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Analysis

War…By the Numbers

Charting progress in Afghanistan is tough without data
Like most Americans, these U.S. warplanes were in the dark over Afghanistan on Sept. 1, 2018. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)

It seems the only Afghan war number that everyone agrees on is how long we’ve been fighting it: 17 years, as of next Sunday, October 7.

But beyond that key date, other data, including Afghan battlefield deaths and civilians killed in the crossfire, are denied to the rest of us by the U.S. and Afghan officials running the war. If the Afghan war were a business, no accountant could audit its books based on the flimsy and conflicting data Americans have available to decide whether or not to continue this investment. And it’s a heavy lift: Beyond the deaths of 2,317 U.S. troops in and around Afghanistan, the nation has spent close to $1 trillion on this war, including $126 billion to build Afghan security forces capable of defending their country on their own, and for economic development.

But after nearly two decades, the U.S. and Afghanistan are treading water in this conflict, at best. “U.S. military officials increasingly refer to ‘momentum’ against the Taliban, however, by some measures insurgents are in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001,” the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported on September 18.

They talk of “follow the money” in politics. But when it comes to war, “follow the numbers” is just as important. The U.S. military has long used figures—troops deployed, tons of bombs dropped, attacks launched—as yardsticks on the road to victory. Sometimes they can be misleading—none more so than the infamous body counts of enemy killed in Vietnam—but they do represent a crude proxy for progress, or the lack thereof. The current dearth of data from the U.S. and Afghan governments can mean only one thing: the war is not going well.

Most critical data remains elusive.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan now focus on training and advising their Afghan allies, with American airpower on call to help beleaguered Afghans fighting the Taliban or to take out key targets. Some numbers are available: The U.S. launched 1,337 bombs and missiles against targets in Afghanistan in 2016, the final year of the Obama Administration. In 2017, the first year under President Trump, the U.S. military unleashed 4,361. In the first seven months of 2018, U.S. warplanes have fired 3,714, suggesting this year’s total will eclipse last year’s.

But little has changed. “The Taliban has been anything but defeated militarily,” veteran war-watcher Bill Roggio wrote recently at Long War Journal. “Taliban controlled and contested territory remains unchanged since the U.S. changed its strategy [a 40 percent hike in the U.S. troop presence under President Trump], and the Taliban has been dealing Afghan forces major blows on the battlefield.”

Washington and Kabul have flip-flopped on what numbers they provide. Over the past 16 years, they have published Taliban body counts, then halted them, before resuming them yet again in January 2018. Then they stopped doing so September 20 when the New York Timesasked about the resumption of the practice. Some see the Taliban death tally as the Pentagon’s way of showing a skeptical President Trump that his revamped war strategy, with 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan—a 4,000 boost on his watch—is making progress. For the past year, the United States and Afghanistan governments have refused to say how many Afghan troops and police have been killed fighting the Taliban as their casualties have soared (up to 400 in one recent week, according to the Times).

Most critical data remains elusive. In his latest report to Congress, released in July, John Sopko, the tireless Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, described the currently-secret war figures:

  • Afghan casualties (according to the Congressional Research Service, Afghan combat deaths went from roughly 5,500 in 2015 to 6,700 in 2016 to over 10,000 last year)
  • the target size of most Afghan military and police units, and how close to that goal each unit is (independent reporting indicates that only 314,000 of the 352,000 authorized slots are filled)
  • how many Afghans are leaving their country’s army and police force (outside reporting suggests 35 percent of Afghan army and police personnel quit each year)
  • how well those units are performing (the Obama administration resisted reporting that information too)
  • how ready their equipment is
  • how many aircraft and pilots are assigned to the only Afghan air unit outfitted with night-vision gear, assault helicopters, and fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities
  • information about how much damage U.S. airstrikes have done against targets suspected of funding the Taliban

There are also conflicting estimates of how many “ghost” Afghan soldiers and police there are. In this case “ghost” refers to fighters and cops who pocket paychecks without actually belonging to the country’s security forces. A new requirement that only police who can prove they are serving via biometric data—fingerprints, iris scans, and the like—removed up to 30,000 members from the force’s payroll from March to June. While that eliminates “ghosts,” it also is halting paychecks to some in uniform for whom remote locations and Taliban attacks make obtaining biometric certification difficult.

Numbers represent a crude proxy for progress, or the lack thereof. The current dearth of data from the U.S. and Afghan governments can mean only one thing: the war is not going well.

The nation is tired of the war, yet taxpayers continue to pay for it (close to $1 billion weekly) and risk the lives of young Americans for a murky mission. No one reflects this laissez-faire attitude more than the commander in chief: he has yet to visit with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, or any other war zone.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on September 24 that the Afghan government was not losing a “war of attrition” to the Taliban. “So far, they have taken hard casualties over the last year,” he said. “And they're still in the fight.”

That sounds familiar to those of a certain age. Army General William Westmoreland was fighting the same kind of war a half-century ago. “The premise was that, if he could kill enough of the enemy, they would lose heart and cease their aggression against the South Vietnamese,” author Lewis Sorley told me in 2011, when he published Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. “The enemy did not lose heart, did not cease aggression. Instead he simply sent more and more replacements to make up his losses. Westmoreland’s first resort in claiming progress in the war was always body count, but in fact this was meaningless. All the enemy’s losses were quickly made up. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.”

The good news for Americans is that relatively few U.S. troops are dying on Afghan soil (five so far this year). The bad news is that we’re on a second treadmill, 2,500 miles from Westmoreland’s, and we’ve been on it far longer with no end yet in sight. Without key numbers, there's no way to add up what’s really going on.