Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress Part 6: Victory is Possible but 'Fragile and Reversible'

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2011 – The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Anthony Cordesman, the CSIS Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, has written a new report: “Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress - Part 6: Victory is Possible but ‘Fragile and Reversible.’”

Please find a link to the full report below:

Please find a summary of the report prepared by Dr. Cordesman below:
Current Tactical Gains, Uncertain Strategic Value
The narratives and metrics in this report, which has been extensively updated after a recent trip to Afghanistan, reflect significant tactical progress in Helmand and Kandahar, and a rapid expansion of Afghan security forces and the Afghan Local Police. They also show progress in attacking insurgent cadres, progress in some important aspects of “hold and build,” and that the US and ISAF are working with GIRoA to create a workable definition of transition to create a stable state after 2014.
At the same time, these indicators also show why senior commanders continue to describe progress as “fragile and reversible.”  The tactical progress made to date seems significant, but it is important to realize that it may not be possible to achieve it on a national scale or to ensure that it can end the conflict in a way that results in a stable transition, and has lasting strategic or grand strategic value.
Our recent visit to the country revealed a much greater level of realism among ISAF and State Department personnel than in years past, and a broad scaling-back of the previously lofty goals for Afghan development.  Afghanistan is not going to be a modern, Western country in 2014 – indeed, it is going to continue to be one of the poorest countries on earth.  It will be difficult enough to get Afghanistan back up to the level of a “normal” poor developing country, one that is not beset by corruption and instability. 

Despite this healthy level of realism, there continues to be serious limits to the official reporting on the war.  Any survey of broad indicators that relies on metric has serious limits in coverage and depth, and classified reporting provides far more depth in many areas, but the unclassified data available from official sources that are used in this presentation have the following limits:

  • The progress shown largely 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 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.
  • 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 to transition such victory into lasting GIRoA and ANSF ability to secure such gains.
  • The data on the fighting focuses on patterns of violence, and not on extending GIRoA influence and control while eliminating that of the insurgents. They cannot reflect the fact that the Taliban and other insurgents are fighting a war of political attrition and seek to outlast ISAF rather than win in the field.
  • There seem to be very real gains in attacking insurgent networks, but there is no picture of their overall effect and no serious unclassified narrative describing the impact of such gains either in the short-term or strategic level.
  • There seems to be growing 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 narratives 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, 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 attacks to put political and popular pressure on GIRoA and on ISAF governments to compromise or leave Afghanistan.

Mixed Progress in Popular Perceptions

Positive as many of the tactical indicators are, history shows 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 does seem 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.
At the same time, such results should be kept in perspective. It is too early for public opinion to broadly reflect tactical gains and the growing capability of the ANSF and some aspects of GIRoA’s civil operations. The peaks in the fighting necessary to defeat the insurgents mean Afghans see a peak in casualties and violence before they can see its potential impact in providing lasting security. If the US, ISAF, and ANSF are successful in 2011 and 2012, Afghan, US, and other allied public opinion may sharply reverse in favor of continuing the war to a successful level of transition.

Limited Progress in Civil Areas

Pakistan’s uncertain role in the war, Afghan politics and problems in governance, and uncertain US and allied support for the war do remain continuing major uncertainties – although the ability of the Taliban and Haqqani networks to sustain anything like the current level of operations shows that strategic uncertainty affects both sides.
The indications that GIRoA, ISAF, and the US can carry out the civil side of “hold, build, and transition” also lag and remain weak at best.  Far too little official effort is exerted 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 some data in budget reports, but there may be a massive future underfunding of current goals for aid and “hold and build.”
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.

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 only limited data to show that civil aid programs have had any meaningful impact on hold and build, although new unclassified data have been released that GIRoA is now 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 such 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 only limited assessments of the ability of ANSF forces to transition, and 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 have new major efforts to deal with corruption, and the massive corrupting impact of poorly managed civil and military contracting by the US and other outside governments. As yet, however, it is too soon to make any estimate impact of such measures or on when they are expected to go into effect.

Planning and Measuring Transition
Positive as many of the tactical indicators are, history also shows 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.
All of these limits become steadily more important at a time when the US, ISAF, and GIRoA are in a political and strategic race to show that this progress can end in a successful transition by 2014, reduce outside forces and expenditures to politically sustainable levels, and create a viable mix of GIRoA and ANSF capabilities.
There needs to be a 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 stability once the bulk of US and other ISAF forces are gone.
At present, far too much of the unclassified narratives and metrics that look beyond the current pace of the fighting  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” will work over time. This needs to be a credible grand strategic rationale for continuing the war that shows there is a reasonable probability that “Afghan right” can exist after major outside aid and forces are cut during 2014. No one can ensure a stable end state in a country and region with so many problems and tensions, but there must be a credible and well-defined goal, with credible and well-defined costs. So far, the data and narratives describing progress in governance, economics, and building capable Afghan forces falls far short of what is needed. 
Please download the full report at:

 This report is one of a 7-part series.  All 7 parts will be updated shortly, following our return from Afghanistan.  Previous versions of the reports can be found at:
Part I:  The Failures that Shaped Today's War,
Part II:  Transitioning to the New Strategy: 2009-2010,
Part III:  Key Ongoing Challenges,
Part IV:  Hold and Build, and the Challenge of Development,
Part V:  Building Effective Afghan Forces,
Part VII:  The Problem of Pakistan,


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