How to Fib ISAF’s Effectiveness

Remember what would happen in school if the whole class essentially failed the calculus exams? The professor would grade the students on a curve. It was a way of pretending a D+ was an A- by changing the standards on which grades were based.

Turns out, the Pentagon is a lot like your calculus teacher.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been responsible for training army and police forces for Washington’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. After years of training and billions of dollars spent, Afghan forces remain illiterate, drug-addicted, clumsy, and impotent. Very few brigades can operate independently of their NATO trainers and there are concerns of widespread infiltration by the Taliban (the fact that Afghan forces keep shooting and killing NATO forces, doesn’t help). “The police and most of the soldiers are cowards,” one Afghan told Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker. “They cannot fight.”

But the Obama administration can’t afford to have the training program be a failure. And if you fail, you’ve just got to learn to – what’s the saying? – …lie?

The Pentagon’s decision to change the standards used to grade the success of Afghan police and soldiers, who are a centerpiece of U.S. strategy for smoothly exiting the war in Afghanistan, helped it present a positive picture of those forces’ abilities, a U.S. government watchdog reported on Tuesday.

“These changes … were responsible, in part, for its reported increase in April 2012 of the number of ANSF units rated at the highest level,” the Government Accountability Office said in a new report on Afghan national security forces, known as ANSF.

In a twice-annual report to Congress in April 2012, the Defense Department reported that Afghan police and soldiers “continued to make substantial progress,” classifying 15 out of 219 army units as able to operate ‘independently with assistance’ from foreign advisors. Almost 40 out of 435 police units got the same rating.

This reminded me of a piece by Joshua Foust last week:

The U.S. government has relied on what it calls “burn rate” to measure its success in rebuilding Afghanistan. It is a measurement of how much it spent – not what it accomplished, or how the country was changing, but how much money it spent. The assumption behind this measurement was that more is better, and if the government spent a lot of money, then it was clearly accomplishing something.

Such an assumption has no basis in fact. Assuming the connection between an action and an outcome is called, in psychology, “magical thinking.” It’s like making policy with a rain dance. For the last ten years, policymakers have promised that if only enough money were spent, then many of the war’s objectives (a strong central government chief among them) would appear and make victory possible.

Magical thinking is a perfect way of putting it. Nearly everything about the Obama administration’s thinking on Afghanistan is divorced from reality.