The Duck of Minerva

Metrics for Winning Hearts and Minds

29 September 2010

I often find myself in disagreement with Amitai Etzioni, but he does makes some sense in his recent Politico op-ed on Petraeus’ “metrics” for progress in Afghanistan:

The newest way General Petraeus plans to measure success in the war in Afghanistan reminded me of what the government did when its campaign to persuade the public to stop smoking did not make much headway. It stopped counting how many people had had their last cigarette – and started counting how many anti-smoking pamphlets it mailed.

…Gen. Petraeus has outlined five metrics of military success, including: ‘the elimination of Taliban sanctuaries outside the city of Kandahar and continued targeting of senior and mid-level insurgent leaders by U.S. Special Operations forces, an increase in the disappointing number of Taliban fighters brought into a government reintegration scheme, the development of newly authorized local defense forces, and improvement in the capabilities of Afghanistan’s national security forces.’

These measurements correlate very poorly with what the U.S. is seeking and with what General Petraeus argued to date was what he sought to achieve. Petraeus is famous for his counterinsurgency strategy, according to which one cannot win the war militarily, but only by building a ‘legitimate and effective’ government composed of the citizens of the country, so that those who would rebel will be enticed to come in from the cold.

True. The “metrics” the US needs to be looking for are the extent to which civilian sentiment is moving toward the government rather than toward the Taliban. But then Etzioni tells us that’s not happening – through reference to the same kind of irrelevant indicators (like how many areas the Taliban hold) that tell us something about Taliban strength but nothing about the views of the Afghan citizenry on the legitimacy of the government or US presence in the country:

To measure progress on this front one, would have to know, for instance, that, if following the last election, the public does feel that the Karzai government is more representative and less fraudulent? Hardly. Does the public feel that the Karzai government and its local representatives, including the police and army, are less corrupt? No indication to this effect. Do they feel minimally secure in their homes and public spaces? Evidence shows to the contrary; the Taliban has been spreading in the northern, non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and holding on to most of the Southern ones. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001. Four years ago, insurgents were active in only four Afghan provinces. Now, they are active in 33 of 34.

Etzioni doesn’t cite the data he is quoting from, but recent polling data – precisely the type you would look at if you wanted to gauge Afghan sentiment re. their government and ISAF forces – suggests his interpretation is a wee bit too gloomy. The latest ABC poll from Afghanistan reports:

Sharp regional differences remain, with optimism much weaker in the main conflict zone in the country’s South. Nonetheless, overall 63 percent of Afghans interviewed in May said their country was going in the right direction, 66 percent expected improvements in their own lives a year off and 61 percent expected better lives for their children than for themselves. Each is a key measure of national cohesion. Two were lower than their levels last winter – positive ratings of the country’s direction, off by 7 points from late December; and expectations for a better life in the next year, down by a slight 5 points. Yet all remained far above their levels in early 2009, when development was stalled and the Taliban were seen as gaining strength.

If Etzioni is right that the correct metric for measuring success in Afghanistan is not insurgent body counts but rather the optimism of Afghan citizens – and I think he is – then by at least some indicators ISAF is not doing half-badly. Afghanis do see corruption as an issue, but the complete report shows this is not the key issue causing disaffection from the government:

Few in this survey, 8 percent, mentioned corruption as the single most important issue in bringing stability to the country, and 23 percent mentioned it as one of the top three issues (peaking at 31 percent in the South). That compares to 50 percent, as noted, calling security the single top issue, and 75 percent calling it one of the top three concerns. While corruption may be a serious obstacle to progress, security reigns as the top concern.

Moreover, the regions of the country where security is the worst are those regions where Afghans report the greatest willingness to work with Westerners.

However there’s a hitch in the poll that would support Etzioni’s claim that ISAF is losing ‘hearts and minds’: support for a democratically elected government is declining somewhat:

Preference for democracy as the best political system for the country fell from 32 percent in December to 23 percent in May; it now ranks third behind preference for an Islamic state, 45 percent, or a “strong leader,” 30 percent.

As the Langer report also points out, answers to the “strong leader” question (in both Iraq and Afghanistan) have historically spiked during periods of instability, so addressing the security situation in Afghanistan may reinvigorate Afghanis’ confidence in democracy as well.

A final note: how useful is public confidence in one’s government as an indicator of national stability? I don’t know, but for what it’s worth, Gallup reports only 17% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, and 55% of Americans polled believe that quite a few government officials are “crooked.”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]