A regular theme here has been the difficult of measuring progress especially in counter-insurgency. So, my curiosity was peaked by this latest "progress" report on Afghanistan. Mostly, it shows less violence compared to previous year. That sounds good and is probably good. But given that last year was a peak year, perhaps getting back to 2009 levels is not that much progress?
Joshua Foust points out on twitter that some of the charts only focus on exploded IEDs but not IED attempts. I ruthlessly speculated and then suggested that finding the unexploded kind might be the result of increased tips from the Afghans, which would, indeed, be a sign of progress. I take it that an Afghan giving NATO intel help is essentially a bet--that they are betting on the government and ISAF and not on the Taliban. So, the more bets on ISAF, the better, right? But then Erin Simpson dashed my hopes and dreams with the news that ISAF does not track tips well.
So, perhaps the Taliban are increasingly incompetent? That they put out roadside bombs in ways that are less hidden now? Maybe this is a result of all of the road-building ISAF has done (harder to put IEDs under asphalt).
All we can tell is that there are some trends, but what they mean? I don't know. I do know that the ISAF charts on violence certainly don't jibe with the events of the past year--assassinations of key figures in Southern Afghanistan, attacks as spectacle in Kabul (thinking of spectacular in a limited sense of the world), increased rate of Afghan security folks shooting at ISAF folks, etc.
Thus, violence may be declining in some measureable ways--maybe--but the politics is more focused on the appearance of violence, so ISAF's assertions with these figures just seem like lies even if they are not. Things seem to be getting worse, even if the numbers suggest otherwise. This can be purely a problem of perceptions defeating reality, of low expectations (failed attacks don't count, as JF suggested), or that we still are focused on the wrong numbers. Perhaps, to use the baseball stat-head analogy, we are focused on batting averages and not on-base percentage (I listened to the Bill James appearance on the Bill Simmons podcast this week).
As always with Afghanistan, the more you know, the more confused you are.