Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: Part Four: Hold and Build, and The Challenge of Development

  • Mar 1, 2011

    The war in Afghanistan is now in its tenth year. In spite of that fact, the US, allied countries, the ISAF, and the UN have failed to develop credible reporting in the progress of the war, provide meaningful transparency on the problems and challenge it faces, and a meaningful plan for the future. Moreover, since June 2010, the unclassified reporting the US does provide has steadily shrunk in content – effectively “spinning” the road to victory by eliminating content that illustrates the full scale of the challenges ahead.

    Drawing on Unclassified Official Reporting Lacking in Credibility and Transparency

    The US is scarcely alone in failing to provide adequate reporting on the Afghan conflict. No allied government provides credible reporting on the progress of the war, and the Afghan government provides little detail of any kind. The UN, which has major responsibilities for aid, has failed to provide a meaningful overview of how aid requirements are generated, how aid efforts are managed and coordinated, of how funds are used, of the quality of fiscal controls and auditing, and of the effectiveness and impact of aid rendered.

    There are, however, some useful unclassified metrics in spite of the tendency to limit their content “spin” and “message control.” Moreover, some reflect real progress since the adoption of the new strategy for the war, and indicate that a more frank, meaningful, and open reporting system would do a far more convincing job of winning support for the conflict – as well as be a way of obtaining the kind of feedback and informed criticism that could help meet the many problems and challenges that still shape the course of the fighting.

    The Six Part Series Analysis of the War

    The Burke Chair has prepared a six-part analytic overview of unclassified metrics in addition to how their current content relates to the challenges in policy, plans, resources, and management of the war that now reduce the prospects of victory. It should be stressed that such an analysis is only a way of flagging key trends and developments within the limits imposed by using unclassified official reporting.

    Moreover, metrics are not a substitute for the kind of narrative that is critical to understand the complexity of this war and put numbers, charts, and maps in context. This is a case where facing the real-world complexity of the conflict is essential to winning it.

    Even an overview of the strengths and weakness of unclassified metrics does, however, provide considerable insight into what is known about the war as well as the many areas where meaningful reporting is lacking and the information available is deceptive and misleading. The US, its allies, and the ISAF may currently be repeating the same kind of overall messaging as the “follies” presented in Vietnam, but there are enough areas where facts still become public to put much of the war into perspective.

    The first two reports in this series have already been circulated and are now available on the CSIS web site. They are entitled:

    • Part One: The Failures that Shaped Today’s War  ( This report highlights the US failure to resource the Afghan campaign, and the extent to which US failure to react to the growth of the Taliban, the al Qa’ida sanctuary in Pakistan, and the failures of the Afghan government turned near victory into near defeat.
    • Part Two: Transitioning to the New Strategy ( This briefing highlights graphics and tables that summarize the new strategy and campaign plan, the initial impact of the resulting build-up of US forces and changes in tactics and strategy on the intensity of the war, and early estimates of how the changes in strategy will impact the US budget and the affordability of the war.
    • Part Three: Key Ongoing Challenges ( This report highlights the unclassified graphics and tables that describe key individual challenges that affect the course of the fighting and the ability to implement the new strategy.

    Part Four:  Hold and Build, and the Challenge of Development

    The Fourth report is now available. It is entitled Part Four: Hold and Build, and the Challenge of Development: This report highlights the progress and challenges in what remains the weakest link in the US and allied effort in Afghanistan: Developing integrated civil-military operations, making effective use of aid, and making “hold, build, and transition” a functional reality.

    This US and allied effort faces several major challenges that grow out of both the history of the conflict before the new strategy as well as the ongoing challenges discussed in Parts One and Two of this series:

    •    Failure to create effective aid and development programs: The most striking aspect of aid and development is the lack of meaningful data and metrics on the efforts involved and their results. Ironically, more data are available on military operations and intelligence about the threat than the impact of civil spending and aid.

    This briefing does, however, present some summary metrics that show that the US and the West established hopelessly overambitious mid and long-term development goals based on the assumption that Afghanistan was effectively at peace, without valid plans and requirements, and which can never be resourced at anything like the required levels.

    Unfortunately there are no metrics to show other critical problems in the aid effort – problems compounded by a similar lack of management in military contracts. The result was a massive flow of aid money without effective financial controls, contracting methods, attention to absorption capability, or meaningful measures of effectiveness. Moreover, these aid efforts were divided by sponsoring country, often responding to the aid politics of the capital involved, while NGOs funded projects that served their own goals and interests.

