Measure the War Consistently

by Joshua Foust on 1/7/2011 · 5 comments

I received some flack for describing Max Boot and Pete Mansoor’s analysis of the war in the south as “dishonest.” I take these charges seriously, as I don’t like to attack arguments unfairly. But it’s worth keeping in mind that none of the indicators Mansoor and Boot used to describe progress—freedom of movement, the friendliness of Afghans to armed soldiers rolling through their neighborhoods, or even the number of Taliban that ISAF has managed to displace or kill—actually made sense inside the argument they’d constructed.

Today NATO has leaked to the AP a worrying development: at least in Brussels, they can’t identify any substantial reduction in Taliban strength. Here, too, Mansoor makes an appearance:

Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University, said the unchanged number of insurgents did not reflect the reality on the ground, as the Taliban had in fact sustained heavy blows over the past year.

“We have taken hundreds of their leaders off the battlefields,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Next year will be clearly crucial as the Taliban try to regain lost territory around Kandahar and in Helmand, and we’ll see if they can make up those losses,” he said. “We will also see if we’ve been able to create the institutions – the government, police and army – there that can sustain themselves.”

Oh look another crucial year. This is, what, the sixth in a row? Anyway, this is the equivalent of plugging your ears and yelling LALALALALALA NOT LISTENING. That is, when presented with official evidence that the war is not, as advertised, noticeably reducing the insurgency, he used a 10-day general’s tour from a couple of weeks ago to say that’s not what’s “on the ground.”

It is fascinating to see, in a single thought, Mansoor discount the use of an enemy count to suggest the war isn’t being won, but then to use a body count to argue that, in fact, the war is being won. But (to bring it back around again) saying that these sorts of arguments are dishonest is, to many establishment types inside the Beltway, unfair. Meh.

There is a reason war supporters don’t want to think about what the consequences are of an essentially unchanged insurgency. It means their preferred strategy—and more importantly, their winged savior in the form of David Petraeus—just might be wrong. Now that’s something we just can’t contemplate at all, ever, now can we?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Brett January 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm

If “the next six months will be crucial” is called a Friedman Unit, what do we call “next year will be crucial”? A Boot Year? Petraeus Timetable?

Mekenchil January 8, 2011 at 10:41 am

Why do you think that the Talibans activeness blasted this year? Why the bombs kill more NATO soldiers? It is due to the Obama’s decision to leave the Afganistan in 2011. Military expension will be cut off and the people who are earning billion of dollars from this, won’t be happy for that. That is why, they use their own creations, that is Talibans to influence USA government to change their decision. It is the game for them and it is the way they are earning from this.

M Shannon January 9, 2011 at 8:55 am

How many NATO “leaders” are taken of the battlefield? At least 150% per year due to casualty or rotation depending on the service.

anan January 9, 2011 at 10:33 am

Very nicely said Shannon. I don’t have a problem with rotations of ISAF senior officers. However, the same officers should be assigned to continually rotate through Afghanistan for the duration of the conflict. [1 year in theatre, 1 year out of theatre preparing to return, 1 year in theatre, 1 year out of theatre preparing to return . . . etc.]

Joshua, the effort to build the ANSF didn’t really get underway until November, 2009. It is far too soon to understand the consequences of that decision.

There is optimism among many Afghans that the GIRoA and ANSF will hold their own. Some examples:
1) extremely competitive to become an officer in the ANA
2) waiting list to become an enlistee in the ANA, including no shortage of Pashtun recruits
3) waiting list among Helmand residents to become provincial AUP inside their province

An important question is if Taliban capacity is being surged faster than ANSF capacity. What is your assessment Joshua? The extremist factions in Pakistan and Gulf that back the Taliban have limited resources compared with ISAF. For this reason, I don’t see how the Taliban can surge its capacity faster than the ANSF, as long as ISAF really does want to surge ANSF capacity.

eggbert January 11, 2011 at 8:52 am

Just because I have the feeling that you receive quite some of it, is is spelled “flak” from german “Flugabwehrkanone” (Anti-Air cannon). 🙂

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