The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 4 October 2010

Measuring success in Afghanistan

That's the real question after all - how do we measure success in Afghanistan? The Rand Corporation have provided a tool to do just that in the shape of an in-depth report on sources of success in counterinsurgency campaigns, entitled Victory has a Thousand Fathers.

Among the key findings, as summarised on the US Army and US Marine Corps COIN blog, are the following:
- The balance of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ practices perfectly predicts outcomes.
- Repression wins phases of a campaign, but usually not the campaign itself.
- Tangible support trumps popular support.
- Poor beginnings do not necessarily lead to poor endings.

As the USA/USMC blog states, the Rand report is not a completely infallible tool but it does add a degree of scientific analysis to the existing body of knowledge on COIN - which as a subject and, above all, as a practice is notoriously difficult to quantify in anything like a scientific manner.

That being the case, purely out of intellectual curiousity I have conducted a little experiment. The very last page of the report shows a scorecard of Good vs Bad COIN practices and factors and I have graded the current campaign in Afghanistan using that scorecard.

I have done so without fully reading the report and using only my own knowledge and perceptions (professional, anecdotal and random) of the current situation in Afghanistan. In other words, I am using the scorecard to quantify my perception of the war in Afghanistan. At a later stage, I will repeat the exercise having actually thoroughly read the report and having fully researched each individual point in order to confirm (or not) my assessment of each criterion named in the scorecard.

The objective right now is, I repeat, to measure my perception of the campaign because, as we all know, perception is reality and public support for the ISAF mission will stand or fall based on people's perceptions and not the reality.

So, without further ado...


Good factors

1. COIN force realizes at least two strategic communication factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through g is at least 2 positive responses)
a. COIN force and government actions consistent with messages (delivering on promises) NO
b. COIN force maintains credibility with population in the area of conflict (includes expectation management) ??
c. Messages/themes coherent with overall COIN approach ??
d. COIN force avoids creating unattainable expectations NO
e. Themes and messages coordinated for all involved government agencies NO
f. Earnest IO/PSYOP/strategic communication/messaging effort NO
g. Unity of effort/unity of command maintained NO

2. COIN force reduces at least three tangible support factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through j is at least 3 positive responses)
a. Flow of cross-border insurgent support significantly decreased, remains dramatically reduced, or largely absent ??
b. Important external support to insurgents significantly reduced ??
c. Important internal support to insurgents significantly reduced ??
d. Insurgents’ ability to replenish resources significantly diminished YES
e. Insurgents unable to maintain or grow force size NO
f. COIN force efforts resulting in increased costs for insurgent processes ??
g. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent recruiting ??
h. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent materiel acquisition YES
i. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent intelligence YES
j. COIN forces effectively disrupt insurgent financing ??

3. Government realizes at least two government legitimacy factors
(Score 1 if sum of a through e is at least 2 positive responses)
a. Government corruption reduced/good governance increased since onset of conflict NO
b. Government leaders selected in a manner considered just and fair by majority of population in area of conflict NO
c. Majority of citizens in the area of conflict view government as legitimate NO
d. Government provides better governance than insurgents in area of conflict NO
e. COIN force provides or ensures provision of basic services in areas it controls or claims to control NO

4. Government realizes at least one democracy factor
(Score 1 if sum of a through d is at least 1 positive response)
a .Government a functional democracy NO
b. Government a partial or transitional democracy YES
c. Free and fair elections held NO
d. Government respects human rights and allows free press YES

5. COIN force realizes at least one intelligence factor
(Score 1 if at least 1 positive response)
a. Intelligence adequate to support kill/capture or engagements on COIN force’s terms YES
b. Intelligence adequate to allow COIN force to disrupt insurgent processes or operations YES

6. COIN force of sufficient strength to force insurgents to fight as guerrillas (Score 1 if YES) YES

7. Government/state is competent NO

8. COIN force avoids excessive collateral damage, disproportionate use of force, or other illegitimate applications of force ??

9. COIN force seeks to engage and establish positive relations with population in area of conflict YES

10. Short-term investments, improvements in infrastructure/development, or property reform in area of conflict controlled or claimed by COIN force YES

11. Majority of population in area of conflict supports/favors COIN forces ??

12. COIN force establishes and then expands secure areas YES

13. COIN force has and uses uncontested air dominance YES

14. COIN force provides or ensures provision of basic services in areas it controls or claims to control ??

15. Perception of security created or maintained among population in areas COIN force claims to control ??

Total positive score (Sum of 1–15) 8 points

So far, not a bad score for ISAF although what this shows us is that the military side is fine but the civilian side - above all strategic communications and the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government - still presents enormous challenges as little progress would appear to have been made. So basically we haven't learned anything new here.

