Beef, Tomatoes and Solar Panels: The Dubious Metrics of COIN.

The author is King’s War Studies Alumni, a former British army Captain and former Afghan analyst for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.


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 this is too much to expect from serving officers, but as a result I left the meeting 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.

UPDATE 28 March 2013:

The author would like to stress that in the last paragraph he meant that perhaps it is too much to expect officers to speak candidly on the distinction between op/strat success rather than that is too much to expect them to be able to make this distinction full stop – which is unfair.


15 thoughts on “Beef, Tomatoes and Solar Panels: The Dubious Metrics of COIN.

  1. TrT says:

    “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”
    Or simply that the locals have already stolen (been given) as many as they need.

  2. On the metrics, I’d argue that Chalmers isn’t wrong so much as out of date. His metrics are those of the classical ‘winning hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency strategy that was being practiced from around 2008-10. (In fact, I think the meat & tomatoes ones come directly from the Kilcullen paper on metrics). It was only later (somewhere under McChrystal or Petraeus) that we switched to focus to building up ANSF in what El Snarkistani has dubbed Operation Ready or Not.

    A really good post, and this is as pithy an explanation as I’ve seen of the failure to hold one group – whether politicians or generals – responsible for success: “I left the meeting with the sinking feeling that the ‘cautious optimism’ of the military was simply shorthand for ‘not my pay-grade.’” That lack of responsibility is linked to the need to maintain coalitions, the constant changing of commanders (15 and counting!), and the relative disinterest of political leaders in a far-off and optional war. We should have put one person in charge – a viceroy of sorts – a decade ago, given them wide powers and fired them when they failed.

  3. Madhu says:

    The nature of alliance relationships within the contemporary NATO context pretty much guarantees that outcomes matter less than showing solidarity or position of pride and influence within the coalition. That goes for everyone within the alliance with no exceptions, it seems from my vantage point.

    There can be no “viceroy” when NATO’s decision making structure emphasizes shared consensus at its very foundation, even if we in the US half take on that role while not admitting it to ourselves.

    The very nature of NATO post World War II security relationships – filtered through the post Soviet, post Cold War and globalized environment – leads us, depressingly, to tomatoes and solar lights and the rest of it. It’s a theory I’m floating, don’t know if it has merit….

    Will anyone think in “pre” terms again? It might be time to do that.

    Cooperation Among Democracies: The European Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy

    It all travels in the other direction too, obviously. It goes in all directions. How a military in a democracy or republic should navigate through this is beyond me but you have my deepest sympathies. Not a drop of sarcasm in that last comment. Genuine sympathies.

    Perhaps the only possible human reaction is “above my pay grade.”

    • Madhu says:

      Er, obviously I’m glad for civilian control of the military, the sympathy part of my previous comment is directed at practical issues. I’m not lamenting the fact that a military is constrained by democratic norms. That’s a good thing.

      Also (I mentioned this at SWJ) but what is the deal with some American military officers and all this Soldier Sahibs book stuff? It’s oddly unsettling to flip tv channels, land on C-SPAN, stop to listen to a General or former General express admiration for a British colonial past (“why, they had people living there for years and they knew the language and culture and everything and officers were assigned for ten years at a time!”) within a discussion of the current Afghan campaign.

      I get the impusle. I understand some aspects might be helpful for day-to-day practical matters. It’s not wrong to study history, you never know what you might learn. But it IS 2013 and everything, and, er, strategically we are not supposed to be doing something like that….

    • Madhu says:

      I hope my comments about American Anglophilia for a British colonial past aren’t being rude. I don’t believe in collective punishment. It seems to me that sometimes people slip over into bullying contemporary Britons when the conversation should be brisk and honest because it might help in thinking about the future. I’ve obviously got some ethnic “chips on the shoulder” but I try to be honest about it. I have no desire to be a bigot.

    • Madhu says:

      The Army’s most senior female officer has resigned just days before the announcement of a restructuring programme which will see the service drastically reduced in size, with some historic battalions disappearing.

      Oh, I see. Well, maybe. I’m new to all of this. Not being British, I didn’t understand the background of much of the discussion. I see a book on the sidebar by Rob Dover that seems to fit this discussion too:

      Europeanization of British Defence Policy

      The US doesn’t always help, do we? I mean, we complain that you are not spending enough money on defense but various stakeholders within our mixed up mess of a foreign policy end up pushing people out of comfort zones, out of sensible ways of looking at security.

      I don’t understand. Northern Africa and the Mid East are more properly in the European sphere of influence and we Americans should be thinking about the Atlantic and Pacific equally because it just makes more sense, we don’t need you to tag along always and we shouldn’t involve ourselves too much where it doesn’t really serve American interests. We just egg each other on in ways that are counterproductive. Maybe.

      But if we go back to that, will we be in a multipolar free for all? How to keep the good things about the post WWII global order while updating to current needs?

      (I don’t entirely believe the protestations by some officials of there being”no global NATO”, I think everyone is getting confused because we have to think new thoughts once again.)

  4. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Thanks for this Patrick. “Metrics” are a key aspect of any ‘results-based management’ programme, but are notoriously hard to get right. This is, to my mind, because we are not measuring what we really want to measure (prosperity, security, democracy–what have you) but rather a simple proxy for that desirable quality. Do tomatoes=prosperity? Ummm…well not exactly.

    That uncertainty–‘almost but not quite’ element–of the proxies rarely survives contact with the public. Press releases and briefings are bursting with confidence, rather than being shrouded with humility that would be more appropriate to the very approximate–and impressionistic–nature of the metrics.

