. In spite of that fact, the US, allied countries, ISAF, and the UN have failed to develop credible reporting in the progress of the war, provide meaningful transparency on the problems and challenge it faces, and a meaningful plan for the future. Moreover, since June 2010, the unclassified reporting the US does provide has steadily shrunk in content – effectively “spinning” the road to victory by eliminating content that illustrates the full scale of the challenges ahead.

The US is scarcely alone in failing to provide adequate reporting on the Afghan conflict. No allied government provides credible reporting on the progress of the war, and the Afghan government provides little detail of any kind. The UN, which has major responsibilities for aid, has failed to provide a meaningful overview of how aid requirements are generated, how aid efforts are managed and coordinated, of how funds are used, of the quality of fiscal controls and auditing, and of the effectiveness and impact of aid.

There are, however, some useful unclassified metrics in spite of the tendency to “spin” and “message control.” Moreover, some reflect real progress since the adoption of the new strategy for the war, and indicate a more frank, meaningful, and open reporting system would do a far more convincing job of winning support for the conflict – as well as be a way of obtaining the kind of feedback and informed criticism that could help meet the many problems and challenges that still shape the course of the fighting.

The Six Part Series Analysis of the War

The Burke Chair has prepared a six-part analytic overview of unclassified metrics, and of their current content relates to the challenges in policy, plans, resources, and management of the war that now reduce the prospects of victory. It should be stressed that such an analysis is only a way of flagging key trends and developments within the limits imposed by using unclassified official reporting.

Moreover, metrics are not a substitute for the kind of narrative that is critical to understand the complexity of this war, and put numbers, charts, and maps in context. This is a case where facing the real-world complexity of the conflict is essential to winning it.

Even an overview of the strengths and weakness of unclassified metrics does, however, provide considerable insight into what is known about the war, and the many areas where meaningful reporting is lacking and the reporting available is deceptive and misleading. The US, its allies, and ISAF may currently be repeating the same kind of overall messaging as the “follies” presented in Vietnam, but there are enough areas where facts still become public to put much of the war into perspective.

Part One: The Failures That Shaped Today’s War 

The first report in this series is now available on the CSIS web site. It is entitled Part One: The Failures That Shaped Today’s War  (Available on the CSIS web site at This brief highlights some of the metrics that reflect a consistent failure to properly resource the Afghan campaign, and to react to the growth of the Taliban, the al Qa’ida sanctuary in Pakistan, and the failures of the Afghan government turned near victory into near defeat.

These failures were driven in part by the lack of unity and realism in ISAF, an ineffective UN effort, a US focus on the Iraq War, and by a US force posture whose deployable land forces can only fight one major regional contingency at a time. They also, however, were driven by political decisions to ignore or understate Taliban and insurgent gains from 2002-2009, to ignore the problems caused by weak and corrupt Afghan governance, to understate the risks posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan, and to  “spin” the value of tactical ISAF victories while ignoring the steady growth of Taliban influence and control.

The failures involved went much further than unclassified metrics can portray – although some trends are clear and others are illustrated in the future reports in this series. These failures included:

  • Mirror imaging of US and European values in trying to create a political system and central government structure that did not allow for a lack of capacity, effective local and regional government, and a justice system based on Afghan values and practices. The end result was a sharply over-centralized structure of government which compounded the problems of corruption; a focus on national elections without creating effective political parties; a functional role for the new parliament without focusing on effective governance and without defining a workable role for the new legislature.

    No workable provision was made for funding provincial, district, and local government. The need to keep and expand the remaining elements of the Afghan civil service was largely ignored. The need to adequately deal with Afghanistan’s deep ethnic, sectarian, and tribal difference was “solved” largely by assuming that the President and central government could force a “national” solution on theAfghan people.
  • Major intelligence failures: As senior US intelligence officers in ISAF later made clear, a gravely flawed intelligence effort initially grossly underestimated that ability of Al Qa’ida and the Taliban to recover and adapt, and then kept focusing on the tactical defeat of the Taliban rather than the constant expansion of its political control of large parts of Afghanistan.  Intelligence also did not address the growing unpopularity and failures of the Afghan government, the impact of power brokers and corruption, and role of Pakistan and insurgent sanctuaries in that country. 

    As some of the maps and graphics in this report -- and in Part Two -- show, this intelligence effort continued to deny reality in spite of the fact that the Taliban steadily gathered momentum, set up more and stronger shadow governments, came to dominate the drug trade, and expanded beyond its traditional power base in the south and east. These errors  did not begin to be corrected until April 2009.

    It is disturbing that unclassified reporting on the fighting since June 2010 has increasingly been cut back in content and coverage, and shows signs of the same positive spin that has plagued ISAF (and MNF-I) reporting in the past.
  • Failure to create effective ISAF forces and PRT structures, and coordinate civil-military efforts: The US initially approached its allies as if they could be little more than peacekeepers in a victory that was already won. It sought the maximum number of participants for aid and security activity without regard to effectiveness and national caveats. 

    As Parts Three and Four show in more depth, different national military elements were layered over different civil provincial reconstruction teams. This structure could not adapt effectively as the war in Afghanistan became steadily more serious. NATO and ISAF did make progress in military coordination, but they did not begin to develop effective coordinated plans until the McChrystal exercise in 2009, and national caveats remain a critical problem, as does the lack of an true, integrated, civil-military plan of operations.

