Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Are we winning in Afghanistan?

Skeptical as I am about terms like "victory," I actually do believe the frequently asserted axiom that "in counterinsurgency, if you're not winning, you're losing." Adm. Mullen's been pitching that one for a while -- at least since September 2008. So it's a fair, now that the strategy and resources have shifted, to ask the Chairman if his opinion has changed.

Q Do you still believe that the U.S. is not winning in Afghanistan and is therefore losing?

ADM. MULLEN: When I said that, the main -- which was September '08, I think -- the main thrust of that statement was to get to the underresourcing effort -- the underresourcing of the Afghanistan campaign and to be very clear about that, which it had been and certainly I think even more so, as General McChrystal showed up, than I had understood at the time.

So the main focus was there.

I think that what -- with the strategy, with the resources, with the leadership with a focus on the people, as is indicated in this operation, that we can succeed there. It's going to take some time, and I think it's going to be hard.

Q But just on the winning or losing question, what would you say today?

ADM. MULLEN: I haven't -- I mean, I'm just -- I haven't -- I haven't really made any assessment with respect to that. I think we're headed in the right direction. We got the right leadership, the right strategy, the right resources. And I think we can succeed.
I've got to be honest with you: I think that's a pathetic answer.

He hasn't really made any assessment with respect to that? Had he made an assessment in the fall of 2008, or was he just speaking off the cuff?

Is he telling us now that he wasn't saying anything about whether we actually were winning or losing, but that we had not created conditions conducive to victory by adopting the right strategy, prosecuting the most effective operational approach, and contributing sufficient resources? ("The main thrust of that statement...", etc.) Because that, to me, is a totally different question.

As far as I can tell, the honest answer should be something like "I thought we were losing then, and a big part of the reason is that we didn't have the right approach, the right people, or the right troop numbers. Now we do, but it's going to take some time to turn it around. So where I would have told you before that we were losing and needed to make some dramatic changes to start winning, right now I'd just say that yes, we're still losing, but we've made the necessary changes and are waiting for events to bear that success out."

Of course, that's not me talking, and that's not my opinion. That's just what I think would constitute an accurate reflection of Adm. Mullen's true opinion and not some mealy-mouthed question-begging -- that is, assuming that the only reason we were ever losing was because of resources and strategy, and assuming that every listener agrees.

And so I pose some questions to the online commentariat:

1. Are we winning in Afghanistan?

2. What conditions would constitute a "win"? (Please be specific. If you think we are winning, then how much more winning to we have to do before we call it a win? If you think we're not winning, then what do we need to change to start?)


  1. I agree that the Chairman's answer was pretty poor. But isn't a little early to be making evaluations of this sort? With a bunch of additional troops still moving in and a whole mess of ASF reform and expansion projects about to get started, what the hell difference does it make if we're winning now or not? There's a new path that we're just starting, so even if we are "winning", everything is going to change anyway.

    The one thing more poor than ADM Mullen's response was the useless question that elicited it.

  2. ut isn't a little early to be making evaluations of this sort?

    If we accept the premise that at any moment in time, we are either winning or losing, then no, I don't think it's too early. You can say "yeah, right now we're losing because of X, Y, and Z, but we've made this change and that change and the other change, so I think the trends are positive."

    The foundational idea of all of this is that things are either moving in the right direction or the wrong direction. If they're moving in the wrong direction, then you might think there ought to be changes to get them going the other way.

    And so even at this early stage, even with the significant shifts we've seen over the last three months or so, is there any reason to believe that whatever negative trends existed in the past have been quashed? Is there any reason to believe that "success," however we define it, is only a matter of time, rather than requiring a significant change in the way we do business or a re-imagination of our objectives?

