Department of Defense, State Department, USAID, and NSC Reporting on the Afghan War
May 19, 2010
Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, and at a time our country is still involved in two wars, the US government still has failed to establish both transparency and credibility in the way it is conducting either conflict. It seeks to manage the message largely through testimony and public affairs reporting, and has not established transparency or credibility in communicating its progress in either war.
Testimony is often more spin and concepts than substantive. It remains more defense than proactive in justifying the course of the war. It sometimes dodges around key issues, and sometimes it is not made broadly available – except for website circulation of the testimony of most senior Cabinet members and officers. Defenselink, for example, generally does not circulate testimony from key officers in the field, and rarely shows the charts and material they use in their testimony. Oddly enough, this is also true of their own command web sites.
As for public affairs material, it is largely topical puff pieces and the similar content of various web sites. It almost universally lacks meaningful depth and credibility. To put bluntly, it is little more than shallow propaganda that does more to provoke the media and informed observers than convince them. Governments routinely lie by omission, and this has become the professional focus of virtually all public affairs material.
Congressional Efforts to Force Integrity on the Executive Branch
To the extent that there is reporting of any depth, it has either been forced upon the Executive Branch by Congressional requirements, or has come from staff elements of the Congress. It is striking that the only consistent, in-depth, substantive reporting on either war is mandated by the Congress. In the case of Afghanistan, the takes the form of the Report on the Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (P.L. 110-81) and the United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces (P.P. 110-81).
Failures and Non-response by the Department of Defense
Until this month, however, the Department’s response to these two reporting requirements has been grudging, inadequate, and in some cases passively dishonest. While similar reporting did slowly improve on Iraq, the Afghan reports have been grossly late, dwelt largely on the past, and failed to report adequately on key problems in the Afghan force development effort, and the staffing and management of civil programs. Until last month, it did not begin to honestly address the problems in the civil aid programs or in the development of Afghan security forces – particularly the police.
These reporting problems grew actively worse under the Obama Administration. They led to a near farce in April 2010, when the Department of Defense was nearly half a year late in issuing a Report on the Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, and a year late in issuing a report on the United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces.
The only saving grace is the fact that that same month, the Department suddenly issued a combined report that updated both of the other reports to March 2009. The content of this report raised serious questions about the professional integrity of those who had prepared the earlier “historical” April 2009 version of the ANSF report that the Department had provided less than two weeks earlier.
A Lack of Meaningful Effort by State and USAID
The State Department and USAID have never produced a single meaningful report on their side of either war, and the NSC has repeatedly blocked substantive reporting rather than encouraged it. Aside from the Department of Defense, it is Congressional agencies like the GAO and CRS that have played the major role in such reporting.
More importantly, so have the Special Inspector Generals for Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction (SIGIR and SIGAR). The SIGIR and SIGAR reports have effectively served as a substitute for a lack of leadership and integrity at the highest levels of the State Department, USAID, and NSC. They have made it brutally clear just how bad the State Department and USAID “spin” reporting on the civil side of the conflict really is, that it is virtually all empty reporting on spending and activity levels, and that it has concealed vast waste, massive failures to properly manage and administrate key programs, and a virtual lack of meaningful effectiveness reporting.
These problems in State and USAID reporting have been countered to some degree by the reporting on civil activity in the Department of Defense Report on the Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, and its matching report on Iraq. Both Department of Defense reports, however, provide negligible data on the effectiveness of the civil effort. They do not validate requirements; explain the scale and endurance of most efforts, or show how they interact with the military campaign and civil-military effort in the field. They do not show the timelines necessary for success and transfer and make no reference to interactions with other foreign aid efforts. Substantive reporting left to SIGIR and SIGAR – which have a natural IG focus and many of whose caveats and warnings are ignored in the Executive Branch reports.
US reporting has also had the side effect of distorting reporting on corruption in Afghanistan, and creating false – if not impossible – expectations about the ability to improve the capacity and integrity of the Afghan government. The focus on volume of aid and spending has largely ignored the extent to which the US and its allies have distorted a subsistence economy through a virtual flood of military and aid spending, and the extent to which this both empowers and enriches corrupt officials and power brokers.
It is an open secret that the US, its allies, other donors, and the UN fund the worst elements in the Afghan power structure, encourage corruption, and effectively payoff both the insurgent and corrupt elements of the ANSF in the process. In fairness, major efforts are now being made to correct this situation, but they come late and US reporting finds it far easier to talk about Afghan corruption than the mistakes and empowerment made in US and other aid efforts.
