Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War

The US has now been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, and is committed to stay through 2014 – with a possible advisory, aid, and funding presence that may extend to 2025. There still, however, are no convincing unclassified ways to measure progress in the war, or the trends in the fighting and level of violence.

There are, however, a wide mix of “metrics” that provide insight into some areas of progress. These range from analyses of the pattern in violence to estimates of casualties, attempts to show areas of insurgent influence, and efforts to measure the effectiveness of Afghan governance and aid.

This analysis looks at the reporting available on the state of the war at the end of 2011, in terms of the data, trends, and maps available from the US Department of Defense (DoD), the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the NATO/ISAF command, and the UN. It attempts to explore the meaning of these data, the reasons for the sharp differences between them, and what they say about the fighting to date and its progress.

The analysis is titled Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War, and is available on the CSIS web site here.

Unreliable and Conflicting Counts of the Number of -- and Patterns in-- Attacks
The analysis shows there is no current unclassified way of counting the number of attacks and translating them into a credible measure of the intensity of the war. The data available from DoD, NCTC, ISAF, and UN are simply too different and count the patterns of attacks and incidents in too many ways. For example, the UN count of incidents is roughly ten times higher than the NCTC count and some 7 times higher that the ISAF count.

Unreliable and Conflicting Metrics on Casualties and Causes and Levels of Insurgent Activity and Violence
Casualty estimates have become one of the most controversial measures of the intensity of war, and its moral and human impact. This is particularly true in the case of insurgencies, where military casualties tend to be relatively limited compared to civilians. The practical problem is that it is extremely difficult to generate credible counts and trace the source of casualties.

This is also true of counts of wounded, where many cases are unreported and the seriousness of a “wound” can be a major issue. There also is an important difference between the increasing use of the term “casualty” to only count killed, and the dictionary definition of “casualty” which includes both killed and wounded. There is only limited historical correlation between the number of “killed” and the number of “wounded,” but the number of “wounded” is generally much higher and is a better indication of the intensity of war.

Moreover, there is a major difference between metrics that report on “wounded” and on “victims.” Threats, beating, and kidnapping are common insurgent tactics. Insurgencies seeking to dominate civilian populations do not win by killing them. They do often make major gains through the use of targeted violence, intimidation, and kidnapping or hostage taking. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, the insurgents have far more incentive to use such tactics than try to fight NATO/ISAF forces directly through enemy initiated or complex attacks.

There also are major unexplained differences in the data that major sources do count. For example, the NCTC estimates are much higher than the US/ISAF estimates of deaths, and including wounded and hostages provides a somewhat more realistic indication of the intensity and suffering of combat. These higher totals are particularly striking because the NCTC only counts threat or hostile “terrorist”/ insurgent acts and does not count US/ISAF/ANSF-inflicted casualties and violence. The NCTC totals do not, however, include displaced persons and acts of intimidation, and the counts of killed and wounded are necessarily as uncertain as those of the US, ISAF, and the UN. This metric may, therefore, only count about 40-60% of the violence seen by the population in the area.

Weak Metrics Showing US, ISAF, and ANSF Activity
Maps and charts showing US, ISAF, and ANSF areas of military activity are key potential indicators of the course and success of the war. However, only very limited unclassified data exist to trace such patterns of violence as distinguished from national totals. It would require at least a regional command breakout of trends by number and type of military action to show the trend, and probably at by province. These data are lacking.

Inadequate and Conflicting Insurgent Control and Influence
Serious problems also exist in metrics that attempt to show the degree to which insurgents control given areas, fight in them, or have influence. The US and ISAF have never provided meaningful unclassified version of such maps, and even provided remotely consistent maps of insurgents goals.
The US and ISAF do provide broad maps of insurgent plans, and activity. These maps, however, disagree sharply in detail, do not provide any specific indication of insurgent activity by area in depth, do not show which areas are most threatened or subject to insurgent activity, and some count enemy initiated attacks – a metric of limited value.

Unreliable Metrics for Estimating Afghan Government Influence and Control, and the Impact of Aid Programs
The metrics for estimating the level of Afghan government influence and control, and the impact of aid programs also lack consistency and credibility. Some metrics have been issued that do help provide insight into this aspect of the course of the war, but they have been inconsistent, and fewer and fewer have been provided as the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government has become a steadily more urgent issue.

