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Measuring Success in Afghanistan

How best to measure success in Afghanistan remains a question in search of an answer. The debate over which metrics best chart the path to a successful campaign wasn’t advanced much when South Asia special envoy Richard Holbrook threw out the fairly hazy measure of success: “We’ll know it when we see it.” To be fair to Holbrooke, guerrilla warfare doesn’t lend itself to simple measurement equations.

That definition clearly won’t do for the ever thorough auditors at the Government Accountability Office who look at Afghan security trends in a new report. For metrics, GAO settled on enemy initiated attacks and also looked at the overall pattern of attacks, based on data available through August, or about when Gen. Stanley McChrystal compiled his strategic assessment. The key sentence: “Overall, nearly 13,000 attacks were recorded between January and August 2009—more than two and a half times the number experienced during the same period last year and more than five times the approximately 2,400 attacks reported in all of 2005.”

The problem with this particular data set is that “enemy initiated attacks” is misleading. In guerrilla warfare, the elusive fighter remains hidden until a target of opportunity presents, the fighter springs an ambush and then promptly disappears into the surrounding jungle, mountains or crowd of people.

Is it accurate to call an insurgent IED attack or sniper fire on a patrol as enemy initiated? Counterinsurgency patrolling is intended to both separate the enemy from the populace and force the insurgent to raise his “signature” profile so he can be targeted, or as an Army officer in Iraq told me some years back, patrolling is basically trolling for contact.

While there are good arguments to be made that the “battalion sweep” is not the best approach to counterinsurgency, take another look at Bing West’s video report from Afghanistan. Marines aggressively patrolling in Helmand province certainly raises the question of whether using enemy initiated attacks is all that accurate a gauge of progress or setbacks. As many have warned, contact with the enemy, and casualties, will increase as more troops are sent to Afghanistan and those troops move into more areas and begin to establish themselves as a barrier between the insurgency and the population.

In its response provided to GAO, DoD writes that the chosen metrics aren’t all that useful unless placed in context. “The Taliban are fighting hard to hang onto influence in a number of areas and are increasingly challenged in others… The higher number of incidents can reflect a worsening situation for the enemy.”

In a report issued this past summer, the Center for a New American Security said that when the Taliban initiates a firefight it indicates it has the initiative. That may be true at the immediate tactical level, but not at the larger strategic level. CNAS was correct when they said Afghan civilian casualties will ultimately be the most telling measure of progress in the population centric-counterinsurgency campaign there. GAO didn’t provide that data.

GAO’s report does contain a telling anecdote. It said insurgent attacks forced USAID to stop work on the road to Kajaki dam in Helmand province, because security was so poor, after spending $5 million on road construction. Supplies for the Kajaki dam project must now be flown in. That's probably a useful metric.

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