As the “fighting season” for the tenth full year of US forces being in Afghanistan comes to a close, the Defense Department has released its most recent report (pdf, required every Friedman Unit by law) on “progress” in the war. Although the military does its best, as always, to couch its report in language describing progress against goals which always must be redefined in order to claim any progress, those who have been paying attention knew from the report prepared early this year by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis that the vaunted surge of troops in Afghanistan, despite being billed as guaranteed to work as well as the Iraq surge, has been a complete failure.
Here are the latest results on enemy initiated attacks, on a monthly basis:
Note that in order to not remind us of how violence escalated in Afghanistan while our troops were present, this figure cuts off the early years of the war. A similar chart, with the early years included (but showing events on a daily basis rather than monthly, so the scale is different) can be seen in this post from early last year. However, by cutting off the early years, the Defense Department allows us to concentrate on the surge and its abject failure. Obama’s surge began with his order in December, 2009, so this graph gives us 2009 as the base on which to compare results for the surge. Despite a small decrease in violence from the peak in 2010, both 2011 and 2012 are worse than 2009, the last pre-surge year.
Daniel Davis explains how the reduction in violence in Iraq was unrelated to the surge or Petraeus’ vaunted COIN strategy. From my February post on the Davis report:
Once we realize the fact that the surge in Afghanistan has not worked, the natural question arises of why it didn’t since the Iraq surge is so widely credited with turning around the violence trend there. After all, both surges have been sold as the model for the new COIN centered around the idea of protecting the population.
The answer here is that we were sold lies about the underlying forces behind the decrease in violence in Iraq. In short, violence decreased for reasons mostly unrelated to the surge and the new COIN approach. From page 57:
“As is well known, the turning point in 2007 Iraq came when the heart of the Sunni insurgency turned against al-Qaeda and joined with US Forces against them, dramatically reducing the violence in Iraq almost overnight. The overriding reason the Sunni insurgency turned towards the United States was because after almost two years of internal conflict between what ought to have been natural allies – al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the greater Sunni insurgency – a tipping point was reached whereby the Iraqi Sunnis finally and decisively turned against AQI. Had this unnatural split not occurred, by all accounts I have been given on both the Iraqi side and the US military side, “we would still be fighting in Iraq today,” in the words of two officers I know who fought there.”
There simply has been no turning against insurgents in Afghanistan in the same way there was in Iraq. The COIN strategy has been the same in both places, so it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the military’s current version of COIN alone is insufficient to end violence in Afghanistan.
The Petreaus-Allen-Broadwell-Kelley scandal very conveniently will prevent this evidence of failure receiving the attention it deserves. Should Congress decide to take a realistic look at Afghanistan, it’s hard to see how they can conclude anything other than that our presence has accomplished nothing but death and destruction. Getting out now rather than two years from now is the only responsible decision.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looks as though he is going to be the last person on the planet to realize what a failure US strategy in Afghanistan has become. Today, while visiting New Zealand, he announced that the final surge troops have left Afghanistan, returning troop levels to 68,000 from a high of 101,000 at the peak of the surge President Obama ordered at the end of his first year in office.
The Washington Post set Panetta’s “success” language apart from other comments:
“There’s no question there will continue to be difficult days ahead in this campaign,” Panetta said at a news conference in Auckland, where he was making a visit, in part, to thank New Zealand for its contribution of about 180 troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. “But this is an opportunity to recognize that the surge did accomplish its objectives.”
The New York Times gave a bit more of Panetta’s statement:
“As we reflect on this moment, it is an opportunity to recognize that the surge accomplished its objectives of reversing Taliban momentum on the battlefield, and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces,” Mr. Panetta said.
It’s not until the very end of the article however, where we learn that Panetta’s claims don’t hold up:
However, the level of violence remains higher than it had been before the surge forces came. In the first six months of 2012, for instance, 1,145 civilians were killed, compared with 1,267 in the same period of 2010, when surge forces were only just arriving.
