A Pretty Shocking Act of Optimism

by Joshua Foust on 12/13/2011 · 21 comments

Charles Kenny thinks Afghanistan has never been better:

Nonetheless, the answer to “was it worth it” is yes. For all the waste, corruption, and death, Afghanistan is a much better place to live than it was 10 years ago, and the international community can take a considerable part of the credit for that.

This is an interesting take, with some interesting assumptions behind it: has Afghanistan improved all that much since 2001, and has that improvement been because of the international community or despite the international community? This is worth digging into systematically.

First, the country remains considerably more peaceful and united than it has been for most of the past 40 years. The 1990s saw battle deaths in Afghanistan average around 9,000 a year, according to World Bank data. From 2003 to 2008, though, despite an uptick of violence in the last few years, that average was down to below 3,000 deaths.

This is pretty clever (and arbirary!) time span delimiting. He is including the worst period of fighting in the 1990s — basically the 1994-1997 timeframe — to assemble an average fatality. This is unreliable anyway because we have no idea how many people really died, though most estimates have the battle for Kabul in the mid-90s killing around 50,000 people, which would surely spike that number higher. Against this backdrop, Kenny chooses to build a post-2001 average out ofthe least active period of fighting, excluding the last three years which have seen the worst combat of the last ten years. It is a fundamentally unfair comparison.

Despite that, if battle fatalities were the same in a limited intervention as a civil war, then something would be seriously wrong. Looking at the World Bank Data Kenny cites reveals just how dishonest this formulation really is:

By Kenny’s own logical construct, the 1990s were better for Afghanistan than every before, because fewer people died than during the war with the Soviet Union. See that dip in the late 90s? As the Taliban conquered new swaths of territory, battle deaths actually dropped, because there was little or no fighting there. Or, we could say that current data (the World Bank does not include anything post-2008) is still just as bad, violence-wise, as the late 1990s. To say this means things are better for the country is fundamentally dishonest.

But let’s look at other data, as well. The Brookings Index, for example, shows on page 10 that over the past year, insurgent deaths are way way way up, as are assassinations in and around Kandahar. NATO troop deaths are up. ANSF deaths are up over the last year. And civilian deaths are way higher than in 2007. You just cannot overemphasize how dishonest it is to rely on data from before 2008. Sigh, what else does Kenny say?

Still, militant attacks were down by more than a quarter in the three months to September this year over the same period last year. Asia Foundation polling suggests people feel more secure, support for the government is up, and more than two-thirds of the country reports no sympathy for the Taliban.

Kenny links to a story about NATO’s own assessment of violence to justify this. The problem is, we know NATO uses dishonest accounting methods to give the impression that violence is lower, whereas independent assessments have indicated that violence is in fact much higher. Kenny has to at least account for the vast difference in accounting methods if he’s to make the case that violence is lower (and this ignores the ridiculous crutch of using the Asia Foundation surveys, as if they have every captured Afghan opinion accurately—that is, unless you really do believe the Afghan National Police really do have like a 75% approval rating).

The economy is also in better shape than it was 10 years ago. According to World Bank data, GDP per capita climbed from $569 to $879 between 2002 and 2008, a rate of growth that suggests average incomes might have doubled over the course of the decade since the fall of the Taliban. The World Bank suggests that as the troops leave and aid flows diminish, GDP growth rates may slow from around 9 percent to 5 or 6 percent. Nonetheless, rising average incomes suggest at least some Afghans are living life a little further away from absolute destitution. One positive sign: 71 percent of Afghan households have a mobile phone.

The growth in mobile phone ownership is remarkable. But again, Kenny is relying on data that is three years old. Afghanistan is a different place in 2011 than it was in 2008, and the amount of foreign expenditure is an order of magnitude different. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report estimated that Afghanistan’s GDP is 97% dependent on foreign aid, which implies a much more substantial crash than three-year old World Bank data would suggest. To repeat: relying on old data to make an argument for optimism is just dishonest. Kenny is making the case for being optimistic about Afghanistan in 2008 (which, granted, I was), but not in 2011. He needs to use data from today, not from three years ago.

Anyway, this is turning long in the tooth. You all know what I mean with this criticism. You can select data that shows anything; but without context, understanding, and above all else honesty about the limitations of said data, all you wind up doing is breathless cheerleading. Kenny admits the cost for all this progress he cites has been “high,” but doesn’t actually follow through that line of thought to its logical conclusion: would Afghanistan have been better off with less international community-funded corruption, less invasive troop presence, and less heavy-handed foreign meddling in Afghan politics?

