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General McChrystal's recent report paints a bleak picture of the Afghan war, but does it fully acknowledge the difference between insurgent activity and insurgent success? Attacks have indeed increased, but to what effect? ISAF's biggest problems are a failure to engage with an increasingly sceptical public, and the scale of corruption within the Afghan government.
Photo: Courtesy of the US Army
By Paul Smyth for RUSI.org
General McChrystal's Review of the situation in Afghanistan lists a number of problems that must be addressed if the international coalition's intervention is to reach a favourable outcome. Many of his criticisms are not unexpected as they describe issues, such as a focus on IEDs and force protection, which have characterised the ISAF mission for some time. However, General McChrystal's evaluation of the insurgency is a worrying surprise. His assessment of insurgent performance, and their potential for success appears significantly more pessimistic than previous ISAF appraisals.
Although the redacted Review offers little detail to amplify or illustrate the 'momentum' and 'initiative' credited to the insurgents, it is inconceivable that this assessment is not based on intelligence material collated in Afghanistan and echoed by classified assessments compiled in the US. Yet there is cause for doubt. If the insurgents have truly made the strategic progress that is implied in the Review, why is this not readily apparent beyond the realm of classified information?
Where is the evidence that the war is being lost?
Whilst there is abundant evidence of an increase in tactical violence across much of Afghanistan, where is the proof that the war is being lost? For just as a rise in the number of insurgents killed or captured by ISAF does not necessarily indicate progress in the counter-insurgency campaign, neither does growing violence simply validate the notion the insurgency is succeeding. Rather, in assessing the state of the conflict in Afghanistan it is imperative that judgment rests on achievements and effects, not on mere activity. War is not won just because one combatant is busier than the other, yet it seems that a principal yardstick being applied to gauge the strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan is a numerical tally of violent incidents.
Obviously, a substantial increase in insurgent violence cannot be discounted, but it must be contextualised and interpreted to provide greater meaning. General McChrystal's redacted Review is not forthcoming. Across the world, military officers are trained in the art of military planning, learning the crucial distinction between activity and effect so as to avoid wasteful and counter-productive effort. They understand that achieving strategic or campaign objectives requires the careful orchestration of tactical activity. Just because a force is active, does not mean that it is achieving its aims, so why does this distinction appear to be absent when considering insurgent efforts in Afghanistan?
What has the insurgency achieved?
Despite their huge tactical industry over the past year the insurgents could not prevent ISAF territorial advances, stop the recruitment or development of the Afghan National Army (or Police), lay siege to Kabul, threaten the existence of the Afghan government, take control of Kandahar (or any other provincial city), sever ISAF's lines of communications to the Arabian Sea, or reverse the enormous spread of educational reform (especially of female education). Nor did they prevent voter registration (between October 2008-February 2009 only 9 of 796 registration centres were closed for security reasons), thwart the August 2009 elections, or increase their national popularity among the Afghan population. Rather, the greater threats to ISAF success have been self-imposed operating restrictions and insufficient resourcing, incidents of civilian casualties, the poor performance of the Afghan government, widespread police corruption, electoral fraud and a stream of pessimistic analysis and commentary from ISAF capitals. These problems may help the insurgents but they should not be attributed to them.
The growth in insurgent violence has attracted significant attention and concern. But if the rise in bombings, ambushes, skirmishes, 'shadow' courts and the spread of violence to areas beyond Afghan Army and ISAF offensive operations truly exercises a genuine effect over the outcome of the war, then this should be apparent to all, not just to intelligence staff privy to classified information. Otherwise there may be value in reflecting on whether a widespread degree of 'group-think' has emerged over the years that exerts a subliminal influence over how the insurgents in Afghanistan are perceived and assessed.
For many months (perhaps even years) the insurgents have been credited with an initiative and momentum that suggests the possibility ISAF is facing impending failure. It is therefore unsurprising that recent polls in some ISAF nations indicate waning public support for the war. Democratic populations need meaning to sustain sacrifice, and assessments that the insurgents are winning provide little help. Yet without clearer, compelling evidence to substantiate assertions of insurgent progress, this dwindling approval is based on a perception, not reality. It is therefore time that the war in Afghanistan was viewed as more than a tactical competition, and that relevant achievements, rather than the number of incidents, were a measure of success. It is crucial to remember that in war activity does not equate to effect.
Paul Smyth is founder of R3I Consulting, email@example.com.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.