Military Struggles How to Measure Success in Afghanistan

How do we know whether we’re winning or losing a war if nobody knows how to measure success? That’s the problem we face in Afghanistan, according to Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton, director of operations for the Joint Staff, who spoke this morning at a Brookings Institution sponsored conference.

When President Obama gave Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal his marching orders, he said McChrystal had about 12 to 18 months to prove his population centric counterinsurgency strategy was working. The “agreement” between Obama and McChrystal was that instead of a counterterrorism strategy, McChrystal would pursue a “fully resourced COIN strategy,” Paxton said, and the “first increment” of that resourcing would be 30,000 additional troops. U.S. officials are trying to negotiate additional troop contributions from the NATO allies.

While there is uncertainty as to when the clock began ticking, whether it was June when the Marines arrived in southern Afghanistan or when McChrystal’s strategic assessment was delivered in August, military commanders are keenly aware that time is running out. “We know it is a finite amount of resources in terms of people and a finite amount of time,” Paxton said.

Both military and civilian officials are struggling to come up with some way of measuring success or failure in Afghanistan. “What is a true measure of effectiveness? How do you measure stability and security on the ground?… What are those metrics, how do you state them, how do you measure them, how frequently do you look at them… That’s the exact debate the commanders on the ground are having, the PRTs and the inter-agency teams in the theater are having and that we’re going to have back here in Washington.”

He listed a number of possible metrics including: declining levels of corruption, the number of tips provided by the Afghan people on IED locations, the number of markets and bazaars opening up or the number of police chiefs turning in others on the force.

Paxton said the next stage in the “phased” Afghan campaign plan is to attack the insurgent “rat lines” that funnel fighters and supplies from the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan into the south of the country. “You can’t get through the capital of the Pashtun belt in Kandahar unless you can open up freedom of movement in the central Helmand river Valley.” Once that area is cleared, Kandahar city and surrounding areas will become the focus of operations.

The demand from Afghanistan and Iraq for intelligence and surveillance aircraft and sensors eats up about 88 percent of the total inventory, he said. Meanwhile, combatant commanders from other areas of the world are “clamoring” for those limited assets that are left over.

Paxton also echoed a complaint I’ve been hearing more frequently from military commanders, that defense industry is not delivering quality and timely gear and weapons systems. “We have a lot of programs that are in jeopardy right now,” he said, singling out the Joint Strike Fighter and future fighting vehicles. “Some have been cancelled in the last couple of years because of Nunn-McCurdy violations, there are cost overruns, they’re not making key performance parameters, they’re not making deadlines.”

— Greg

  • Michael

    How can you know that you are winning when you have no clear definition of victory? When you don’t know when you’ve won you don’t know when to stop. And open-ended wars are ALWAYS lost.
    This logic implies that NATO will lose in Afghanistan, regardless of it’s military superiority.

    • WillyPete

      The whole point, as “Dubya” told us before he was elected the first time, was to keep the war going until he got his agenda passed through Congress!
      In other words, there was no definition of how we could ‘win’, because we were never supposed to!
      Right now, the best we can hope for is to get to a point where the afghans and Pakistanis can take over the fight, with minimal assistance from us.

  • DennisBuller

    How about no more groups in Afghanistan plotting, training and funding another 9/11? Wait, that is already accomplished….
    How about getting most of the people in the country involved and respecting the political process? Not easy considering the corruption… but a worthwhile goal.
    Coupled with economic progress?

  • @Earlydawn

    In summary, this article reinforces two points. First of all, we need to hold the military-industrial complex accountable for the product that we pay for. Yes, new systems are tremendously expensive, and yes, Uncle Sam should pay for some of the R&D. That is not an excuse to abuse the acquisitions process and reap windfall profits during a time of war.

    Second - while our current strategy is better then the old Bush-era strategy of letting Kabul wither on the vine while we focused elsewhere, we’re still a long way from victory, and we’re realistically not going to see any kind of sustained returns until we figure out what we’re doing with Pakistan.

  • pete saussy

    “combatant commanders from other areas of the world are “clamoring” for those limited assets that are left over.” what other areas? are there some other wars we’re involved in that haven’t been scoped/scooped by the aegis eyes of CNN or Faux News?

    • TMB

      Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, Mexico come to mind.

  • McKellar

    Isn’t it kinda dumb to expect a quantitative measurement of what is a very complex and essentially qualitative situation?

    • TMB

      This question came up in a briefing yesterday. One of the company commanders asked “what is success?” The brigade commander”s response was “whatever the local afghan in your area thinks it is.” Afghanistan is such a spread out and diverse country that no single answer seems appropriate. If part of our strategy is to defeat the taliban by winning over the people, then success has countless definitions. It could be reduced drugs, job opportunities, political representation, or simply feeling safe enough to walk outside.

  • Christopher Alemany

    It strikes me that if you’re “struggling to measure success” then you’re actually failing.

  • Christopher Alemany

    It strikes me that if you’re “struggling” to measure success then you are effectively failing and whatever it is you’re doing.

  • roland

    Call it quits and bring them home. Let their AFGHAN troops handle their own country. Just create a Army post to spy on the whereabout of Osama Bin Ladin. We needed our GI here at home specially the brewing crises between South Korea and North Korea; Iran ; Airspace, sea territorial incursion by the Russians; Taiwan and China crises.

  • paul

    Thats a solution Israel knows well.And many Christians.Secular schemas has no absolutes to decipher from.

  • Oblat

    If you are debating the nature of success then it’s a sure sign you are losing.

    • DennisBuller

      Debate is what allows us win.

  • Sancho Panza

    I’m with Bill Clinton : “Its the Economy, stupid!”.
    If the average 20 year old Afghan could get a job and aspire to raise a family without nepotism or backhanders then they wouldn’t feel the need to join the Taliban.
    They need a functioning economy with factories and service industries and the success metrics should be GNP, Tax-take and corruption index.

  • mad mike

    The objective is to force the Taliban to the bargaining table in order to reach a political settlement; not to annihilate the Taliban. A political solution is necessary in order to dismantle the Al Queda network, which nobody really likes anyway. Who needs a bunch of crazies from Saudi Arabia telling the Taliban what to do?