That, ultimately, is the question. Things in much of the country really are not good, and leaving the internet data archives (and even Kabul!) can show that to anyone brave enough to look for it. If the international community had spent $100 billion on development over ten years and accomplished nothing, that would be shocking. So it’s no surprise that some things have improved. What Kenny should be asking isn’t, did we get anything for our vast expenditure, but have the improvements been worth the cost? And could another policy have achieved the same or more at less cost?

Those are the kinds of questions aid and development boosters don’t like to answer. I wish they would.

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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 Registan.net. 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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Xenophon December 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm

If you go to FP and look at the many things Kenny–who writes a column called “The Optimist”– is optimistic about and sample the copious amounts of happy dreck he has produced, discoursing simplistically on this best of all possible worlds, you can pretty well dismiss him as a serious analyst of anything.

Grant December 13, 2011 at 2:59 pm

You might be able to say that things are better in some parts of the country or for some women in the country, but to say it for the entire country seems unreasonable.

Don Bacon December 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm

The most recent UNAMA Report is not so optimistic.

UN Report, July 2011
“In the first six months of 2011, the armed conflict in Afghanistan brought increasingly grim impacts and a bleak outlook for Afghan civilians. . .UNAMA documented 1,462 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2011, an increase of 15 percent over the same period in 2010.. . .Targeted killings continued at last year’s high rate, . .Civilian casualties from ground combat and armed clashes increased over the first six months of 2011.”

Also ISAF casualties are up significantly, from less than a thousand in 2008 to more than 5,000 in 2010.

Don Bacon December 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Today’s news:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visits Afghanistan amid rising violence

What is ISAF, with 97,000 US troops, up to? (Hint: Not much.)

ISAF Joint Command morning operational update – December 13, 2011
–discovered a drug cache of approximately 500 pounds (227 kg) of hashish
–discovered a drug cache of approximately 200 pounds (90 kg) of marijuana
–detained multiple suspected insurgents
–confiscated multiple weapons
–three three suspected insurgents
–discovered a weapons cache with six rocket-propelled grenade rounds, one 82 mm mortar round, 11 RPG rockets and 13 anti-tank mines.

A Wall Street Journal article has suggested that ISAF commander General Allen, who took command of forces in Afghanistan five months ago, was seeking to delay any further reductions until the end of 2013. Seriously. They need to find some more hash and suspected insurgents.

anan December 13, 2011 at 5:44 pm

What Allen would really like is increased funding for the ANSF. Currently the Obama Administration is pushing for large cuts in the ANSF budget.

There are some in the Obama administration that want to cut foreign aid to Afghanistan to $3 billion/year. Charles Kenny argues that Afghanistan needs at least $10 billion a year in international grants, which I agree with.

How can the ANSF improve security as ISAF withdraws if their budget is slashed?

Don Bacon December 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm

We’ve debated this before. How can the ANSF improve security with any amount of money? The problem isn’t money, it’s lack of motivation , capacity and capability, combined with a healthy dose of corruption.
General Caldwell has been lying about ANA’s non-existent capability (the recent DOD report was truthful), and the hopeless ANP is being replaced by ALP. So much for the ANSF.

Is ALP the answer? No. Local security is worsened by handing out AK-47’s to hoodlums, and that further endangers national security as well as it weakens the central government further.

anan December 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm

How has General Caldwell lied about the ANA?

“ANA’s non-existent capability” That is straight out of Pakistani Army GHQ Information Operations. 203rd ANA Corps and 215th ANA Corps don’t have capability? 205th ANA Corps doesn’t have capability? ANA Commandos and ANA Special Forces don’t have capability? How exactly did you figure that?

The ANA has many problems, partly because the UN, ISAF, US, international community purposely kept the ANSF weak before 2009 [partly because of tensions between the ANA and Pakistani Army]. The ANA is deeply corrupt. Many deeply corrupt armies are highly effective. The Pakistani Army for example.

Consider how for the ANA has come with so little international help. The entire ANSF [including ANA, ANP and NDS] only trains 600 men and 50 woman per year for more than 6 months at a time. This because of a severe international funding shortage.

When President Obama was elected the entire ANP trainined only 1 thousand police at any time. The Iraqi Police trained about 40 thousand police at any given time 2006-2008. Why do you think the ANP have problems?

