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I understand the pressure that the NATO Training Mission (Afghanistan) PAO (or as I’m starting to think of them: “Caldwell’s Barely Credible Communication Corps”, or “CBCC,” since if it’s military, it needs an acronym) is under to show that we’re not flushing money down the drain here, but that the work being done in this country is viable, sustainable, and above all, pressworthy.

So they posted a link to this article on their Facebook page. Yay! Unicorns delivering pizzas! The ANP are doing something! Kicking ass! Taking names! Getting that pesky insurgency in the south and east under control! Finally!

Better trained police take the lead in the last seven years, more than 26,000 citizens in northern Afghanistan have entered the ranks of the police and recruitment is increasing. Officials in Afghan National Police’s 303 Pamir Zone that serves the Mazar-e-Sharif area report that their improved training techniques have produced encouraging results.

Oh. It’s in the north. That part of the country where sure, there are incidents, but where the insurgency has never had the foothold that it has had in the south and the east.

General Baba Jan adds that in the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar and Fayab dozens of government opponents have joined the peace process.

General Baba Jan praised the co-operation of people with police in the northern region and says: “The co-operation of the people in the north has helped our police to succeed.”

This is one of the prime concerns for those monitoring reintegration, that the majority of reintegrating fighters are coming from the north, where the insurgency hasn’t been as strong. They’re kind of the slacker insurgents: it’s an insurgency of convenience, sort of a jobs program, and if they can get a better job, they’re going to quit.

And, um, it was called the Northern Alliance for a reason, and neato: they’re still ready to rumble. Historically the northern part of Afghanistan has always been a stronghold of ISAF support. We gave them all the guns for a reason. Using security in that area as a measure of success makes about as much sense as mittens for kittens: it’s interesting, but ultimately useless.

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Today’s portion of Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop (BWPC): First off, I’m no engineer. I’m just some guy with a Twitter feed and a blog. But, I’m pretty sure that doing an aerial survey of a school may not be the most effective way to determine how well that school is being constructed.

U.S. Air Force Staff 1st Lt. Scott Adamson, a civil engineer deployed from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, attached to the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team, inspects a road from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in the Alingar district, Laghman province, Oct. 7. The PRT conducted an air reconnaissance due to the unforgiving terrain and known insurgent activity in the area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane, Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team Public Affairs)

“The PRT conducted an air reconnaissance due to the unforgiving terrain and known insurgent activity in the area.”

Having been there and done that in a couple of iterations, I’m pretty sure the prevailing logic here is, “Well, it’s better than nothing.” I mean, what better way to engage with the people in a COIN environment than to show them that the terrain and the insurgents are so effective that you can’t even walk the ground to look at a school.

This has been one of the primary failings of reconstruction funding to date, that we continue to support projects in areas that we can’t really reach. I’m assuming the PRT has some level of funding and/or oversight for this project. If so, how effective are we really if we can’t even go look at it?

Ten years in, and we’re still doing surveys by helicopter.

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Cover of "The Men Who Stare At Goats"
Cover of The Men Who Stare At Goats

It’s not often that I get to mix the Marx Brothers and Kevin Spacey, but here’s today’s serving of Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop.

Metrics. We need ‘em. We want ‘em. We ain’t got ‘em. Joshua Foust spoke to the issue of metrics in this paper, and the fact that, 10 years in, there is a distinct lack of metrics whereby we can measure any kind of success here in Afghanistan.

Now, I’d like to be on the bandwagon with those that would insist that Foust is just cynical and looking for points of failure, but then there’s ABC News and their interview with  LTC  John Paganini, director of the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Center. This may be the most thorough use of the non-answer I’ve seen to date in a discussion on COIN.

The really insane part of this is that this is the guy who’s directing COIN, not some think tank talking head with a lot of degrees and no practical experience. This started out as a longer post, but I think this question and its answer alone sums up nicely:


Q: What are some of the root causes of the insurgency that you have focused on?

A: … I think the biggest thing that we eliminated was this idea in the minds of the Afghan citizenry and the Afghan leaders that this is an external problem with external solutions. And I think what you really started to see in 2009 with the overemphasis of focus on the population – Gen. McChrystal talked about it a lot – not from a sense of restricting ROE [rules of engagement] but more of a sense of take into account the perception of the population because that’s why the insurgency is allowed to exist.

 And then start penetrating the minds of the Afghans to reinforce the notion that they already have, that this is their problem, and their solutions are going to fix this problem. And I think what you’ve seen from the initial stages of an awareness of that to an acceptance of that to a practice of it, that’s where you’ve seen significant gains. But it’s not anything that you can put a number on the wall and say, “Here’s the metric.” We’re going to measure that against, here I can stand in front of the nation and say, “We’re winning the war because of this.” It’s a very subjective, very underlying pretense, but it’s there. I mean, when you go into Kandahar City, or you walk Kabul, bad things still happen. Bad things still happen in New York. It doesn’t mean that the police don’t have control.

 But, when you get the sense that Afghan leaders, government leaders from village and sub-tribal are willing to step up and make decisions in the best interest of their people for the long-term interests of Afghanistan – that’s significant. And I don’t think that’s something we saw in 2006-2007. So to me, that’s the biggest thing we did. It wasn’t a physical attack or a series of offensive operations. It was: Let’s address how the insurgency’s allowed to live, and then eliminate that.

