August 1, 2011  

Spin machine

Mountstuart Elphinstone, a British East India Company official, declared in 1809 about Afghanistan, “[a visitor] would find it difficult to comprehend how a nation could subsist in such disorder; and pity those who were compelled to pass their days in such a scene, and whose minds were trained by their unhappy situation to fraud and violence, to rapine, deceit, and revenge.” In the 200 years since this statement, Afghanistan has only become all the more enigmatic, violent and disorderly. Much of the steep decline has occurred since 1979, resulting in an Afghanistan that defies solutions and vexes those who seek resolution.

The U.S., NATO and the broader coalition face a challenge of extreme magnitude in their quest to mend Afghanistan and disrupt, deny and defeat al-Qaida. There can be little doubt that the coalition has significantly damaged various insurgent groups in Afghanistan and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, the greater challenge is how to translate gains at the tactical and operational level into achieving strategic goals and overall stability in Afghanistan. While the potential exists for some form of U.S. and NATO “success,” the military’s struggle to accurately assess the situation in Afghanistan and to speak candidly about likely outcomes combined with tremendous structural challenges inherent to Afghanistan and self-imposed limitations, make forecasts of U.S. and NATO “victory” uncertain and problematic.

The coalition is desperate to demonstrate success in any form in order to generate momentum for continued political and economic support for the war. After 10 years of war and little to show for it, the military wants to prove that it can still “win.” Unfortunately, because the military is the junior partner to the civilian leadership in civil-military relations, it has little choice but to approach missions with a can-do attitude and to spin events positively. The alternative of pessimism would be unthinkable.

However, the military’s desire to show progress predisposes the leadership to certain heuristic traps, including forms of publication bias, significance chasing and selective reporting. Publication bias is a phenomena in scientific research in which positive results are favored over null results. Significance chasing occurs when researchers manipulate and shape numbers to establish proof for their desired results. Selective reporting consists of “subtle omissions and unconscious misperceptions” that are “rooted in a fundamental cognitive flaw, which is that we like proving ourselves right and hate being wrong.” All three of these traps influence senior military leaders and their staffs in Afghanistan, shaping the way they approach the war.


The root problem is that the political leadership of NATO, the U.S., and the coalition has asked the military to be both a participant and an evaluator of the war in Afghanistan. Such a dual purpose places the organization in a complicated position: feeling pressure to validate any kind of positive result through empirical observation. Willing the Afghanistan surge to succeed has caused senior commanders and their staffs to fall victim to publication bias, significance chasing and selective reporting to demonstrate their own skill and success. In an insatiable thirst for data, brigade, division and corps staffs track everything including improvised explosive device trends, weapons caches and many other significant activities complete with intricate graphs, effectiveness measurements and linear regressions — all in a desire to objectively measure and quantify progress and, in due course, success throughout Afghanistan. However, are such statistics really the best measurements of progress?

Unfortunately, those responsible for the collection and analysis of such data may not be the best judges of progress (however you define it) in Afghanistan because senior commanders and staffs have a stake in the results. The military wants so badly to succeed that it ends up seeing success and progress where little or none may exist. Few, if any, large organizations in the world, when placed in a similar situation, would behave differently because it is difficult for a large organization to impartially assess itself. The military focuses on the so-called kinetic fight, i.e., traditional military actions directed against insurgents, because it is in this battle that the military is most comfortable and it is here where it can best demonstrate what it perceives as meaningful success. Expecting the military to focus on political and economic spheres is unrealistic because the military still deems nonkinetic action as lesser work; doing so also makes it much harder to demonstrate progress and success because of the inherent slowness of political and economic development. Also, because of the traditional divorcing of politics from military action, the American military is simply uncomfortable and weak at linking political repercussions to military action. In stark contrast, the insurgents see military and political action as one in the same, and consequently, are quite effective in shaping their violence to send a message. Expecting the military to report statistics that demonstrate that it is facing a stalemate and/or that it can’t accomplish what the political leadership has charged it to do is unlikely because doing would presume that somehow commanders are doing something wrong and are failing in the mission.


The military will likely remain focused on destroying insurgents for the immediate future, but to what end? There has been little articulation of how to link tactical and operational goals to strategic ones. Additionally, senior commanders in Afghanistan become visibly uncomfortable and lack dynamic answers when questioned on the topic. In Iraq, translating tactical and operational success to strategic goals was easier because many insurgent groups had already concluded that they would abandon violence and ally with the coalition to advance their aims. The underlying goal of the surge in Iraq was to establish security for a sufficient period in order to gain political maneuver space for various factions to negotiate a political solution. In Afghanistan, the goal seems to be to kill as many insurgents as possible and simultaneously build Afghan forces in an attempt to level the playing field, and consequently, convince the insurgents that they should negotiate a solution. The problem is that many of the insurgent groups have yet to conclude that laying down arms and working with the coalition is in their best interests. Ultimately, the military cannot fight its way to victory in this war. With the porous border with Pakistan and an insurgent ability to empty entire madrassas in order to regenerate forces, the coalition faces an almost never-ending flow of insurgents.

