Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: The Status of the War in the Spring of 2011
May 10, 2011
The war in Afghanistan is now approaching its tenth year. In spite of that fact, the US, allied countries, ISAF, and the UN have failed to develop adequate unclassified reporting on the progress of the war, to provide meaningful transparency on the problems and challenge it faces, and to provide a clear and detailed plan for the future.
The Burke Chair has developed a new survey of unclassified metrics and key narrative statements in an effort to both help provide more transparency on the war, and to illustrate the critical areas where analyses and data are lacking. This new survey has seven parts:
Part I: The Failures that Shaped Today’s War, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110617_AfghanMetrics.pdf
Part II: Transitioning to the New Strategy: 2009-2010, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110628_Afghan_Metrics-%20II.pdf
Part III: Key Ongoing Challenges, http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-III.pdf
Part IV: Hold and Build, and the Challenge of Development, http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-IV.pdf
Part V: Building Effective Afghan Forces, http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-V.pdf
Part VI: Showing Victory is Possible, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110606_afghan_metrics_VI_final.pdf
Part VII: The Problem of Pakistan, http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-VII.pdf
Unclassified Official Reporting Is Lacking in Transparency and Adequate Coverage
Taken collectively, the unclassified data now available have many critical limitations. The US and ISAF have reduced the amount of unclassified metrics and other data released on the war in the course of 2010 and 2011. 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.
An attempt to survey metrics, maps, and narrative can only highlight key trends and developments within the limits imposed by 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.
There are still, however, are areas where unclassified metrics and key narrative do provide important insights into the war. There also are areas where ISAF does provide detailed reporting --notably NTM-A reporting on the development of Afghan forces. Moreover, some of these metrics 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 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 Seven Part Analysis of the War
Each of the seven briefs in this series provides a different focus on the war:
Part One: The Failures that Shaped Today’s War (Available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-I.pdf
This brief provides data that highlight the US failure to resource the Afghan campaign, the US failure to react to the growth of the Taliban and the Al Qa’ida sanctuary in Pakistan, and the failures of the Afghan government that turned near victory into near defeat between 2002 and early 2009.
While only part of the data involved can be displayed in a summary brief, the data that are provided show that these failures were driven 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 alsowere 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.
It is important to note that the following six briefs warn that many of these problems have not been dealt with. Moreover, they show that there are no clear indications that the US and its allies will adequately fund a future commitment to pursuing the war and providing adequate aid resources. The US FY2012 budget requests already reflect a downward trend, and there are some indications that far more serious cuts are planned for FY2013.
Part Two: Transitioning to the New Strategy: 2009-2010 (Available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-II.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.
They show that seven major challenges – or centers of gravity drove the formation of the new strategy, that still affect every aspect of the war, that are reflected in the metrics shown in the following five parts of this series, and where the US and other ISAF and donor governments need to do far more to provide credible and transparent unclassified reporting:
- Tactical victories against insurgents are meaningless unless they are used to provide the population with lasting security and the kind of stability, prompt justice, and governance that wins loyalty and leads most insurgents to reconcile.
- The effectiveness of an alliance has nothing to do with the number of countries involved or the size of the forces involved. It depends on effective unity of effort in carrying out a strategy that can win.
- The creation of effective Afghan forces is critical to providing security and the “clear and hold” phase of the war on a national level. It is equally critical to allowing “build” to provide stability, prompt justice, governance, and a functioning economy, as well as some form of transition where Afghan forces replace US and ISAF forces.
- Effective Afghan governance at the national, provincial, district and local levels is equally critical to providing security and the “clear and hold” phase of the war on a national level. It is the core of creating the “build” capability necessary to providing stability, prompt justice, governance, and a functioning economy.
- There is still grossly inadequate coordination within the overall UN, national, and NGO aid effort.
- There is a need to objectively examine realistic end state and transition plans and the ability to achieve them.
