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CNAS Has Your Af-Pak Benchmarks/Metrics in a Brand New Paper

After initially promising to come up with benchmarks for judging the success or shortcomings of its Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy — the term preferred by the administration, I understand, is “metrics,” which I’m cool with — the Obama administration has yet to come up with any, and has resisted Congressional efforts to put them in the recent Pakistan funding bills. But a new report from the most influential defense think tank in Washington, the shadow-Pentagon known as the Center for a New American Security, seeks to fill the void.

The so-new-I-don’t-have-a-URL-yet report – written by counterinsurgency luminaries David Kilcullen, Andrew Exum, Nathaniel Fick and CNAS researcher Ahmed Humayun and bluntly titled “Triage” — lays out a stark picture of the insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the available U.S. options to reverse the worsening situations. As the title indicates, the authors think the best that can be accomplished over the next 12 months in the conjoined wars is a stanching of the bleeding caused by inattention and poor U.S., NATO and Pakistani strategy, not anything approaching “victory.” Their recommendations will be familiar to students of counterinsurgency: protect the Afghan population, which they call “the single most important task facing the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the near term”; place U.S. civilian expertise into the Afghan ministries to “visibly decreas[e] corruption”; “strictly curtail” the drone strikes on “non-al-Qaeda targets” in Pakistan (which conspicuously stops short of the “moratorium” on the drone strikes that Exum and Kilcullen advocated in a recent New York Times op-ed); and boost a Pakistani police capacity so areas taken back from or not controlled by the Taliban can stay that way. (Interestingly, they phrase that by saying the U.S. should stop “unconditionally aiding the Pakistani military at the expense of other security forces” like the police.)

But the strength of the report comes from its helpful suggestions about how to measure the course of the war. The authors’ lodestar is that the U.S. should assess “outcomes for the population rather than inputs by governments.” In other words, don’t look at the resources that the U.S. or its allies puts into the wars to judge the strategies’ effectiveness — hey, we’ve got a new Brigade Combat Team in a place we didn’t before — look at what the population actually gets out of it. Though they concede such metrics are harder to gauge than, say, enemy body counts or NATO troops deployed, they contend that the administration will know whether it’s on the right or wrong track by examining

the proportion of the population that feels safe, can access essential services, enjoys social justice and the rule of law, engages in political activity, and earns a living without fear of insurgents, drug traffickers, or corrupt officials.

Specifically, they take the controversial step of contending that in Afghanistan, “the most telling measure of progress” will be the reduction of “Afghan civilian casualties,” either those caused by the United States or the Taliban-led insurgent coalition. Then comes the August Afghan presidential election, which can be considered a “qualified success” if it occurs “without major violence, and … is fair and transparent in accordance with international standards.” Next, count the number of Afghanistan’s 398 administrative districts that are under government or Taliban control. (They concede that can be a subjective measurement, but make a compelling case that it’s not an indeterminable one: “Can the official responsible for a district sleep there overnight? Can civilian officials travel without military escort in their district?” etc.) Rather than count enemy bodies, count “surrenders and defections,” patterns in IED attacks and attempted attacks, and whether the U.S. or the Taliban are initiating most attacks in a given area. And like in Iraq, the rate of intelligence tips from civilians about insurgent planning will be key.

In Pakistan, the CNAS authors write, the metrics are “less clear-cut,” since the United States doesn’t have remotely the influence and freedom of action it does in Afghanistan. As a result, much of what they suggest watching concerns Taliban actions — specifically, whether attacks and Taliban footholds expand beyond the Pashtun areas in the east from which the Taliban emerged; how many government-appointed tribal representatives the Taliban murder; and its infiltration rate into Afghanistan. When it comes to Pakistani government and military actions, they advise watching whether the military acts on U.S. intelligence tips and military advice about targeting and civilian control over the military. Interestingly, they do not propose looking at how the military and police forces hold areas cleared by the Taliban.

The report might be fairly criticized for not clearly articulating how these proposals and metrics contribute to the Obama administration’s objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” None of the proposals or metrics have to do with safe havens, with the arguable exception of the proposal to look at the Pakistani Taliban’s expansion (or lack thereof) into Sindh or Punjab. But since the paper has to do with the next 12 months in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it could be that the authors decided that such a goal wasn’t yet on the table in that time frame, and the apparent focus of the paper’s effort is to look at and quantify how the U.S. can stop digging itself into a hole and reverse the Taliban’s momentum.

At any rate, the paper is pretty much guaranteed to be taken seriously by the Obama administration, as CNAS scholars and leaders are now senior administration officials, like Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. And some general with a Dutch last name is going to be delivering the keynote speech at next week’s big CNAS annual conference.

(Also, speaking to a point raised in a previous post, the CNAS authors credit Amnesty International’s assessment that the U.S.-led coalition is responsible for 25 percent of Afghan civilian casualties, and fault previous U.S. strategy for being “unwilling or unable” to protect the population. They wonder whether the U.S. military command is really embracing counterinsurgency principles while waging a counterinsurgency campaign: “One of the more worrying trends in Afghanistan has been the way in which the U.S. military—while claiming to faithfully execute population-centric counterinsurgency—has continued to articulate its aims in terms of terrain controlled and enemies killed or captured.” Hmmm.)

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