THE BLOG

It Is Much Easier to Proclaim Progress Than Conduct Oversight

When we launched the Afghanistan Study Group project and presented our first report in September, I read the following quote from one of America's commanding generals in Afghanistan:

"What we're doing is moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy here in Afghanistan... That's a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground." The approach, he said, will give soldiers "great depth of knowledge, understanding, and much better intelligence access to the local people in those areas by owning, as it were, those chunks of territory."

I then asked the audience who said it. Of course the replies I received were generals Petraeus and McChrystal. Amused astonishment summarized the reaction I received when I informed the audience it was Lieutenant General David Barno in February 2004.

Nearly seven years later, Congressman Mike Pence (R-Indiana) has returned from a two-day trip to our military headquarters in Kabul and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Like many other pro-war supporters, particularly politicians who gain the most by waving the bloody shirt, Representative Pence repeats claims of progress that are not backed by any evidence or facts.

Anyone who reads the newspaper regularly will acknowledge we have not made progress in Afghanistan over the last year (or for that matter the past five). After $104 billion spent in FY2010 and nearly a full year after President Obama ordered 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan (on top of the 21,000 he ordered in March 2009 and in addition to the significant annual increases in NATO and US forces since 2005) we have achieved the following:

-double-digit percentage increases (in a negative manner) in nearly all key areas of metrics and indicators, including a 58 percent increase in American combat deaths;
-an Afghan election more crooked than 2009's stolen election;
-an increase in support for the Taliban;
-a dramatic increase in the instability of the previously, relatively, stable north of the country;
-a failure to deliver "government in a box" to Marjah or clear Kandahar City;
-the revelation that key aides of President Karzai are on the Iranian payroll;
-the near collapse of the Kabul bank;
-US intelligence verification of Pakistani support for the Taliban;
-disclosures of a massive increase in coalition night raids and air strikes and resulting weekly tallies of dead Taliban that are somehow not matched by reports of decreases in Taliban operations, but rather by a nearly 60 percent increase in Taliban attacks; etc.

Further, glaring confusion between our senior leaders and in the execution of our policy complicates and corrupts our strategic thoughts and plans. Turn the television on over the last year and you cannot hear one senior administration official make a statement on our Afghan policy without being contradicted by another senior administration official on another television channel. Watch the military campaign proceed over the past 12 months and see a shift from a counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting the population, to a strategy focusing on conducting special operations raids, to one now relying more and more on airstrikes and firepower to include for the first time in nine years the introduction of American main battle tanks into the conflict (not exactly keeping faith to the spirit of placing the population first).

What we are doing in Afghanistan is not working and there is no reason to believe our leadership, civilian and uniformed, has a clear path to end the conflict, stabilize Afghanistan and the region, get our troops home and defeat al Qaeda. Yet, somehow claims of progress, not backed by any demonstrable facts or tempered with any degree of sincerity, such as the assurances Congressman Pence provides, continue to be proclaimed with enthusiasm and a veneer of honesty by leaders throughout this country.

Below you will find quotes since 2004 from the commanding generals of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Note how familiar the words are, particularly the assertions of new strategies, the promising arrival of new troops, the continual need for the Afghans to step up and how conditions on the ground necessarily must get worse before things get better, as if there is some proven curing period that we must just be patient with.

Now remember our men and women in Afghanistan and their families here at home this Thanksgiving. For our troops, their families and for the integrity of this nation, challenge Congressman Pence and other politicians on their claims of progress in Afghanistan that are unmatched in reality. Maybe then, on behalf of our troops and our nation's interest, our politicians will follow their constitutional duty and provide oversight over our generals and civilian officials by asking tough questions and holding our senior leaders accountable rather than just parroting commonly recited assertions of progress.

"But Lt. Gen. David Barno said the future was against them and predicted the near-total collapse of the Taliban within a year. "As these terrorist capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan," Barno told a news conference... Barno noted that a number of senior insurgents have already abandoned the fight and said more would follow."

Lieutenant General David Barno, USA Today, April 17, 2005

"The British-led NATO force taking over from the American troops in the south "has well-equipped, well-led and fully prepared forces to operate in this challenging environment and deal with any threats," he added... General Eikenberry is hoping to turn things around this year with new and better local leaders. "Now we see a lot of those conditions changing," he said, in an interview in the cockpit of the C130 military plane on the way to Uruzgan. Replacing the governor, and police and intelligence chiefs, should allow for reform and better governance, he said."

Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, The New York Times, May 3, 2006

We should and can win in Afghanistan but we need to put more military effort into the country -- the Afghan Army is developing pretty well but needs another year to grow and train to the point that it can confidently take over primacy -- including that all important Reserve force that we Nato commanders first asked for 18 months ago. And our civilian partners must improve the speed and scale of their reconstruction and development effort, sufficient to keep pace with the peoples' expectations; and President Karzai must accelerate the speed with which he roots out corrupt and inefficient administrators. Finally, we must all do our best to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan together. Currently they are passing in the night and the climate is not good. I am very much a glass half full merchant but we must apply ourselves more energetically for one more year in order to win.

General David Richards (UK), The Guardian, January 22, 2007

My successor will find an insurgency here in Afghanistan, but it is not spreading, contrary to what some people say. Our enemies are not as strong as the NATO alliance in combination with its Afghan brothers. He will find some progress in security, some good work in the army, but unfortunately not so much progress in the police force. Governance remains a big problem in Afghanistan. Here we have to see more work by the Afghans...

General Dan McNeil, Der Spiegel, March 21, 2008

"Of the new reinforcements, General McKiernan said, "What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are, at best, stalemated, and we need additional, persistent security presence in areas that we're not at today." He added, "I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year."

General David McKiernan, The New York Times, February 18, 2009

"I think we made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009... and that we'll make real progress in 2010." Asked why he thought the situation had improved, McChrystal said he could not point to specific measurements, but rather a general sense that security was better in some areas and that the mood among Afghan leaders was more optimistic."

General Stanley McChrystal, The Washington Post, February 5, 2010