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Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

David Kilcullen is a former Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Patraeus in Iraq as well as a former advisor to General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Kilcullen is also Adjunct Professor of Security Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the author of The Accidental Guerrilla (2009). His new book, Counterinsurgency, is a no-nonsense picture of modern warfare informed by his experiences on the ground in some of today’s worst trouble spots–including Iraq and Afghanistan. In this excerpt, Kilcullen shares a few insights as to how progress in the Afghan campaign can be properly tracked and assessed.

In 2009 in Afghanistan, ISAF seems to be in an adaptation battle against a rapidly evolving insurgency that has repeatedly absorbed and adapted to past efforts to defeat it, including at least two previous troop surges and three changes of strategy. To end this insurgency and achieve peace, we may need more than just extra troops, new resources, and a new campaign plan: as General Stanley McChrystal has emphasized, we need a new operational culture. Organizations manage what they measure, and they measure what their leaders tell them to report on. Thus, one key way for a leadership team to shift an organization’s focus is to change reporting requirements and the associated measures of performance and effectiveness.

As important, and more urgent, we need to track our progress against the ISAF campaign plan, the Afghan people’s expectations, and the newly announced strategy for the war. The U.S. Congress , in particular, needs measures to track progress in the “surge” against the President Obama’s self-imposed eighteen-month timetable. To be effective, these measures must track three distinct but closely related elements:

1.   Trends in the war (i.e., how the environment, the enemy, the population, and the Afghan government are changing)

2.   ISAF’s progress against the campaign plan and the overall strategy including validation (whether we are doing the right things) and evaluation (how well we are doing them)

3.   Performance of individuals and organizations against best-practice norms for counterinsurgency, reconstruction, and stability operations

Metrics must also be meaningful to multiple audiences, including NATO commanders, intelligence and operations staffs, political leaders, members of the legislature in troop-contributing nations, academic analysts, journalists, and–most important–ordinary Afghans and people around the world.

We should also note that if metrics are widely published, then they become known to the enemy, who can “game” them in order to undermine public confidence and perpetuate the conflict. Thus, we must strike a balance between clarity and openness on the one hand and adaptability and security on the other.

Because we need to track so many things for so many people, a shared diagnosis–a vision of what the nature of the conflict is and what is driving it–is essential. Neglecting this diagnosis risks a situation where analytical staff are drowning in data–lacking a clear conception of what matters and what does not, they collect on everything, creating a mass of disparate data that makes tracking progress harder. By definition, any assessment changes as the conflict develops, but it is essential to maintain a common set of core metrics, as well as to maintain a consistent methodology, so that second-order effects and trends can be analyzed over time.

Figure 2.1 shows one such shared diagnosis. This is not the only possible analysis; other ISAF and coalition analysis products provide substantially more detail and rigor, and their analysis differs somewhat from this example. But it illustrates the type of simple diagnosis that is needed.

Note that this is a gross simplification, like any model of any conflict. But it needs to be this simple so that it can be understood, remembered, and carried in the head of every district stabilization officer, company commander, police mentor, development professional, diplomat, and intelligence officer.

Most NATO headquarters are organized along “continental staff system” lines, with sections for operations, intelligence, personnel, logistics, communications, and so on. Mirroring this headquarters layout, campaign plans are organized along logical “lines of operation” (LOOs). Typically, in counterinsurgency, these include security, development, governance, rule of law, and essential services, among others.

This is not the best way to manage the Afghan campaign, because LOOs can create stovepipes: each LOO team tends to focus on its own issues, and teams may lack adequate working-level mechanisms for the combined planning and execution–that are essential for carrying out the work of stabilizing districts–reducing identified local drivers of violence and instability. This lack of such mechanisms in turn creates a tendency to dissipate effort in nonstrategic activity–everyone on the headquarters knows what the district’s basic problems are, but it is nobody’s day job to fix any given problem. Responsibility is fragmented across multiple groups, each of which “owns” part of a problem but lacks the authority (or the sense of ownership) to solve it. Stabilizing the district becomes everybody’s job and therefore nobody’s.

There is a tendency to place the burden on senior commanders, expecting them to deal with this through a “commander’s intent” that is supposed to unify efforts across LOOs. The problem is that real-world commanders, no matter how brilliant, simply lack the “bandwidth” to master the intensely detailed nuances of each local problem, map these to multiple LOOs, and then coordinate across multiple agencies (many of which they do not control) to generate unified action. In practice–and understandably, since insurgents kill our people daily while unemployment and corruption do not–on a minute-by-minute basis, most military commanders prioritize kinetics (fighting the insurgents) and deal with other issues mainly through periodic (weekly or monthly) interagency reviews. In doing so, they tend to treat, or even exacerbate, the symptoms of instability while neglecting its causes.

In contrast, our field team’s experience with units that deployed in the mid-2009 troop augmentation (including the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the Fifth Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division), and with the Office of Transitional Initiatives in Afghanistan (of the U.S. Agency for International Development), suggest that a different approach, sometimes known as a district stabilization analysis, may be more effective.

This approach is a three-stage process of assessment, triage, and audit, after which the unit involved creates “integrated issue teams” to manage priority stabilization targets. In the assessment phase, the unit conducts and analysis to map all the grievances, issues, and problems across a particular district, aiming to identify the main drivers of violent conflict. Since this is Afghanistan, the assessment typically results in a lengthy list of problems, many of which are long-standing, intractable issues that simply cannot be fixed by outsiders.

in the triage phase, the unit selectively reduces this list down to a priority action list, by identifying problems that meet the following three criteria:

1.   The problem is actually, currently, driving instability that creates Afghan-on-Afghan violence in the district in question;

2.   The insurgents are actually, currently exploiting the problem in order to increase the strength, reach, or public appeal of their movement within the district;

3.   ISAF can make a meaningful, sustainable contribution to resolving the problem, in a viable time frame (18 months to 2 years), within current resources.

The triage process typically results in a much-reduced list of two to three priority problems in each district, representing issues that have strategic impact and that the unit can also do something about: problems that both matter to the population and are fixable by us in a meaningful time frame and within existing resources.

In the final, audit phase, the unit reviews all its activities–development spending, security effort, key leader engagement, direct action against high-value targets, partnering and mentoring, intelligence collection, and so on–against these priority problems. In many cases, units have been doing this operational audit for the first time discover that their efforts have been dissipated in attempts to solve numerous grievances that do not matter, cannot be fixed, or would take too long or need too many resources. Often they also find that the attempt to deal with multiple grievances simultaneously has both raised and disappointed community expectations over time, creating a credibility gap in the minds of the local population. The audit process allows units to redirect effort onto identified priority stabilization targets and begin to rebuild local partnerships.

Redirecting this effort involves organizing for success: rather than stovepiping along LOOs, the unit can tiger-team around identified stabilization targets. This is done by forming multidisciplinary stabilization teams (“stab teams”), one for each priority issue, with one individual in charge of each team who has the personal day-to-day responsibility to track and deal with that issue.

Staff sections contribute to these stab teams just as they do in any integrated planning process–rather than having stovepiped teams for security, development, rule of law, and so on, the unit forms a team for each identified driver of conflict (e.g., a corrupt subdistrict governor, and influential local Taliban court, or a capable bomb-making cell) and allocates a representative to each issue team from the security, development, rule of law, essential services, and intelligence sections.

This is not the only workable method. For example, Canadian forces in Kandahar have recently experienced considerable success with their key Village Approach, using specialized stab teams that focus on identified priority grievances in key local districts lying astride the main insurgent approaches to Kandahar city. Whatever technique is adopted, the critical thing is that the unit should develop a shared understanding of the key drivers of conflict in its area of responsibility, form a unified issue team to deal with each driver, and make one individual responsible for working each issue.

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