Blocking Delayed Efforts by ISAF
The only self-initiated exceptions within the Executive Branch have been the detailed reports coming from senior officers and the intelligence sections of the commands in Baghdad and Kabul. Here, however, such data were only available in meaningful form on the Afghan side of the war after the reorganization of the ISAF command in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 – well over half a decade into the conflict. It took a major reorganization of the ISAF intelligence effort, Strategic Analysis Group, and the creation of the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) and whole new systems of reporting to begin to produce honest internal and public reporting on the course of the war.
Even here, that reporting has been limited and much of it has consisted of metrics by external direction. At least according to source from within the theater, the NSC has blocked the release of two unclassified status reports that would be of great value in informing the Congress, the press, outside analysts, and the American people on the state of the war. These include a quarterly strategic assessment report that describes developments over the last three months, and monthly versions of the same report. These reports are effectively unclassified, but there circulation is blocked by direction by classifying them at the “Confidential, Releasable to NATO/ISAF” level.
Looking Towards the Future
The Afghan conflict is a war whose outcome will be determined as much by America’s strategic patience as any other single factor. Put differently, the best insurgent strategy is to outlast the willingness of the US and its allies to fight. This means that Americans must trust not only the strategy but the actual conduct of the war, see credible progress, and know enough about the timelines involved to understand that progress by mid-2011 does not mean that the US can win without a military effort that will extend to at least 2015 and a civil effort that may well extend beyond 2020.
This means that there must be far more transparency and honesty in reporting on the war. It also means doing more than reporting on recent developments. The Executive Branch needs to set forth a clear picture of the way ahead, defined credible and achievable objectives, and be honest about the level of prolong effort and strategic patience required. It needs to issue reporting that is proactive, and shapes expectations that are realistic and can actually be met.
Being Honest About Timelines, Expectations, and the Need for Strategic Patience
The military side of the ISAF campaign plan meets some of these goals, but while it is unclassified, virtually no one has seen it. At the same time, the deadline in the President’s speech threaten its timing and success. Major progress may well be possible by mid-2011, but it is far more likely to be 2014-2015 before major transfers of security responsibility can largely eliminate the need for large US forces. Americans – as well as our Allies, Afghans, and regional powers -- need to understand this, not expect the impossible. They need to see that the level of real progress we can make is not failure, but a credible path to success.
To repeat a point made for well over a year, the US needs to consistently and honestly “underpromise and overachieve” if it is to sustain credibility over time and win the war. This is necessary at both the military and civil levels. Executive Branch reporting needs to show that this is not yet another “first year” in Afghanistan, that the US has gone beyond yet another set of concepts and good intentions, and that that is now actually executing a valid program measured in goals that are realistic and are being achieved. Trust in the mission needs to be earned and maintained. The Executive Branch has fallen sadly short of earning that trust to date.
The Military Side of the Equation
ISAF has shown the way in honest reporting on the war. Releasing its Strategic Assessment Reports on a Monthly and Quarterly basis, and folding them into the Department’s report, would make major progress. More, however, is needed.
Far too much official reporting on the military effort still focuses on the past or current status of the conflict, and describes the national picture in kinetic terms and metrics. (Often in negative ways, such as highlighting the increase in IED and SIGACTs in ways that disguise that lack of increased insurgent effectiveness, or failing to show that ISAF has seized the initiative and is making progress in clear and some aspects of hold.)
Reporting needs to focus the campaign plan, show the direction ahead, and show that progress is taking place in terms of meaningful and achievable levels of performance. The US government cannot afford premature claims of victory in what may well be a long war of political attrition. It cannot afford to create the false expectations that surrounded Marja, and absurdities like “government in a box.”
In the near term, US reporting needs to focus tightly on the three phases of the campaign plan: Helmand, Kandahar, and the East. It needs to show that ISAF and the ANSF can halt expansion of the insurgents in the north, center and west. It needs to drill down on critical districts in operational terms, and not bog down in incomprehensible metrics showing color codes for 46, 80, or 121 variable geographic areas. Both military and civil success need to be measured in warfighting terms, and in timelines that are real and practical.
The US needs to provide a far clearer picture – and one that is the subject of expert review and debate of whether ISAF is on a path that will generate an ANSF that can do the job and be ready to replace US and allied forces. The most recent report on United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces is much better than its predecessor, but it disguises serious problems. There are still strong indications that ISAF may only be creating enough forces to achieve progress in security in ways where that use up key elements of the ANSF (especially key ANA leaders and ANCOP forces) through combat, AWOLs, and attrition.
Putting ANSF development on a destructive track remains a major risk in spite of new levels of trainers and resources. It is a risk that NTM-A – and ISAF – seem to understand, but where uncertainty over the meaning of the 2011 deadline could still force the pace in ways that could lose the war. Improvements in partnering may or may not correct short training times and shortfalls in trainers. The pace of combat may be limited enough to allow the ANSF to both perform short-term missions and become a mature and largely self-sufficient force. This is, however, so serious a risk that it might well be better to be less ambitious about short-term quantity and much more careful about sustained quality.