Bad Factors

1. COIN force uses both collective punishment and escalating repression
(Score 1 if at least 1 positive response)
a. COIN force employs escalating repression NO
b. COIN force employs collective punishment NO

2. Primary COIN force is an external occupier YES

3. COIN force or government actions contribute to substantial new grievances claimed by insurgents YES

4. Militias work at cross-purposes with COIN force/government NO

5. COIN force resettles/removes civilian populations for population control NO

6. COIN force collateral damage perceived by population in area of conflict as worse than insurgents’ NO

7. In area of conflict, COIN force perceived as worse than insurgents NO

8. COIN force fails to adapt to changes in adversary strategy, operations, or tactics NO

9. COIN force engages in more coercion/intimidation than insurgents NO

10. Insurgent force individually superior to COIN force by being either more professional or better motivated NO

11. COIN force or allies rely on looting for sustainment NO

12. COIN force and government have different goals/level of commitment YES

Total negative score (Sum of 1–12) 3 points

FINAL SCORE (Good minus Bad) 8 - 3 = 5 points

Total > 5 = History says, “You are on the path to victory.”
Total < 0 = History says, “You are in trouble.”
Total between 0 and 5 = History is equivocal: “Do you feel lucky?”

Conclusion: History says ISAF is almost on the path to victory, at least based on my assessments of each specific criterion and I'm sure many people would challenge these. Interestingly, I have arrived at essentially the same conclusion that I had before beginning the exercise, a conclusion (or an opinion) which my many previous posts on Afghanistan have outlined in some detail.

However, while the results would seem to give cause for optimism, I would add some caveats to this scorecard.

Firstly, the large number of question marks is due to the fact that I was simply unable to answer some questions. The two reasons for this were i/ that I do not have access to intelligence on, for example, insurgent financing and external support (and if I did I wouldn't reveal it, this blog is not Wikileaks); and ii/ I think it is simply impossible to establish the real views of the Afghan population, for example on the credibility of the Kabul government. Opinion polls are never completely accurate, even less so if the people responding risk their lives by speaking out against the Taliban. On top of that, the very concept of government (as we know it) barely exists in some remote areas of Afghanistan so the question is too generic (and too western) to be truly useful in an Afghan context.

A second caveat would be that I have tried to lean towards the worst-case scenario and be very miserly in handing out positive responses (I accept that here I'm slightly undermining the original intention to base this scorecard on perception and not reality). So for example, although the government does provide better governance than insurgents in some areas of the conflict, this is not the case in all areas. So no points here. By the same token, I don't believe ISAF contributes to substantial new grievances and although the Afghan government has done so on occasions and in certain places, this is not a universal picture. However, neither ISAF nor the Afghan government have fully resolved old grievances so, for that reason, they don't win any points.

In other words, where the question requires a black or white response I have chosen black. This is important because it could be that the score is actually better than I have made out.

A third caveat would be that this scorecard is a study of COIN based on a great many examples, whereas I'm specifically looking at Afghanistan. I doubt whether many Afghans, especially in rural areas, are really concerned about whether or not the government allows a free press. So although that counts as a positive on the scorecard, it may not count as a positive in reality.

Fourth and final caveat: history may be leaning in favour of an ISAF victory but, again, the report is not Afghanistan-specific. The evidence is drawn from around 30 case studies of insurgencies from all over the world. The three case studies from Afghanistan all registered as a victory for insurgents. In other words, there is a difference between world history and Afghan history.

In summary, the war in Afghanistan is not the disaster that many people believe it to be. It would seem to be going in the right direction - according to the criteria used here - and it could be that ISAF is very close to taking a decisive grip on the initiative, at least tactically, if the numerous question marks can be converted into points gained - although those specific criteria (ie. governance) are probably the hardest to achieve.

However, in addition to the caveats I outlined, I have to identify what I perceive to be actual problems with the study bearing in mind that I have deliberately not yet read it.

Firstly, I have referred to the so-called reconciliation process in Afghanistan on several previous occasions but the scorecard makes no mention of anything along these lines, any kind of criteria for a political settlement between the government and/or COIN force and their insurgent opponents. I find this to be a glaring omission given that the received wisdom is that there is no such thing as a decisive conventional victory in a COIN scenario and, therefore, some kind of political settlement with the insurgency must be reached.

Secondly, the scorecard suggests that the military aspect of the ISAF campaign is going fine but that the governance side is not. Of course we knew this already but we also know that victory - I mean a real victory, not a PR victory - is not possible unless achieved on all fronts. The study does not take this into account: instead, the COIN force wins simply by amassing a total of more than 5 points. In reality, or at least in Afghanistan, the COIN force must not just reach a certain amount of points but must score them across all categories.

I would therefore take issue with Rand's first key finding, that 'the balance of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ practices perfectly predicts outcomes', as I think there's more to it than simple arithmetic. Perhaps this finding makes sense in most of the other case studies but in Afghanistan today the picture is of ISAF scoring many points against insurgents but none with the Karzai government and that just isn't good enough.

Finally, most of the criteria in the scorecard are from the tactical level. This kind of methodology makes it very easy to conclude that we're winning because we're scoring tactical points, all the while losing sight of the bigger strategic and political picture. It is fashionable these days to quote Sun Tzu (especially among people who haven't actually read his book - myself included) and one of his most famous maxims is applicable here: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

In conclusion, I have tried to apply the scorecard to the current COIN campaign in Afghanistan which is much larger in scale and in geostrategic importance than all of the case studies in the report... except of course the Soviet Union's COIN campaign in Afghanistan. Even though I cannot claim to have learned anything new or had my perceptions changed in any way, I find the scorecard to be a semi-useful tool in highlighting certain strengths and weaknesses of a COIN campaign and certainly a very interesting intellectual exercise.

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