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We’re (Not) Winning In Afghanistan. Maybe.

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


With all the excitement going on in the Maghreb in the last couple of days, you may have missed this Op-Ed from John Nagl and Nathanial Fick in the Times of New York the other day.  John Nagl is the President of the Center for a New American Security and author of the brilliant treatise on implementing counterinsurgency Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (he also has an awesome “About the Author” picture.  It’s rare to see an author in an IBA, and not reclining with a cat in a rocking chair).  According to Nagl and his boy Fick, the United States and its NATO allies are making pretty good headway in Afghanistan, training competent new soldiers and extending security and governance to territory formerly controlled by the Taliban.

This assessment is a little out of the blue, even for devout NATO watchers, because its simply so hard to get a good understanding of ISAF gains in Afghanistan.  To get an idea of how frustrating reports from Afghanistan can be, let’s dial it back a couple of months: in October 2010, longtime Presidential überhistorian Bob Woodward compared Afghanistan to Vietnam, a mere fortnight before WaPo featured this article on the progress ISAF made in Afghanistan.  Something similar happened a little over a month later when U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates said progress in Afghanistan exceeded his expectations, less than a week before U.S. intelligence agencies leaked reports that the situation was actually worsening. The day after that, President Obama said the war was “on track” as he released a review of his Afghan strategy.  Even Nagl and Fick’s optimistic op-ed was quickly counteracted by accolades for Bing West’s new book The Wrong War, which paints a pretty desperate picture of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.  You’d have to doublethink to undestand what’s going on.

Part of the reason it’s so tricky to gauge progress in Afghanistan is because counterinsurgency campaigns don’t really have tangible benchmarks.  The main tenets of COIN says to protect the population instead of killing the bad guys (which is—oddly–a semi-official military term for the Taliban), which is tough to measure.  In many instances, you can actually suffer more casualties because you’re putting your troops in less defensible positions among the people, as opposed to a strategic hill or mountain.  But hundreds of military scholars throughout the years, from the third Marques of Santa Cruz de Marcenado in 1726 to General Petreaus in 2011, have shown that COIN is the most effective way to defeat a domestic insurgency.

While implementing COIN may be the answer to rooting out the Taliban insurgency, it’s extremely difficult for the public to know if ISAF is using COIN effectively.  It makes sense that we’re unable to tell if there’s progress because of the nature of COIN, but it also necessitates a bit of logical gymnastics to understand that ISAF is making progress, but we just can’t tell that they’re making progress (unless Afghanistan is the Schrödinger’s cat of military campaigns, in that we’re winning and not winning at the same time). Until there’s a major victory against Taliban forces, or demonstrably more territory the IRoA can deliver services to, the public in NATO countries are going to be scratching their heads.

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