The War In Afghanistan at the End of 2012: The Uncertain Course of the War and Transition

  • Jan 22, 2013

    History has made it all too clear that there is no easy way to assess progress in counterinsurgency, or to distinguish victory from defeat until the outcome of a conflict is final. Time and again, “defeated” insurgent movements have emerged as the victors in spite of repeated tactical defeats. The Chinese Communist victory over the Kuomintang, the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam War, and Nepal are all cases in point. Insurgencies do not have to defeat government forces in the field; they have to defeat the regime at the political and military level.

    The Burke Chair has reviewed recent official reporting on the progress in the war as of the end of 2012 and found major gaps in unclassified reporting, and serious problems in the limited metrics that have been made available. This analysis is entitled The War in Afghanistan at the End of 2012: The Uncertain Course of the War and Transition. It is available on the CSIS web site at

    It finds critical gaps in the unclassified data available on some of the most critical aspects of the war. Far too much of current official reporting is a repetition of the Vietnam follies: unsubstantiated claims of progress, success, and victory that ignore the real problems in the field, and are contradicted by most unclassified media reporting.

    As in Vietnam, less and less is being said about the real world prospects to sustain the ANSF and civil development effort, the lack of effective Afghan leadership and governance, and speed with which the US and its allies are likely cut their presence and aid before and after 2014. Far too often, what is officially described as a Transition Strategy has become a cover for an exit strategy: The Afghan equivalent of P.T. Barnum’s famous sign, “This way to the egress,” which used to keep crowds moving through exhibits.

    The US had not announced its future troop levels and Transition plans as of the end of December 2012 – with two years to go before most Transition efforts are to be completed. Allied troop levels continued to drop with limited warning. Key agencies charged with economic and aid planning like UNAMA, USAID and the State Department remained unable to issue any meaningful or trustworthy reporting on either the impact of the current aid program or future plans.

    The World Bank – which had done some substantive planning before the Tokyo Conference in the spring of 2012—never updated its estimates which had ignored key factors like the effectiveness of aid, waste, corruption, the role of narcotics in the Afghan economy, capital flight, welfare and relief costs, worst case assumptions, major uncertainties in the data, and the probable impact of continuing power struggles and conflict – omissions which cast every aspect of its work into doubt.

    As a result, the December 2012 semi-annual report to the US Congress by the Department of Defense—the “1230 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” – said little more about that future of future Transition than repeating the largely vacuous content of the press releases issued during two major international conferences in the spring and summer of 2012.

    The lack of credible reporting on current plans and funding for the development of the Afghan forces, the war-long lack of credible reporting on progress and plans for civil programs and aid, the lack of effective Afghan leadership and ability to win broad public support, and the challenges posed by insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan are each at least as important as reporting on the course of the fighting, and ultimately, will prove to be far more important to sustaining security and stability.

    Unfortunately, the US State Department and UNAMA has never issued a meaningful public report on the course of the war or aid, and USAID’s only reporting is little more than self-serving statistical nonsense.

    There are, however, more official data available on the military metrics of the war – some supported by useful narratives. These data are analyzed individually in the analysis that follows, and draw on a range of different unclassified official reports by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, NATO/ISAF, and the UN. These data focus on the course of the conflict – which is only one dimension of the war. 

    It is important to note that the analysis of security metrics and supporting narratives that follows is necessarily limited by the fact that official data are unclassified, and any effort to tie metrics to supporting narratives has to be in summary form and cannot provide the same perspective as the original documents from which the material is drawn. In general, however, the decision to keep data unclassified is not driven by any need for security, but rather by political decisions to omit data that are not favorable to the present conduct of the war and focus on data that appear to make a case that it is moving towards success – often in ways that are not analytic valid or credible.

