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The battle for “progress”

By Gregory A. Daddis


David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently highlighted several “positive signs in Afghanistan,” citing progress on the diplomatic front, in relations between India and Pakistan, and on the battlefield itself. Of note, Ignatius stressed how U.S.-led coalition forces had cleared several Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.  The enemy, according to the opinion piece, was “feeling the pressure.” That same day Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan condemned General David Petraeus’s tactics as counterproductive and “profoundly wrong.” Denouncing an overemphasis on military action, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles noted that the use of body counts and similar statistics was reminiscent of the Vietnam War and “not conducive to a stable political settlement.”

The allusion to Vietnam, made frequently in the last five years, suggests uncertainty over the true amount of progress being made in Afghanistan today. For nearly a decade Americans in South Vietnam similarly tried in vain to assess progression towards the daunting political-military objective of a stable and independent noncommunist government in Saigon. Military officers and their civilian leaders employed a range of metrics to track success in the myriad political, military, economic, security, and social programs. As early as 1964, analysts were wading through approximately five hundred U.S. and Vietnamese monthly reports in an attempt to appraise the status of the conflict. In the process, the American mission in Vietnam became overwhelmed with data, much of it contradictory and, thus, of dubious value. By war’s end, questions remained over whether the U.S. Army in particular had achieved its goals in Southeast Asia. That debate continues to this day.

The American experience in Vietnam has served—rightfully so—as only an imperfect roadmap for our more current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, all wars are unique. Our recent conflicts, however, do illustrate the continuing challenges of defining progress and success in unconventional wars and of developing a coherent strategy for such wars. It is here that an objective study of Vietnam can offer insights and perspectives into the unresolved problems of measuring what matters most in an environment like Afghanistan. Quantitative statistics often do not tell the whole story as governmental allegiances, population security, and political stability all are highly subjective assessments. As in Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have varied from province to province and any broad, centralized appraisals of the war likely miss the finer points of local conditions driving the political and military struggle.

Even in a war without front lines, Americans expect wartime progress to be linear. Effort should equal progress. Progress should lead to victory. The widely contrasting views of David Ignatius and Sherard Cowper-Coles, however, imply a battle is being waged over the very idea of “progress” in Afghanistan today. (Asking if the United States “won” in Iraq would provoke equally opposing responses.) If historical examples can be instructive in any way, the problem of metrics in Vietnam arguably helps illuminate the reasons why gauging wartime progress in Afghanistan has produced such a wide range of opinions. Assessing wars oftentimes is just as difficult as winning them.

Colonel Gregory A. Daddis is the author of No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War. Daddis teaches history at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He has served in a variety of Army command and staff posts around the world and in both Iraq wars.

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