How Do You Know We Are Winning?


Alec Barker catches news outlets twisting British Army Major General Nick Carter's claim "that security in [the Zhari district near Kandahar] has been demonstrably enhanced because the price of ammonium nitrate, a banned fertilizer and major component of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in southern Afghanistan, has increased ten-fold, and the price of other bomb components has risen eleven-fold." Barker objects:

[T]he story does not report that Carter believed these figures were "by no means huge measures of success." The Guardian's version of the story, which has already crept into other media reports, might lead one to think erroneously that the general claimed a very significant accomplishment and made an unqualified statement of statistical fact throughout southern Afghanistan, rather than a limited observation about one district in the South. ...

Since there generally are more and more bombs appearing in the south over time, the insurgency appears to be insensitive to rapid swings in the price of fertilizer.

Because this is an illicit and informal market, it is extremely difficult to know trends in prices precisely, or to know which factor - supply or demand - dominates. The point is that although anecdotal evidence about the price of fertilizer is suggestive of shifts in informal markets, it makes an unreliable indicator of success in disrupting an insurgency. ...

Moments like this one demonstrate the frustrating little peculiarities of this type of war, and underscore the idea that traditional notions of victory and surrender are unrealistic when applied to the current Afghanistan conflict. Unable to quantify success in terms of targets destroyed or enemy units disabled, commanders in Afghanistan are left to argue that although opaque economic indicators are by no means indicative of success, and effects will not be observable until next summer, progress is nonetheless being made. Then they must watch as their nuanced ideas morph into misleading sound bites and creep into public discourse.  

(Photo: The bloodied clothing of an Afghan man, wounded from an IED, is seen on the ground after he received first aid in the Siah Choi area of Zari district of Kandahar province, south Afghanistan on October 23, 2010. By Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)