The U.S. military and NATO have stopped producing an assessment that was considered key for measuring progress against the jihadist insurgency in Afghanistan, according to a report released on April 30 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The metric, which tracked district stability, was one of the “most widely cited Afghan security metrics.” But it will no longer be available to the public, or those tasked with oversight.
In Nov. 2017, General John W. Nicholson Jr., then commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), said the “most telling” metric for success is “population control” — that is, the percentage of Afghan civilians living in districts dominated by the government, versus those controlled or contested by the jihadists.
Less than a year later, in Oct. 2018, the U.S. discontinued use of that same metric and related ones altogether, arguing it is “of limited decision-making value” to military leaders. Gen. Austin S. Miller, the current commander of Resolute Support and USFOR-A, has said that the goal is to bring about a “political settlement” to the war. And he is banking on the State Department’s diplomacy with the Taliban, even without any further territorial gains by the government.
The U.S. military’s decision to move the goal posts is discussed in the latest quarterly report by SIGAR, an oversight body that provides “independent and objective” assessments to Congress.
Prior to late 2018, NATO’s Resolute Support, which is led by the U.S. military, had produced “district-level stability” assessments. These analyses counted the number of Afghan districts under government or insurgent “control” and “influence,” while also factoring in the “total estimated population of the district[s]” and the “total estimated area of the districts.”
In mid-January, however, the Defense Department told SIGAR that the assessments “are not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy or of progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan, particularly in the wake of the appointment of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.”
As a result, “Resolute Support formally notified SIGAR it is no longer producing its district-stability assessments (which included district, population, and territorial control data) because the command no longer believes the data has decision-making value.”
That is an about-face from what the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan was saying just over a year earlier. On Nov. 20, 2017, Gen. Nicholson explained the strategy behind the war effort. Nicholson claimed that “the metric that’s most telling in a counterinsurgency…is population control.”
Nicholson estimated that the Afghan government controlled “about two-thirds of the population” at the time. With U.S. and NATO support in the form of “training, advising and assisting,” the goal was for the Afghan government to “increase” its population control “to at least 80 percent” within “two years” – that is, by late 2019 – or even “faster” (meaning sooner).
Nicholson said that “80 percent” population control would give the Afghan government and its international allies the “critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance,” such that they continue living in “remote, outlying areas, or they reconcile, or they die.” In this scenario, the Taliban would control “less than 10 percent of the population” and another 10 percent would be “contested.”
That did not come to pass. Nicholson’s goal proved to be wildly optimistic, as Afghan security forces have struggled to hold their own. According to SIGAR, the Afghan government’s “population control” actually “declined by about two points to 63.5%” as of Oct. 2018 – the “last district stability data” produced by Resolute Support.
Having failed to meet this military objective, the U.S. military and NATO decided to stop tracking “population control.” According to SIGAR, Resolute Support claimed in late January that “one necessary condition [for a political resolution] is the perception by both sides that the conflict is in a military stalemate . . . little variation in district stability data support multiple years of assessments that the conflict is in a stalemate.”
But that is not what the head of Resolute Support said just months earlier – when the stated goal was to beat the Taliban to the negotiating table. In Nov. 2017, Gen. Nicholson made it clear that “expansion of control over the population” was the “key factor” for safeguarding and expanding voting rights, which “leads to greater credibility” for the Afghan government.
Resolute Support has attempted to suppress the district security analyses in the past. In Jan. 2018, it classified the assessments, only reversed the decision after an outcry from SIGAR and news organizations. Resolute Support later claimed human error cause the data to be classified.
NATO’s arm in Afghanistan has also downplayed the Taliban’s district-level strength by changing terminology. In July 2018, the military changed the status of districts held by the Taliban from “insurgent influenced” and “insurgent controlled” to “insurgent activity” and “high insurgent activity.” The Afghan government, however, was allotted the status of control or influenced. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Resolute Support invents new terms to obfuscate Taliban control.]
FDD’s Long War Journal has tracked the security status of Afghanistan’s districts since the summer of 2015, before Resolute Support released its own assessments, and will continue to do so. This analysis relies on press and government reports, Taliban claims, and other sources.
The Defense Department told SIGAR earlier this year that there is “uncertainty in the models that produce [the district-stability data] and the assessments that underlie them are to a degree subjective.” That is true. There has always been some uncertainty in assessing the status of Afghanistan’s districts, as reliable evidence is not always available and the status of some areas can be murky.
But as SIGAR notes, Resolute Support (RS) claimed in May 2017 that the district-control assessments had been “methodologically improved.” Moreover, SIGAR says that “[d]espite its limitations, the control data was the only unclassified metric provided by RS that consistently tracked changes to the security situation on the ground.” The data were not the only metric for measuring “the success or failure of the South Asia strategy,” but “did contribute to an overall understanding of the situation in the country.”
Instead of tracking the insurgency’s district-level status throughout the country, the Defense Department told SIGAR it is “more important to instead focus on the principal goal of the strategy of concluding the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to Afghanistan and the United States.”
Thus far, the Taliban hasn’t agreed to meet with the Afghan government — a key hurdle to any political resolution.
Khalilzad claims that the US and the Taliban have agreed in principle to a draft agreement. The draft accord deals with two issues: a timeline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s supposed assurance that the country won’t be used as a hub for international terrorism in the future.
Khalilzad has been especially credulous when it comes to the Taliban’s alleged counterterrorism assurances. But the Taliban has lied about al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan since the 1990s, and there is abundant, publicly-available evidence showing that the two remain in the same trench to this day. The Taliban has never publicly renounced al Qaeda.