How Exactly Is Success Defined?

by Joshua Foust on 1/8/2011 · 9 comments

The Institute for the Study of War—still blindly advocating more war—has a report out devoted to “Defining success in Afghanistan.” My heart sank when I saw this 40-page report only has seven footnotes, all of which link back to the Kagans’ own work. But still: there could be actual content in here. Alas, the first sentence is a doozy:

Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able—with greatly reduced international support—to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe-haven for international terrorists.

If you know what that means, or how we will know when we’ve achieved it, then you should probably be in charge. Because a description of what that end state will look like—when there is sufficient order, sufficient security, and sufficient indigenous security to be able to declare victory—is lacking from a report ostensibly about defining success. If your intention is to define success, then surely you should actually define that success, right? ISW does not do its readers this courtesy. (For example: what the hell is a “safe haven for international terrorists?”)

Unfortunately, the rest of the report never rises above this basic flaw. There is a lot of posturing about fundamental changes, reversed momentum, seasonal fighting, and, more bizarrely, an appeal to pashtunwali to explain why there is a viable central government in the country. Like most militant ignorance, it is tedious and exhausting to read through, but I’ll address just a few major points and leave it to the comments section to tell me any good arguments I missed in the avalanche.

The use of the term “momentum.” How is this defined? The term “momentum” is used several times throughout the report, to describe what the Coalition has the insurgents do not have, but nowhere is there a definition of what it means. Do they mean physical momentum? Social? Political? I have no idea. It is a kinetic word being used, I think, in a metaphorical sense. But without explaining what they mean when they use it, the Kagans render the term meaningless.

The rejection of evidence. In its very format—almost no footnotes, all of which go to previous work by the authors—the report seems to reject the idea of an evidence-based argument. Furthermore, it rejects on-the-ground reporting by journalists as well as the entire intelligence community to argue that there is no insurgency expansion in the east or the north. In many ways, this ISW report is better defined by a rejection of evidence, rather than an embrace of it. The UN violence mapping of the country show many areas have deteriorated, even as smaller regions have improved slightly. But a broad look at insurgent violence shows everywhere in the country is worse off than it was in 2007—including the north and east, which the Kagans’ argue have improved.

Even the DOD’s own commanders are tacitly admitting that in these regions the situation is deteriorating, but in Kagan-land, that’s all misleading crap because we’re secretly, somehow, winning.

The appeal to seasonal dynamics. Repeatedly, the report appeals to a winter lull in fighting to argue that we can’t know how effective the campaign is until the summer. In a way, this is a subtle way of arguing for yet another Friedman Unit—just give us six months, promise, and everything will be better!—but it is also dishonest. It is like saying you can never know the success of a Christmas shopping season until the summer, when shopping patterns change. That’s obviously false reasoning—we compare Christmas shopping seasons to past Christmas shopping seasons. So what happens when we do that with seasonal violence in Afghanistan?

Not quite the picture of reversing momentum one would expect.

Without becoming too laborious, this should give an idea of what is so deeply, deeply flawed in this report. It is, without exaggeration, unsourced assertion in support of logical fallacies and wishful thinking, but packaged as serious analysis. The reality of this report is, it could have been drawn, almost verbatim, from ISAF press releases over the last year and a half. That’s not research. It is posturing. Propaganda. But at least if it had, then it would have been better sourced. Maybe next time they could show more of their work, and perhaps support a few of their assertions. As it stands now, “Defining Success in Afghanistan” is just an embarrassing mess.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on

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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Burk January 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Hi, JF-
Not to defend the report, but I think it is mistaken to look for conventional metrics and measurements here. Think back to Vietnam- was there a measurement of success there, other than the relative hold on the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese by their government and the US? Not really- it just isn’t quantifiable. The contest is a spiritual contest of wills, ideological resonance, and general living conditions, grievances, and governance, with the silent majority swaying this way and that, keenly sniffing the air.