On what planet has signficant resources been put into surging ANSF capacity? Even now the Taliban pay many of their fighters more than the ANA.

Don Bacon December 14, 2011 at 12:13 pm

How has General Caldwell lied about the ANA?

Caldwell (13 Oct. 2011): “And then, of course, watching the growing professionalization of this security forces over this time period. . .What’s also important is that we’ve really established internationally recognized and certified programs of instruction.”

Fact (DOD Report, Oct 2011): “The ANA has grown dramatically over the past two years and the majority of this force was fielded without receiving any professional training at the branch schools.”

And then there was our discussion on “independence” last September, remember?
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell said that out of approximately 180 Afghan National Army battalions, only two operate “independently.Those two “independent” battalions still require U.S. support for their maintenance, logistics and medical systems,” Caldwell admitted when Pentagon reporters pressed him on Monday morning. “Today, we haven’t developed their systems to enable them to do that yet,” Caldwell said.

And there was the Pashtun counting problem. Instead of counting Pashtun recruits from southern provinces, they started counting recruits from traditionally southern Pashtun tribes.

This sort of false reporting goes ‘way back. June, 2008: “The capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA) are improving steadily. The ANA has taken the lead in more than 30 significant operations and has demonstrated increasing competence, effectiveness and professionalism.”

anan December 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Don Bacon, you need to do your own homework. NTM-A and IJC provide a lot of documentation and information on request. MoD is more difficult to work with. Advise calling their cell phone numbers.

“we’ve really established internationally recognized and certified programs of instruction.” What part of this do you disagree with? Many of the branch schools, universities, Commando training, SOF training, NCO training, NDS programs for the ANSF are pretty good. They have far too few training seats [which reduces the lenght of their training programs and their annual throughput], but that is because President Obama sharply reduced the number of ANSF training seats that President Karzai, MoD, MoI, Gen McChrystal, Gen Petraeus, Gen Caldwell and Gen Allen requested.

“The ANA has grown dramatically over the past two years and the majority of this force was fielded without receiving any professional training at the branch schools.”

Duh, dates when training seats were added to the various branch schools are approximately known. Not many NCOs and officers have yet passed through them. Even the infantry school only has 3 thousand training seats, but their NCO/officer output are spread thinly across many ANA infantry companies.

“Today, we haven’t developed their systems to enable them to do that yet,” Caldwell said.” Obviously. Many combat support enabler units haven’t formed yet, by design. This was the right decision, given the ANSF had and has so few training seats.

“And there was the Pashtun counting problem. Instead of counting Pashtun recruits from southern provinces, they started counting recruits from traditionally southern Pashtun tribes.”

I have been trying to explore this issue. Helmand Pashtuns are signficantly over represented in the ANSF. I have yet to see firm evidence of many Pashtuns joining the ANSF from Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul. This doesn’t mean they aren’t joining. I just don’t have specific data on it. Anecdotally there are several ANSF from Kandahar families. But anecdotes aren’t necessarily representative.

“June, 2008: “The capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA) are improving steadily. The ANA has taken the lead in more than 30 significant operations and has demonstrated increasing competence, effectiveness and professionalism.”” What part of this wasn’t true? 203rd ANA Corps was performing decently in 2008. As were 1-205 [including Sharin Shah’s old battalion], 3-205 [in Helmand, re-hatted 3-215 now with Sharin Shah commanding], 3-201 heavy [rehatted heavy 3-111, currently advised by France and Greece]. 1-209 was conducting operations in a permissive environment in 2008 was well.

You might want to take detailed note by ANSF unit and multiple observations from many ANSF advisors and ANSF soldiers and do your own SWAT analysis by ANSF unit and capability.

anan December 13, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Joshua, I looked at the article. It focused almost entirely on the Afghan economy. Not sure why you find it controvertial. Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries on earth in 2001. Afghanistan is much less poor now. How is that inaccurate?

School and university attendence, life expectancy, health increases cannot be dismissed out of hand. GIRoA generates $2 billion in annual revenue [even with tax revenues close to 7% of GDP]. How would this be possible if the Afghan economy hadn’t improved since 2001? You could argue that the Afghan private sector is in the middle of an unsustainable economic bubble without savaging Charles Kenny.

Grant is right that there are enormous regional differences, but the economy has improved in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and more than 300 districts.