    The detailed, case-by-case analysis covers the following metrics:

    Figure 1: OSD Assessment of Transitioning Provinces and Districts (as of May 13, 2012)    26

    Figure 3: ISAF Estimate of ANA Forces: December 2012    28

    Figure 4: OSD Assessment of Security Metrics 2011 – 2012, Year-over-Year change April 1 – September 30    29

    Figure 5: OSD Assessment of Monthly Nationwide Security Incidents (April 2009 – September 2012)    30

    Figure 6: OSD Assessment of Monthly Nationwide Enemy-Initiated Attacks (April 2009 – September 2012)    31

    Figure 7: ISAF Assessment of Monthly Nationwide Enemy-Initiated Attacks (April 2009 – October 2012)    32

    Figure 8: OSD Assessment of Count of EIAs by number of people living within 1 KM.    33

    Figure 9: OSD Assessment of Nationwide Year-Over-Year (YoY) Change for Monthly Enemy-Initiated Attacks (April 2009 – September 2012)    34

    Figure 10: ISAF Assessment of Nationwide Year-Over-Year (YoY) Change for Monthly Enemy-Initiated Attacks (April 2009 – October 2012)    35

    Figure 11: Enemy-Initiated Attacks (EIA) Monthly Year-Over-Year Change by RC (Jan 08 – Oct 12)    36

    Figure 12: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-South (April 2009 -September 2012)    37

    Figure 13: SIGAR: Assessment of Progress in the South: October 2012    38

    Figure 14: OSD Assessment of Northern Helmand River Valley Area EIA Location Changes, YoY Change, June– September, 2011 vs. 2012    39

    Figure 15: OSD Assessment of Kandahar EIA Location Changes, YoY Change, June – September, 2011 vs. 2012    40

    Figure 16: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-Southwest (April 2009– September 2012)    41

    Figure 17: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-East (April 2009 -September 2012)    42

    Figure 18: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-Capital (April 2009 -September 2012)    43

    Figure 19: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-North (April 2009 -September 2012)    44

    Figure 20: SIGAR Report on Security in the North, October 2012    45

    Figure 21: OSD Assessment of Monthly YoY Change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks for RC-West (April 2009 -September 2012)    46

    Figure 22: OSD Estimate of Monthly IED and Mine Explosions (April 2009 – September 2012)    47

    Figure 23: ISAF Estimate of Monthly IED and Mine Explosions (April 2009 – September 2012)    48

    Figure 24: OSD Assessment of Caches Found (April 2009 – September 2012)    49

    Figure 25: Monthly Civilian Deaths and Injuries Caused by Insurgents and ISAF (April 2009 – September 2012)    50

    Figure 26: ISAF Estimate of Monthly Civilian Deaths and Injuries Caused by Insurgents and ISAF (April 2009 – September 2012)    51

    Figure 27: OSD Assessment of Insider Attacks    52

    Figure 28: SIGAR Assessment of Insider Attacks on ISAF Personnel: October 2012    54

    Figure 30: OSD Assessment of Reintegree Numbers    55

    Figure: 31 SIGAR Assessment of Reintegree Numbers    56

    Figure 32: UN Estimate of Opium Impact on Afghan Economy    57

    Figure 33: No Reduction in Opium Growing in the South, West, and East    59

    Figure 32: UN Estimate of Cannabis Impact on Afghan Economy    60

    It is somewhat ironic that a large body of literature has emerged in the development field calling for more transparency in the reporting by governments in less developed countries than ours. No one expects governments or military in wartime to be totally transparent or to give up secrets that might help the enemy. One does expect that they provide as much transparency as possible, and that they do so while maintaining credibility, and integrity. Official reporting on the war in Afghanistan does not meet any of these three tests; transparency, credibility, or integrity.

    Moreover there has been a steady shrinking in the metrics and analysis provided on the full range of civil-military progress in the war over the last two years as the pressure for a rapid Transition increases. The end result has – as is noted in the introduction – been a return to the “good news” emphasis of the “follies” in Vietnam. This misleading trend in reporting has been supported by Vietnam-era metrics, and making Enemy Initiated Attacks (EIA) equivalent to a modern-day body count.

