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August 07, 2009

Metrics, I Don't Need Your Stinking Metrics
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the New York Times we have a good example of how the new American Way of War (COIN) mantra has infected public discourse on Afghanistan:

But as the Bush administration learned the hard way in Iraq, poorly designed measurements can become misleading indicators — and can create a false sense of progress. That is especially difficult in a war like the one in Afghanistan, in which eliminating corruption, promoting a working democracy and providing effective aid is as critical as scoring military success against insurgents and terrorists.

To the first point, the Bush administration created measurements for judging success in Iraq (18 in all) and then made lowering civilian casualties the most important one - even though it wasn't one of the original 18. So to be clear the individuals who created a false sense of progress were the ones who were pushing different benchmarks then those generally agreed upon. And it's still happening today: the surge in Iraq is constantly portrayed as a success even though its founding element - political reconciliation -- has not been achieved.

In a sense this is a big problem with using metrics to define progress in war time - they can either represent false indicators of success (see Vietnam War and body counts) or they can be changed to fit a particular political and military narrative (see Iraq War and surge success). Or they can cloud over the fact that the underlying mission is fundamentally flawed, not in the national interest or due to resource and political constraints not achievable.

The problem I generally have with these conversations about metrics is that you can't judge success if you don't know what the goal is - and frankly I don't know what the Obama Administration's goal is in Afghanistan. I've been told by the President that it is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" Al Qaeda. Great. I'm all for that. But how you achieve that goal matters a great deal. For example, counter-insurgency advocates would argue that the way to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda is to prevent a Taliban take-over of the country. And the best way to achieve that goal is to conduct population centric counter-insurgency that strengthens the legitimacy of the Afghan government and convinces Taliban members to effectively switch sides.

Well I don't agree and I'm not alone.

In fact, look at what the NYT article says about metrics:

"eliminating corruption, promoting a working democracy and providing effective aid is as critical as scoring military success against insurgents and terrorists."

Well that's one view of success (although I'd hate to know how the US government scores these days on being a working democracy).  But there are others that think the latter (military success) is more important or that these goals are not achievable in the near term or aren't necessary for achieving success in Afghanistan.

In other words, if we're going to measure success in Afghanistan by the successful realization of counter-insurgency goals, then we've restricted a whole level of the conversation we need to be having. Or even worse, we're having a conversation that is based on measuring the success of an operation that it at is at its core may be fundamentally flawed.

Let's stop talking about metrics for success in Afghanistan. Let's start talking about goals and end games.  For example, is the goal to stabilize Afghanistan via nation building or is it to prevent a Taliban takeover? (These are two different things). How will we know what success in Afghanistan looks like: an effective Afghan government or a government in Kabul that is able to prevent a Taliban takeover of the country (of those could be one in the same, but the latter would likely be easier than the former).  If the goal of the US mission is, as the President suggested, to defeat, dismantle and disrupt Al Qaeda should the mission be focused more on the Pakistan part of the fight rather than the Afghan side? I know these two are connected, but in the most narrow definition of US interests . . . they're not. Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. And while I know they can always come back and receive safe haven under a Taliban government is that a realistic enough possibility that it requires a long-term US military intervention.  Finally, can we live with the Taliban playing an active political role in Afghanistan as long as they are not giving Al Qaeda shelter?

Quite simply, there are a lot of questions to be answered about the US mission in Afghanistan. Figuring out the metrics for success is, right now, not one of them.

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Comments

Michael, the goal was NOT to create political reconciliation. It was to create the "space" necessary in which that reconciliation could occur by pacifying much the urban violence in Baghdad, and then radiating out the gains.

It seems like a small distinction, but it's not trifling. "Chance" is a real element in any contest for power, and so the wager went in Baghdad from 2007 - 2009.


Is that pause in the fighting or lull that returns some remnant of civil society enough of a strategic anchor to hold fast the utility of our force?

I don't know. But the distinction should be made.

Yup, very fair point doppelganger! But of course for all the political space created by the surge it still hasn't resulted in the type of political reconciliation discussed back in January 2007. And both us would agree, I'm sure, that there is a space now for that reconciliation to occur.

Michael, did you notice that we're back to color coded assessments, just like the old post-9/11 threat code that so quickly became a running joke? And some of the metrics themselves will be classified...*secret* color coded benchmarks! I can hardly wait.

Regards, Steve

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