The Numbers Game in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/8/2011 · 8 comments

My latest piece for PBS looks at the metrics we use to measure the war in Afghanistan.

In fact, it’s difficult to reconcile the official reports of “successful” operations — the growing number of detained or killed Taliban commanders, escalating opium seizures, and so on — with the larger statistical picture of the war. Some analysts have tried to explain away the more discouraging indicators as the last gasp of a dying movement (essentially accusing the Taliban of throwing a mortar tantrum because they’re losing). But the latest Afghan surge of troops is now more than a year old, if judged from when Marines were first deployed in December 2009. This stands in stark contrast to the Iraq surge: At the eight-month mark in September 2007, General David Petraeus reported to Congress that there was a noticeable and substantial reduction in violence (pdf). There is no similar trend in Afghanistan.


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– 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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M Shannon March 8, 2011 at 10:26 pm

The Iraq Surge had very little to do with the reduction in violence. It was a happy coincidence for Petraeus, the luckiest of all US generals since WW 2, that the battle for Baghdad had been decided just as the surge kicked in. Having lost to the Shia militia/ police the Sunni nationalists sensibly “switched sides” in order to get guns, training and cash from the US and wait for round two. Iraq listed over 2500 dead civilians for the year past (which presumably is on the low side given the state of Iraqi medical care).

Given that, it’s not surprising that the Afghan Surge hasn’t had a noticeable positive effect. Mao’s 16 characters is a simple enough explanation. Local tactical successes due to pouring troops into very small areas such as Marjah ignore both the immediate cost (an additional $70 billion per year) and the larger long term costs which will likely be triple.

anan March 9, 2011 at 2:14 am

Shannon, Shannon, Shannon. You know a lot about Afghanistan . . . consider sticking with your strength.

On Iraq, there was a massive surge in the quality, size and capacity of the ISF in 2006, 2007 and 2008. This is why the ISF and GoI [with MNF-I combat enablers and assistance] decisively won their war. This is why Iraqi violence fell over 95%.

Petraeus would probably argue that the decisive factor in smashing the resistance in 2006, 2007 and 2008 was the “Iraqi Surge” and he would be right.

Arguably a major factor was “embedded partnering.” In 2006-2008, we often saw a MNF-I company super embed inside an ISF battalion, or see a MNF-I battalion super embed inside an ISF brigade.

One of the best examples of what happened in Iraq was the dramatic emergence of 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions in Ninevah province [and northern Salahadin province] in 2006. These two divisions took over Ninevah province [and northern Salahadin province] and allowed MNF-I to draw down to less than one brigade in 2nd/3rd IADs’ battlespace by the fall of 2006. In addition, a third of 2nd/3rd IADs were redeployed from Ninevah to greater Baghdad, Salahadin and Diyala provinces in 2006-2008 to win there. Again 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions only had a US BCT minus to assist them.

Have no idea what you mean by Sunni nationalists. From 2003 to 2008 the ISF were only able to accept a fraction of applicants because of a funding shortage. However, the percentage of the IA that was Sunni Arab was far larger than the percentage of Iraqi civilians that were Sunni Arabs. In other words the “Sunni nationalists” were in the IA.

Afghanistan is very different than it was two years ago, and the pace of change is accelerating. The affects of this [all affects . . . positive, negative and neither] will be discussed by historians for generations.

I think you would agree that there has been a dramatic surge in the capacity of the ANSF, and specifically a larger surge in the capacity of the ANSF than the surge in the capacity of the broader Taliban movement [in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Asia]. At the same time, the Taliban seem to be winning in much of Pakistan. The Taliban are winning in Nuristan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Ghazni, Baghlan and Logar. [The deterioration in Nangarhar has halted in recent months, but Nangarhar remains significantly worse than it was a year ago.]

Simultaneously the Taliban is losing in Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Khost, Paktya. The ANSF and ISAF have also recaptured momentum in Kunduz.

Generally the Mullah Omar centric parts of the QST are losing and being supplanted by Sirajuddin [and his network, Ilyas Kashmiri{LeJ/Bde 055/Bde 313}, LeT, JeM, TTP, TNSM], HiG, and the Peshawar Shura.

“Mao’s 16 characters is a simple enough explanation” . . . no idea what you mean.

“Local tactical successes due to pouring troops into very small areas such as Marjah ignore both the immediate cost (an additional $70 billion per year) and the larger long term costs which will likely be triple.” Nicely put. The real success in many Afghan pockets are unsustainably expensive.

It is far cheaper to surge Afghan capacity than it is to conduct direct ISAF operations.

Steve Magribi March 9, 2011 at 12:23 am

Thanks for the article. Well written and clear.

Let’s just remember it is mission “declare victory, and leave.” This is the name of the game. Sangin is won, the Marines can leave with a battle streamer. It does not matter if it is true or not.

The whole intent of the mission is to keep up the harmonious “we have won, peace with honor” mantra as long as they can on our way out. The Soviets did it, we want to do the same.

As tempted as I am to tear more holes in more of their egos, I am also tempted to just to let them leave with a smile on their face and the “mission accomplished” banner flying off the control tower of the Aircraft Carrier Control Tower. That way the stories in the VFWs will be more sweet, and P4 can go on to further undeserved glory.