How can it be that the Taliban’s momentum has been reversed if civilian deaths are now higher than before the surge? [Correction: as pointed out by harpie in comment number 1, although the Times says violence levels are higher after the surge, the civilian death rate post-surge is slightly lower rather than slightly higher.]
Besides allowing Panetta to deny the reality of a Taliban that has lost no strength, the Times article article allows an anonymous military spokesman to lie about changes in the size of Afghan security forces during the surge:
“What did the surge give us?” a senior American official reflected on Friday. “We’re going to hit a point where, I won’t say that’s as good as it gets, but now it’s up to them to hold what we gave them. Now really it’s Karzai’s turn.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of military policy.
The surge brought American troops to a high of 101,000, along with as many as another 50,000 coalition troops, mostly from NATO countries. Over the past three years, the increase in American troops helped to enable an accelerated training program, the senior American official said, with the Afghan police and army more than doubling in number by this year, to 300,000.
Two things stand out immediately in the numbers supplied by the anonymous spokesman. First, until this statement, all recent stories have been referring to the size of the ANSF as 350,000. How did the number drop by 50,000? Is this a result of the re-screening that Afghanistan has been carrying out? This chart shows that the Afghan National Army, which accounts for about two thirds of the ANSF, saw a maximum attrition rate of just under 5600 in one month, so attrition alone cannot account for this large drop. [Note: I noticed when I checked the article again after 2 pm that the 300,000 number has been revised to 350,000. There is no indication within the article or at the usual slot at the bottom of the page where corrections are usually noted that this change has taken place. I had already pointed out that the military source was lying whether we used 300,000 or 350,000 as the current ANSF level.]
But the other thing that stands out in this anonymous statement is an outright lie. The official claims that during the surge, the ANSF “more than” doubled to 300,000. This Brookings publication (pdf) documents force size for the ANA and ANP, and it shows that in December 2009, when Obama ordered the surge, the force size was 195,089. If we use the source’s 300,000 figure for the current size, the current force is only 1.54 times the previous size, not more than twice. Even if we use the 350,000 figure that was used in all previous statements, the ratio only improves to 1.79, still well below twice the original size.
The military can lie all it wants, but it still cannot hide its failures in Afghanistan.
Speaking truth to power is a brave act wherever it is carried out. But when that power is the strongest military force on earth and the one speaking truth is coming from within the ranks of that force to point out blatant lies promulgated at the very top of the organization, then it is indeed a rare form of bravery.
Earlier this week, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis published a short report in the Armed Forces Journal and coupled that with discussions with the New York Times’ Scott Shane for an article hitting on the same subject area. In those reports, we learned that Davis had prepared much longer reports, both a classified one which he shared with several members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and a non-classified one which he intended to publish. In the Armed Forces Journal piece, Davis noted that he intended to publish the longer report at his afghanreport.com website, and in an editor’s note, it was pointed out that “At press time, Army public affairs had not yet ruled on whether Davis could post this longer version.” In a very interesting twist, Davis’ long report now has been published, but not at his website. Instead, Michael Hastings, whose The Runaway General article at Rolling Stone eventually resulted in the firing of Stanley McChrystal, has posted Davis’ report (pdf) at the Rolling Stone website, along with a brief introduction from Hastings. There will be a post soon from bmaz addressing Davis’ approach to whistle-blowing and his treatment of classified information.
Davis’ thesis in the longer report remains unchanged from the original. He maintains that despite persistent claims by top military brass that progress is being made in Afghanistan, there is in fact no progress. Violence continues on a steady increase and Afghan forces are nowhere near a point where they can maintain security in the absence of ISAF forces. On the final page, he has this to say about his “final take-away” from the report. He prepared a graphic based on the one reproduced above:
If there were only one thing I could ask you to take away from this rather lengthy brief, it would be this one page. Below you see charted over time, the rising violence from the end of 2005 through the first quarter 2011 (chart source: ANSO, 2011). All spin aside, you see regardless of who was in command, what strategy they used, or what claims they made, nothing impacted the rising arc of violence from 2005 through today. The one thing, however, that has never changed: the upward arc of violence, which continues its rise and is expected to continue at least through this summer. Continue reading