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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The numbers game in Afghanistan

Proponents of the surge point to encouraging stats, but what do these numbers really mean?

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates looks out the window of a Black Hawk helicopter as he flies over Kandahar province in Afghanistan on March 8, 2011. Photo: AP/Mandel Ngan, Pool

This week, Defense Secretary Bob Gates made a surprise trip to Afghanistan. His first meetings were dominated by the latest row over civilian casualties — more than 200 civilians have been killed in the past few weeks, many at the hands of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But there was a bigger reason behind Gates’ visit: to evaluate the war’s progress.

At first glance, the news out of Afghanistan appears to be upbeat: the war’s progress has been so encouraging, Gates told reporters, that the July 2011 drawdown might actually happen — sort of. The actual numbers of troops sent home, he explained, will probably be small, since there needs to be a sizable U.S. presence left over to combat the insurgency in the south and east of the country.

The number of U.S. troops in the country will peak this year. And there is a growing body of statistics to back up what these troops have accomplished: USA Today reports that nearly 900 “Taliban commanders” have been killed or captured in the last 10 months; thousands of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), have been seized; and nearly 10,000 pounds of opium have been impounded. The numbers sound impressive, but they also raise substantial questions.

One is what ISAF hopes to achieve by arresting or killing the mid-level leaders of the insurgency. Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, thinks this effort could be a key to success there because of how it might degrade the insurgency’s effectiveness. “We will see the strategic effectiveness of those efforts, or lack thereof … when the fighting in Afghanistan picks up again in the spring and summer,” he explained.

But it remains unclear what ISAF means when it designates someone a commander — that is, what number of fighters that leader is responsible for and what the strategic effect of taking him off the battlefield will be. The Afghan Ministry of Defense recently estimated that there are upwards of 30,000 Taliban fighters active in Afghanistan. Did the 900 recently killed or detained commanders play an important role within the insurgency, and does removing such a modest number really affect the our efforts there?

The other numbers ISAF touts raise similar questions. Are we really changing the equation when we impound a few hundred RPG rounds in a country awash in weapons? And does our seizing of 10,000 pounds of opium in a country that produces almost 8 million pounds per year really amount to a significant achievement?

From a distance, it is difficult to understand what the massive escalation of U.S. troops was meant to accomplish. It’s important to remember that there will never be as many U.S. troops in that country as there are now. And this is still winter, when violence traditionally abates as Taliban fighters vacation in Pakistan. Yet the violence, mostly in the south, where the surge was concentrated, has never been stronger. According to statistics compiled by Indicium Consulting, the first two months of 2011 were 60 percent more violent than the same period in 2010 (again, concentrated in the south).  A recent Washington Post story noted that violence in the east of Afghanistan, which also received a big share of surge troops, is up 21 percent.

There are other discouraging indicators. Incidents involving improvised explosive devices known as IEDs, which are the biggest killer of U.S. troops and Afghan civilians, have not been retarded by the surge. Wired recently reported that the number of IED explosions have remained more or less constant since June 2010 — despite the so-called “winter lull” in Taliban fighting. Afghan civilian casualties — touted in 2009 as the primary indicator of success in the counterinsurgency — are at an all-time high. Worse still, there is mounting evidence that both ISAF and the Afghan government are actively working to suppress reporting on civilian casualties.

In fact, it’s difficult to reconcile the official reports of “successful” operations — the growing number of detained or killed Taliban commanders, escalating opium seizures, and so on — with the larger statistical picture of the war. Some analysts have tried to explain away the more discouraging indicators as the last gasp of a dying movement (essentially accusing the Taliban of throwing a mortar tantrum because they’re losing). But the latest Afghan surge of troops is now more than a year old, if judged from when Marines were first deployed in December 2009. This stands in stark contrast to the Iraq surge: At the eight-month mark in September 2007, General David Petraeus reported to Congress that there was a noticeable and substantial reduction in violence (pdf). There is no similar trend in Afghanistan.

One is left to conclude that either the statistics we use to gauge our effectiveness in the war in Afghanistan are meaningless (because we are actually winning the fight) or that the leaders in the military are spinning the numbers to paint a different reality than the one unfolding on the ground. Neither scenario inspires much confidence in our ability to accurately define or declare victory in this war.