So let me put a word in for propaganda, which is an essential element of any such contest! On a less flip note, the question of the significance of recent enemy activity turns on whether we are flushing pre-existing insurgents out of their comfort zones and wait-out-the-US strategy, or whether we are driving more unaligned Afghans from the countryside and elsewhere into the arms of the Taliban. My guess is the former, and that may be one small way to try measuring success, if we had thorough demographic and census data(!)

Joshua Foust January 8, 2011 at 3:09 pm


Forgive me if I’m not following your comment properly but, your comment basically says we can never measure progress because it’s spiritual, so we should rely on propaganda and hope that what we’re doing is effective but we’ll never really know?

I don’t buy that. One. Bit.

TJM January 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm

The argument put forth by Kagan, Boot, et al, is the type of reasoning that I expect from a gambling addict. Rather than putting more and more and more money on the table in hopes that a gamble will eventually pay off, we’re to put more and more and more resources in Afghanistan (time, money, troops, civilians, equipment) in hopes that we will eventually win. It’s a poor substitute for making an assessment of our interests (if any), developing a coherent strategy, and implementing it. But, then, I guess that went out of style a long time ago. People who study strategy and military history might as well study extinct languages or philosophy.

Madhu January 8, 2011 at 5:26 pm

What does incidents mean and how are they measured? It’s possible for violence to go up before it goes down.

I’m not arguing that is the case here but how to look at incidents?

1. What constitutes incident?
2. How are they measure?
3. Who measures them?
4. Are there other reasons besides strength of the insurgency that may explain the increase in incidents?

Ugh. I have to look at the link don’t I. Don’t really want to. Have a life and everything.

Take care all.

Natalie Sambhi January 8, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Hi Burk,

First, there were some measurements of success in Vietnam that did not involve merely body counts or a commander’s opinion on how progress was tracking. One example of this was covered in a SWJ article (, PDF). Sure these were flawed systems (and the article needs unpacking), but the point was that a more comprehensive system of measuring success was utilised.

Second, for data (warning: not propaganda) on Afghanistan, see Anthony Cordesman:


Tintin January 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Pretty sure every bit of Cordesman’s data comes from the exact same ISAF slides that the Kagans use…if you can point me to any PowerPoint slide of his that is not simply a reformatted version of the ISAF slide it cites, I would love to see it.

M Shannon January 9, 2011 at 9:02 am

Here’s a way to measure “success”; Percentage of Afghanistan US gov employees are allowed to visit without a security detail using armored vehicles. This would be a lagging indicator but, like stock prices do for a firm, it would be a sum of everything the US gov believes about the situation.

Colin Cookman January 9, 2011 at 11:40 am

My initial thoughts on the Kagans’ paper are here. I would argue that the central flaw in the report is that it defines a state of success, proceeds to completely avoid the question of what would be necessary to reach that success, but then conducts a purported assessment of progress towards success without identifying if any of the measurements cited are in fact decisive. (All of this is then reversed in the last paragraph of the paper, where they are reduced to motivational aphorisms.) This is an error it shares with the administration and the military, who can tell us when “transition” will occur (2014, in theory) but are unable to lay out (publicly at least) what conditions are necessary to reach a sustainable transition and so instead present the conditions they are able to easily document, i.e. the Taliban capture and kill numbers. If they don’t know or can’t acknowledge what they’re supposed to be working for, they are not going to achieve it, and transition will always exist perpetually on the horizon.

The real point of this paper is not to conduct a serious attempt at defining success (both ideal and achievable) or assessing progress n achieving it but rather the sentences “The U.S. and its allies should continue to resource and sustain the strategy now being executed, which is the only approach that can secure their vital national security interests in Afghanistan” and “Despite alarmist reports from the Intelligence Community and elsewhere, the insurgency is not gaining strength in northern Afghanistan and is extremely unlikely to do so.” These are assertions in support of an interagency argument being conducted within the United States government; the rest is padding.

Burk January 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Hi, Natalie- Thank you for your very helpful suggestions. I had not seen this type and scale of data before. Particularly …

This is not terribly positive or promising data.

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