March 28, 2009

On Metrics in Afghanistan

Sharing a car back from the wilds of Virginia yesterday, I had a long conversation with Dave Kilcullen that improbably ranged from Herodotus to William of Ockham to, finally, appropriate metrics in Afghanistan. (Fun fact: Dave's medievalist father is one of the world's leading experts on William of Ockham. Who knew?) As I joked on the blog a few weeks ago, the Marines used rice production as a metric in Vietnam in place of enemy body count, but we can't very well use poppy production as our metric in Afghanistan.

Still, evident in the administration's mindset going forward is some way to measure success -- or to determine whether or not the U.S. and its allies are failing. President Obama:

Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.

And Riedel:

The President feels very strongly that this strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable, and that to the extent possible, we develop metrics -- and you heard him use that word in the speech -- that give you an idea of our success rate. He wants to reevaluate periodically how we're doing, what's working, what's not working, make mid-course corrections and adjustments.

But what metrics to use? One we should not use, at least not in the next twelve months, is violence. As most commentators have noted, the U.S. and its allies are going to be marching into Taliban-controlled territory over the next year. Casualties -- U.S., allied, civilian, Taliban -- will go up.

That does not help, though, in determining which positive metrics to use. Training of Afghan police and soldiers? Civilian casualties? Decrease in air strikes requested? Dave mentioned a unit that had begun to catalogue the variety of vegetables on sale in the local markets as evidence that farmers were growing more than poppy.

Let me ask the readership to help us -- and the administration -- come up with creative ways to measure success and failure in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, it has been heartening to see Republicans and Democrats get behind the president's plan. There is an understanding, I think, that we're all in this one together and that now that the plan is in place, it's time to roll up our sleeves. In the same way, Marisa Katz (C '99) has assembled a good group of thinkers for the Post's Outlook section tomorrow weighing in on the president's plan: Ricks, Nagl, Bacevich, O'Sullivan, Chayes, and the man whose opinion you have all been waiting for, Dennis Kucinich.