The South Asia Channel

What the White House’s AfPak metrics list doesn’t say

The White House's list of about 50 metrics to evaluate progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it assembled to calm rising fears in Congress and the public about the Obama administration's increasingly embattled war strategy, is up on ForeignPolicy.com (with a more legible version here). The draft list, dated Sept. 16, 2009 and delivered to a closed congressional hearing today, clearly states that the "goal of the United States is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa'ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

As Josh Rogin correctly points out over at The Cable, there are three main goals laid out in the document: "disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan, working to stabilize Pakistan, and working to achieve a host of political and civic goals in Afghanistan." Important, all.

Many of the metrics of progress, though, are things that can't really be measured all that easily: "development of an enduring, strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan," for example, or "status of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan." That's fine -- qualitative measures are valuable too. What's missing are concrete benchmarks: dates, sizes of forces, timetables for progress. This document distinctly does not say, "The size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan will be X by Y date," or anything similar (though it does tell us that there will be an assessment of progress by March 30, 2010 and "on regular intervals thereafter").

The omission of these kind of solid, measurable tick marks means that the Obama administration will probably be able to claim that it is making "progress" in the war effort, no matter what happens on the ground, positive or negative.

Also conspicuously absent from the ambitious, broad-reaching list, in line with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's population-centric campaign, are any body counts -- American, NATO, coalition, and insurgent alike (though the metrics to achieve Objective 1, disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and "especially Pakistan," are hidden in the classified annex).

Specific numbers of IEDs in Afghanistan found and disabled -- which JIEDDO already tracks, so could have been an easy check-the-box -- are also not mentioned here. No discussion of the number of suicide bombers, thwarted or not, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is one way to measure security in either country.

Refugees returning home from abroad and from being internally displaced by conflicts like this spring's Pakistani military offensive in the Swat Valley are also omitted, as are improved literacy rates -- recently reported by the AP to be a big challenge for the Afghan National Security Forces -- and increased educational opportunities for children in the troubled region. No mention of the number of secure hospitals or health care clinics available to rural Afghans, either. Nor the number of coalition airstrikes that kill civilians.

The document also talks about the "volume and value of narcotics" in Afghanistan, but skips over any figures about replacement crops like wheat.

This isn't to imply at all that the document leaves everything out, or that these omissions are the best and only ways to measure progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One important metric included in the document is the "percent of the population living [in Afghanistan] in districts/areas under insurgent control." This is a subtle difference from most of the analysis I've seen about what percentage of Afghanistan's physical territory is controlled by the Taliban, and is probably a better measure of security in the country.

Additionally, this set of metrics pays much-needed attention to public opinion in Pakistan and Afghanistan, citing "Pakistani public opinion of government performance" and "public perception at the district level of the Afghan Government's effectiveness and sustained ability to provide services" as benchmarks. Problems with polling in either country aside, it is a critical recognition of the importance of hearts and minds in the region.

More to come as the AfPak Channel peruses the document more closely.