  3. The one thing more poor than ADM Mullen's response was the useless question that elicited it.

    If our leadership is going to frame the conflict in those terms for strategic communications/messaging purposes, then why should the media avoid doing the same? Adm. Mullen and GEN McChrystal's repeated assurances that "if you're not winning, you're losing, and we're losing" were calculated to impact the policy debate and the political process in order to secure more resources for the war effort. Now that that's done, are we done looking at this thing in terms of winning or losing at any moment in time?

  4. Sure, but "winning" and "moving in the right direction" are two separate things. One could be losing but moving in the right direction to make up for it. I know you know this, but I think that "are we moving in the right direction?" is the better question.

    If most people thought that we were losing and that required a change in how we are doing things there (I dare not call it a change in strategy), those changes have not yet taken effect. Those changes are likely moving things in the right direction, but I wouldn't go so far as "winning." The biggest indicator of things moving the in the right direction, to my eye, is how the Marja offensive was planned - joint US/Afghan (and UK) with a follow-on civilian administration. Ask me a again a few weeks to see how that administration is doing to see if we're still moving in the right direction.

  5. Sure, but "winning" and "moving in the right direction" are two separate things.

    In the construction "in COIN, if you're not winning, you're losing," is this really true?

    Why is this question more complicated now than it was in September 2008, or in the many times that GEN McChrystal repeated it in his efforts to secure more resources? Why is it more complicated than when he compiled his assessment last summer?

  6. Wow, lots of typos there. I guess I haven't had enough coffee today. Apologies to everyone.

    As to your second point, I think it's fair of the media to ask the question, but I think the reporter is delusional if he thought he would get an up or down answer. ADM Mullen should have skipped the first bit about evaluations and just gone on to the second point.

  7. I guess I don't necessarily buy the "if you're not winning, you're losing" in the sense that one could take a snapshot in time and say that there is a binary judgement. Doesn't our beloved ink spot strategy suggest that it's okay to get your ass handed to all over the place as long as you're winning in a couple of places?

    And I don't that maxim applies at the onset of new operations - be they based on doctrine, resources, or strategies. Obviously one must think that things are going badly or that you were "losing" or you wouldn't be changing things. For instance, when the surge in Iraq started, I would have suggested that we were "losing" but that things were "moving in the right direction".

  8. Okay - last para should have started with "And I don't think that maxim..." and after the hyphen, "they" refers to "new operations". I'm going to get another cup coffee now.

  9. Hey, I remember getting yelled at in the comments section at Abu Muqawama because I asked, "why is it so bad to talk about winning?"

    I didn't really get yelled at, you know, I got a lot of nice explanations from the likes of Dr. Finel about how talking about winning doesn't cut it in this conflict. But I digress from the main point I wanted to make!

    Did you all read the Robert Haddick post at Small Wars Journal? On the Proceedings article? I'm sure you all did (that's me making my version of a joke.) Do we need to rewrite the narrative on the Soviets in Afghanistan now? The post talks about how the client government survived for about four years on its own (I think I'm getting that right?)

    So, on narratives: is it winning if the government lasts for a bit of time after we decide to get out? How can that be when we've made rhetorical points about Al Q "never again" returning to wreak havoc? Based on that verbal and rhetorical endstate, we have boxed ourselves in. I get the need to talk like that: to rally, to make bold statements and for bravado, but it's still a problem.

    It's a long term manager, this conflict I mean, a long term management situation isn't it? Even if we do help to establish a somewhat stable government that represents, sort of, the Afghan people, all the nice neighbors will go back to deciding what is in their own best interest. Which may not coincide with ours despite diplomacy, money, etc. I'm rambling and off-topic and I've said all this a million times already, I know, but I guess I'm trying to say that I agree with Gunslinger generally.

    "If you're not winning, you're losing," is kind of a silly aphorism, isn't it? You can lose, sometimes, and still win over all, if we are going to play that particular rhetorical game.

    Oh, never mind. Maybe I need coffee, too. Ignore all that above.

  10. Winning?

    I. Some sort of minimally stable government in Kabul with a reach that allows some international aid groups to work, over time, in the more far flung areas with some minimal level of security.

    A. This requires eeping an eye on the neighbors so that they understand there are consequences for making mischief, because they are, and will continue, to work at odds with I.

    I dunno. Seriously, the fact that I can't write a one sentence answer that seems plausible makes me kind of sad. And reminds me of Old Blue and all those commenters at the old Abu M who are trying, so hard, and at great personal cost, to make things work.

    I'm wrong all the time, so I bet I'm wrong on this!

  11. Keeping, not "eeping" obviously.

    Actually, strategically, A is the winner. DING DING DING: A is the real winner.

    If you all see what I mean.

  12. "... in counterinsurgency, if you're not winning, you're losing."

    That's called a "bumper sticker" statement. It doesn't mean anything, but it sounds profound and it fits nicely into a sound byte. Unfortunately, I guess, he is now being held to it as if it is some kind of "metric."

    I wish he would have said, "you know, that was a general observation that requires a lengthy discussion of what 'winning' and 'losing' mean and a lengthy analysis to determine which is occurring." That would segue nicely into a spiel of talking points: "Here is the current situation: our long-term objectives are [insert talking point #1]. We are working towards them by [insert talking point #2]. Thus far, our progress is [insert talking point #3]."

  13. I'd recommend reading Scott Sigmund Gartner, "Strategic Assessment in War." One constructs indicators, and assesses whether those indicators are moving in a positive or negative direction. Here's where it gets complicated; not only does one measure whether indicators are moving in a positive or negative direction, but one determines whether those indicators are moving better or worse more quickly or more slowly. (In other words, one is taking the second derivative of the function; the first derivative is whether the indicators are getting better or worse; the second derivative is whether the indicators are getting better or worse more or less quickly.) It's important to note that Gartner does not claim this mode of assessment is entirely rational, but rather, "boundedly rational."

    He also has a great anecdote in his superb chapter on the Battle of the Atlantic in the First World War (the inability to generate the proper inquiry into the number of ocean-going vessels led the British Navy to conclude that convoying was not feasible).

    To return to the question at hand, I'd state: first, what are the key indicators regarding Afghanistan? Are those indicators moving in a positive or negative direction, and at an increasing or decreating rate? How does one construct an index of indicators to answer these questions? Second, one person who's qualified to comment on the issue told me (and others in the audience) that the appropriate or acceptable time to leave a COIN campaign is when there is "an acceptable level of violence" (ie, not necessarily an absence of violence, not that any polity is free from violence). If one accepts that statement, how far is Afghanistan from an acceptable level of violence?


  14. There was an interesting SWJ discussion about metrics in COIN wars a month or so ago.

    Ink Spots warning: It includes the words of Gian Gentile and revolves around Tom Ricks' blog postings. Gunslinger's celibacy about the latter and Gulliver's catnip targeting of the former perhaps explain why the blog never linked to it.

    Also, no French.


    I disagreed with everyone there, but it was entertaining to read.


  15. "I disagreed with everyone there..."

    People always skip over my comments.

  16. @SNLII - I did read that discussion. And damned interesting discussion it was - much more so than the posts that caused it to happen in the first place. I'm afraid I still don't have a position on metrics (what to measure at what level, etc) so I would have just provided a link.

  17. I'm sure the SWJ discussion tore this to shreds, but for what it's worth,



  18. ADTS,

    Carl Prine in his long provocations linked to that in another form. He also made the (correct) observation that these and similar metrics haven't actually helped us to understand how successful we've been.

    To be fair to Schmedlap, he expanded upon his SWJ thoughts on his own blog, which became an exercise in trying to remember a MoE Death by PowerPoint presentation he survived around 1998.



  19. SNLII--I actually hadn't seen it so thanks. ADTS and Schmedlap--thanks for the links too. I'm actually taking over that portfolio at work at the end of March so super helpful.