    This type of reporting might make sense if it at least served the purposes of the US and allied governments, and the people of Afghanistan, but it clearly does not. The public is becoming steadily less supportive of the war, and this waning public opinion partly due to the lack of credible official reporting on civil and military progress in the war, and from the failure to provide even a reasonably convincing path towards Transition, even by “Afghan good enough” standards.

    Some of this is the inevitable tendency of governments to sell their current polices and the resulting shift towards propaganda. At least a large part of the problems outlined in this analysis, however, come from focusing on tactical military measures in a political military war. The end result is similar to bringing a word processor and PowerPoint presentations to a knife fight. No amount of inappropriately optimistic reporting of metrics and narrative can actually win a counterinsurgency campaign. No focus on the past can sell the future.

    The US government and military also need to think carefully about this approach to limited war. There is no reason to continue a limited war with limited objectives on the basis of sunk cost and without regard to future expenditures and cost benefits. The US has far too many competing strategic objectives and far too many resource limitations. Given these constraints, there is even less rationale in missing the chance of success by distorting the nature of the analysis of the war and losing public trust.

    Other recent Burke Chair reports on Afghanistan include:

    Six Conditions for an Effective Transfer of Power in Afghanistan:
    This report outlines the six key conditions necessary for a successful and realistic approach to the transfer of power in Afghanistan during the Transition period from 2013-2015:

    The Afghan War: Creating the Economic Conditions and Civil-Military Aid Efforts Needed For Transition:
    A detailed analysis of the progress, problems, and challenge in creating an effective civil and military aid effort, finding workable solutions to creating Afghan forces, and dealing with the problems created for the Afghan politics, economy, and governance by the coming cuts in aid and military spending. It provides a detailed analysis of impact of corruption and a narco-economy, faults in the analysis leading to the Tokyo Conference, and the dangers of unrealistic solutions like the “New Silk Road.”

    Back to the "Body Count:" The Lack of Reliable Data on the Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan:
    Compares current ISAF, DoD, UN, NCTC, and other reporting on the war. It finds that the sources are in serious conflict, that some lack credibility or relevance to measuring the course of an insurgency, and other repeat some of the mistakes made in reporting during the Vietnam War:

    Afghanistan: Green on Blue Attacks Are Only a Small Part of the Problem:
    Examines the overall trends in casualties and violence, the problems in current metrics, and the need to look beyond narrow indicators like green on blue attacks or numbers of forces killed.

    Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?

    A detailed analysis of the problems in Transition and terminating the war, and in the current war effort,

    U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan analyzes Iran’s current role in Afghanistan and the region, and the potential threat it poses to Transition and the post 2014 US role in the region:

    Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War surveys the problems in a decade worth of metric on the war using charts and tables taken from a wide variety of official reports and sources:

    Pakistan: Violence vs. Stability - A National Net Assessment provides a detailed look at Pakistan’s internal stability and why its goals and strategy differ from that of the US:

    Creating the New Plans and Assessment Systems Needed for the Afghan Security Forces and a Successful Transition provides an analysis of the strengths and weakness of the efforts to develop the Afghan national security forces, and of the challenges to come in Transition. This Commentary is based on testimony delivered by Anthony Cordesman to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on July 24, 2012:

    Afghanistan: The Failing Economics of Transition
    provides a detailed analysis of the sttrengths and weakness of US, World Bank, Afghan, and other assessments of the economic of Transition. July 19, 2012.

    Afghanistan and the Tokyo Conference: Hope, Fantasy, and Failure outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the failures of the Tokyo Conference in providing a meaningful economic and aid path toward Transition.

    The US Cost of the Afghan War: FY2002-FY2013: Cost in Military Operating Expenditures and Aid, and Prospects for "Transition” provides an overview of the cost of the Afghan conflict through FY2013, highlighting the trends in spending by major area, and the strengths and weaknesses in the data available:


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Anthony H. Cordesman