Best Defense

Kilcullen (IV): How to measure Afghan army and police units

Next, COIN thinker David Kilcullen offers these helpful ways of measuring local security forces. "Kill ratio." Body counts stink. But the ratio of enemy killed vs. security forces killed may tell you how aggressive and confident an Afghan unit is. Note that you must handle these numbers very carefully. Kills caused by indirect fires such ...

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Next, COIN thinker David Kilcullen offers these helpful ways of measuring local security forces.

  • "Kill ratio." Body counts stink. But the ratio of enemy killed vs. security forces killed may tell you how aggressive and confident an Afghan unit is. Note that you must handle these numbers very carefully. Kills caused by indirect fires such as mortars and artillery must be excluded. And be careful of civilian casualties. Pare this ratio down to its essential core, he says: Count only confirmed kills or captures directly inflicted by the unit on positively identified insurgents who were engaged in combat at the time. Even then, the ratio is only useful when interpreted alongside other information.
  • "Win/loss ratio." Another well duh metric. But don’t pay attention to the overall number, but instead to the trend. And don’t count actions won by bringing in allied units, or air strikes or artillery.
  • "Kill versus wound/capture ratio." A unit that is killing more than one person for every three to five wounded or captured may be executing people or posthumously defining dead civilians as the enemy. "[A]s an indicator of possible security force brutality this needs to be tracked."
  • "Detainee guilt ratio." This is an ingenious way to track the quality of an ‘Afghan unit:  Track how many of their busts turned out to be righteous. A low rate can be counterproductive and be driving military age males toward the Taliban. Conversely, a high rate indicates a unit that is getting good intelligence and so probably gaining the confidence of the local population.
  • "Recruitment versus desertion rates." Despite huge recruitment efforts, Afghan security forces in the south actually shrank last summer, he says. But don’t worry about AWOL rates, because soldiers go home to deliver their pay.
  • "Proportion of ghost employees." Pay attention to the trends.
  • "Duration of operations," "night operations" "small unit operations" and "dismounted operations." Four good indicators. A unit that only does single day operations and then comes home to its fort is a unit lacking confidence or energy. Conversely, a unit that conducts multi-day operations, staying among the people, or operates a lot a night, is a unit that feels confident in its environment. Night operations in particular can help a population feel safe, if they intended to protect the people rather than scare them. Units that break out into smaller operations are showing more confidence and covering more areas. Units that are comfortable operating on foot are more among the people, especially in a country that has many roadless areas.
  • "Combined action operations." Army and police units working together, and cooperating also with coalition forces, is a good sign.
  • "Driving technique." The worse a unit drives around people, usually the worse its relationship with the people. (Tom: I think this like many of his observations in this section, applies to our own forces as well.)
  • "Reliance on air and artillery support." Calling Keith Marine!
  • "Pattern setting and telegraphing moves to the enemy." The first is usually bad. Surprisingly, the second isn’t. Kilcullen says that calling ahead and warning a local valley about a move is very much in the Afghan tradition, and that the Taliban tends to seek permission before moving into a village. So, he says, it is sometimes appropriate to say that if the Taliban doesn’t leave a valley in 10 days, we might be forced to come in.
  • "Possession of the high ground at dawn." Who is up there, the Afghan security forces or the Taliban? This is one of the eternal verities.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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