    These problems have been compounded by erratic funding and a failure to sustain programs once they began. Moreover, major problems occurred because of short tours by key aid personnel and nearly annual efforts to “reconceptualize” aid efforts without creating systems that could plan and execute concepts effectively, measure Afghan perceptions and needs, validate requirements, and measure effectiveness.

    The lack of metrics and other reporting on aid reflects the fact that no one is effectively in charge. The UN failed to provide effective coordination and oversight, meaningful reporting on spending, and metrics and analysis that show where aid money went or anything about its effectiveness. Vast amounts of money – by Afghan standards -- poured into a grey economy where side payments and “fees” are the rule. It offered both Afghans and outside contractors a “get rich quick” option at a time they had no guarantee of either security or stability. 

    This has played a major role in creating a massive pattern of corruption and waste at every level – a problem compounded by even more corruption and waste caused by growing military contract expenditures on facilities, transport, and services which also lacked an effective system for awarding and monitoring contracts, or anything approaching meaningful fiscal controls.

    A central government lacking in capacity – and provincial and local governments controlled from the center and without resources of their own – have been steadily corrupted by this process while no effective structure existed at the provincial, district, or local level for planning and executing aid activity. Groups like Oxfam estimate that some 40% of the aid money never reached actual programs and projects, and no element of the aid effort established any meaningful measures of effectiveness to show where the rest of the aid effort went or what its impact was.

    Moreover, the more detailed metrics that are available on how aid has been spent show that most of the aid effort focused on mid and long-term development. The net impact was that aid did not reach most Afghans at a time the Taliban steadily expanded its control and influence, and often enriched corrupt officials and power brokers. ISAF’s tactical victories often ended in fighting in populated areas, then leaving them. As the following reports in this series show, the population in the most sensitive areas in the war were left without meaningful governance and government services, without a functional justice system and security, and without tangible economic security or benefits from international aid.

    •    Failure to create effective ISAF forces and PRT structures and coordinate civil-military efforts: An alliance is not measured by the number of its members, but by their effectiveness. The US initially approached its allies as if they could be little more than peacekeepers in a victory that was already run. It sought the maximum number of participants for aid and security activity without regard to effectiveness and national caveats. 

    Different national military elements were layered over different civil provincial reconstruction teams. This structure could not adapt effectively as the war in Afghanistan became steadily more serious. NATO and ISAF did make progress in military coordination, but they did not begin to develop effective coordinated plans until the McChrystal exercise in 2009, and national caveats remain a critical problem, as does the lack of a true, integrated, civil-military plan of operations.

    Moreover, while efforts were finally made to create a central coordinator for civil programs and integrated civil-military plans in 2010, these plans remain largely conceptual. There are still no meaningful unclassified metrics or analyses that show real progress in these areas that reflect meaningful fiscal controls and measures of effectiveness, or that provide a picture of how civil programs in governance, rule of law, and economic aid relate to military efforts

    •    Failure to focus on creating a functional justice system: These problems were compounded by initially trying to deal with creating a police force based on German models that were hopelessly under-resourced and did not meet Afghan needs and values. This failure was followed by an equally under-resourced effort by the US State Department that largely ignored the fact that insurgent influence now required a police that could deal with guerrilla warfare.  A third transfer of effort then occurred to the US Department of Defense, which began to set more realistic goals for paramilitary and self-defense capability. However, it was never properly resourced and effectively increased the burden on the ISAF and US military training effort.

    Worse, the police training and expansion effort was decoupled from an effort to impose rule of law that focused narrowly on creating a new formal justice system at the top and allowed the Taliban and local power brokers to become the de facto system for local justices. Courts and jails were often lacking or unable to operate.

    Moreover, the lack of effective local governance – an essential element in winning support for police and a justice system meant the elements of an effective justice system were lacking much of the country – compounding the problem created by corruption, power brokers, and ethnic, sectarian, and tribal friction. All of these efforts were made worse by gross underpayment of salaries, corruption in hiring and promotion at every level, misuse of aid funds, and a lack of any effective effort to manage aid and development programs in the field.

    •    So far governance aid has been offset by a series of political tensions and crisis. Effective Afghan governance at the national, provincial, district and local levels is equally critical to providing security and the “clear and hold” phase of the war on a national level. It is the core of creating the “build” capability necessary to providing stability, prompt justice, governance, and a functioning economy. Governance aid has gradually come to focus on creating more effective ministries, and support of effective governance at the provincial, district, and local levels.