    Moreover, while efforts were finally made to create a central coordinator for civil programs and integrated civil-military plans in 2010, these plans remain largely conceptual. There still are no meaningful unclassified metrics or analyses that show real progress in these areas, that reflect meaningful fiscal controls and measures of effectiveness, or that provide a picture of how civil programs in governance, rule of law, and economic aid relate to military efforts.
  • Failure to create effective Afghan forces: As Parts Two and Five of this briefing show in more depth, no serious effort was made to create effective Afghan forces until 2007, and this effort was never properly funded or supported with anything like the required number of trainers and emphasis on partnership and transition until 2010. These problems were compound by a failure to provide proper facilities and equipment that continued until 2010, and the failure to go from an emphasis on combat units to a balanced force that could operate independently and eventually replace US forces. These trends are documented in further detail in Part Five of this series.
  • A failure to focus on creating a functional justice system: These problems were compounded by initially trying to deal with creating a police force that was based on German models that were hopelessly underresourced and did not meet Afghan needs and values. This failure was followed by an equally underresourced effort by the US State Department that largely ignored the fact that insurgent influence now required a police force that could deal with guerrilla warfare.  A third transfer of effort then occurred to the US Department of Defense, which began to set more realistic goals for paramilitary and self-defense capability, but was again never properly resourced and effectively increased the burden on the ISAF and US military training effort.

    Worse, the police training and expansion effort was decoupled from a rule of law effort that focused narrowly on creating a new formal justice system at the top.  This allowed the Taliban and local power brokers to become the de facto system for local justices. Courts and jails were often lacking or unable to operate.

    Moreover, the lack of effective local governance – an essential element in winning support for police and a justice system- meant all three elements of an effective justice system were lacking much of the country.  This – compounded the problem created by corruption, power brokers, and ethnic, sectarian, and tribal friction. All of these efforts were made worse by gross underpayment of salaries, corruption in hiring and promotion at every level, misuse of aid funds, and a lack of any effective effort to manage aid and development programs in the field.
  • Failure to create effective aid and development programs: The most striking aspect of aid and development is the lack of meaningful data and metrics on the efforts involved.Output metrics showing the results of aid projects are virtually nonexistent.  Ironically, more data are available on military operations and intelligence about the threat than the impact of civil spending and aid.

    Parts Two and Four of this briefing do, however, present summary metrics that show the US and the West set up hopelessly overambitious mid and long term development goals based on the assumption that Afghanistan was effectively at peace, without valid plans and requirements, and which can never be resourced at anything like the required levels. (Parts Two and Four of this series show key graphics illustrating the funding gaps involved.)

    Unfortunately there are no metrics to show other critical problems in the aid effort – problems compounded by a similar lack of management in military contracts. The result was a massive flow of aid money without effective financial controls, contracting methods, attention to absorption capability, and without meaningful measures of effectiveness. Moreover, these aid efforts were divided by sponsoring country, often responding to the aid politics of the capital involved, while NGOs funded projects that served their own goals and interests.

    As Part Four shows in more detail, these problems were often compounded by erratic funding and a failure to sustain programs once they began. Moreover, major problems occurred because of short tours by key aid personnel, and nearly annual efforts to “reconceptualize” aid efforts without creating systems that could plan and execute concepts effectively, measure Afghan perceptions and needs, validate requirements, and measure effectiveness.

    The lack of metric and other reporting on aid also shows the fact that no one was effectively in charge. The UN failed to provide effective coordination and oversight, meaningful reporting on spending, and metrics and analysis that show where aid money went or anything about its effectiveness. Vast amounts of money – by Afghan standards -- poured into a grey economy where side payments and “fees” are the rule. It offered both Afghans and outside contractors a “get rich quick” option at a time they had no guarantee of either security or stability. 

    This played a major role in creating a massive pattern of corruption and waste at every level.  This was  compounded by growing military contract expenditures on facilities, transport, and services which also lacked an effective system for awarding and monitoring contracts and anything approaching meaningful fiscal controls.

    A central government lacking in capacity – and provincial and local governments controlled from the center and without resources of their own -- was steadily corrupted by this process while no effective structure existed at the provincial, district, or local level for planning and executing aid activity. Groups like Oxfam estimate that some 40% of the aid money never reached actual programs and projects, and no element of the aid effort established any meaningful measures of effectiveness to show where the rest of the aid effort went or what its impact was.

    Moreover, the metrics that are available on aid show that most of the aid effort focused on mid and long term development. The net impact was that aid did not reach most Afghans at a time the Taliban steadily expanded its control and influence, and often enriched corrupt officials and power brokers. ISAF’s tactical victories often ended in fighting in populated areas, then leaving them. As the following reports in this series show, the population in the most sensitive areas in the war were left without meaningful governance and government services, without a functional justice system and security, and without tangible economic security or benefits from international aid.
  • Failure to focus on Transition and any form of “End State.” As is discussed in more detail in Parts Two-Five, no serious effort was made to create and implement a longer term plan to create a mix of Afghan government and security capabilities that could stand on its own, to define goals that would allow ISAF and the US to withdraw forces and limit their military and aid efforts over time. Instead, a constant stream of new polices and plans emerged to the point where the US, ISAF, and other outside actors tended to make every year the “first year” in Afghanistan.

The Need for Credibility, Integrity, and Transparency, and Future Reports in this Series

Virtually every expert on the Afghan War could add new points to this list. It is also obvious from many of these points that the metrics shown in this report can only hint at a few key trends and problems. In far too many cases, there are no metrics and no reliable detailed histories – although the kind of metrics and analysis that should have existed are easy to derive from the summary of each problem.

At the same time, it is critical to stress that the other parts of this report show that major progress is being made in addressing many of the issues involved, and metrics are only part of that story. For all of the spin and omissions that still surround reporting on the war, major progress has occurred over the last two years, and additional major efforts to correct these problems are underway.

They will be analyzed in the future parts of this report:

  • Part Two: Transitioning to the New Strategy
  • Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges Part Four: Hold and Build, and The Challenge of Development
  • Part Five: Building Effective Afghan Forces
  • Part Six: Showing Victory is Possible