WASHINGTON -- After 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the American public has no way to know if the United States is winning the war or not.
Unlike past wars, where the advances or retreats of tank columns and forward infantry positions could be charted on a map, the war in Afghanistan has been defined by imprecise goals and a severe shortage of facts with which to judge the war's course.
As a result, the public and politicians are either tuned out of a conflict in which tens of thousands of young Americans still are fighting, or they are squabbling over what it all means. On the presidential campaign trail, in the halls of Congress and across the country, critics and defenders of the war argue passionately -- but with few facts at hand.
The abundance of over-heated rhetoric and shortage of facts about the Afghanistan war suggest turbulence ahead. President Barack Obama and the Pentagon are struggling to maintain the pace of fighting along with promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and to engage in potential talks with the Taliban, in an election year with declining public support for the war.
"There is no standard process of [calculating] whether you are winning or losing,'' Seth Jones, a long-time adviser to special operations forces in Afghanistan, told The Huffington Post. "How we're doing in Afghanistan is subject to intense debate because the public data is extremely limited as to what the government is willing to provide.''
At a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told The Huffington Post that his headquarters meticulously tracks dozens of "metrics'' to measure the course of the war, from school attendance to the Afghan public's opinion of the national police, to the number and location of violent attacks. On the basis of that data, Scaparrotti said, "I personally see steady progress across the country.''
But he declined to share the data. "We prefer not to make it public,'' he said, adding that "the enemy'' might see it.
The lack of clarity affects the military as well. In a conversation at Fort Bragg recently, Col. Brian Mennes, who commands a brigade of 82nd Airborne paratroopers deploying this month for a combat tour, put it this way: "I don't think we've defined ... do we even know what winning is?''
The U.S. goals in Afghanistan, as analyst Joshua Foust has observed, are ambiguous at best: to deny al Qaeda and other extremists safe haven inside Afghanistan.
That leaves unclear whether the precise goal is to have no extremists inside Afghanistan for all time, or something less. If an acceptable outcome is something less -- to have a few extremist Taliban groups inside Afghanistan, for instance -- there is nothing to define what that would mean in terms of U.S. military or economic support for Afghanistan.
Instead, senior military officers and even Obama are reduced to mouthing generalities about which way the war is heading. "The tide of war is receding,'' Obama declared last June, midway through a year in which 418 Americans would be killed in battle in Afghanistan. He added, "The light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.'"
A year ago, a senior Pentagon policymaker, Michele Flournoy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States had made "significant progress'' in the war and that troops "are putting relentless pressure on the insurgents and securing more and more of the Afghan population.''
In 2009 the Defense Department said that "The ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces, the army and police] continued to improve its capability.'' It reported that Afghanistan's security forces are "demonstrating increased capacity and capability to lead deliberate operations.''
Increasing the capacity of Afghan army and police units to take over security is a key U.S. goal, but judging their readiness has been difficult. At Wednesday's briefing, for instance, Scaparrotti hinted that Afghan security forces are effectively taking over. He said 50 percent of the Afghan population lives under the protection of Afghan security forces, and that they are "increasingly taking the lead'' in joint operations with U.S. forces.
Under questioning, though, Scaparrotti acknowledged that only about 1 percent of Afghan army battalions can operate independently, even with U.S. advisers.
Independent analysts and journalists who have spent time with joint U.S.-Afghan operations know how much the Afghans depend on the U.S. for food, water and ammunition, for medical support, for mine-clearing, communications, transport and other battlefield necessities. The Pentagon has not released data quantifying those shortcomings.
The scarcity of such hard data led an Army reserve officer, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, to accuse top generals of painting too rosy a picture of the war -- essentially, lying about progress. In an essay published in Armed Forces Journal, an independent magazine, the army reserve officer offered his own personal observations to make his point that the United States is failing "on virtually every level.''
"Our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and American people the unvarnished truth and let the people decide what course of action to choose,'' Davis wrote.
Davis had also written previously for Armed Forces Journal to express his opposition to the war.
The article ignited a firestorm that on Wednesday reached the Capitol, where a series of speeches in the House chamber endorsed Davis' views -- but offered few facts to back up their positions.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) painted the American presence in Afghanistan as a futile attempt to mediate an internal struggle -- as the U.S. found itself doing in Iraq.
"Our troops in Afghanistan are no longer fighting terrorists who pose a threat to the United States," Garamendi said. "They are now fighting domestic Afghan factions and defending a corrupt and inept Afghan government. Our service members are dying in another country's civil war."
But Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, offered a personal story to back up his contention that U.S. forces should withdraw. Jones' district includes the sprawling Camp Lejeune Marine base, and he became emotional when telling the story of a Marine sergeant stationed there who was killed by one of the Afghan soldiers under his tutelage.
"Sergeant Baldiff emailed his wife Amy the night before he died and said, 'I don't trust them. I don't trust them. I don't trust any of them,'" Jones recounted, with a picture of Baldiff's two daughters propped up next to him. "The next night, a trainee stood up at a dinner and shot and killed ... the sergeant."
But apart from personal anecdotes, Jones urged his colleagues to demand more facts and better answers on the conduct of the war.
He said, "We must demand that this Congress awaken from its sleep on Afghanistan."