How to Tell if We're Winning the Afghan War


Oct 5, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on October 5, 2009.

With U.S. casualties in Afghanistan mounting, the public questions the eight-year U.S. involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has declared the war "serious but winnable"—yet now, for the first time, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, more than 50 percent of the American people say the war is not worth fighting.

As part of an effort to shore up opinion, the Obama administration is expected to submit to Congress a list of 50 metrics which will be used to measure success in Afghanistan.

That would be 48 metrics too many. Only two criteria are needed to determine whether the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. Back in March, President Obama identified clear strategic objectives for Afghanistan: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and to prevent its return. We can gauge progress toward those objectives by asking two simple questions.

1. How much territory do al-Qaida and the Taliban control within Afghanistan?

Right now, al-Qaida's main base of operations lies across the border in Pakistan. However, al-Qaida has a history of cooperation with the Taliban, and the Taliban does control large portions of southern Afghanistan.

The two organizations do not share the same goals: The Taliban wants to regain power in Afghanistan, while al-Qaida wants to use the country as a base for terrorist operations. Still, the two groups have often found that cooperation suits both of their interests. If the government falls to the Taliban, it would increase the chances that al-Qaida would reconstitute its operations in Afghanistan.

Many of the 21,000 additional U.S. troops that were deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year have been trying to oust the Taliban from its strongholds in the south. This is an extremely difficult task, which includes intense fighting and requires a sustained military presence. General McChrystal may soon request additional troops for this mission, according to news reports, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has rightly warned that it may take 12 to 18 months to see progress. At that point, if the Taliban controls less territory than it does today, then we will know the U.S. is winning. If it does not, we will know it is losing.

2. How capable are the Afghan security forces?

International forces will not stay in Afghanistan forever. Ultimately, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police must bear responsibility for securing their own country, and for preventing al-Qaida's return.

Efforts to build Afghan security forces were starved for many years, so progress has been slow. The police continue to be plagued by corruption and poor performance, despite reform efforts. But in recent years, the Afghan army has emerged as one of the country's few bright spots. Its capabilities are slowly but steadily increasing. More importantly, the army is now the most respected government institution in the country, and the Afghan people generally believe that it genuinely acts in the national interest rather than for the benefit of particular factions. But there is still a long way to go before the army can secure the country on its own.

Some officials in the Obama administration have reportedly called for expanding the size of the security forces and intensifying international training efforts. These will be key developments to watch. In order to move toward the goal of securing their own country, the security forces will need to effectively recruit and train personnel and gradually improve their ability to conduct military operations independently.

The United States does have a range of other interests in Afghanistan, including democratization, economic development, and reconstruction. But these interests are best pursued by civilians as part of a normal program of development assistance, and should not be conditions that must be achieved before withdrawing military forces.

If one year from today, the Taliban controls less territory and the Afghan security forces are more capable, then we will know the United States is winning. If not, then we will know we are losing—no matter what the 48 other metrics say.

Nora Bensahel is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.