Not sure, need to think about this a lot more.

RCS March 9, 2011 at 6:59 am

Interesting post at SWJ regarding the surge in Iraq:
Essentially says that are numerous potential reasons for its apparent success – even Iraqi’s cannot fully explain it.

In terms of the surge in Afghanistan – I think Josh was trying to point out that we wanted to equate surge success in Iraq with surge success in Afghanistan, regardless if the indicators were there or not.

Steve – do I sense some schadenfreude? I don’t think many Marines with some grasp of the situation are going to declare victory. At the end of the day, there are no winners – rather we can simply say we kicked the can down the road a bit further.

Steve Magribi March 9, 2011 at 10:53 am

RCS-Thanks-It’s not so simple or an abstract study of some kind.

We came here in 2001 and routed a weak enemy almost overcome by how easy it was and our superiority. We laughed at the spray and pray insurgents and assured ourselves that each year they would be turned back finally. How could they succeed against us?

Ten years later we are trying to claim victory that we have conquered a little area like Sangin or Marjah(little areas) after sitting on it and stepping on mines for three years(our British Brothers included). A little area, not the country. And we are not even certain what next month holds even there.

That is the extent of our paradox and tragedy. We (myself included for working here for so long) have taken victory and turned it into defeat and now want to call it victory again somehow some way.

The irony is thicker and higher than the Hindu Kush.

This situation is what we made it, this situation is a result of our strategy and tactics that have failed and each year the situation is getting worse. When I look at the failed group of “managers” in place like Eikenberry or Petraeus, the new Mubarak(yes, I have heard Afghans say this more than once), I want to cringe. They have just made a mess of the entire process, relationship, and military struggle. And yes, the ones preceding them were just as bad.

The latest iteration of the Surge has made things even worse. Sitting on an FOB waiting for the next IEDs to be planted wasted two more years of precious time. We are in a worse spot than before. Even our friends in the GoIRA our dismayed at the deterioration in the North and how we have focused so much on such small areas with such uncertain results.

The latest blow up over the civilian victims has been unlike any other I have seen in all these years of the same problem.

This is all without even mentioning the daily car bombs in Pakistan.

This is not kicking the can, this is kicking the can that blows up your leg when you kick it.

Therein lies our frustration and strong desire to somehow salvage what is more or less unsalvageable. And no, the Afghans themselves are not giving up on Afghanistan. We are.

It is also why I almost wish they could somehow just declare a victory and let the young kids go home happy. For us older folks, this is leaving a permanent scar and the sick knowledge that this is “ending” in such a way that it will continue unabated or worse again after we have left. And that will be a real tragedy, beyond comprehension almost, if you care about the place and people at all.

RCS March 9, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I actually agree completely. It’s mind numbing to actually try and explain why we are still in Afghanistan…the issue is we still are. I wish I had something witty to say but I don’t, all I can do is give credit to those who are trying to fight the fight and hope sooner than later it’s over.

M Shannon March 9, 2011 at 8:30 am

Anan: You’re joking right? The increase in quality of the Iraqi Police was in it’s ability to kidnap and murder Sunnis at random until they had ethnically cleansed most of Baghdad. Check for the daily stories of 12-13 Sunnis found dead overnight. Why 12? That’s how many people could be fit into a police paddy wagon. Colleagues of mine were on the very of being killed by your beloved police because there names were “Sunni”.

There are still more innocent civilians being killed in Iraq than Afghanistan so where are your highly capable ISF or the US military for that matter.

Shah Mojadedi March 9, 2011 at 9:46 am

Shannon-Anan’s misunderstanding is one of comprehension, lots of strange facts can’t put them together. He has never been to one of these countries so there is a kind of distance from reality, and a toy soldier angle to it all.

The deaths of innocents and the grotesque nature of both of these wars means nothing to him. Iraqis have seen the dead, Afghans also, both too many. Assassination squads, night raids, torture chambers, thousands of orphans and widows are the flip side of these wars. And the fighting started continues in all of these countries. There are many more explosions just waiting to happen in so many places.

The nine boys just killed going after fire wood near their homes left families without hope in a cruel world of near destitution. My family has almost too many lost to count anymore. It does not make our suffering less or the fear and waiting for the next to die. All in God’s hands.

Anan does not understand guerilla warfare. Afghans do. As you said before, the Taliban stay on the field and they win, that is the nature of guerrilla struggle. Your Mao reference was correct completely.

No one wants to accept that the violence is up. It is up. Thank You Mr.Foust and Indicum. The Surge, the tactics of Petraeus have failed and actually made things worse, harder to solve. The sooner Petraeus leaves the better. He has made things worse and does not understand the insults he has made and how we feel about him now.

Steve, cheer up, we will carry on the struggle after the ISAF is back on the bases in CONUS telling war stories or trying to keep the Egyptians from revolting again. Or is it-Libyans, or Bahrainis, or Saudis or Jordanians or Iranians Pakistanis, Indonesians, Bangladeshis or whomever next???????(please tell Mr.Boris Sizemore, I too have heard good things about Mr. Novak from my Uncles in Kabul)

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