Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges
February 28, 2011
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 challenges faced, and a meaningful plan for the future. Moreover, since June 2010, the unclassified reporting that 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.
Drawing on Unclassified Official Reporting Lacking in Credibility and Transparency
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 limit their content “spin” and “message control.” Moreover, some reflect real progress since the adoption of the new strategy for the war, and indicate that a more frank, meaningful, and open reporting system would do a far better 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 understanding 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.
The first two reports in this series have already been circulated and are now available on the CSIS web site. They are entitled:
- Part One: The Failures that Shaped Today’s War (Available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110215_AfghanMetrics.pdf This report highlights the US failure to resource the Afghan campaign, and the extent to which US failure 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.
- Part Two: Transitioning to the New Strategy (Available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110215_Afghan_Metrics_part_two.pdf This briefing highlights graphics and tables that summarize the new strategy and campaign plan, the initial impact of the result build-up of US forces and changes in tactics and strategy on the intensity of the war, and early estimates of how the changes in strategy will impact on the US budget and the affordability of the war.
Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges
The third report is now available. It is entitled Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges (Available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110228_Afghan_Metrics.pdf): Each section of this report highlights the unclassified graphics and tables that describe the key individual challenges that affect the course of the fighting and the ability to implement the new strategy.
An Evolving Insurgency: Informal, Adaptive, Distributed Networks
The US and ISAF are making progress in defeating the insurgency in the field, and attacking its leaders and networks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most recent reporting, however, is by background briefing to the media, and is highly localized and anecdotal. While the summary metrics describing the Taliban and other insurgents have value, they ignore critical areas in the fighting.
Claims about tactical victories at the local level may or may not be significant, since the insurgency can recruit and promote new volunteers, disperse, shift targets, move to more secure areas, or go underground.
Similarly, vague claims that insurgents are tired of fighting have little historical credibility. Even successful attacks on leaders and senior cadres usually only have a temporary effect.
Failures to look at popular, ANSF, and insurgent opinion about who is winning or losing, and the need to accommodate the insurgents in some political settlement, do not evaluate the Taliban and GIRoA in net assessment terms.
A focus on the areas where ISAF and the US are most active ignores Taliban and other insurgent gains and losses in other areas. It also ignores areas in Afghanistan where the threat forces may be exploiting a lack of ISAF and ANSF/GIRoA effectiveness, and the nature and impact of sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
An emphasis on temporary gains – particularly at the tactical combat level -- does not deal with the reality that the Taliban can win by outlasting ISAF and the US in a war of political attrition, and that it can maintain influence through shadow and sleeper structures, and low-level terrorism, assassination, extortion, kidnapping, night operations, and other forms of intimidation of officials, police, and the Afghan people.
Moreover, the way in which district and provincial numbers are aggregated does not spotlight the areas where Taliban and insurgent influence is increasing or static.
Focusing on Afghanistan to the exclusion of Pakistan denies one of the fundamental realities of the war.
Insurgent structures are networked with power brokers, a countrywide system of checkpoints and fees, elements in GIRoA and the ANSF, and Pakistani officials and officers. Analysis that only looks at the threat by group does not address their real world operational power structure.
Case after historical case has shown it is critical to maintain chronologies that show how given groups change their targets and tactics, and how well they adapt over time.
Mirror imaging Afghan popular perceptions to show they do not support the Taliban does not measure anger, resentment, and indifference to GIRoA, ISAF, and US values and actions. It also does not provide an adequate picture of why the Taliban and other groups attract volunteers and public support. Focusing on pay rather than ideology, status, faction, and religion creates similar problems.
Casualties: A Perceptual Weapon
The US and allied countries publish realistic death estimates for Afghanistan, within the severe limits imposed by the inability to measure civilians killed with any accuracy. Such estimates are inherently uncertain and controversial. They do not, however, cover wounded and injured for Afghan forces or civilians, and historically, these totals are around 5 to 7 times higher than the figures for those killed. Moreover, these data do not cover Pakistani forces and civilians, or the Taliban and other insurgents in Pakistan.
What is more important in an insurgency, however, is that current unclassified analyses and metrics do not cover critical aspects of Afghan and Pakistani patterns and perceptions of both casualties and other threats and violence, and do again do not report on the efforts of the Taliban to can maintain influence through shadow and sleeper structures; suicide attacks and other bombings; and low-level terrorism, assassination, extortion, kidnapping, forced relocations, night operations, and other forms of attack and intimidation of officials, police, and the Afghan people.
Like counting the intensity of the war in terms of major acts of violence, this kind of reporting treats an insurgency as if it were something approaching a conventional war. Estimate and metrics are needed to show the full range of insurgent activities that threaten and intimate, and not simply the number killed.
