|24 May 17. The United States is now reexamining its strategy for Afghanistan, and whether it needs to shift from a “deadlines-based” strategy tied to steady reductions in its forces and effort to a “conditions-based” strategy designed to meet Afghanistan’s actual needs. This raises critical issues regarding the success or failure of past U.S. efforts to create effective Afghan forces, and the conditions in Afghanistan that will help determine the probable success of any new U.S. strategy.
A new report by the CSIS Burke Chair addresses these issues in depth by comparing the metrics on the Afghan War that are available to illuminate the current conditions in Afghanistan. This report is entitled The Afghan War: Key Developments and Metrics and it is available on the CSIS web site at cs.is/2rRakxn.
The report provides a survey of the metrics on several key aspects of the Afghan war. These include the cost of the war, the trends in the fighting, the nature of the U.S. train and assist mission, the progress and problems shaping Afghan security forces, the lack of resources for civil-military operations, and the problems in Afghan governance, corruption, and popular support.
The survey also covers the levels of stress in Afghan economics and business development, in social dynamics and poverty, and the impact of Afghan demographics, the resulting youth bulge, and growing urbanization on the war. The final section flags the growing importance of narcotics to the Afghan economy and each side in the war.
Such a report on the metrics of the war can only tell part of the story. Metrics are limited by the quality of the data, the ability to find a credible source of the most useful information, the nerd for security or to serve political goals, and by the ability to quantify or map the data involved. They need narratives to put them in context, and there are many areas—such as the strategy and politics of a conflict—where metrics can only provide limited insights.
This survey cannot avoid such limitations, but metrics do have the advantage that they can often summarize complex patterns in the conflict in ways that narrative cannot, and can flag areas where the trends raise major issues for policy planning, strategy, and analysis. They also provide a way of comparing very different trends and aspects of a conflict and flagging interactions that might otherwise be far less apparent.
The key sections of the report include metrics that provide the following insights into the challenges that the United States, its allies, and Afghanistan face in formulating and implementing a new strategy:
The Size and the Cost of the Current U.S. Effort
One of the stranger aspects of America’s current wars is that no administration or element of Congress has ever provided an official estimate of the cost of each war. The closest thing to such an estimate is the work of Amy Belasco of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and this work relies on partial reporting that may not fully include important medical and retirement costs, and leaves serious issues about what is and is not included in the DoD and State Department OCO and other budget data it draws upon.
The tables and graphs in the report show that this estimate put the cost of the Afghan War at $743.7 billion from FY2001-2003, with $700.7 billion going to DoD (current military costs less medical and retirement) (94.2%), and $36.2 billion going to State (4.9%). If one includes the OCO costs for FY2016 and FY2017 reflected in the revised DoD estimate for March 2017 ($129 billion), and the State Department request for FY2016 and FY2017 as of February 2017 ($35.6 billion), the total current cost of the war through FY2017 would be $901.5 billion.
Unfortunately, the OCO budget for Afghanistan includes spending on Baseline activities as a way of avoiding the budget caps under the Budget Control Act and “in theater support” costs that do not always seem tied to the Afghan War. It has become a catch-all category for manipulating the DoD budget to avoid budget caps, which explains part of the reason a low level of U.S. combat activity in Afghanistan is projected to cost $8 billion in FY2017 and the fighting in Iraq and Syria is costed at only $9 billion.
At present, both the Administration and Congress have failed to provide a credible database for costing the Afghan War, and providing a reliable basis for estimating the trends in these costs.
Conflicting Patterns of Threat Analysis: Estimates of the Threat, Levels of Violence, and Comparative Control of Districts
The U.S. and ISAF were slow to publicly recognize the growth of the Taliban and other threats, and never publicly acknowledged the key role Pakistan and its ISI played in giving threat forces a sanctuary and support. By 2006, however, the metrics showing the rising number of attacks made it clear that the Taliban had returned in force and that ISAF and the Afghan government (GIROA) faced a major threat.
