WASHINGTON – The U.S. soldier who shot and killed 16 Afghani civilians Sunday didn’t just burn their corpses afterward – he also set fire to the cornerstone of American success in the country: Afghan trust.
The attack sparked outrage across Afghanistan and also from the government in Kabul. It came just weeks after American forces burnt Qurans at Bagram Airfield – an incident that incited violent protests across the country. Six American soldiers were killed in the aftermath, including two shot execution style by a supposedly friendly Afghan police officer.
Despite the tragedies, President Obama reaffirmed at the White House Wednesday the NATO plan to transition security lead to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
“We’re going to complete this mission and we’re going to do it responsibly,” Obama said. “There are going to be multiple challenges along the way.”
Although the Pentagon points to relationships with the Afghani people, the government and security forces as its main barometers for an improving situation in Afghanistan, think tank experts tell a different story. Such metrics are overly subjective, they say, and reliable data in the country is scarce.
In a war with poorly articulated goals and few decisive battles, concrete measurements of progress are hard to find. The ambiguity of measurements in Afghanistan, coupled with the small amount of inconsistent information on the conflict, point to a decisive American defeat in the Afghanistan information war.
The root of the problem is NATO’s hazy definition of success in the country, according to an October 2011 report by the American Security Project, a nonpartisan policy think tank based in Washington. And that confusion has left all sides questioning if the strategy to hand over security and governance to Afghans is working.
“Ten years after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, we still lack the means to tell whether the war is being won or not,” the report said.
The inconvenient truths
When President Barack Obama announced a 30,000-troop surge in December 2009, he said U.S. objectives were to deny al-Qaida a safe haven, push back the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government and military.
But finding where the three goals intersect – and determining how to measure progress toward them – has proven difficult for defense officials. The Pentagon most often points to increasing autonomy of the 320,000-member Afghan security forces as a measure.
John Nagl, former president of the Center for a New American Security, said building an army that can hold the country together is vital to safely end the U.S. combat mission by December 2014. But measuring native forces’ ability is a tall task.
“Some of the numbers are easy – number of police or soldiers trained,” Nagl said. “The effectiveness of the units is more subjective and difficult to measure… And there you get into some of the really tough questions in fighting this type of war in raising post-nation security forces.”
Information on other statistics – political engagement, the strength of the Taliban and faith in the Karzai administration – is also extremely hard to gather, Nagl said. And most objective data – even that showing positive results – aren’t exactly desirable.
In a Feb. 8 Pentagon press briefing, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti – NATO’s second-in-command in Afghanistan – cited increased Taliban use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs as measures of progress. The growth of such attacks, he said, shows a fear of taking on American and Afghan forces directly.
Regardless of the truth behind such measurements, they aren’t signs of progress that the Joint Force will highlight as a success, Nagl said.
“That narrative is harder to make compelling,” he said. “More IEDs is good – it’s just not a sound byte that goes down well.”
Conflicting data, conflicting narratives
Although the war is one of the most well-documented conflicts in history, experts argue the Pentagon doesn’t collect enough of the right kind of data. Joshua Foust, author of the American Security Project report, said while NATO releases near-daily updates on violence, the Joint Force doesn’t collect information on its social and political effects.
“No one bothers to look,” he said. “It’s not that it’s secret and exists somewhere. They just don’t think about it.”
Violence in Afghanistan – increasingly geared toward civilians and the Afghan government – sends the message that the NATO-backed Karzai administration can’t keep its own citizens safe, Foust said. Civilian deaths have increased every year since 2006, according to a January Brookings Institution report.
Foust also contends some of NATO’s data gathering techniques are “fundamentally dishonest.” In the case of IEDs, he said, the Joint Force in August stopped counting explosives that didn’t detonate – either due to poor construction or disarmament – as acts of violence.
The coalition is painting too-rosy a picture of the conflict, disregarding some of the physical and social dangers faced by the same Afghan people it’s trying to win over, Foust said.
“You just don’t see an acknowledgment of that when [NATO] comes out and releases their happy-talk reports about how everything is going awesome and Afghans are sailing toward a bright new future,” he said.
Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said such claims are simply “not based in the facts.” Only one of the Afghan National Army’s 161 battalions can operate independently, according to an October Pentagon report. A majority of units, meanwhile, are effective with NATO assistance.
“We’ve certainly never claimed things are going without problems or issues,” Speaks said.
But Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14 that “progress on security is real,” pointing to Afghan troops taking the lead combat role in many areas of the country.
The defense secretary’s narrative has been hotly contested. On Jan. 27, an Army colonel accused military brass of lying about progress in a high-profile whistleblower report. And less than a week later, congressmen urged defense officials to do more to protect allied troops from increasing attacks by supposedly friendly Afghan forces.
“Congress, ask the right questions,” Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said in a Feb. 8 floor speech. “Stop listening to those who keep telling you that training of Afghan soldiers…is going well. I’m on the Armed Services Committee and I’ve been hearing that for 10 years. You can teach a monkey to ride a bicycle sooner than 10 years.”
A failure to communicate
The war’s few concrete measurements – coupled with conflicting data and narratives – hasn’t just left the American public in the dark. Afghans’ confusion regarding U.S. goals – be they counterterrorism, counterinsurgency or nation building – has opened another door for the Taliban’s return after U.S. withdrawal in 2014.
A January NATO report found that most Afghans are still confused regarding the Joint Force’s goals. The report – using information from more than 27,000 interrogations of Taliban and other captives – said many natives still believe the U.S. is in Afghanistan to impose Western ideals or steal the country’s resources.
“Despite 10 years of conflict, many have surprisingly little concept of what [NATO] intends to accomplish or, perhaps more importantly, what insurgents will need to do to end the war,” the report read.
The decline in public support for NATO’s mission has reduced local confidence in the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, the report said. And it’s a climate that could deteriorate further come 2015, according to Brookings fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown.
“We’ll be facing a public that is very antsy, if not necessarily pressing for [U.S.] departure,” she said. “And we’ll be sending messages to Afghans that encourage them to hedge, and not to trust that a better future can possibly be achieved.”
The coalition’s connection to the population was further eroded by February’s Quran burnings, January’s video of Marines urinating on Afghan bodies or the “Kill Team” that reportedly targeted Afghan civilians in 2010.
The Sunday attack that left 16 civilians dead is the latest in this line of disasters, making the Joint Force’s mission an even harder sell for the Afghan people.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military mission will continue in its attempt create stability.
“This tragic incident does not reflect the commitment of the U.S. military to protect the Afghan people and help build a strong and stable Afghanistan,” Panetta said in a statement. “I am fully committed to ensuring that our cooperation continues. It is essential to forging a more peaceful future for the citizens of both our nations.”
The NATO report highlighted the U.S.-backed Afghan government’s rampant corruption and inability to provide basic social services to the public. In many cases, it said, civilians prefer a Taliban government for its security and close ties to Islam.
Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, said the coalition has done a poor job of highlighting to the Afghan people why the current government will be more socially and politically beneficial than a Taliban regime.
NATO has lost the “war of influence” for the country’s people, he added.
“In that sense, when looking at the war from a social perspective – of the choice that people are faced with – the U.S. is badly losing,” Foust said. “It’s almost hard to overstate how bad it’s losing.”