U.S.-NATO Military Command Decides You Shouldn’t See Key Data on Afghan Insurgency

Military Decides You Shouldn’t See Key Data on Afghan Insurgency (Wired, March 6, 2013):

One of the major metrics for the decade-long Afghanistan war is seriously flawed. Rather than fix the problem, the U.S.-NATO military command in Kabul has decided that you simply shouldn’t see the data.

Late last month, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) conceded that it misreported the 2012 statistics on Taliban attacks. Its explanation was that a data-entry error had discounted attacks reported by Afghan forces — so much so that a statistically insignificant change in the level of so-called “enemy initiated attacks” became a 7 percent decline from 2011 levels.

ISAF’s response, the Associated Press recounts, is to end public reporting on enemy-initiated attacks. It’ll still record attack levels, according to spokesman Jamie Graybeal, but it won’t publish any of the data it collects — all because it’s losing confidence in the veracity of its information. As Afghan forces take increasing control of the war, ISAF will cede control of overseeing the attack data collection. “We have determined that our databases will become increasingly inaccurate in reflecting the entirety of enemy initiated attacks,” Graybeal told the Associated Press’ Bob Burns, who broke the story.

This means ISAF is denying you a major metric for assessing the durability and the lethality of the insurgency, as well as, by inference, its freedom of movement. When U.S. officials in the future claim that they’re making progress, you will not be able to access the data underlying their claims. Indeed, if ISAF has lost confidence in its “increasingly inaccurate” attack data, then those generals themselves will have little basis for their own assessments. And all this data vanishes at the awfully convenient moment when the U.S. is increasingly handing over the majority of the fighting to a dubiously capable Afghan force.

Graybeal told Burns that a measurement ISAF used to tout as significant actually isn’t that significant. “At a time when more than 80 percent of the [attacks] are happening in areas where less than 20 percent of Afghans live, this single facet of the campaign is not particularly accurate in describing the complete effect of the insurgency’s violence on the people of Afghanistan,” Graybeal argued. But that assumes a confidence in the overall attack reporting data that ISAF itself is saying it lacks, and will increasingly lack as time goes on. As more of those sparsely-populated areas come under the control of Afghan forces, how will ISAF be confident in the attack data from those regions?

There are ways of assessing the Afghanistan war’s vectors that do not rely on ISAF attack reporting. One is to look at civilian casualties, independently reported by the United Nations team on the ground. The most recent data on civilian deaths and injuries found that the Taliban is responsible for the vast amount of such violence, and that for the first time since 2007, those numbers have declined. Another is to look at the extent of territory that U.S. forces hand over to their Afghan proteges, and how those Afghan soldiers and police hold the ground they’re entrusted with. But those are poor proxies for understanding the Taliban’s pattern, frequency and intensity of attack, none of which is robustly captured in either metric.

Abandoning the attack data represents a vote of no confidence in the Afghan forces that the U.S. is spending billions annually to finance. ISAF doesn’t trust the Afghans to represent faithfully when they come under attack, despite entrusting them with securing Afghanistan. Even if it’s the case that the Afghan National Security Forces, many of whom are illiterate, keep poor records, ISAF has the option of intensifying its training on data entry; making its reporting system easier for Afghans to use; or changing its procedures for auditing the Afghan security apparatus it plans to sponsor for years to come.

Perhaps ISAF will reverse its call. Until then, U.S. commanders are positioning themselves to misunderstand the war they’re waging. And the American public and the Congress will have even less basis for assessing the progress of the longest war in their history.

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