    However, there may well have been negative progress over the last two years. Two election crises, and friction between Karzai and the US has offset limited progress at the ministerial, provincial, district and local levels.  The failure to create effective military and civil contracting systems has led to both vast waste and a flood of funds into an unstable Afghan power structure that has strengthened power brokers.  Efforts to create stronger government provincial, district, and local levels have met serious resistance and have been affected by Taliban and Haqqani assassinations and attacks.

    •    There is still grossly inadequate coordination within the overall UN, national, and NGO aid effort. There is also far too little focus on creating achievable mid and long-term goals that aid might actually achieve. Additionally, there is a lack of focus on finding ways to allocate, manage, and measure the effectiveness of the short term civil and civil-military efforts that are critical to give tactical success in the “clear” mission lasting meaning through “build” and “hold.” The limited metrics and reporting on aid consist largely of uncoordinated spending activity, funding requests, project titles, and “spin” as to accomplishments that have little credibility. There is no evidence of fiscal responsibility, validated requirements, and above all lasting effectiveness – even in meeting the most urgent Afghan grievances and needs.

    •    Aid and civil-military efforts are not tied to a clear definition of a realistic end state and transition, and to credible plans to achieve them.  It is far from clear that it will be possible to achieve a successful end state in Afghanistan even if far more modest and realistic goals are set for what ISAF, the UN, and US must accomplish. It is uncertain they can create the more limited “end state” defined in the ISAF campaign plan summarized on page 15:

    …the insurgency is defeated and no longer able to threaten the security of GIRoA. Afghanistan is stabilized, legitimate government extends to local levels, socio-economic programs benefit the majority of the Afghan people. GIRoA, with ISAF in support, is capable of assuming the lead for the provision of security.  (ISAF, May 2010.)

    Equal problems exist in making “transition” an exercise in political symbolism rather than an achievable result of real world planning.  Neither 2011 nor 2014 are realistic deadlines for the end to a US and allied military presence or an end to major civil and military aid. In fact, one of the critical aspects of official plans, analyses, and metrics of the war is that they do not lay out a detailed or credible path forward to any meaningful end state, or even reduced level of troop presence and aid expenditure. They remain vague conceptual end states – whose generalization are often in direct conflict with other official statements.

    “Hold and Build:” The Challenge of Aid and Development

    Many of these issues are illustrated in the metrics in the first section of this report. They show how small an economy Afghanistan has compared to Iraq, and its inability in the short and near term to fund its own development and security. They also show that the current goals for development cannot be funded with anything like projected Afghan revenues and donor aid.

    A summary graphic on strategy quoted in a GAO report last year projected something approaching a 70% shortfall in funding for 2012-2013. A recent USAID projection shows a far greater shortfall in both the near and mid-term, as well as the risk that projected US aid may be cut in the outyears. Much of this gap, however, is driven by the almost totally unrealistic, politicized goals for mid and long-term economic development set in the Afghan Compact, Afghan National Development Strategy, and London Conference Communiqué.

    “Hold and Build:” Spending to Date and the Civil-Military Ratio

    The metric also show that the volume of US foreign aid has been extremely low relative to US military spending and spending on the development of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF).  While SIGAR calculated that total aid reached $51.5 billion through FY2010, security spending dominated such activity once the war began to receive serious funding in FY2007. Actual ESF aid only totaled $5.39 billion in disbursements as of March 31, 2010.

    CBO and CRS estimates also show that the ration of civil aid and activity to military operations and ANSF development remained at token levels through FY2011. This is critical, given the emphasis on giving Afghans “hold” and “build,” and reasons to support GIRoA. The CBO estimates all diplomatic activity and civil foreign aid totaled only $13 billion of $386 billion in appropriated funds through FY2011 – only a little more than 3% of the total. Complaints that the US has put large amounts of money into nation building are simply wrong. If anything, the US has failed to finance the “hold” and “build” operations that are critical to military success.

    The metrics show that CRS estimates are higher, and these figures do not include CERP and other aid transfers from DoD. At the same time, it is important to stress that much of this aid went to near and long-term projects, and does not support the “hold, build, and transition” activities that directly affect the ability to implement the new strategy and the outcome of the war.

