Afghanistan’s important Aug. 20 vote is over. Whatever the outcome, a poll by the International Republican Institute, completed just before the vote, shows a fresh burst of hopefulness among Afghans, with optimism about the future back to the 60 percent level for the first time in years and renewed faith in the United States as well as NATO. However, this is likely the last time we will have the benefits of a fresh start; our popularity, as well as the Afghan government’s, has been declining at most points in the past few years, and the insurgency is gaining a greater foothold. We must make maximum use of this opportunity.
President Obama’s new strategy is a step in the right direction — but how, and how soon, will we know if it is working? With declining support for the war among Americans, this is not only a fair question but an important one. The president owes Congress a report in September on metrics for gauging progress in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Congress will provide Mr. Obama the money he needs for the nation’s wars now, but these indicators could be crucial next year — as midterm elections approach and as the buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan raises expectations about the progress we should be able to see there.
Using metrics in war is perilous business. Assessing progress in war — especially this kind of counterinsurgency mission and state-building enterprise — is more art than science. But while it may be art, it must not be fiction. Any theory about the war’s trajectory must be consistent with the facts. In this regard, metrics can help.
Based on our experiences in and out of government, we would offer several guidelines on how to interpret quantitative data from the Afghanistan conflict that may be useful in the coming months:
- Don’t equate Afghanistan with Iraq. While the principles of counterinsurgency for the two wars are similar, the proper use of metrics in these places is very, very different. In Iraq, by 2005-06, violence against civilians was ripping the country apart, making it the No. 1 key indicator for future progress. Whatever else the surge accomplished, it had to bring down those fatalities as well as ethnic cleansing and displacement rates. In Afghanistan, despite the deterioration in security, violence against civilians remains far, far less than it was in the dog days of Iraq’s civil war.
- In Afghanistan, focus on state building. A related point is that metrics showing the growing capacity of the Afghan state are probably the most important in that country’s war. Not only the growth in size of the army and police, but their quality, as well as the functioning of legal systems and the efficiency of the bureaucracy in running schools and health clinics and utilities, are of paramount importance. More corrupt officials should be fired, too.
- Beware the wrong metrics. Unfortunately, gauging the capacity of a government to deliver key services to its population is hard. It is easy to find the wrong metrics. In Iraq in 2004-06, for example, we had a robust training program for Iraqi security forces — and yet, in retrospect, though the program was well-run, scholar Steve Biddle turned out to be right in arguing that we were effectively preparing many of those forces for civil war rather than counterinsurgency. Because their leadership was so poor and their political dependability so questionable, they inflamed rather than quelled the civil war. Yet our system of metrics at the time had shown continual progress.
- Don’t measure only what is easily measurable. There can be a tendency to trust “hard data” that seems precise and firm, such as the number of schools opened or miles of road built or megawatts of electricity sent over the official grid, and to downplay metrics for which information is less easily obtained, such as crime rates and unemployment rates and, as noted above, the political reliability of key leaders of the army, police and courts. Better to present questionable data and label it as such than to leave it out of a database because it is not polished.
- Measure the enemy as well as yourself. How many incidents is it initiating? In how many districts is it active? Are they all Pashtun areas, or is the insurgency spreading beyond Pashtunistan?
- Keep an eye on Pakistan. Is it succumbing to violence or tackling its own Frankenstein’s monster? Is violence spreading beyond the Pashtun belt here, too? As is often the case, the data are surely weak, but as best we can tell, are the jihadist safe havens growing or contracting? And what do Pakistanis think about us? Are we their foe or friend?
- Remember that some indicators lag and some lead. As Mr. Shapiro emphasizes, even in a successful campaign, some trends will take more time to improve than others. Troop fatality rates may stay tragically high even as progress begins to develop momentum on the battlefield, for example, if our troops gain better intelligence and are able to initiate more contact with the enemy. On the other side of things, economic activity may not improve rapidly until a year or two after security improves, as would-be investors remain cautious about committing their money until they’re sure progress is sustainable.
- Pay attention to polling. We may think of surveys as a prevalent feature of modern society, but as our colleague Carol Graham and others have shown, they can reveal a great deal — at the national and the local levels — about what a population is thinking. Because the population is the “center of gravity” in this type of war, that makes polling data crucial. We also can use surveys as a diagnostic tool to determine which elements of our overall strategy are succeeding and which are not.
If we were to offer one message now, in late summer 2009, based on the above principles, it would be this: Be patient. This is not a call for indefinite suspension of disbelief. After eight years, the American and Afghan peoples are entitled to some straight talk about the war and some reasonable expectation of near-term progress. But the inputs to the new strategy for Afghanistan are only now reaching the battlefield (and indeed, a debate about sending more troops may occur soon as well). Given the nature of the military operations at hand and the pace at which Afghan security forces and civilian institutions can be built, it will take much or all of 2010 to know if these added resources are translating into a turnaround on the battlefield. The Afghan people probably are patient enough, after 30 years of war, to wait this long for clear results. Given the quality of our new strategy and new leadership for Afghanistan policy, despite the costs and the pain, Congress and American people should be as well.
Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution. Mr. O’Hanlon recently observed the Afghanistan elections with the International Republican Institute. Mr. Riedel chaired President Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy last winter.