- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s relatively easy to determine who is winning a conventional war. Lines on a map usually tell the story. But in limited or irregular wars like Afghanistan, the question is murkier.

In March, President Obama promised his administration would “set clear metrics to measure progress [in Afghanistan] and hold ourselves accountable.” Some measures are obvious, such as the number of enemy attacks, their location and the amount of damage they do. But policymakers require more selective metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. Congress is particularly interested in finding ways to evaluate whether the war is worthy of continued funding. In that respect, they are less interested in victory than in a good return on investment.

The choice of metrics necessarily affects the conduct of war because once they are established, they become their own rationale. In Vietnam, the most important measurable goal was called the “crossover point,” which was the point at which the number of enemy battlefield losses outpaced the number of troops the North Vietnamese could mobilize to replace them. To the proponents of the attrition strategy, reaching the crossover point meant that a rational enemy would stop fighting and start negotiating, because to continue with the struggle would be futile.

Best estimates of body counts and the enemy order of battle told policymakers that the crossover point was reached in the spring of 1967. The rational enemy should have stopped fighting. But no one told Hanoi. There was more to the struggle than what could be programmed into Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s computer. As North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap observed two years later, “arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here. If it did, [the Americans would] have already exterminated us.”

Gen. Giap understood what our policymakers did not: that a weak adversary committed to a long-term strategy and willing to make the necessary sacrifices can defeat a stronger but less motivated power seeking war on the cheap. The reason for our defeat in Vietnam was not lack of firepower but lack of willpower.

The Taliban and al Qaeda are currently testing U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, and if metrics are chosen that create the impression of failure, pressure will mount on the Obama administration and Congress to abandon Afghanistan to its fate. The enemy knows they can never defeat us on the battlefield, but the Vietnam War demonstrated that point is irrelevant when public opinion can be manipulated.

Policymakers should proceed with caution as they wade into the question of metrics in the Afghan war. The first principle should be to keep it simple. U.S. strategy seeks to shape, clear, hold and build. Common-sense measures can tell us if these objectives are being achieved. We do not need a replay of the Vietnam-era Hamlet Evaluation Survey that measured 77 metrics per hamlet per month. If troops are in a town and not under fire, it is cleared. If they can stay the night, they are holding it. If they can move about safely among the people on a daily basis, building is under way.

War planners should also remember that unconventional wars are won in some ways that cannot be quantified. Human factors are paramount. This is the lesson of the surge strategy in Iraq. The Anbar Awakening, a key component of the surge, was not the result of more effective reconstruction programs. It came after convincing Sunni tribal leaders that they had common interests with the United States in defeating al Qaeda and promoting stability. It also required an awakening in the Pentagon that courting these tribal leaders was a more viable pursuit than vainly seeking magic metrics.

The perfect set of measures of progress is no substitute for a winning strategy. We will not prevail in Afghanistan because a spreadsheet says we have won.

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