Passport

How (not) to measure a war

There’s nothing more frustrating than reading an article which purports to answer a question that it really dodges. Take, for example, "How to Measure the War," by inveterate Afghanistan and Iraq indexers Jason Campbell, Jeremy Shapiro, and Michael O’Hanlon. One would expect to finish the piece with a better understanding of the metrics that we ...

There’s nothing more frustrating than reading an article which purports to answer a question that it really dodges. Take, for example, "How to Measure the War," by inveterate Afghanistan and Iraq indexers Jason Campbell, Jeremy Shapiro, and Michael O’Hanlon. One would expect to finish the piece with a better understanding of the metrics that we will use to judge our progress in Afghanistan than after reading, say, Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops. That would be incorrect. 

Instead, the piece meanders inoffensively through thirteen pages, informing the reader that, yes, metrics are important in a counterinsurgency campaign. Yes, they can be misused and suffer from a lack of concrete data. And then there’s this: "Unfortunately…metrics will not be up to the job of diagnosing clear and incontrovertible proof of progress or lack thereof in Afghanistan."

That’s disturbing news, especially coming from the people who have followed the numbers in Iraq closer than anyone not in a uniform. It’s also, thankfully, not particularly convincing. The authors argue that, because the primary measure of success in Afghanistan will be the effectiveness of the Afghan government, this presents a set of metrics which are hard to measure. Well, here are a few metrics to gauge the capability of the government off the top of my head: I would be interested in knowing in what parts of the country the government can collect taxes; how many students regularly attend government-run schools; and where the government can provide regular services, from functioning courts to trash pickup.

Those are just the basics. You can read the Obama administration’s metrics for measuring progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan here. I’m sure there are more complicated metrics for a government’s capabilities. So how about it, Passport readers? What do you think are the important factors to measure in Afghanistan to determine if the US war effort is worth the cost?

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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