    Such ‘out of the jeep window’ assessments are not new. In Kosovo in 1999 there was a similar metric programme: security, according to commanders, could be accurately gauged during a ‘drive-by’ simply by looking at the goods for sale on the street. Plastic housewares indicated anxiety amongst the populace, because they were easily left behind in case of the need to flee an impending Serb onslaught. Washing machines indicated a feeling of safety, as such high-price durable goods would not be sacrificed nor easily carted away. The high-water mark was reached when wedding dresses appeared in the shop windows.

    Not an exact science at all.

    • Patrick says:


      In terms of the PR/media ‘its getting better, see’ spin, one incident springs to mind from Sangin. In 2008 photos of the bustling bazaar were compared with 2007 (less busy) and 2006 (deserted) under the banner of ‘Improving Sangin’. That seemed all well and good and as a commander I felt like we were achieving something until one of my soldiers who was a vet from the 2006 Sangin fighting remarked: ‘Yeah, boss, but you should have seen it when we first arrived. It was busier than any of this…’

  5. Aldo says:

    Metric of success are extremely difficult to accurately quantify in terms of cause and effect and must be identified within a broader perspective than provincial. I have no doubt that from Cmd TFH’s perspective there had been progress, but……. as others have pointed out, the real metrics are far different from tomatoes and solar panels; if these are to be true indicators of achievement, then they must be measured in the context of the fabric of a progressive society, where positive economic, societal, political and above all security factors are all evident across the country. More importantly, as boring as it sounds, good governance must be established for economies to flourish for both individuals and the state to benefit.

    None of this should take away the real difference UK efforts have made to many of the people in Helmand. But, success is dependent on a wider investment programme, the cost of which is prohibitive for many nations, let alone one.

  6. Mike Wheatley says:

    Look, I’m not optimistic about the future situation in Afganistan, but:
    “…and is likely to get worse, not better, as coalition troops withdraw and ANA units take the lead in combat ops.”
    This is really flawed reasoning. You are justifying your pessimistic theory by citing, as fact, the predictions that your theory makes about the future. Aaargh. Minus 10 Quirrell points.

    “Thus, funding its security forces will cost Afghanistan about a third to a half of its actual GDP every year. This is simply unsustainable.”
    Unless the US is paying for most of it.

    Given the growth of the US drone warface program, I would expect US drones to ~never~ leave Afganistan. The cost of that drone coverage is affordable now and getting cheaper.
    The second the Taliban occupy a government building, they give away their possition. That could be next year, 10 years from now, or 100 years from now. Once the Taliban realise this, the onus is then on them to convince the US to make peace.

    • Patrick says:

      Hi Mike,

      I don’t think its flawed reasoning. The slides COMTFH put up showed how UK/ANA troops had just about managed to keep insurgent activity outside a relatively small but populous area around Nad-e-Ali. My reasoning, based on knowledge of the ANA, the troop densities required to maintain that ‘security lozenge’ and general pattern of NATO withdrawal, is that that situation is ‘likely to get worse, not better, as coalition troops withdraw and ANA units take the lead in combat ops.’ Yes, its a best guess, there always is in these things, but are you really suggesting that the opposite is more likely, or just having a pop?

      Yes, it is obvious the U.S can fund the ANSF but for how long will they be willing to carry the majority of the burden? There are already shortfalls in ANSF funding as NATO countries have been somewhat reluctant to cough up, UK and Germany excluded.

      I agree on the drones, but am not sure the myriad insurgent groups will ever ‘convince the U.S to make peace.’

  7. Callum Lane says:

    Excellent post.

    Brigadier Chalmers as a serving army officer will have been constrained in his brief both by having to stick to the strategic narrative and by the requirement to brief only on his area of competence (his Area of Responsibility). The combination of boith may explain the degree of myopia detected. I would be very surprised if senior officers cannot distinguish between success at the operational and at the strategic level. Bit to openly articulate the issues would create a separate strategic dynamic unhelpgul to the current “withdraw with grace and honour, job done”. I suspect that the unwritten yet extant campaign plan is to stabilise the situation as much as possible, withdraw, and then fund the Government of Afghanistan on a diminishing scale over time so that when things do go badly wrong it can be blamed on the Government of Afghanistan and not the West.

    Madhu is right in stating that for many ISAF participants what is important is not the outcome of the conflict, but participating. The US has speread much largesse for participating in the conflict in terms of military materiel assistance. Furthermore countries are generally expected (certainly within NATO and the EU, and for those who aspire to join) to be net contributors – so contributing counts more then winning.

    I am surprised that much more attention is not paid to the economics of this conflict. The conflict is unsustainable by the West and the current ANSF construct is unsustainable by the Government of Afghanistan.

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks Callum, and for your thoughts.

      Senior officers do, of course, realise the wider strategic situation, but the problem is they are not articulating it in public. To say they are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the future of the whole of Afghanistan by deducing from micro-metrics at the operational level is dodgy reasoning and therefore, despite the fact that it is part of ISAF’s current strat comms on Afghanistan, it needs to be challenged. You can argue, as you hint at, that senior officers are toeing the line because that is the political message they have been told to adhere to and the military should essentially be apolitical, but actually when this flies in the face of reality and is itself a political standpoint, what is the point? Apart from not rocking the boat, which would decrease chances of promotion…

  8. Patrick says:

    Also, if anyone is interested, here is BBC’s Panorama programme, one of the first documentary’s to show the realities of handover in Sangin. While Sangin is admittedly one of the worst parts of Afghanistan, it is precisely the kind of place where hard fought gains by ISAF are obviously being eroded…
    (only available in UK)

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