- Planning for continued involvement in the war must face the reality that Pakistan is more critical than Afghanistan. Most unclassified US, ISAF, and allied metrics and analyses focus on Afghanistan. They not address the critical role of Pakistan in shaping the fighting in Afghanistan and the extremist threat as an integrated part of the war, or involve matching analysis of the risks that Pakistan will become unstable or refuse to support the US and ISAF in ending Taliban, Al Qa’ida, and other extremist sanctuaries.
- There is also a need for net assessment that deals with the strategic cost-benefit of continuing the war. No government has made a public effort to either estimate the future cost of the war in money and casualties, or to justify its strategic value relative to other uses of these resources.
Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges (Available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-III.pdf
Part Three highlights unclassified graphics and tables that describe key individual challenges that affect the course of the fighting and the ability to implement the new strategy.
While the summary metrics describing the Taliban and other insurgents have value, they ignore critical areas in the fighting that have no been corrected in most recent reporting on the war – which is contained in Part Six:
- 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.
- 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. Focusing on pay rather than ideology, status, faction, and religion creates similar problems.
Part Four: Hold and Build, and the Challenge of Development (Available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-IV.pdf
Part Four highlights the progress and challenges in what remains the weakest link in the US and allied effort in Afghanistan: Developing integrated civil-military operations, making effective use of aid, and making “hold, build, and transition” a functional reality.
The most striking aspect of aid and development is the lack of meaningful data and metrics on the Value and impact of the efforts involved, and their results. Ironically, far more data are available on military operations and intelligence about the threat than the impact of civil spending and aid.
As yet, there are no credible unclassified metrics or analyses that indicate aid is becoming more effective, better managed, and more focused on supporting the new strategy. In spite of years of promises, USAID and the State Department still cannot provide credible estimates of the impact and effectiveness of aid, or demonstrate that funds are used with proper fiscal controls. This situation is not better for other countries, and the UN has made no progress in providing such reporting.
What is far more disturbing, however, is that there are no data to indicate that GIRoA is becoming more effective, less corrupt, and more able to handle the burden of transition. It was recognized in creating the new strategy that GIRoA’s lack of capacity and integrity was as much of a threat any credible form of victory as the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
There have been important new efforts to reduce corruption, the role of power brokers, infiltration by insurgents, and the steady growth of organized criminal networks. In practice, however, these problems still seems to be growing, and have helped cause deep fissures between key GIRoA leaders and the US and ISAF. These issues are not address in unclassified reports in any credible or useful form.
Part Five: Building Effective Afghan Forces: (Available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-V.pdf
This report highlights the progress and challenges in creating the Afghan national security forces necessary to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents and allow a transition in which Afghanistan assumes responsibility for most military, internal security and police action.
The metrics in this section are based on the one area where governments, the UN, and ISAF begin to provide adequate unclassified reporting on the course of the war. They portray significant progress in proving adequate funding for the Afghan National Security Forces, (ANSF) and in creating an effective training base and operation to support the creation of forces necessary to do the job.
At the same time, the metrics reflect severe problems in the Afghan force development effort that raise serious questions as to whether these forces can have the strength and quality to support removal of most US and other ISAF forces in 2014.
The most serious of these questions – and one raised consistently by NTM-A – is the lack of adequate trainers. There are, however, equally serious questions about the pace at which forces are being expanded relative to their quality, the quality of the partnering effort once Afghan forces complete their training, and how Afghan forces will be funded once transition occurs.
There also are critical questions about the overall police training effort, and how it relatives to Afghan progress in governance and provide the other formal and traditional elements of a rule of law. These questions focus on the overall quality of the regular police. More importantly, they focus on whether the current concepts for using the police can function without a far more effective civil effort to build up the formal and traditional justice system and provide effective governance at the district and local levels.
Part Six: Showing Victory is Possible, (Available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-VI.pdf
The narratives and metrics in Part Six reflect significant tactical progress in Helmand and Kandahar – supported in detail by the metrics on the expansion of Afghan forces shown in Part Four and by some of the polling data in this brief. They also show that the US and ISAF are working with GIRoA to create a workable definition of transition and a state after 2014 that could define a meaningful form of victory.