    “Hold and Build:” The Very Uncertain “Surge”

    Reports of a US civilian surge reflect a real build up, but scarcely a massive surge for so large and poor a country. It is unclear that they offset the decline in allied and NGO aid personnel, and the US only has responsibility for 13 of 27 Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base. Allies lead the rest, and 8 Provinces do not have a PRT base.

    While some reports note that civilians are building up to over 1,000, USAID only reported a total of 473 personnel in country in late January 2011, and only 215 were in the field outside Kabul. The total numbers of civilians in the field still seem to be around one quarter of the military in the field, and DoD reported that there there were nearly 1,100 US military in such roles at the start of 2010.

    “Hold and Build:” Risk Assessments for Aid Activity

    The current level of aid also has to be related to the fact that securing the population, and “hold and build” has to succeed in high risk and combat areas. The US reports a far lower level of risk in such areas than the UN and NGOs. It is also unclear whether such risks are increasing or decreasing as combat becomes more intense. In any case, it is clear that such risks also limit current ability to actually implement “hold, build, and transition.”

     “Hold and Build:” Performance and the Problem of Priorities

    As yet, there are no credible unclassified metrics or analyses that indicate aid is becoming more effective, better managed, and more focused on supporting the new strategy. In spite of years of promises, USAID and the State Department still cannot provide credible estimates of the impact and effectiveness of aid, or demonstrate that funds are used with proper fiscal controls. This situation is not better for other countries, and the UN has made no progress in providing such reporting.

    The State Department and USAID have provided a metric showing the need to support both stabilization efforts to support the war and long-term development efforts, but have not provided data to show the requirements for activity, relative effectiveness, or how current funding is distributed.

    The limited progress reporting that is available lacks statistic back up and does not seem credible. Claims that school enrollment is 7.1 million seem remarkably uncertain for a country where many schools still lack formal structure, and the data on the number of girls and women attending school may be little more than spin-driven guesstimates. It is far from clear how 640,000 Afghan farmers could receive serious “hands-on agricultural productivity and food security training” with the resources USAID and other US aid efforts have available.

    Reports on increased access to basic health care from 8% to 84% seem to be little more than estimates of how much of the population is within a given travel distance from such care. A focus on road building seems heavily concentrated on a ring road, many portions of which lack security and are subject to extortion, rather than meeting the broad Afghan expectations required for “hold and build.”

    The one metric surveying the progress of aid in the critical districts affecting the war shows no progress between February and April 2010, and it has since been deleted from unclassified reporting. To the extent there is positive reporting, it takes the form of metrics that show a high level of per capita spending in key districts, but spending per capita is scarcely a measure of effectiveness or impact on the population.

    Aid has set broad priorities for the future – and provided an indication of how they affect the road to transition and long-term development -- but these seem largely conceptual and it is not clear how these affect total USG, allied, UN, GIRoA, or NGO efforts. UN priorities are aid-dominated in more than half the country, and vague and unclear in the rest.

    Assessments of the Afghan economy and “rising prosperity” seem to credit the direct and indirect impact of massive inflows of aid as well as outside military and civil spending, as if they were some form of real growth in GDP, per capita income, and prosperity. They largely ignore income distribution and its impact on the poor and ordinary Afghans, corruption, inflationary effects, and the outflow of aid money and GIRoA revenues. There is little focus on the large class of impoverished Afghans, their dependence on UN and other food aid to survive, the impact of combat, their ability to find alternative sources of income other than drugs, demographics pressures, and inflows to urban slums. Lofty goals for regional development, mining potential, and becoming a key trade route for Central Asia all seem idealized to the point where the war will be decisively lost or won before they have any major impact – if ever.

    The success of “hold and build,” and efforts to give Afghans (and Pakistanis) stability, hope, economic security, ad reasons to trust their governments cannot be based on summary econometrics. The analysis and metrics of short, near, and long-term development and stability must examine:

