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The wrong metrics in Afghanistan

COMMENTARY | June 09, 2009

Using growing body counts as a measure of military success was discredited during the Vietnam War -- and shouldn't be revived in Afghanistan. A former Air Force officer suggests three alternative metrics for assessing the progress – or lack thereof – in Afghanistan.

By William J. Astore

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Army Deploys Old Tactic in PR War, Michael Phillips reported on the return of the “body count” in Afghanistan.

The concept of measuring military success simply by counting the number of enemy combatants killed became discredited during the Vietnam War, and was initially rejected by the Bush Administration – although the temptation to highlight easily comprehensible evidence of progress in Iraq eventually led to selective revivals of the body count by the Bush team.

Body counts have been appropriately condemned for establishing pernicious incentives in the field, and for being easily exaggerated. Particularly in counter-insurgency campaigns, accurate counting is notoriously problematic for a variety of reasons, most notably the difficulty of distinguishing the enemy from civilians. Body counts also tend to alienate the population and distract attention from the kinds of progress that really matter.

Now, under President Obama, body counts are again being revived and applied to Afghanistan, not apparently as a measure of tactical success, but rather “to undermine insurgent propaganda, and stiffen the resolve of the American public,” Phillips writes.  The intent, in other words, is to preempt enemy claims that they’re winning the war – claims they support by citing our admissions of our dead – by touting our own body counts of their dead.  Thus, if we kill 20 of them and they kill two of us and we both tout the numbers, we win the propaganda war at both the battlefront and the homefront.  Such is the twisted logic of public relations in war.

Phillips’s article reminds us of the difficulty of measuring success in what is essentially a low-intensity, counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.  Indeed, despite Obama’s promise when he announced his Afghanistan strategy in late March that he would “set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable,” none have yet been agreed upon.

So what are the right metrics for our military (and our media) to use in evaluating our success (or lack thereof)?  Here are three straightforward metrics that should prove telling over the next year as the Obama Administration escalates combat activities in Afghanistan:

1.  Ultimately, enemy body count should decrease.  The more our military succeeds in denying sanctuaries to insurgents and terrorists, and the more it’s able to win the hearts and minds of local Afghanis, the fewer fighters the enemy will be able to recruit, train, and field, and thus the fewer we’ll need to kill.  A lower enemy body count also implies that our drone/air strikes will be either more discriminating or less frequent – both desirable goals.  If the enemy’s body count keeps rising, it’s likely a sign of their resiliency over time – their ability to sustain operations – as well as our continual need to resort to lethal firepower to counter them – with a concomitant rise in civilian (non-combatant) casualties that may exacerbate tensions between U.S. military commanders and Afghani government officials.

2.  American casualties should also decrease.  Gaining control of the countryside and winning over the people implies fewer IEDs, ambushes, and other costly attacks on our forces.  If our casualties continue to increase, it implies greater enemy effectiveness, necessitating more risky combat operations by us.  An increase in friendly casualties will also likely weaken support for the war among Americans back home.

3.  The number of American combat forces in Afghanistan should also decrease, especially as Afghan troops and police become more politically reliable, more effective in providing security to the people, and more capable of fighting toe-to-toe with the Taliban and other terrorists.  If American and Coalition forces continue to surge (including the number of private military contractors, which should be counted in the mix), it is more than likely the enemy is winning.

As the U.S. government and military defines further metrics in Afghanistan, the media should evaluate them against these two criteria: 1) Are they directly and transparently connected to the desired end-state in Afghanistan, most notably a politically stable and economically viable nation-state?; and 2) Do they truly measure the suppression and defeat of insurgents and terrorists, or are they biased toward preexisting American and coalition strengths, such as superiority in firepower and technology?  Clear answers to these questions are crucial if we are to avoid relying on misleading or tainted metrics such as “body count” that reflect our recourse to tactics of last resort. 

Numbers are seductive to Americans because we live by them.  But Afghani villagers can neither eat them nor sell them.  Ultimately, we’ll win not by better salesmanship or fancy metrics, but by providing safety and security to the people while respecting their way of life.

In this regard, one measure is certain: If we start having to destroy villages to save them while counting up the bodies, as we did in Vietnam, we’ll know we’ve lost.

More Coverage of the War in Afghanistan from NiemanWatchdog.org

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