Let us take a specific example: Helmand.

Can it really be argued that Helmand isn’t richer now than it was in 2001? That there aren’t more boys and girls in schools? That there aren’t more roads, more trade, more business and more agricultural output [even excluding poppy]? Is governor Mangal so horrible, despite his perchance for hording power, decisions, influence?

You can argue that it wasn’t the spike in volume Helmand experienced 2006-2011, but that is a different arguement.

What is your perception of security in Helmand?

Charles Kenny December 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm


First off, you are right about the weakness of relying on three year old data on war deaths at the top of the article and I should have looked harder for the more recent stuff beyond just the NATO report.

Having said that, the discussion on mortality later in the article discussing all causes including war and violence is from a survey published in 2011, carried out in 2010. It is, I think, the most recent representative survey we’ve got –and it still suggests marked declines in mortality for men, women and children alike.

Again, the World Bank report on Afghanistan’s economy was prepared for the Bonn conference –it isn’t three years old.

To your questions: (i) “would Afghanistan have been better off with less international community-funded corruption corruption, less invasive troop presence, and less heavy-handed foreign meddling in Afghan politics?” –hard to argue when you put it that way…

(ii) “have the improvements been worth the cost? And could another policy have achieved the same or more at less cost?” A different policy could have achieved more at the same cost, definitely. As to ‘was it worth it,’ that presumably depends on what else you think the money would have been spent on otherwise. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have gone to vaccination programs in other countries, for example. So I’d argue yes.

–Charles Kenny

anan December 13, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Charles, you can focus foreign aid on what President Reagan called the supply side–or surging Afghan capacity, Afghan human and physical capital, and total factor productivity–or you can focus on increasing Afghan consumption demand, which leads to Afghan demand exceeding Afghan supply and the bubble unsustainable economy Afghanistan now has.

The medical achievements you cited have distorted the Afghan economy and created Afghan expectations that the GIRoA and NGO community can’t meet.

In the meantime, the international community has refused until now to invest in the ANATC and ANPTC.

How can you argue that the international community has made a serious effort in Afghanistan when the entire ANSF only trains 600 men and 50 waman per year for more than 6 months at a time? How can the ANSF provide security for the Afghan people? Without security, how can the Afghan private sector flourish and how can the GIRoA improve civilian governance? How can ANSF veterens provide a reservoir of human capital, entrepreneurship and innovation to empower the Afghan private sector?

Many countries and NGOs and different parts of the GIRoA have done a lot of seperate uncoordinated projects with a lot of waste and that has boosted short term consumption demand rather than longer term supply. The path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Joshua Foust December 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm


Thanks for the response. But again: look at that World Bank report you cited for optimism. It argues, quite explicitly, that Afghanistan’s government is funded by outside forces, and that without that funding the government would collapse. Almost none of the foreign expenditure goes through the budgetary process, but rather through independent, international channels.

People are definitely working hard on the transition but no one is optimistic it will go well. Pretty much only you are.

Don Bacon December 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Bankers don’t enjoy a good reputation lately. Let’s simply discount anything they say, especially on casualties. A casualty to a banker is probably a loan gone bad.

Don Bacon December 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm

The NATO Report on Bonn+10 does not include any World Bank report or mortality report in its concluding list of “Relevant Reports.”

The World Bank report assesses Afghanistan’s financial status with recommendations for the future. There is nothing definitive about casualties, as one might expect.
The referenced optimistic “Mortality Survey Final Report” is something prepared by various agencies and consultants led by a US agency, Measure DHS, which has unknown credibility and funding.

Jeffry December 15, 2011 at 8:03 am

I’m in/around the country every other month. I think Afghanistan will revert as we leave. It has almost all been wasted effort.

Don Bacon December 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

. . .except for the war profiteers,.

Boris Sizemore December 15, 2011 at 11:45 am

Ten years ago today we were in a rapturous “Grenada” feeling, having destroyed piecemeal an ‘unpopular,14th Century, zealot, terrible regime.” Music was back, beards were out, and we had our man in Karzai to lead the country into the promised land.

Folks- this war is a slam dunk that became a failure. After “total” victory that anyone is insane enough to do comparitive casualty rates is amazing. After the most dominant military force on the planet pushed out this “incompetent, 14th Century,unpopular, zealot, terrible” regime and now is fighting to maintain security in small pockets of the same country is Failure Defined.