The Executive Branch also needs to act now to explain the need to prepare the Congress and American people for the fact they will have to fund ANSF development through at least 2015 and probably well beyond. There is no practical chance of the Afghan government funding the needed forces as long as it faces a major insurgency, and it may need further years of help to convert out of a massive ANSF after that time.
Moreover, US reporting should stop acting as if the Afghan side of the war was separate from the Pakistani side. The April 2010 Report on the Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan begins to address these issues. The US needs to go further, and add a fully integrated set of reporting metrics that show both sides of the war. We cannot “win” in either country; we need a credible level of security and stability in both.
The Civil Side of the Equation
The Executive Branch cannot afford the present gaps and tensions between the military and civil efforts in Afghanistan. No one who works with media can be unaware that the tensions between the military and civilian efforts inside the US team in Afghanistan that permeate virtually every level of activity outside the East are a critical issue know to virtually every reporter who seriously works the country. This undermines both confidence in the US effort, and leads to a focus on the continuing problems in Afghan government integrity and capacity, and in the follow up efforts to military activity in terms of governance, government services, and aid.
Several major changes are needed. One is credible integration of the civil-military effort. The second is to shift reporting on the civil side of the conflict from “input measures” like spending and activity rates in the civil side of the war to reporting that shows that the civil effort really can bring stability, meets valid requirements and is judged by meaningful measures of effectiveness, and is tailored to credible expectations.
Vague, overambitious, concepts like “government-led” and “state building” outlived their usefulness before the first public affairs officer misused them in a briefing. US reporting must show that a population centric strategy is countering and destroying insurgent influence and control, bringing real stability, and can succeed over time. Phrases like “hold, build, and transition” need to acquire operational definition and meaning and become key parts of US metrics and reporting. US reporting needs to dial back to the level of “Afghan good enough,” and not create unrealistic expectations for change, for anti-corruption, capacity building, and development.
As one key aid official in the field put it, “We cannot address most needs in the near or mid term. We can use tools like local Jirgas to find the worst grievances and most urgent needs and deal with them.” These are the kind of efforts that US reporting needs to focus on, make the goal, and then report on. It does not mean abandoning longer-term goals, but such goals will be meaningless if the US government finally exhausts strategic patience to the point where there is no “next year” in Afghanistan. As noted earlier, one key factor will be plans and reporting that show there is real civil effort immediately in future campaigns. Marja may have been an experiment, but like Fallujah, it is not one to be repeated.
US reporting also needs to show there is unity within the civil effort, as well as unity within civil-military effort. The US needs to stop reporting on its civil efforts in terms of what one US official called “silos of excellence.” Reporting needs to show that civil programs do more than consume money in performing vague good works. It needs to be clear that the overall impact is to slowly reshape Afghan perceptions and capabilities over time in ways that really do bring both stability and security and win lasting popular support, rather than merely rent short-term opportunism. Just as military reporting needs to focus on campaign impacts, so does civil reporting – with particular emphasis on Helmand, Kandahar, and the East.
It is also critical that such reporting show that US aid, and other US contracting, is becoming far more honest in who it selects, does far more to meet local and popular needs and perceptions, and is transparent in ways Afghans can see and understand. The US cannot address Afghan corruption and power brokering, and the impact of organized crime and narcotics, decisively in the near term – and probably ever. It can sharply reduced the impact of its mistakes and neglect, and work with effective Afghan officials at the Ministerial, provincial, district, and local levels – while steadily freezing out the corrupt, selfish, and incompetent officials and power brokers in the process.
Again, dialing back expectations and underpromising and overperforming are critical. There is, however, another equally serious problem to be addressed. Efforts to develop effective police and elements of the ANSF cannot be separated from far more dedicated efforts to buffer the police from Afghan politics and power brokering.
No police effort can ever -- by itself – be successful without moderating the outside pressures on the police that make so many corrupt. It is inherently absurd to focus on police corruption in both force development and reporting and ignore the forces than make them corrupt. It is clear that NTM-A fully understands this. If is far from clear in any US reporting that the civil side of US efforts try to deal with the problem.
Similarly, there is a potentially fatal disconnect between the police development and rule of law efforts that now occurs at every level from the number and pay of judges to a focus on long-tern efforts to create a formal justice system that can only come into being after the war is lost. Reporting needs to show that the US is working with the Afghan government at every level in ways that will tie police presence and development to the presence of courts and jails, and to the use of popular assemblies and the informal or traditional justice systems. The insurgents need to be driven out of the prompt justice business and this cannot be done by waiting for Godot.