In addition to the never-ending flow of insurgents across the Pakistan border, the coalition faces a great deal of other structural challenges within Afghanistan. The current insurgency in Afghanistan is as much about politics, power and ethnicity as it about anything else. The cycle of violence and power politics has become perpetual and has been exceptional even for a country as zealous as Afghanistan. Foreign influence combined with raucous internal dynamics stemming from civil war and mixed ethnicity, have created an extremely challenging environment within which to operate. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary North Alliance mujahedeen leader, stated in October 1998 that Afghanistan’s people “were thrust into a whirlwind of foreign intrigue, deception, great-gamesmanship and internal strife. … We Afghans erred, too. Our shortcomings were a result of political innocence, inexperience, vulnerability, victimization, bickering and inflated egos.”

Little has changed since Massoud’s assertion. Someone or some group must demonstrate the strength and courage to break the cycle in such a way as to permeate a critical mass of society. If the coalition took a generational approach to the problem and was willing to invest decades of resources into the problem, it might be more likely to succeed; however, the coalition is unwilling to go this route. In particular, U.S. national interests in Afghanistan are dubious, resulting in a difficult justification to the American people for a long-term commitment, especially in light of current economic woes. Without a realistic ability to stay long enough to achieve lasting progress, the coalition faces a near impossible task.

The military may have carved out relative safe zones, reduced the effectiveness of enemy attacks and significantly marred various insurgent groups, but for what? By many indicators, Afghanistan has deteriorated since the toppling of the Taliban despite the fact that the coalition has invested more troops and resources. History has proven that it is almost impossible to win an insurgency as an outside power and unprecedented when the enemy has sanctuary and a porous border to retreat across. The insurgency in Afghanistan is based on poor governance by the host nation as much as anything else. The government is so inept (much more so than Iraq) and corrupt that coalition tactical and operational success is often wasted. The Taliban came to dominance because it offered predictable rules and regulations that broke the chaotic violence during the Afghan civil war when warlords dominated. Much of the Afghan population had mixed feelings about the Taliban, but the Taliban’s regulations and governance brought consistency and predictability. The current disorder and fickleness of security and governance for the population make it difficult for the coalition to shape the course of events. The coalition has often partially solved one problem only to induce further troubles elsewhere. What the coalition struggles to realize again and again is that the war is an Afghan problem and the coalition has limited means with which to shape the outcome. Many other voices and influences affect Afghanistan’s trajectory.


The coalition, and specifically the U.S., would benefit from a reassessment of what is actually feasible in Afghanistan. What can it reasonably expect to accomplish given the situation? How much influence does it really have to change things within the country? Does a critical mass of Afghans want what the coalition is trying to accomplish? Can the coalition impose Western paradigms on Afghanistan? The answers to these questions are crucial in terms of assessing the war’s goals. A “can-do” attitude and hubris have deceived the coalition into thinking it is perhaps capable of greater achievements than are realistic. Senior coalition commanders in Afghanistan have said repeatedly that, if they thought the war could no longer be won, they would say so to their superiors, but such a statement is a bit disingenuous as doing so would be a de facto admission of defeat and a failed strategy. A critical obstacle for the coalition to overcome is that, at the end of the day, the war in Afghanistan is an existential struggle for the insurgents and merely a yearlong deployment to be endured one year at a time for coalition troops.

Many in the U.S. have drawn two independent but similar conclusions about the war in Afghanistan. First, that if the coalition pulls out of Afghanistan, something similar to 9/11 will likely happen again. Second, the coalition and the U.S. have been successful in Afghanistan because another 9/11has not happened since our involvement. Both conclusions are problematic because they confuse cause with correlation. Many other factors account for the U.S. not being attacked again. As historian Andrew Bacevich has argued, even if the coalition achieved a wildly successful “victory” in Afghanistan, it would not mean an end to terrorist attacks against the U.S. because terrorist organizations would simply move to more friendly and accommodating countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and others. Indeed, this very phenomenon has already happened.

Self-imposed limitation by the coalition and the U.S. will likely combine with one of the most challenging situations in modern history within which to operate and force the coalition and the U.S. to settle for minor advances but mostly impasse in Afghanistan. Political and societal change is tough for a host nation to enact, let alone a foreign power in a country as fragmented and dysfunctional as Afghanistan. Additionally, the fact that the U.S. has established the front line of its national security as the Hindu Kush Mountains of Central Asia is at its core imprudent. Is the future of Afghanistan really critical to the national security of the U.S.? There is an opportunity cost to the involvement in Afghanistan. What else could these resources accomplish? Are the thousands of lives and billions of dollars expended on the war in Afghanistan really the best use of national resources? Many have argued that the U.S. military is the only organization with the resources to take on the problems of Afghanistan, but why should the U.S. attempt such a task to begin with? These are crucial questions that senior leaders must dispassionately reconsider and assess in order to produce the most realistic assessment and strategy possible. AFJ

MAJ. WILLIAM B. TAYLOR is an Army aviation officer who has served in Iraq and is currently serving as an aviation battalion S3 in Afghanistan. He served three years as an assistant professor in the U.S. Military Academy Department of History and holds master’s degree in history from Stanford University. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.