Measures of "Progress" in Afghanistan in the Spring of 2012

  • The Need for Strategic Focus, Transparency and Credibility
    May 9, 2012

    Military Progress is only one of the tests that the US and ISAF must meet to accomplish a successful transition in Afghanistan – even on the basis of minimal security and stability or Afghan “good enough:”

    • The Afghan civil government must have enough public support and provide enough services to win popular support once outside military and aid programs largely depart.
    • There must be enough outside aid to help Afghanistan through the period in which massive cuts in outside aid and military spending take place.
    • The Afghan national security forces must become effective enough to replace US and ISAF forces and be sustainable with the level of self-financing and aid that are actually forthcoming.
    • A new post-withdrawal balance of power must be established between the non-Pashtun north, various Pashtun elements, and areas under Taliban/Haqqani/Hekmatyer influence and control to create a reasonable level of stability.
    • Pakistan and other neighboring states need to accept the creation of a “new” Afghanistan to the degree they do not actively undermine its stability.

    It is not clear at this point in time how many of these other tests can be met. None, however, can be decoupled from the level of progress that the US, ISAF, and ANSF are making in defeating the insurgents. Moreover, the overall success of both the war and every aspect of transition depend on the progress being made in defeating insurgents at the political level relative to the political popularity of the Afghan government and regional power brokers. 

    The Burke Chair has prepared a new analysis of the current unclassified reporting on the military progress in Afghanistan focusing on recent reports by General Allen, ISAF, and the Department of Defense. This report is entitled Measuring Military “Progress” in Afghanistan: The Need for Strategic Transparency and Credibility, and is available on the CSIS web site at

    The report analyses both the metrics and narrative in recent reports, and finds they fail to focus on key aspects of the war. They ignore the fact that victory will be defined as the ability of the government to defeat insurgents at the political level, through successful governance, through economic incentives and security, through measurable popular support, and through local and national security. Meaningful progress towards victory is determined by the level of progress in all of these areas, and must be measured in net assessment terms: progress towards victory in a strategic sense is the rate of overall success of the government relative to the insurgent influence and control.

    As was the case in Vietnam, the US, ISAF, and ANSF can win every major tactical engagement and still see the Afghan government lose the war if the insurgents take control of the countryside and the Afghan government cannot win the support of the people establish effective governance in the field.

    This is not a lesson that the US, its allies, ISAF, UNAMA or any other source of unclassified reporting on either the Iraq War or the Afghan conflict seems to have fully learned in the last decade. Integrated civil military reporting and net assessment have been no more real than integrated civil-military planning. Worse, unclassified reporting remains stovepiped, and often grossly distorted by “spin” and “cheerleading” in claiming exaggerated progress in a given part of the mission.

    This lack of unclassified transparency and credibility has been a critical problem throughout both wars, although in fairness unclassified progress reporting has been far worse in the civil areas than the military ones, and particularly in the almost total lack of credibility in reporting on the impact of aid, quality and integrity of governance, and presence of a functioning justice system.

    This may not have mattered as long as the war was fully resourced, and there were no rigid time limits for transition. It is now particularly critical as the US and its allies move toward withdrawing most of their combat forces and aid efforts to meet a predictable schedule known by the insurgents, the Afghan people, their government and surrounding states.

    What has always been an exercise in armed nation building – where every meaningful assessment and metric should have been be tailored to measuring success in meeting this overall goal – is now a race to 2014. It is a race between the ability to create a successful and stable Afghan government and political system against insurgent ability to outwait the US, ISAF, and outside aid efforts and score victories in a war of political attrition.

    Other related Burke Chair reports on progress in the war include:

    Afghanistan: the Uncertain Economics of Transition:

    Time to Focus on Afghan Good Enough:

    Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War, February 9, 2012

    Pakistan: Violence vs. Stability - A National Net Assessment, Jun 7, 2011,

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Anthony H. Cordesman