June 01, 2009

Afghanistan: the Good and the Bad

Goodness gracious, what is going on my country? My co-religionists are assassinating people in their churches and the U.S. and Canadian governments, by the end of today, will own 72% of General Motors. Is there any good news out there? Maybe, uh, in Afghanistan?

Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, this encouraging article from yesterday's New York Times shows the way effective population-centric counterinsurgency operations can affect a region in Afghanistan.

“Compared with last year, it’s 100 percent different,” said Muhamed Zaker, an apple farmer from the area.

On the other hand, another article, in today's Wall Street Journal, explains the way in which the U.S. military, channeling Westmoreland apparently, is now using body counts as a metric in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, counting bodies is now more prevalent than it ever was in Iraq.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the military saw itself as fighting a few holdouts and, as often as not, reported their deaths. By 2005, however, commanders decided to avoid body counts, largely on the grounds they had proved unreliable, according to James Yonts, military spokesman at the time.

By 2007, it was apparent that Taliban, al Qaeda and other holdouts were actually conducting a full-fledged insurgency. The U.S.-led coalition realized that it -- and the Afghan government -- had to win the battle for legitimacy. At that point, public-affairs officers usually eschewed casualty reports because they feared that by focusing on killing, they would distract from the improvements Afghan authorities and their coalition backers were bringing to people's lives.

Body counts were "kind of a politically sensitive issue," says former Lt. Col. David Accetta, director of the 82nd Airborne Division's media operation at Bagram Airfield in 2007. Death tallies aren't "any kind of measurement or metric of success," says Mr. Accetta, who has since retired from the military.

Col. Cavoli, the former battalion commander, says his men fired thousands of rounds of artillery at insurgents along the Pakistan border during a tour lasting more than a year, ending in 2007. But "making the enemy irrelevant in the minds of the people was a much more profound defeat for the enemy than killing some of his members or even killing a lot of his people," says Col. Cavoli, who went on to teach counterinsurgency techniques to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officers.

The Army began a rethink when the 101st Airborne Division took over Afghan media operations in April 2008. Commanders worried the U.S.-led coalition appeared to be losing ground. The U.S. military routinely releases information about Americans killed in action. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 618 Americans have died in and around Afghanistan, 456 killed in combat. Remaining silent about enemy deaths gave the false impression that the U.S. was losing, says Lt. Col. Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the 101st and a proponent of the new approach.

As far as I am concerned, Chris Cavoli has it right and the well-meaning gang in Afghanistan now is misguided. In the context of a counterinsurgency campaign -- which we can all agree we're engaged in -- enemy body count is a poor metric. Civilian body counts, by contrast, are a better metric -- the fewer civilians dying, the better. In our soon-to-be-released paper from CNAS on Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will have an entire chapter dedicated to metrics you can use to track the administration's new strategy. Enemy body count, I can assure you, is no where to be found. I know the public affairs officers in Afghanistan are trying their best, but by publicizing enemy body counts as part of one's communications plan, you create the impression that we ourselves are using enemy body count as an effective metric to track success and failure. Which I hope to goodness we are not.