“We are making great progress in Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary,” emphasized the senior official. He or she would list the impressive achievements to date: roads paved, schools built, Afghan soldiers trained, enemy killed, etc. “But the Taliban are getting stronger … violence trends continue to escalate,” countered an intelligence official. “True,” said the senior official, “But that is because we are taking the fight to them in new areas, al Qaeda is on the run, and Afghans hate the Taliban.”
This back and forth would occur over the course of several years. Optimists and pessimists used the same accessible and concrete data to argue very different conclusions. Many policy makers would gravitate toward whatever assessments reinforced their pre-existing beliefs.
Less noticed were more important trends. The Afghan government was growing into one of the world’s most sophisticated kleptocracies; the Taliban was initiating important political reforms and began distancing themselves from al Qaeda, which improved their public support but created significant tensions in the ranks; regional actors agreed that “something must be done” about Afghanistan but none were willing to set aside other fears and interests to address the problems; the opportunity to begin a substantive peace process came — and went; Afghans and regional actors began losing faith in American strategic competence.
Metrics can give the illusion of precision. Statistics that show impressive past achievements can be misleading when projected onto the future. Strategic judgments that account only for lagging indicators can lead to policies that miss important opportunities. Even worse, they can result in policies that reinforce or accelerate failure.
How these five critical variables unfold will narrow the spectrum of likely outcomes. These variables should also help guide policy-makers toward approaches that improve the prospects of success.
Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC (www.kolendastrategicleadership.com) which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones. He has been as a key advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders, to include serving four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.