Petraeus and Co. Can't Keep Their Spin Straight on the Afghanistan War

The spin by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force reeks of desperation, and for good reason: The pushers of President Obama's escalations of the war over-promised and under-delivered.
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Afghanistan continues to become less secure, despite the best efforts of General Petraeus and his press team to spin the bad news coming out of that country. Recently he and his team have tried to claim that:

  • data showing worsening civilian casualties somehow show that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is protecting civilians,
  • Helmand and Kandahar provinces comprise "bubbles" of security where "progress" is being made, even though most of the insurgent attacks in Afghanistan take place there, and
  • the larger percentage of attacks occurring in Helmand and Kandahar somehow show that ISAF is confining violence to smaller and smaller areas, even when that's demonstrably not true.

ISAF's spin reeks of desperation, and for good reason: the pushers of President Obama's escalations of the war over-promised and under-delivered, and it's not possible to hide the failure of the U.S.'s military strategy in Afghanistan.

Civilian Casualties On the Rise

As General Petraeus himself is fond of reminding us, the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine is to bring "security the people, to protect the population, and, I would add, to be seen to be securing them." Or, as he put it earlier this year in his counterinsurgency guidance to ISAF forces (.doc file):

"Secure and serve the population. The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail."

This doesn't just mean, 'not accidentally blow them up.' It means preventing insurgents from killing, injuring, and intimidating the local population or preventing them from supporting the government supported by the counterinsurgent. That's why Petraeus' shop conveyed through CNN this desperate bit of spin on the recent civilian casualty data, emphasis mine:

The number of civilians wounded and killed last quarter (July-September) was 20 percent lower than the same period last year, despite the increase in fighting and increased numbers of coalition forces and Afghan forces. ISAF believes this means that even with rising attacks, it is reducing the ability of insurgents to harm the Afghan civilian population.

As convenient as it may be for ISAF to confine the comparison to just July-September 2010, that's a highly myopic bit of cherry-picking, considering that, over the course of the year, civilian deaths have risen at least 11 percent:

U.S. and allied forces have failed to reduce the number of civilian fatalities caused by them in Afghanistan despite a two-year effort by American commanders, internal U.S. military statistics show.

Civilian deaths have risen 11% from 144 at this time last year to 160 in 2010. The increase has coincided with the rising number of incidents in which U.S. and NATO attack helicopters mistakenly fired on Afghans who turned out to be civilians, the previously unreleased statistics show.

Fantasy Security Bubbles

Petraeus has seized on a new metaphor when trying to claim "progress" in Afghanistan--the "security bubble." He recently told the Royal United Services Institute:

In recent months, for example, there has been progress in a number of areas in Central Helmand Province, where, over the past year, we have steadily and methodically established security zones around the most populated areas. Marjah is one prominent example...

We have also embarked on a deliberate campaign to improve security in Kandahar Province, just to the east of Helmand. With our Afghan partners - who outnumber ISAF forces in this operation - we have taken away key safe havens in parts of Kandahar City, the Arghandab District northwest of the city, and the bulk of the two districts to the west of Kandahar City - although more work remains to be done in those districts. And we will continue these operations and over time link the growing Kandahar security bubble with the one in central Helmand. When that connection is made, we will have secured the major population centers in the south - the Taliban's primary area of operations.

There's just one problem with this "security bubble" metaphor: the data fed to CNN by Petraeus' press shop show that, "In 2010, 50 percent of the violence occurred in just 10 districts, with Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounting for the majority of attacks. How can the two provinces in which the lion's share of all violence in the country occur be "security bubbles?" That is simply idiotic.

Helmand and Kandahar are zones of intense insecurity, not "security bubbles."

Insurgent Attacks on the Rise All Across Afghanistan

ISAF tried to spin the intensifying violence in Kandahar and Helmand, hoping we couldn't do some simple math. Here's the spin again conveyed by CNN:

"Violence has been centered in a small number of districts. In 2009, 50 percent of the violence was occurring in 14 districts. In 2010, 50 percent of the violence occurred in just 10 districts, with Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounting for the majority of attacks."

Here, ISAF implies "progress" by trying to get you to believe that they were containing the violence in smaller and smaller areas. But this is also false: when you compare violence outside of Helmand and Kandahar in 2010 to 2009, you see that even outside of the zone of intense insecurity in Helmand and Kandahar (again, "security bubbles?"), you can see that violence in those regions is also increasing.

According to data provided by the Afghan NGO Safety Office (see this .PDF, page 12):

  • Attacks by insurgents committed through the third quarter of 2009, excluding Kandahar and Helmand: 5,137
  • Attacks by insurgents committed through the third quarter of 2010, excluding Kandahar and Helmand: 7,696

That's an increase of 2,559, or a roughly 50 percent growth in the rate of insurgent attacks by the third quarter of the year in areas outside Kandahar and Helmand. The areas outside of Helmand and Kandahar are much more violent and insecure than they were at this time last year. Helmand and Kandahar just got so much worse so much faster that they comprise a larger percentage of the attacks nationwide.

Security is deteriorating all across Afghanistan, both inside the "security bubbles" in Kandahar and Helmand and across the rest of the country. That Petraeus and ISAF would push these two lines of propaganda at the same time--that Kandahar and Helmand comprise security bubbles and that we're confining the bulk of the violence to Kandahar and Helmand--insults our intelligence.

A Bit of Context

Back when the generals were furiously working to box in the president on the latest troop escalation, the leaking of General Stanley McChrystal's strategic guidance was a key move that confined President Obama's political space in which to make a decision. That document raised high-volume alarm bells, warning of imminent catastrophe if his guidance were not accepted and massive numbers of additional troops sent to Afghanistan. Specifically, McChrystal wrote:

"...I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

McChrystal wrote those words in a document dated August 30, 2009. Well past the critical 12 month deadline for reversing the insurgency's momentum described in that memo, intelligence assessments now agree that the insurgency "seems to be maintaining its resilience." Speaking to the Washington Post, a senior Defense official familiar with the assessments said "that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, 'I don't see it.'"

We are well beyond the critical moment described by the pushers of these latest escalations, and their promised results haven't materialized. The influx of troops hasn't reversed insurgent momentum, and the "new" strategy does not protect the population of Afghanistan. Petraeus and his ISAF press shop staff can spin as hard as they like, but deceptive use of statistics and selective interpretation of data can't hide the fact that the war plan in Afghanistan isn't working and it's not worth the costs. President Obama should realize Petraeus and McChrystal took him out for a ride last year, and he should demand an exit strategy for a plan that hasn't panned out in what they described as the decisive period.

We shouldn't wait until July 2011. The escalation plan in Afghanistan failed. We all know it. It's time to bring those troops home, starting now.

If you are fed up with this brutal, futile war that's not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

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