The New Metrics of Afghanistan
The Data Needed to Support Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build
By Anthony H. Cordesman
CSIS, Aug 7, 2009
No one who works with the unclassified data on Afghanistan can fail to be aware of how poor and contradictory much of that data now are. In general, no NATO/ISDAF government – including the United States – has yet provided an honest or meaningful picture of the war. Far too often, official reporting has been tailored to report success when the Taliban, Hekmatyer, and Haqqani were actually scoring major gains. In other cases, key problems in the Afghan government, the NATO/ISAF effort, and the economic aid effort were ignored or disguised as successes.
In other cases, governments have simply reported metrics designed for bureaucratic purposes in other contexts, and which simply are not relevant to war fighting. Far too much economic reporting, for example, has ignored the real world poverty and needs of the Afghan people and reported classic econometric data. The bulk of reporting on aid has ignored the realities of warfighting except to excuse focusing aid on areas where it has little or no impact on areas with significant risk or outside the immediate perimeter of military protection. Most aid reporting has focused on funding and money spent and projects started, not on whether they meet the requirements of either broad national development or war fighting, or whether they have any meaningful or enduring effectiveness in actually serving the Afghan people.
CSIS has been tracking the data that are made available by NATO/ISAF, the US, other allied countries, the UN, available for several years. A survey of the key maps, graphics, and other data that are now provided is available on the CSIS web site at :
A review of these data reveals critical problems that call the integrity of most public Western reporting on the Afghan conflict into question. It also shows that clear needs exist for more objective reporting and measures of effectiveness:
Metrics That Show the True Nature of Taliban and Insurgent Successes
Virtually all NATO/ISAF and member country combat reporting has focused on military clashes between NATO/ISAF and insurgent forces. Until recently, almost all of this data has been tied to analyses that grossly minimize insurgent success by focusing on the limited number of districts (13 out of 364 in a recent US report) where there have been major clashes.
Yet, between 2004 and 2009, the insurgents generally avoided engaging NATO/ISAF forces unless they had a strong political motive to fight and concentrated on expanding their political and security control over the countryside. NATO/ISAF was winning largely meaningless tactical clashes without securing or “holding” population centers while the insurgents succeeded in locking NATO/ISAF and Afghan government efforts into steadily smaller areas. They took over much of southern Afghanistan; expanded their influence in the east, center, north, and west; steadily reduced the areas in which aid and PRTs could operate; and steadily won the war of political control that really counted.
For years, NATO/ISAF, the US, and other NATO/ISAF countries failed to provide unclassified data and maps showing this progress. They talked about victory measured solely in terms of the outcome of tactical clashes with insurgent forces from 2002 through much of 2008. Even today, government spokesmen talk about stalemates at a time the insurgency has scored more than half a decade of steady gains in winning the war it is seeking to fight: a battle of ideology, political influence and control in Afghanistan, and political attrition in undermining NATO/ISAF support for the war.
The only reporting that began to show what was actually happening was a series of UN maps that showed the massive expansion of insurgent influence in terms of risk to aid works. The UN reporting showed entire districts at risk when insurgent influence was often more limited, and this tended to exaggerate Taliban and other insurgent influence. It has generally been correct, however, in showing that it expanded from some kind of active presence somewhere close to 30 districts in 2003 to around 150 today – some 40% of the country and more than ten times the figures where NATO/ISAF reported on major attack incidents.
It is only now, after some eight years of warfare, that NATO/ISAF is truly beginning to shift its strategy to fight the war necessary to win, and is focusing on control of key population centers. This shape, clear, hold, and build strategy seeks to defeat the Taliban and insurgents in the war they have actually been fighting by:
■Shape: Create the military conditions necessary to secure key population centers; limit the flow of insurgents;
■Clear: Removing insurgent and anti-government elements from a given area or region, thereby creating space between the insurgents and the population;
■Hold: Maintaining security, denying the insurgents access and freedom of movement within the given space; and,
■Build: Exploiting the security space to deliver humanitarian relief and implement reconstruction and development initiatives that will connect the Afghan population to its government and build and sustain the Afghanistan envisioned in the strategic goals.
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