I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:
ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.
In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.
That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.