Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

On the merits, I agree with Andrew Bacevich that the war in Afghanistan does not answer to America’s vital interests. To begin with, to whatever degree we deny al-Qaida the tranquility of safe havens there — or in the Pakistani FATA — they will find other locales to replace it. To the extent that we destroy al-Qaida as an operational threat, whatever urge it gives expression to will find some other organizational structure to replace it. The best we can do to fight, not terrorism, but these terrorists is to contain them until their movement burns itself out, which — as a nihilist urge — it must and will do. They’re not the first such movement. History is littered with them. And despite the horror and suffering they are capable of causing for short periods of time, they are often quickly forgotten.

So devoting disproportionate resources to an ancillary goal — the creation of a functioning Afghan state — in the hopes of having an indirect impact on al-Qaida’s ability to threaten us strikes me as an enormous waste of young lives, scarce funds, and — perhaps as precious and irreplaceable — the American public’s resolve to use military force when it is, in fact, necessary.

At the same time, I agree with Andrew Exum when he writes that this is a question on which serious-minded people can disagree. The problem is, I don’t think that Exum’s argument, which I’m convinced is in good faith, is comforted by the sober-minded assessment of the facts on the ground that he himself just participated in. Because whether you believe the mission in Afghanistan is strategically justified or not is a distinction without a difference if it can’t be accomplished. And whether it can’t be accomplished because the Afghan government is too corrupt, the Afghan security forces incapable, or the American public unwilling to support it is, likewise, a distinction without a difference.

Secretary of Defense Gates has articulated a 12-month political window, at which point the military’s strategic planners will have to make their case to the American public that some sort of progress has been made. That, in turn, leads to the question of metrics, and how to assess whether or not progress has, in fact, been made. Spencer Ackerman has been on this question from the moment the Obama administration announced its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Exum and his co-authors of the CNAS report (.pdf), Triage, suggested some ways to measure progress. But they may already be out of date, since I have a sense that this is an area where things are evolving pretty quickly.

I’ve frequently mentioned the emphasis Gen. David Petraeus and the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual place on narrative. And the narrative arc of a counterinsurgency — “If you’re not winning, you’re losing” — is all about demonstrating progress. So make no mistake, this is now going to be the central battleground of the struggle to shape domestic opinion. Advocates for a continued U.S. military presence will be rolling out their “metrics” over the next few weeks to months. I’ll be interested to see whether opponents of a U.S. escalation in Afghanistan are as hard at work.

Either way, it’s important to keep in mind that metrics are a curious beast. They need to be both concrete and quantifiable, but also nuanced enough to capture the subtleties of the kind of war we’re fighting, where many of the indicators are located in the hidden part of the iceberg — fear and intimidation against civilians, as opposed to physical violence; government corruption; popular resentment, whether driven by nationalism, ideology or personal grievances. Whatever criteria are chosen can subsequently obscure as much as they reveal, and falsely encourage when they should be raising alarms.

In other words, there are no easy answers. But one metric will be unmistakable, even though should it occur, it will take place far from Afghanistan. That’s if and when today’s war advocates decide that the strategic objectives, whether valid or not, are no longer attainable.