Current Tactical Gains, but have Uncertain Strategic Value
At the same time, they also show why senior commander have described this progress as “fragile and reversible:” Limited tactical progress can set an important precedent, but it is important to realize that it may not be possible to achieve on a national scale and may have strategic or grand strategic value. Classified reporting may provide more depth in many areas, but the data now available from official sources have the following limits:
- The progress shown is virtually all at the tactical level, and the unclassified narratives, maps and metrics provided to date are limited and have little detail.
- There are no data to show the degree to which ISAF forces actually have fully cleared or hold given areas, and ANSF and GIROA forces are transitioning to take their place.
- There are no indications as to whether ISAF and the ANSF can scale up the tactical successes they have won to date within probable time lines, and succeed in either creating “clear, hold, build, and transition” in the full range of critical districts, or transition such victory into lasting GIRoA and ANSF ability to secure such gains.
- The data on the fighting focus on patterns of violence, and no overall influence and control. They do not address the fact that the Taliban and other insurgents are fighting a war of political attrition and have to outlast ISAF rather than win in the field.
- There seem to be very real gains in attacked insurgent networks, but there is no picture of their scale and no serious unclassified narrative describing the impact of such gains either in the short-term or strategic level.
- There seems to be some success in reconciliation but no effort is made to address the scale of that success in persuading Taliban and other insurgents in adopting new tactics, shifting areas of operation, finding new sanctuaries and dispersing within the population.
- There are no meaningful narratives and metrics on reconciliation efforts, and the success and scale of efforts to persuade fighter to come back to civil life or accept GIRoA. The scale and impact of detention efforts is not addressed.
- More broadly, unclassified narrative and metrics largely ignore Taliban and other insurgent capability to shift to new levels and types of violence designed to intimidate the population, attack key GIRoA and ANSF targets, and avoid major casualties through indirect and suicide attacks. They do not analyze insurgent efforts to establish stay behind and sleeper networks, and use limited numbers of high profile attack to put political and popular pressure on GIRoA and on ISAF governments to compromise or leave Afghanistan.
Mixed Progress in Popular Perceptions
The reporting narratives and metrics on tactical gains to date ignore the reality that most successful insurgencies appeared at some point in their history to be decisively defeated in the field, but survived by outlasting their opponents and by winning at the civil, political, and negotiating levels.
- There are important polling data that do indicate the new strategy can work where Afghans see tactical victory in “clear” translated into lasting security in the form of “hold and build.” Lasting security alone seems to produce important shifts in Afghan support for GIRoA.
- These positive polling results, however, are offset by other polls that show the intensity of the fighting, shifts in insurgent operations to new areas, and the failures of GIRoA have produced a nationwide loss of Afghan support for the war, and growing popular desire for ISAF to leave and some form of political accommodation with the Taliban.
- The polling data on popular support for participation in ISAF countries continues to drop and this is true in the US as well as allied countries.
No Credible Reporting on Progress in Civil Areas
The escalating problems in dealing with Karzai and other elements of the Afghan government are only touched upon, and their potential in producing strategic and grand strategic failure in the war is not properly addressed. This, however, is only part of the story.
- Far too little official effort is to analyze the value of current spending and to estimate the total cost of the war in terms of current operations and aid. The US does provide such data in budget reports, but it reflects a drop in the coming fiscal year, and – as Part Four of the series has shown – a massive future underfunding of current goals for aid and “hold and build.”
- As Part Four has also shown, USAID, other donor governments, and the UN have still never provided any credible reports and metrics on the effectiveness of any aspect of the aid effort, or a clear picture of where money is actually going and with what level of control, transparency, and impact. This failure occurs after nearly ten years of war.
- There are no assessments of the impact of Pakistani and US efforts to limit insurgent use of sanctuaries in Pakistan or the flow of fighters and weapons from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
- This is true of all forms of aid, but it is particularly true of the aid activity that is needed in the field to support “clear, hold, build, and transition” and demonstrate that the civil side of the new strategy is having at least preliminary success. There are no unclassified data to show that civil aid programs have had any meaningful impact on hold and build.
