(Relatively) Measuring Success

This is the most recent of a series of posts on Registan.net where I explore some of the fundamentals of conflict within the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the end of this post is a link to the rest of them.

Nightwatch argues that May was the most violent month in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion:

NightWatch almost has completed its monthly assessments of combat for both April and May. In the data sample drawn from unclassified reporting sources that NightWatch uses, April featured 199 violent incidents in 86 districts, making it the most lethal April in the six year conflict. May featured 214 incidents of violence in over 100 districts, also a new six-year total for May and the highest single monthly total. Despite official efforts to spotlight improvement, the spring offensive thus far is worse than last year’s spring offensive. The security situation has deteriorated again.

At no prior time has the Taliban managed to stage attacks in over 100 of the 398 districts. The previous highs were 86 in April 2008 and 83 in May 2007. Fighting has been heavy in Garmser District in Helmand Province but it has been significantly higher in Zormat District in Paktia Province; Andar District in Ghazni Province and Asadabad District in Konar, all across from the tribal areas of northern and central Pakistan. If Taliban fighters are heading to Pakistan, they are going back to base to rest and to get more ammunition and supplies.

Now, it is notable that the worst fighting has actually not been in the south, but in Paktya, Ghazni, and Kunar, all of which are provinces operating under the new success metrics breathlessly regurgitated by our lazy propagandists. Kunar in particular was the site of David Kilcullen’s now-seminal piece on the magical IED-stopping power of roads; Asadabad in particular is the site of one of the PRTs making the most talked-about progress in terms of construction and violence reduction.

Are we being sold a bill of goods? Are the areas bordering the FATA in far worse shape than we were lead to believe, and is the South in comparative good health?

It is not as simple to answer as it may seem. There are three metrics to look at: actual numbers, comparative numbers, and perceived numbers. For our purposes—i.e. for the purpose of some sort of permanent defeat of the Taliban and associated militias—the real numbers don’t matter. The comparative numbers might, if there was an effective IO campaign in place—not selling roads as bomb shields, but selling the astonishing success of the brand new national telecommunications network, or the very real benefits of steadily improving developmental indicators. But since there is not, the comparative numbers could be interesting, but haven’t really gone anywhere.

What of the perception? Again, this is a difficult question to unravel: security is rarely at the top of a typical Afghan’s priority. Most want food, or an end to the pervasive and devastating impact of official corruption.

Important to keep in mind as well, warns Tim Foxley of SPIRI, is the problem of relying on statistics:

At best, stats can serve as very crude and loose indicators. At worst they can be misleading, distorting and something to get distracted by – all too easy to get hung up on them if they are proving the thing you want to believe in. Definitions of what an incident is, who was involved and who initiated the incident are all part of the statistics minefield, if you will pardon the poor choice of expression, and have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years.

Bingo. For fun, let’s dig through a recent story on Afghanistan, and a two-year old story on Afghanistan. The recent one is an embed in Naray, the northernmost district and FOB in Kunar Province much-frequented by journalists lately, by The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders. He notes the new American sixty year plan, using the ‘Petraeus Strategy’ for Afghanistan:

Cdr. Dwyer’s base was rocked, every minute or so all day, by the terrifying shock of its line of 155-mm howitzers firing their village-destroying shells over the hills and into the Korengal Valley.

The building of mosques and roads is matched with absolutely ferocious fighting in places such as Korengal — the Americans are much more willing to use air strikes and heavy artillery, with the resulting heavy civilian casualties, than other militaries…

I ask one officer how long it is going to take to make this new strategy bear fruit.

“Look,” he says, “we’re still in Germany and Japan 60 years after that war ended. That’s how long it can take. I fully expect to have grandchildren who will be fighting out here.”

Two years ago, in 2006, however, The Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott went to Sarkani, Kunar, and the tale was rather different:

The players at the tournament, which was a charity to raise funds for homeless kids in Kabul, were mostly from the NGO crowd, a big acronym here which stands for “non governmental organizations.” They are the small army of people dedicated to carrying out development projects and helping the new Afghan government professionalize its institutions. Among these very knowledgeable folks, there was widespread pessimism.

They all start off saying that there have been very significant gains in Afghanistan – particularly in the construction of roads and schools and in the functioning of the new parliament.

But most of these hard-fought gains are imperiled now as the security situation deteriorates daily, they say.

John Dempsey, a lawyer from Lynn, Mass., who organized the tournament, said he came to serve as an adviser to the Justice Ministry as it tried to implement a new constitution. He said he was returning to the states after three and a half years in Afghanistan and that he left feeling “things are going down hill pretty fast.”

“The last six months have been pretty bleak. In Kabul, there have been riots and bombs in what used to be the oasis of stability. Conservative elements are starting to gain more power. There is a bumper crop of opium. Fighting is picking up in the south. Insurgents are gaining a lot of steam with hundreds killed. … Iraq is just pulling enormous amounts of resources out of here… And all this goes pretty much unreported because of events elsewhere in Iraq and Lebanon,” he said.

Actually, that sounds pretty similar. Notice the roads! Charles Sennott traveled along paved roads from Kabul to Jalalabad and well into Kunar, and remarkably he did not once report being sold on the IED-defeating power of asphalt (a theme which is slowly disappearing from news accounts of the area). More evidence of the propagandistic nature of all those stories recently from Kunar.

This is the danger of seeing things in comparison, over time. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but the point remains the same: if, as CJTF-101 and the many journalists who cover them insist, RC-East is doing swimmingly, why have the basic facts of life there not changed significantly for two years?

The answer to such a question, however, probably doesn’t matter. If the heart of defeating the insurgent groups is convincing the local people that we are a superior option, the reality of the fighting doesn’t matter. What matters is what they think, those scary brown-skinned villagers. And here is where our press corps, by only embedding with American troops, by only repeating what the American military press flacks tell them, and by breathlessly mouthing statistics with no connection to the reality on the ground, our media here in the United States is failing us. Drastically. Real, local opinions, from normal people in normal villages, away from all the guns and Humvees and helicopters and M4s, is what will ultimately affect the disposition of Afghanistan. And that is precisely what is absent from all of the coverage we have available to us.

This is part of a series examining the fundamentals of conflict around the Durand Line.

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