The resulting public analysis did not focus on areas of influence and the political dimensions of what had become a major insurgency, and never provided clear estimates of the size of threat forces, their structure, their effectiveness, and their financing, and often failed to explain the seasonal patterns in the fighting.
It did, however, provide relatively honest and detailed metrics on the patterns in the fighting through CY2009-CY2012. After that point, metrics became more and more limited, and the categories were increasingly tailored to “spin” the outcome in favor of ISAF and the ANSF—gradually approaching the propaganda levels common in the “Vietnam Follies.”
By the time the surge in U.S. forces had ended, a sharp set of difference had emerged between US/ISAF and UN, IMF, and other reporting on the level of threat influence and risk in maps of Afghanistan, and the U.S. and ISAF began to deliberately choose metrics that favored the ANSF and ISAF.
These included limiting reporting to Enemy Initiated Attacks (EIA), and sometimes only effective Enemy Initiated Attacks, which sharply understated the overall level of violence, and ignored the fact that the threat had little reason to directly engage ISAF and ISAF supported forces once the United States had announced that its combat forces were leaving at the end of 2014.
Initially relatively honest metrics on the impact of the surge in U.S. forces—showing a range of patterns rather than just EIAs—were dropped when it became apparent that it had no lasting impact and the threat continued to grow.
The United States and ISAF then ceased to publicly report most other metrics showing the course of the fighting, and new metrics on the transition to Afghan forces gave exaggerated credit to Afghan forces taking the “lead” in what were often minor operations and in ones that had substantial U.S. and ISAF support on the ground and in the air.
By the end of 2016, some reporting bordered on the absurd. It treated all EIAs as the same, and the steady growth of threats to targets like two provincial capitals was disguised by reporting every attack as if it had the same impact.
The graphics showing the level of threat by district were dropped from DoD and ISAF reporting and replaced by changing tables that focused on control of districts in ways where “control” and “contested” were never defined, and where the growth of threatening political influence and control of the countryside seems to have been sharply understated.
Similarly, estimates by the UN and NGOs and by the Taliban seem to reflect a much higher level of threat, as do most of the metrics in the following section of this report. Put bluntly, DoD reporting seems to have limited credibility at best, and Resolute Support (the replacement for ISAF) has not provided any meaningful metrics on the threat.
Conflicting Patterns of Threat Analysis: Afghan Perceptions, Civilian Casualties, and Terrorist Incidents
Three further sets of metrics raise serious issues regarding current official DoD reporting on the current size of the threat: Popular opinion, civilian casualties, and terrorist incidents:
Shaping and Resourcing the Train and Assist Mission
The metrics on the train and assist mission are complex, but reveal several critical things about the nature of the train and assist mission in Afghanistan:
Progress and Problems in Afghan Forces
Stress in Governance, Corruption, and Popular Support
Funding Military vs. Civil-Military Operations
The graphics in this section help illustrate several key issues:
Levels of Stress in Economics and Business
Levels of Stress in Social Dynamics and Poverty
The World Bank provides a far more realistic picture of the pressures on the civilian population than many competing sources. Some other sources seem to deliberately avoid addressing the full economic impact of the war, and the massive cuts in U.S. and allied military spending in country since 2013, as well as cuts in aid.
The World Bank warns that poverty has been increasing since 2008, and rose sharply between 2013 and 2014. There evidently has been limited data on many aspects of these issues since 2014-2015, but the World Bank data still warn that the post-2014 period has been one with:
Demographics, Urbanization, and the “Youth Bulge”
The economic strains on “hearts and minds” are further driven by major population pressures.
Accepting a Narco-Economy?
Virtually all reporting on the Afghan economy is fundamentally dishonest in that it does not estimate the economic impact of the “illicit” sectors of the economy: corruption and narcotics.
Massive increase in drug growing and output since 2014, and drug eradication programs have clearly been a wasteful failure.
Most reporting of the economic impact of narcotics is meaningless because it only considers farm gate economics, and not the overall impact of narco-processing and trafficking.
Estimates of economic impact are uncertain, but:
Job estimates for drugs go to 400,000—more than the total ANSF authorized strength.