Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part Three: The Key Ongoing Challenges that Help shape the Outcome of the War

The Burke Chair has prepared a seven-part analytic overview of unclassified metrics, and of how their current content relates to the challenges in policy, plans, resources, and management of the war.

This report is entitled The Key Ongoing Challenges that Help shape the Outcome of the War. It can be found on the CSIS web site at

The data highlight the failures that almost lost the Afghan War between 2002 and 2008.  Many of the key narratives and metrics that allowed the Taliban to return to Afghanistan and come close to winning a political and strategic victory are not available in unclassified form or do not lend themselves to summary metrics.

This is the fifth in a series of seven reported that cover the key aspects of the war and which have been comprehensively updated as a product of a recent trip to Afghanistan and the region.

The other reports include:

This report highlights 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. The metrics and narratives in this brief focus on six key sets of issues.
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.
As Part Six of this series shows, 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.  Current reporting also does not report on the efforts of the Taliban to 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.

Alliance: Unity of Effort versus National Caveats and “Branding”
Avoiding any detailed discussion of 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.
Coping with the “Second Threat:” Afghan Governance and Corruption versus Popular Support in a War of Perceptions
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.
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.
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 More Data and Transparency

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 several other reports in this series 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 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.