- There are no data to show GIRoA is expanding its capability to provide services, establish a working presence, and provide an effective mix of policing and use of a formal and traditional justice system.
- There are no data dealing with the problems raised by power brokers, corruption, and the problems related to the quality and integrity of governance that limit popular support.
- There are no assessments of the ability of ANSF forces to transition, of the level of corruption and ties to power brokers that limit their effectiveness, or of their capability and that of GIRoA civil governance to make the transfer of responsibility real, rather than cosmetic.
- It is clear that there has been yet another effort to deal with corruption, and the massive corrupting impact of poorly managed civil and military contracting by the US and other outside governments, but there are no details on the estimate impact of such measures or on when they are expected to go into effect.
Half the Needed Analysis and Message?
The limited unclassified data that are available on how the new strategy is working focus almost exclusively on current developments in the fighting, and many of these data have only been reported in very limited and large anecdotal form since mid-2010. The official data reported in the press consist largely of factoids more oriented towards “spin” than substance.
The end result is not to control the message, but to fail to provide one. It is hardly surprising that a great deal of media coverage is questioning or negative or that public opinion polls reflect a steady drop in support for the war. This is particularly critical a time that there is a budget crisis in virtually every country in ISAF and public opposition to the war is rising so sharply.
There also needs to be some credible picture of how the US and ISAF will transition to a real-world role by GIRoA and the ANSF, of what part of the cost of GIRoA and ANSF operations the US and its allies will have to fund through 2014 and beyond, and what prospects there are for some form of meaningful Afghan and Pakistan I stability once the bulk of US and other ISAF forces are gone.
At present, far too much of the unclassified narratives and metrics provide little more than rhetoric. Real tactical progress is not coupled to credible overall strategic goals, transition plans, or any well-defined grand strategic outcome. Moreover, there is little or no picture of progress in reconciliation or the goals set for talks between GIRoA and the Taliban.
The US, allied states, and ISAF need to provide a full and far more detailed overview of how the strategy of “clear, hold, build, and transition” is working. In fact, recent unclassified analysis and metrics fails to do so in virtually every important respect. As has been shown in Parts Three, Four, and Five of this analysis, there is far too little transparency and credibility in dealing with major current challenges. The data in describing progress in governance, economics, and building capable Afghan forces far short of what should be available.
Part Seven: The Problem of Pakistan (Available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110509_AfghanMetrics-VII.pdf ):
Part Seven of this series addresses an issue that is absolute critical to pursuing the war in Afghanistan and the chances for any meaningful grand strategic victory in the war. As Vietnam showed all too clear, tactical victories, and even apparent strategic success, have no value unless they produce stable and lasting favorable results.
It currently seems unlikely that the odds of such success are more than even if one only considers the problems in Afghanistan. The previous briefs in this series – and a wide range of unclassified studies and reports -- raised the following critical issues:
- GIRoA’s current lack of popularity, trust, and integrity at every level from Karzai to local governments, compounded by favoritism, corruption, power brokers, and the impact of criminal networks.
- Tensions between the US and ISAF officials and commanders at every level in GIRoA and especially with Karzai.
- Regional, sectarian, and ethnics divisions within Afghanistan, GIRoA, and some elements of the ANSF.
- Uncertain moves toward negotiation and political accommodation with the Taliban that could result in either its return to power, or new – and possible violent – splits of the country.
- The uncertainty as to whether current tactical gains can be scaled up to cover the entire range of critical districts in the strategy, be transitioned to ANSF control within the required timeframe, and offset Taliban and other insurgent willingness to wait out the US and ISAF presence and overcome tactical defeat by fighting a war of political attrition.
- Uncertain US and allied popular support for the war, willingness to sustain success if it clearly does develop in 2011 and 2014, and willingness to fund the required effort before and after transition.