The Need for New and Better Metrics for Transition
Finally, this analysis lists key areas where better metrics are needed to justify changers in transition, force cuts, transition plans, and continuing the war. These include each of the following areas where current trends raise critical questions about the current course of the war:

  • Coming troop cuts: DoD  reports that, “during the reporting period, President Obama announced that recent security progress and the increasing capacity and capability of the ANSF have allowed for the recovery of U.S. surge forces. Ten thousand U.S. troops will be redeployed by the end of the 2011, and the entire surge force of 33,000 personnel will be recovered by the end of September 2012. Approximately 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after September 2012, but no further details of the cuts are available until the deadline of removing all troops by the end of 2014. ISAF is currently developing a recommendation for future force levels. Although force levels will gradually decrease, the United States remains committed to the long-term security and stability of Afghanistan, and negotiations are progressing on a long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Afghanistan.” US troop cuts are no longer “conditions-based”; they effectively are open ended. They also are being accompanied by allied troop cuts.
  • Sanctuary in Pakistan: After more than 10 years, the US has yet to show that it can persuade Pakistan to give up its influence over the Taliban, Haqqani network, and other insurgent groups, and to stop using them as potential tools to secure its own influence in Afghanistan and counter India. This is a critical failure. As the DoD report notes, “Although security continues to improve, the insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable, stable Afghanistan. The insurgency remains resilient, benefitting from safe havens inside Pakistan, with a notable operational capacity, as reflected in isolated high-profile attacks and elevated violence levels in eastern Afghanistan.”
  • Sustain Victory in the South and Winning in the East: The levels of US and ISAF forces were significantly lower than was requested in shaping the new strategy, and are dropping sharply. It is far from clear that there will be enough ISAF troops to both hold on to gains in the south and make the needed gains in the east and the rest of Afghanistan that are called for in the current strategy. This could leave Afghanistan vulnerable along the border where the insurgency now is strongest, and the DoD report notes that, “The security situation in Regional Command East, however, remains tenuous. Cross-border incidents have risen during the reporting period as a result of the sanctuary and support that the insurgency receives from Pakistan. In Regional Command Capital, the ANSF has established a layered defense system in and around Kabul, which has resulted in improved security, and the ANSF continues to respond effectively to threats and attacks. Nevertheless, Kabul continues to face persistent threats, particularly in the form of high-profile attacks and assassinations.
  • The ANA development effort is being rushed, funding is being cut, there are trainer and partner shortfalls, and the end result may be unsustainable. The ANSF is making progress, particularly the ANA. There are sharp differences, however, as to how much progress is really being made, and no agreed plan as yet exists for shaping and full force development through 2014 or afterwards. Major cuts have already been made in future near term funding. There are important ethnic differences in the ANA that could affect its future loyalties, and there are serious problems with loyalty to powerbrokers, corruption, and in leadership. These could all be corrected with time, the needed number of foreign trainers and partners, and adequate funds – but none may be available at the levels and duration required. The total current revenue generating capability of the Afghan government is also only about one-sixth of the US and allied spending on the ANSF in 2011. ISAF and NTM-A reporting sharply downplays these problems, but they are all too real.
  • The ANSF will not be ready until 2016, and will then have very limited combat and IS&R capability. The ANP development effort is being rushed, funding is being cut, there are far greater trainer and partner shortfalls, and the ANP are not supported by an effective rule of law in terms of courts, detention and the rest of the legal system. The most effective element, the ANCOP, still have an unacceptable attrition rate. Other police units have major problems with leadership corruption, and loyalties to local power brokers. The border police are particularly corrupt. The Afghan Local Police work as long as they are supported by large elements of Special Forces, but these forces are not large enough to meet current expansion goals, and it is unclear what will happen when SOF advisors leave.
  • Future year cuts in funding, equipment, trainers, and aid in sustainability could easily repeat the problems that occurred in Vietnam. Until mid-2011, plans called for levels of aid through 2024 that now may not be provided through 2015
Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy