I had the good fortune to hear Brigadier Doug Chalmers talk last week at Exeter’s new Security and Strategy Institute about his recent experience of commanding the U.K’s Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan. The talk had a particular operational focus on the main effort of British forces, Nad-e-Ali district in central Helmand, during which Brigadier Chalmers emphasised how things ‘were better than when we arrived’ when he left and that he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Afghanistan’s future. Heat maps of Nad-e-Ali district were produced to show how insurgent activity had been forced outside the predetermined centres of gravity in the district, including markets, roads and coalition/ANSF bases, by joint British and Afghan efforts. Photos of an empty market ‘then’ and a bustling one ‘now’ seemed to showcase the improvement. So far, so nothing new.

The real problem for me came when Brigadier Chalmers – who is obviously incredibly capable, intelligent and well-read on COIN and the history of Helmand – spoke about the micro-econometrics by which he judged the campaign. The presence of butchers selling beef in the market was a good indicator of growing trade and confidence because, in the 45 degree heat of the Afghan summer and without refrigeration facilities, each butcher had to be certain he would sell his cuts the same day he slaughtered his cattle. The sale of tomatoes in the market, which have to be imported from Iran and Pakistan, showed that the roads were safe and that normal commercial flows were returning to the region (although the same could be argued of flows of weapons/insurgents no doubt?). Finally, the fact that solar-powered public lighting installed by development aid projects remained on the main street and had not been pilfered demonstrated that there was a growing sense of community within the town and with that a wider sense of confidence about Afghanistan. If ever one could seize on Nagl and Kilcullen’s micro-indicators of success, then Brigadier Chalmers surely had, and on the face of it, such arguments seem convincing. Until you consider the macro-indicators of the wider campaign.

Firstly, the heat map of Nad-e-Ali; it’s all well and good keeping the insurgents out of the centres of gravity for the moment, but there is not much evidence to suggest that this will continue once coalition forces leave the area and handover security duties to the Afghans. The purple lozenges of security are more likely to shrink and the red swathes of enemy activity are more likely to grow when the ANSF are left to their own devices. The gains made by joint coalition/ANSF operations are unlikely to be maintained when the drive and professionalism of NATO forces is removed.
Taking the ANSF issue to the strategic level there are also four other major issues.
Firstly, the current rate of attrition in the ANA (as of November 2012) is officially 2 per cent per month. God knows why NATO decides to quantify attrition rates on a monthly basis but I suspect the fact that this means that the ANA is losing 24 per cent of its personnel every year has something to do with it. This is simply unsustainable, and is likely to get worse, not better, as coalition troops withdraw and ANA units take the lead in combat ops.

Secondly, while we constantly hear that Afghans are now leading over 80 per cent of all operations, and they are currently conducting 85 per cent of their own training, there is little mention that that in the last year ISAF has lowered its criteria of classification for ANA (35th minute) units to be capable of independent operations, thereby allowing more units in the lower categories to qualify for the highest category.

Thirdly, the central metric of the Afghan campaign is an economic one. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth recently – the IMF estimates Afghanistan’s GDP to be over $19 billion – without the inflation generated by over 100,000 NATO troops and their support staff, the country’s GDP is historically close to $12 billion. The cost of training and equipping an ANSF of 352,000 is forecast by the U.S to be $4-6 billion a year for the foreseeable future, depending on their size. Thus, funding its security forces will cost Afghanistan about a third to a half of its actual GDP every year. This is simply unsustainable.

Fourthly, such a fact presents a clear rationale for cutting the size of the ANSF. 230,000 has been the number suggested.  Yet even if you take into account that half of Afghanistan’s population may not require a dense ANSF presence, to secure the remaining 15 million inhabitants or so would require a force ratio far greater than this allows. Indeed, forces this size would fall far short of the number required by NATO’s own doctrine to successfully conduct a counter-insurgency campaign. Such doctrine holds that 20-25 counter-insurgents are needed per 1,000 members of the population. Even given the geographic concentration of Afghanistan’s insurgency in the south and east of the country, the 230,000 figure falls far below this ratio. Again, big strategic problems remain unsolved.

So, as you can see, there are for more telling metrics that can be used to assess the likelihood of strategic success in the Afghan campaign than beef, tomatoes and solar panels.  And the metrics included here are simply some of those related to the ANSF, others on security, corruption, Pakistan’s interference, and wider economic figures could also be used to triangulate the strategic direction of Afghanistan.. While coalition forces are to be commended for undoubtedly delivering operational successes, it is the failure of commanders to draw the distinction between the limits of these successes’ relationship to the wider strategic context that worried me the most. Perhaps speaking candidly is too much to expect from serving officers, but as a result I was left with the sinking feeling that the ‘cautious optimism’ of the military was simply shorthand for ‘not my pay-grade.’ Indeed, at times it felt like there was a big-eared grey mammal laughing at the back of the room because, strategically, the only thing that warrants cautious optimism in Afghanistan at the moment is the prospect of a negotiated peace settlement, and that is a long shot.