Monday, October 26, 2009

Measuring Counterinsurgency Success

This is vital contribution to the ongoing debate on Afghanistan: See Jason Campbell, Michael E. O'Hanlon, and Jeremy Shapiro, "How to Measure the War: Judging Success and Failure in Counterinsurgency."

The authors apply comparative analytical metrics to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq war is broken down into three periods: The initial campaign to topple the Baghdad regime (marked by military victory and the subsequent rise of armed resistance); from 2004 to the end of 2006 (where Americans nearly lost Iraq to insurgency, transnational terrorism, and civil war); and 2007 to the present (a period in which security improved so much that the levels of violence in Iraq was less than that of Russia and South Africa for the same period).

Campbell, O'Hanlon, and Shapiro are not rosy-eyed optimists. The authors indicate that while the insurgency in Iraq was more deadly overall, Afghanistan begins from a much lower level of development. On many comparative indicators, the Aghans rate dead last in human developmental indices - the population is poor, largely illiterate, with little scientific and technological (human capital) infrastructure from which to build a modern state.

What's perhaps the most important section of is
the discussion of public support for the Karzai government and potential support for the alternative: a return to the Taliban's theo-authoritarian regime:
Public opinion ... serves as a helpful way to transpose the various data onto local expectations, providing needed perspective even if it is notoriously difficult to poll in conflict zones. After all, it is the civilians that are the focal point of counterinsurgency missions. Recent polling sheds light on some interesting points that belie the widely perceived severity of decline in Afghanistan. When Afghans were asked what the biggest problem in their local area was, in a 2008 bbc poll, insecurity received only 14 percent of the vote, tying for the sixth most popular answer behind a host of quality-of-life concerns such as unemployment, electricity, access to potable water, roads, and health care.7 Another popular theory challenged by polling is the sense that public support for Karzai and the central government has reached dangerously low levels, creating an opening for a return of Taliban control. True, approval ratings for Karzai and the central government have declined since 2005 (from 83 percent to 52 percent for Karzai and from 80 percent to 48 percent for the central government). However, when asked who they would rather have ruling Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority (between 82 and 91 percent in annual polling since 2005) reply “Current Government,” with “Taliban” gaining the favor of only between 1 percent and 4 percent of the respondents. Additionally, public disdain for the Taliban has remained static, with between 84 and 91 percent of respondents stating they have a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of the group.8 Tactical innovations by insurgents, particularly suicide bombings that kill civilians, have not always increased the insurgents’ popularity with the larger population, even in areas where they enjoy traditional support. One can infer that while there is palpable frustration with the continued ineffectiveness of the central government, the Taliban are not viewed as a viable alternative by the vast majority of Afghanistan’s people.
The authors suggest that Americans take the long view on the mission. In the near-term, folks shouldn't expect much improvement in metrics until the end of 2010 -- and that's if the mission's been successful to that point. Patience is key, as noted:

Counterinsurgency campaigns, especially successful ones, last on average over a decade. For this reason, political leaders rightly counsel patience. But skeptical publics rightly demand interim measures that can demonstrate that progress is being made. Both points of view are legitimate, even if they are in tension. On balance, however, patience is required in Afghanistan, since the main task there is to build up institutions and Afghan government capacity — inherently difficult and slow enterprises.
Video Hat Tip: Theo Spark. (If President Obama abandons the deployment, he'll be forsaking the huge sacrifices this country has made for liberty and security in that nation so far, and he'll be damning the Afghan people to a regime of political authoritarianism they do not want.)