10 Years on, Are We Fighting the Right War in Afghanistan?

The U.S. lacks coherent and measurable metrics for success in the war there, making it difficult to know if our strategy is even taking us in the right direction

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Residents watch at a U.S. soldier on patrol in Kunar / Reuters

Yesterday I launched my latest report, Measuring Success: Are We Winning? 10 Years in Afghanistan. The question of measurement is vital: it requires understanding the war itself, then our strategy for winning that war (which includes identifying an end state to work toward), and lastly how we look at the progress or not-progress we've made.

For an example of why this matters, I'd like to (reluctantly) draw attention to a brief blog post Marc Thiessen wrote for the American Enterprise Institute. He asks a simple question: Is Obama passing on opportunities to strike al-Qaeda in Yemen? Thiessen presents two sets of graphs, one showing the number of drone strikes that have taken place in Yemen and the other showing the number of drone strikes that have taken place in Pakistan.

The comparison he presents seems simple:

Bottom line: Either we do not have the intelligence to target AQAP [in Yemen] because we are no longer capturing the terrorists who can provide it, or we have the intelligence to target AQAP, but we are holding our fire. Either one is a damning indictment of the Obama administration.

That's a difficult statement to square with last week's death-by-drone of U.S. citizen-terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki (I discussed some of the implications of his death for the Washington Post, where Thiessen is a blogger). Moreover, it rests on a number of assumptions that don't fully add up:

  1. The U.S. could be using drones to target more terrorists in Yemen than they do, and the decision not to is deliberate (as he hints through a quote from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius);
  2. Yemen can and should host a program of equivalent size, scope, and fatality as that in Pakistan;
  3. Concerns about local attitudes and perceptions are immaterial to the goal of killing terrorists; and
  4. If only we captured (and, given Thiessen's past books, statements, columns, and advocacy) tortured more suspected terrorists, we'd have better information.

I do not say this lightly: we have a lot of information about Yemen. I can say this because I used to work on Yemen issues at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Our problem wasn't too little information, but too much: filtering and prioritizing the hundreds of pieces of data we'd encounter every single day is no small or simple task. So Thiessen's digs at how the intelligence collection, analysis, and targetting process work -- not just in Yemen but in general -- is coming from a position of ignorance.

Worse still, however, and relevant to my opening paragraph here, is the belief that a simple comparison of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan will tell you anything at all about either theater of operations. Yemen and Pakistan are very different places, with different threats to their stability, different populations, different histories, different cultures, and different terrorist groups preying off the different society's socio-economic inequalities. They are not comparable, at least in the basic 1:1 ratio Thiessen constructs.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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