    •    The "demographic challenge" and “youth bulge” that will continue for at least two decades. The dynamics of these population shifts are highly complex and are not simply a matter of population growth, income, and jobs/employment. There are also matters of expectations, whether jobs are real and productive, direct and disguised unemployment, and lag in getting meaningful jobs. Included is the relevance of education as well as how society and governance treat the young and how young men and women relate to their country and society.
    Every country needs to carefully examine the causes of the alienation and polarization that tie demographics to extremism. Rather than focusing only on numbers and jobs, the key megatrend is the ability to safely integrate young men and women into society in a stable, productive way, and one they see as giving them value and purpose.
    •     The role of women is a key megatrend that deserves more than spin and statistics that lack credibility. This may be a sensitive issue, but it cannot be ignored – or dealt with in symbolic terms – indefinitely. Moreover, Muslim societies need to consider the role of women in terms of productivity gain, not simply women's rights. How do you compete on a global basis if you sharply limit the productivity of half the population?
    •    The economic threats from non-state actors, extremists, organized crime, and piracy –  domestic and foreign – drive security efforts and the black and grey sectors of the economy. Their impact is compounded by the growth of complex distributed networks and the interaction between states that use asymmetric warfare. They also affect the real world dynamics of education, job creation, the role of legitimate religious education, quality of governance and the ties between effective internal security, reeducation, and the rule of law.
    •    The Western focus on human rights and democracy often leads to a failure to focus on the quality of governance and its impact on investment and the economy. These are impacts that are far more important to the vast majority of people and shape their perceptions and loyalties. Is the quality of governance – in social, economic, and security terms – positive or negative? Can they cope with demographic and global economic challenges? Are security efforts and the rule of law bringing stability or buying time at the cost of alienation?
    •    As has become all too clear from popular unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a need to rethink how economic analysis and metrics are applied to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan:

    1. First, GDP growth and per capita income growth do not provide the right measures of megatrends, since an economy and level of governance that fail a nation's youth and poorer citizens can exhibit steady growth while actually moving towards instability.
    2. Second, traditional measures of poverty levels have become absurd in many states. The issue is not who only gets $1 or $2 a day. It is the level of income that meets social standards, provides the floor or level of protection every citizen needs in addition to what exactly is meant by laboring and middle class and how their standards relate to the share of the economy of the top 5% of wealthy. The ability to stay at a given income level, or increase income, is critical. So is the ability to maintain social status, to marry, to educate children, and meet other critical needs. The economics of stability need far more examination
    3. Third, literacy and level of education are far less meaningful where urban areas and other elements of given societies have evolved to the point where the quality of jobs, the time gap in getting jobs, and the ability to change values so that seeking private employment – and actually working hard to shape a career – have the same or higher priority than public employment.
    4. Fourth, the black and gray sectors of the economy need explicit metrics and analysis. Corruption and extortion have a major impact at every income level and interact with government policies and barriers to growth and economic stability. They directly affect the quality of governance as well.

    •    Access to, and the use of water resources are key issues. The supply of water per se is only a part of the problem. It is critical to establish the efficiency of water use relative to supply and cost, whether water is properly priced, reliance on fossil vs. renewable water, and problems in sharing international supplies.
    •    The role of subsidies and aid needs to be analyzed for both positives and negatives. Far too often, subsidies reduce efficiency, mitigate the effectiveness of market forces, distort consumption and limit productivity rather than protect local industries.  At the same time, programs like the World Food Program can be critical to the portion of a society that effectively lives below the subsistence level.
    •    This highlights the fact that food supply and prices present serious problems for significant portions of the Afghan population and now for parts of Pakistan.  The commodity and supply problems caused by rising petroleum prices are mirrored in terms of food.
    The US and its allies have now been at war in Afghanistan for a decade, and the US is increasingly involved in aid to Pakistan and its problems with economics and governance. It is time to reject the kind of economic analysis that ignores the real world progress of hold and build, and the ability to transform an exercise in armed nation building where aid funds fall far below plans and goals into practical plans, analysis, and metrics for both “hold” and “build” and a practical form of “transition.”

    The Need for Credibility, Integrity, and Transparency and Future Reports in this Series
    Virtually every expert on the Afghan War could add new points to this list. It is also obvious from many of these points that the metrics shown in this report can only hint at a few key trends and problems. In far too many cases, there are no metrics and no reliable detailed histories – although the kind of metrics and analysis that should have existed is easy to derive from the summary of each problem.

    At the same time, it is critical to stress that some parts of this series do show that progress is being made in addressing many of the issues involved, and that metrics are only part of that story. For all of the spin and omissions that still surround reporting on the war, progress has occurred over the last two years, and additional major efforts to correct these problems are underway.

    Other key developments will be analyzed in the future parts of this report:
    •    Part Five: Building Effective Afghan Forces
    •    Part Six: Showing Victory is Possible

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Anthony H. Cordesman