That in year number nine we had to “surge” is comedy enough. Victory to defeat to surge to transition should go down in the anals of American Military History with disgrace. Better because of us? Oh my God, Oh my God? Better because of us? Comparing our Grand Victory, Shock and Awe to a local civil war in the 1990s is illogical and nonsensical. The Civil War went well. The US effort here in Afghanistan went off the cliff long ago. Just guess what the future holds.

These entire documents are for the shredder. Save your eyes, close them and see what really happened here. We stepped in, bragged and got shut down, by the “incompetent, 14th Century, unpopular, zealot, terrible” Taliban and now pray to leave with a measure of “dignity.” Keep your eyes closed and try not vomit, I dare you. We have lost the compass on this problem and lost it long long ago.

anan December 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Boris, it was Afghan militias [Northern Alliance plus assorted Pashtun tribal leaders] who defeated the Taliban and drove them to Pakistan. Albeit considerable help in the form of special forces, combat enablers, CAS, money and equipment from the US, Europeans, Turkey, Russia, India, Iran etc.

After the fall of the Taliban, America didn’t feel ownership over the success of Afghans 2002-2006. It was an Afghan problem, UN problem, NATO problem, ISAF problem.

In fact the US actively opposed efforts by the international community to train and equip the ANSF before November, 2009. The US has publicly pretended to be Pakistan’s friend even as parts of the Pakistani establishment backed the Taliban against Afghans. In most practical ways, America’s war began in November, 2009. And it has been very half hearted. President Obama overruled and blocked efforts by ISAF to train, equip and fund the ANSF in 2010 and 2011. To say that the US has made a substantial effort in Afghanistan is inaccurate.

The responsibility to win in Afghanistan belongs to Afghans, the GIRoA and ANSF. If Afghans fail, the blame falls primarity on Afghans. And secondarily on internationals who haven’t coordinated among themselves to help Afghans win.

We also need to stop looking at Afghanistan in binary terms of success or failure. Afghanistan is likely to be in the middle. If the international community helps the GIRoA and ANSF fight the Taliban [which in turn are backed by part sof the Pakistani and Saudi establishments] indefinitely, that is neither “defeat” nor “victory.”

What do you think President Obama wants? A deal with the Taliban, Al Qaeda linked networks, the Pakistani Army and Saudi Arabia that leaves the GIRoA, ANSF, Afghans in the cold? Is this the reason the Obama administration has played so hard ball in demanding large cuts in the projected ANSF budget? [Cuts of more than 50% relative to what Afghan MoD has requested.]

Johnny Matrix December 17, 2011 at 3:18 am

I’m glad you can admit to some improvement within Afghanistan and therefore I will admit gross inefficiency within America’s methods…but I’d like to think we could make these claims without having to hear each other’s first. Unfortunately I’ve conditioned myself to deem first a military solution amongst all others to this conflict…and I’d like to think my little solution would’ve worked if I had a time machine but since my country did not go that route to begin with, we are left with a snowball rolling downhill no matter what the ground truth is. We will leave Afghanistan and take with us our aid and this action will not be dependent on what Afghanistan needs.

And on another note, I know this sounds cold but I care little for civilian casualties as a metric at least. Good on the man that corrects another for his fault in using this statistic as such, but to argue the opposite matters little.

Dishonesty December 27, 2011 at 8:10 am

to Karzai independence
“The Afghan cabinet has ordered Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani to sign an oil exploration contract for Amu Darya with China National Petroleum Corporation,”
State-owned CNPC and joint venture partner Watan Group — a diversified Afghan company — will explore for oil in three fields in the basin – Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay, which are estimated to hold around 87 million barrels of oil.

New ISAF joke!!!
President Hamid Karzai has taken steps to disband a little-known, irregular police force financed by the American military with members in at least four northern provinces. Some members of the force are former militiamen and thugs known as much for extorting money from ordinary citizens as for intimidating insurgents and upholding the law.
The Critical Infrastructure Police has members in Balkh, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Faryab Provinces…….
The force, officially set up in August by Regional Command North, was organized in part to fill a security gap, but it also appears to have been an effort to get control of the scores of often lawless militia groups that intimidate residents in the region.
The decision to disband the force appeared to come in part because Mr. Karzai and his aides were not even aware of its existence until he was asked about it by reporters during a visit to Germany this month. He expressed concern about the force’s behavior and asked his staff to look into it.


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