The newest way General Petraeus plans to measure success in the war in Afghanistan reminded me of what the government did when its campaign to persuade the public to stop smoking did not make much headway. It stopped counting how many people had had their last cigarette -- and started counting how many anti-smoking pamphlets it mailed.
The White House will conduct a review of Afghanistan policy in December. With this in mind, as Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of allied forces in eastern Afghanistan, put it, "We have to show progress". Accordingly, Gen. Petraeus has outlined five metrics of military success, including: "the elimination of Taliban sanctuaries outside the city of Kandahar and continued targeting of senior and mid-level insurgent leaders by U.S. Special Operations forces, an increase in the disappointing number of Taliban fighters brought into a government reintegration scheme, the development of newly authorized local defense forces, and improvement in the capabilities of Afghanistan's national security forces."
These measurements correlate very poorly with what the U.S. is seeking and with what General Petraeus argued to date was what he sought to achieve. Petraeus is famous for his counterinsurgency strategy, according to which one cannot win the war militarily, but only by building a "legitimate and effective" government composed of the citizens of the country, so that those who would rebel will be enticed to come in from the cold.
To measure progress on this front one, would have to know, for instance, that, if following the last election, the public does feel that the Karzai government is more representative and less fraudulent? Hardly. Does the public feel that the Karzai government and its local representatives, including the police and army, are less corrupt? No indication to this effect. Do they feel minimally secure in their homes and public spaces? Evidence shows to the contrary; the Taliban has been spreading in the northern, non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and holding on to most of the Southern ones. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001. Four years ago, insurgents were active in only four Afghan provinces. Now, they are active in 33 of 34.
Last August, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they carried out 1,353. The International Security Assistance Force recorded 4,919 "kinetic events" (small-arms fire, bombs and shelling, etc.) in August, a 49% increase over August 2009. Thus a proper set of measurements would show a retrogression rather than progress.
Petraeus' measurements not only measure minor steps, but they are so limited and hedged that success can be achieved without any true progress, like saying that if you used to have a dollar and now have two -- you are twice as rich. True but meaningless. "Eliminating Taliban sanctuaries outside Kandahar" after several months, during which a very large American and Afghan force set out to secure the city itself, seems small potatoes. "Targeting senior and mid-level insurgent leaders" is a continuing operation; more of the same, it is unlikely to turn the tide that is running against us. The same holds for the remaining measurements. The whole metrics idea smacks of the body count in Vietnam. When the U.S. was failing to roll back the Vietcong, which was controlling more and more of the country, the U.S. military started showing "progress" by reporting every so often how many of the enemy were killed - and making the figure grow by counting the innocent civilians killed. The figures were irrelevant and misleading.
If the American leaders and public will be swayed by these metrics, General Petraeus will turn out to be right when he stated:
You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually.... Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives.