General McChrystal has no idea what’s going on in Afghanistan

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Back in August, General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry produced a report titled “US Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan.” In it they laid out a complete counter-insurgency strategy, including development aid and international assistance, for their mission in Afghanistan. They also provide various criteria to measure success, as well as a requirement for Interagency Quarterly Assessments which would “identify progression / regression, opportunities / obstacles, and course corrections (adjustments to policy, activities, planning or resourcing).” I certainly haven’t seen any of these progress reports from McChrystal, not to mention anything resembling a “course correction.” But we do have a new assessment from the Government Accountability Office, and they say we’re screwing up horribly.

It seems that McChrystal and Eikenberry were correct in their report. If they don’t have these progress assessments, they won’t have any idea what’s going on in Afghanistan. They won’t know if their l337 COIN strategy is successful, which also means that whenever some out-of-touch politician touts these successes, he’s simply engaging in the age old art of “making shit up.” McChrystal’s plan for measuring progress is absolutely required if we care at all about the truth in Afghanistan. However, the variable in this plan is not necessarily the ability to produce these assessments, but access to the sort of reliable, accurate information sources which provide the backbone of these assessments.

So what do we mean by “measuring progress” in Afghanistan? Here’s what the plan says:

The USG will assess progress on the Integrated Civ-Mil Campaign Plan quarterly. This assessment will be done in close coordination between US Embassy, ISAF, and USFOR-A. The purpose of the assessment process is two-fold: 1) to provide decision-makers in Afghanistan with necessary information to prioritize and direct allocation of resources and efforts, and 2) inform Washington decision-making through integrated reporting. Rigorous integrated assessment will require additional civilian and military resources committed full-time.

Assessment Principles: Quality integrated assessments require the following principles to be followed:

  • Share information, assessment, and analysis in an open and collaborative way within the USG and with key GIRoA and international partners.
  • Validate assessments through the use of a full range of USG, Afghan, international community, and independent data sources – to include qualitative assessment, quantitative data, polling, intelligence analysis, and independent analysis.
  • Focus assessment of progress or regression of key instability dynamics.
  • Test assumptions through integrated analysis to better inform planning and operations.
  • Be accurate and credible.

Let’s start with the third bullet point, focusing on “key instability dynamics.” That’s a bureaucratic way of saying “why they hate us.” We have to focus on the issues that make Afghanistan so dangerous and violent, not just whatever flashy propaganda exercise the mainstream media chooses. What really makes Afghans join the Taliban movement? What makes them turn against the government? Joshua Foust gives us an excellent example of a “key instability dynamic” to focus on:

[The central government] owns all the natural resources in the country. Its natural resources, especially timber, are severely stressed. At the same time, exploiting those natural resources is often the only way for communities to make money. Even so, the Afghan government has no real means of leasing access, harvesting quotas, or even cadastres of land to local communities for exploitation. It seems to have no problem giving enormous contracts to operate copper mines, but it can’t figure out how to create an institution by which communities can lease access to the land they live on and cultivate.

Thus, harvesting timber for income becomes illegal. You have timber smugglers, and with them timber “lords,” who are wealthy men who profit handsomely from the large scale denuding of Afghanistan’s countryside.[…]

Now if we had “accurate and credible” assessments that led to course corrections, Foust would be talking about the timber problem in terms of how best to solve it, instead of in the context of US troops wildly exacerbating it. A quality measurement of progress wouldn’t tell us to send in 30,000 more troops, or vastly expand our drone program, it would tell us to do something about the crippling resource and governance issues, which requires zero troops. But how are McChrystal and Eikenberry supposed to know about real problems like the timber industry, or lack of it? Well, they have their second bullet point about using the “full range of [US Gov’t], Afghan, international community, and independent data sources.” Just what is an independent data source? It’s not CNN. It’s citizen journalists, like Sana Saleem next door in Pakistan:

Saleem already understands the idea of focusing on key instability dynamics. She describes the failure of the mainstream media to focus on anything other than trivial or “sensationalized” coverage of the War on Terror. She instead works in areas like reporting on personal safety procedures during military assaults, child abuse, and yes, even coverage of the drone strikes. And speaking of drone strikes, remember what that LA Times piece we talked about said about reporting on the strikes, emphasis mine:

U.S. officials say the strikes have caused fewer than 30 civilian casualties since the drone program was expanded in Pakistan, a claim that is impossible to verify since the remote and lawless tribal belt is usually off-limits to Western reporters. Some estimates of civilian casualties by outside analysts are in the hundreds.

We’ll put aside the obvious racism of it being “impossible” without Westerners, for all we know this could be the fault of an inartful copy editor. The real problem with this statement is that it’s flatly untrue. Westerners do have access to accurate numbers from the region, because we have computers and telephones and other exciting space-age technology. I don’t have to bring my magical, better-at-counting Western eyeballs all the way to Waziristan to know what’s going on, I can read Sana Saleem and Nasim Fekrat on my cellphone. And that’s not me being absurd, that’s exactly how it works. I should know:

The top tweeters on Afghanistan are more heterogeneous in their affiliations than the the top retweeted users. A number of high profile news organizations, individual journalists, and official and semi-official military channels comprise the list of top retweeted users. Notable accounts are those of the Pajhwok Afghan News (@pajhwok) and the Alive in Afghanistan project (@aliveinafghan), as well as the latter’s founder Brian Conley (@BaghdadBrian) of Small World News (@smallworldnews). These accounts are the strongest “local” voices offering Afghan perspectives on events. In the same way that individuals with close affiliations in Iran were both prolific and influential sources of information, these represent similar sources for Afghanistan.

Yep, that’s me and my colleagues at Small World News as the “strongest ‘local’ voices” during the election last year. Clearly we’re not from Afghanistan. All we did is talk to the Afghan sources themselves, let them tell the story instead of waiting for Western reporters to parachute in, pillage for headlines, and inevitably abandon the place. And we’ve talked about Pajhwok before. They’re nothing but Afghan bylines, and there’s no source more credible and qualitative than Pajhwok that I’m aware of.

The usefulness of all these sources to our strategy is that if you actually factor them into a quality assessment, if you include voices like Saleem’s, absolutely none of it would lead you to believe “Hey, we could fix this with 30,000 guys with guns” or “You know what would solve this problem? Massive civilian casualties in Pakistan.” Actually knowing the truth about Afghanistan, having “honest and credible” quality assessments of our goals there as McChrystal asks for, would help us end the war faster, if not immediately.

And the best part is, it’s way crazy cheaper than our ridiculous strategy of military occupation. It didn’t cost me $33 billion to embed that Pakistani podcast about Sana Saleem, and a subscription to Pajhwok certainly won’t set you back near what California has paid for the war. And that’s all McChrystal is asking for with his progress reports, he knows it’s required for ending the war. And not just in this fancy public report, he’s even saying it in private. This is from his leaked memo:

V.Assessments: Measuring Progress

ISAF must develop effective assessment architectures, in concert with civilian partners and home nations, to measure the effects of the strategy, assess progress toward key objectives, and make necessary adjustments. ISAF must identify and refine appropriate indicators to assess progress, clarifying the difference between operational measures of effectiveness critical to practitioners on the ground and strategic measures more appropriate to national capitals. Because the mission depends on GIRoA, ISAF must also develop clear metrics to assess progress in governance.

He’s got to know what’s going on in Afghanistan, or we’ll continue our bloody, expensive, and entirely ineffective strategy of military occupation. Or you know what, maybe you think McChrystal is terrible at his job, or you just hate him, or whatever. That’s fine, it’s not really about him or his awful-to-begin-with COIN strategy. The most important part to take away for this is in his first bullet point, emphasis mine:

  • Share information, assessment, and analysis in an open and collaborative way within the USG and with key GIRoA and international partners.

The US Government? That’s you! You’ve got to know the truth about what’s happening in Afghanistan, because our strategy in Afghanistan, our objectives, or whether or not we have any national interest in Afghanistan period, is all entirely your business, your decision. And you can force the “USG” to take an honest look at Afghanistan, to see that they shouldn’t be spending $33 billion on insane wars, to see all the reasons why we shouldn’t be continuing this criminal occupation. Pressure works. Contact your representatives and help them get an “honest and credible” view of our strategy in Afghanistan.

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