Survey data is need on Afghan perceptions of the source and type of violence and intimidation for the full range of ISAF, ANSF, and insurgent actions. As these surveys showed in Iraq, they can provide a far better picture of how Afghans perceive the war, and the actions of the US and IASF to accomplish hold and build.
Such studies need to examine crime and corruption as part of the overall Afghan perception of GIRoA, ISAF, and ANSF ability to provide security. Before and after analysis is needed to measure the impact of clear, hold, and build. This is particularly important because peaks in the fighting are almost certain to create concern and anger while lasting security can quickly reverse such perceptions.
Reporting should regularly comparing ISAF, UN, ANSO and other estimates. As Iraq has shown, the data are often uncertain enough to require regular revisions, and perceptions are often based on estimates by other sources.
Alliance: Unity of Effort versus National Caveats and “Branding”
Covering up the differences and lack of unity in the alliance in military, civil-military, and aid operations may be politically correct, but it does little to improve unity of effort and effectiveness, and ensure that ISAF, the US, and allied countries do not pursue tactics and strategies they cannot implement.
Decoupling the UN and other national efforts to measure the size, integrity, and impact and effectiveness of aid efforts presents similar problems. So does the failure to analyze the integration of military and PRT efforts, and relevance of aid activity to the course of the fighting and efforts to determine whether “hold” and “build” are receiving the right priority and effectiveness.
Analysis and metrics are also needed of the integrity of the military and civil contract efforts and fiscal controls. The flood of money into poorly managed efforts has been a driving force in abusive Afghan corruption, the growth of power brokers and private forces, and the growing disparity of income in Afghanistan. It also interacts heavily with the impact of narcotics.
Finally, in other cases, surveys of the different perceptions of national military and aid efforts have proved to be important ways to identify both successful and failed approaches to tactics and aid.
Coping with the “Second Threat:” Afghan Governance and Corruption versus Popular Support in a War of Perceptions
This section shows that some important efforts were made to measure Afghan perceptions of GIRoA that have since ceased to be reported in unclassified terms. It is all too clear that efforts to improve the integrity of GIRoA have lagged. It is also clear that the ability to work around this through rewarding effective ministries and central government officials, governors and provincial officials, their District-level equivalents, and local officials and Jirgas will be critical to achieving any successful forms of “end state” and transition.
NGO surveys reinforce these points. Corruption and power brokers are critical problems at every level, as is the lack of any effective presence of government officials and services, functioning courts and detention facilities, and regular police activity.
The metrics and analysis in past reports needed to be resumed and refined. The current failures and weaknesses in GIRoA – at every level – are as much a threat as the Taliban and other insurgents.
Counternarcotics: Aid and Comfort to the Enemy? Or, Growing and Lasting Gains?
Nearly a decade after the start of the war, far too much of the reporting on narcotics focuses on total volume of production. Moreover, past reporting has ignored the fact that much of the counternarcotics effort was corrupt, and drove production into Taliban controlled areas.
At the same time, it often took credit for drops or shifts in production that were the result of market forces, weather, and crop disease. As is the case with every form of civil aid activity, little accounting was made for expenditure, fiscal and management controls were minimal, and far too little effort was made to create credible measures of the total and marginal effectiveness of aid and other spending.
ISAF’s major gains in Helmand, market forces, weather, and crop disease have all combined to create an opportunity to limit production, but realistic analysis and metrics will be needed to determine effectiveness and trade-offs in creating other crops and forms of economic security.
Metrics and analysis need to focus far more on Afghan motivations and perceptions, and the impact of given programs, rather than simply estimate total crop area and output.
Moreover, integrated analysis is needed of the impact of the Taliban, corruption, and narcotrafficking. Narcotics need to be evaluated as a key force affecting hold and build and perceptions of GIRoA. It is particularly critical that this be done in evaluating the role of the police and justice system. There is little point in raising salaries, conducting anti-corruption drives, or simply cutting crop output if narcotics income is added to salaries, anti-corruption drives punish an easily replaceable few, and the destabilizing impact of narcotics on Afghan power structures continues by growing less and raising prices.
IEDs: The “Stinger” of the Afghan Conflict
Reporting on the trends in IEDs highlights a key threat, and measure of the intensity of serious conflict. It is also one of the few areas of consistently good unclassified reporting, although more needs to be done to highlight trends in key combat areas, rather than simply on a national basis.
Important (and useful) as IED casualties are, however, they are only one measure of casualties and violence and spotlighting them to the exclusion of other causes of casualties and perceived violence can creating misleading priorities.
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 some parts of this series do show that progress is being made in addressing many of the issues involved, and that metrics are only part of that story. For all of the spin and omissions that still surround reporting on the war, progress has occurred over the last two years, and additional major efforts to correct these problems are underway.
Other key developments will be analyzed in the future parts of this report:
• Part Four: Hold and Build, and The Challenge of Development
• Part Five: Building Effective Afghan Forces
• Part Six: Showing Victory is Possible