So the director of the COIN center is stating for the record that there are in COIN, there are no metrics, it’s all pretty subjective, and any kind of progress made with the leadership of Afghanistan is based on a “sense.” Apparently we need to worry about metrics less, and more about how we’re going to get in touch with ethereal measurement methods, i.e. The Men Who Stare at Goats. Which is fine if you’re Jeff Bridges. Not so fine if you’re the Army’s COIN guy.

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So I’m bringing this feature back. Today’s piece of absurdity comes to us courtesy of Tribune Media’s Joel Brinkley. The headline alone is worthy of tossing it in this particular pile:

Pakistan’s Sponsorship of Terrorism is Undeniable

This is a typical sweeping assertion that many members of the media make when reporting on this part of the world. It’s also the kind of right-leaning rant that makes Rush Limbaugh chuckle as he rolls around on the money in his vault a la Scrooge McDuck.

This is his summary argument:

Well, a terrorist designation would bring larger consequences. The Haqqanis are headquartered in western Pakistan, despite Islamabad‘s lame claim that their base is actually over the border in Afghanistan. They are getting assistance from Pakistan; the Pakistanis admit it.

So what choice would Washington have but to certify the obvious truth: Pakistan is a state sponsor of terror.

Besides the fact that he doesn’t actually explain what the consequences of that designation would be, Mr. Brinkley ignores the possiblity that the government of Pakistan fairly consistently deals with internal struggles involving its military as well as the ISI. By summarily lumping the entire government of Pakistan together, he manages to neatly avoid grappling with any of the complexities of the issues at hand.

Ordinarily I leave op-ed pieces alone…like my own op-ed pieces, they’re just so many words on the interwebs, but in Mr. Brinkley’s case, he’s got a few t-shirts to his credit, and now he’s passing on what I would assume he refers to as journalism to a future generation of journalists. What’s unfortunate is that ten years after 9/11, that public rhetoric so quickly seeks to villify entire systems of government, to declare them as in cahoots with terrorists, thereby justifying any actions taken beyond that point.

Pakistan, enjoy the intervention.

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In this 10-year status update from LTG Caldwell, among other fairly, um, interesting comments, he makes the following statement:

Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who now oversees the security transition process for President Karzai, noted, “The Afghan National Army has had an enormous change both in quality and in numbers.” He told us that perceptions of the Afghan Army and Police are at least two years old. More importantly, the Afghan people agree. In a November 2010 Asia Foundation poll, 92 percent of Afghans viewed the Afghan National Army favorably, while 84 percent viewed the police favorably.

The survey that he’s referring to can be found here. Surveys are funny things: if you get the right sample and the right (by “right” I mean favorable to whatever you want the survey to say) methodology, they can say pretty much anything you want them to say. Where most surveys in this country fall short (and, surprise surprise it’s usually the ones that show amazing progress) is in their methodology. Usually that means they don’t ask the right questions in the right places.

In this case, surveyed were: 6,467 people in a country of 28 million, conducted 23% of its surveys in the Central/Kabul region, and 14% of its surveys in Kabul province itself (the next nearest closest percentage was 7% in Herat).

The survey reportedly asked 70 questions. In a single survey. The issue with this is that it’s too broad, covers too much ground, and takes too much time to complete per person being surveyed. As a means to collect information, a 70 question survey is a deeply flawed instrument, as it covers too many topics to adequately demonstrate a specific set of data.

Additional notes on methodology: they indicate they would use a Kish grid in order to determine who would be asked the questions. A “Kish grid” is a process designed to help randomize who gets asked questions. This works well in an environment where both men and women are allowed to speak equally. This is not the case in many areas in Afghanistan, and conducting a survey using Western methodologies without taking into consideration the realities on the ground would cause the results to be suspect.

Finally, according to the survey, 138 of the sample points had to be adjusted to replaced due to “instability and frequent fighting in some provinces.” This accounted for 65% of replacements, or 16% of substitutions. This was up from 2009, when only 102 sampling points had to be adjusted or replaced for the same reason. This means that security overall had deteriorated from the previous year’s survey, and would have shifted the surveyors into relatively more secure areas.

Only 9% of respondents had experienced any insurgent/militant actions in the last year, another indication that survey responses were collected in relatively secure areas. Unfortunately, that’s also flawed, since what ISAF often classifies as “insurgent” activity can often be attributed to other non-militant/insurgent actions, mainly criminal. Same result: less stability, but it’s not a terrible precise response.

So the survey focused too many questions across an extremely small sample for a national-level survey, focusing that sample even further into the Central/Kabul area of Afghanistan, which is generally more secure than the rest of Afghanistan. With apologies to the Asia Foundation and the really shiny report they put together, the methodology for this survey is so deeply flawed that any conclusions drawn from the survey should be suspect.

I would submit that the “Afghan people” mentions have not been represented by this survey, and should not be used as an indicator of progress.

Before I put together this post, I’d tweeted some of the highlights of the update. I’ve included them below… this might be a longer post, but for now, my lazy 140-character happy self is just going to post tweets.

With all due respect to LTG Caldwell, based on a couple of these statements, I’m not sure he’s in the same Afghanistan as the rest of us.


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