- Pressure to create an ANSF capable of transition that could offset real progress with artificial deadliness, and be followed by a refusal to fund the force for the need timeframe after transition.
- A civil aid effort in governance, economic, and stability operations that is vastly expensive but cannot meet current development goals, and so far have not shown it can be effective or properly managed and assessed in the hold, build, and transition phases of the war.
None of these very real risks are necessarily “war stoppers.” All wars involve the risk of failure, and no one can ever guarantee lasting strategic and grand strategic success. The practical problem, however, is that the war is not simply being fought in – or for – Afghanistan. The stability and future of Pakistan alone is critical, and so is its willingness to put an ended to Al Qa’ida, Taliban, Haqqani, and other sanctuaries inside Pakistani territory.
Ignoring and Understating A Key Strategic Reason for the War
Pakistan is strategically far more important than Afghanistan, and plays a critical role in any ability to achieve even a limited form of victory in the war. This has been recognized in the unclassified portions of US President’s Quarterly reports to Congress since mid-2010.
As is the case with GIRoA’s lack of capacity and public support, the lack of Pakistani support for the fighting against Al Qa’ida, Taliban, Haqqani network, and other insurgents and extremist was recognized as a critical challenge in forming the new strategy, As is the case with GIRoA, the lack of Pakistani activity and support was seen as a threat equivalent in many ways to the insurgency.
The US has succeeded in pushing Pakistan towards some forms of cooperation, but Pakistan clearly continues to provide covert support for Haqqani and elements of the Taliban. Pakistan continues to seek influence over Afghan Pashtuns, and see Afghanistan as a key area for competition with India. It is not a strategic partner as distinguished from a nation with limited common interests with the US acting under considerable US pressure, and constantly seeking its own advantage.
It is also obvious from media sources, and US and Pakistani official statements that many of the tensions between Pakistan and the US/ISAF have grown rather than diminished. It is also clear that unless this situation can be reversed, gains in Afghanistan may not have any strategic meaning, any political settlement within Afghanistan can become unstable or a prelude to defeat, and pursuing the war cannot produce a stable outcome or have grand strategic meaning.
As unclassified metrics and narratives in this brief make clear, however, there is far too little official report on this critical aspect of the war to address the role of Pakistan in meaningful detail.
More broadly, there are virtually no unclassified reports or metrics that show the current state of Al Qa’ida in Pakistan and the world, that track the possibility of denying terrorists and extremist some form of sanctuary, and provide an overview of the operations and strength of threat forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Future US Strategic Interests in Central and South Asia
The failure to fully address the strategic impact of Pakistan has been compounded by a broader failure to treat the Afghan War in net assessment terms and to examine its grand strategic impact:
- It is not clear that US resources and strategic interests make a US focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and South Asia the kind of strategic priority that justifies anything like the current scale of wartime and aid expenditure. If the US and its European allies are increasingly pushed towards hard strategic trade-offs, East Asia, the Gulf, Africa, and Latin America all seem to be of more grand strategic importance.
- Russia and China have natural sphere of influence and far more reason for investment and economic competition in Central and South Asia. It is not clear that the US private sector in particular will seek a major role in Central Asia that justifies a sustained strategic presence.
- Much of the current focus on estimates of the value of a “new silk road” and “1.4 trillion in Afghan minerals” seem little more than efforts to justify the war and interest in the region, or a “triumph of hope over experience.” Best-case outcomes based “wishtimates” are not a case for either assuming Afghanistan has great strategic value or can suddenly become self-financing and develop. The same is true of Central Asia.
- Stability in Afghanistan will have limited strategic value at best if instability in Central Asia and Pakistan become critical problems – a possibility that is all too real.
These are not decisive arguments against the war, any more than the problems raised by Pakistan. They do, however, illustrate the need for far better strategic and grand strategic analysis of the reasons for the war, of what “transition” really means in strategic and grand strategic terms, and for creating narratives and metrics that are based on reality and ruthlessly objective metrics.