Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Measuring Progress and Policy

The new headline reads: 1 in 7 released detainees rejoins the fight. Obviously, we would prefer if none of the folks released ever fought again. But, the recidivism rate for criminals in the US is somewhere around 60-70% and perhaps a bit lower in the UK [Wikipedia as the source, but other studies seem in line]. So, is one in seven good or bad for those detained? I would say it is much better than we have a right to expect, given that an unknown number were exposed to some abuse and rehabilitation was not the aim of incarceration. Of course, critics will look at the numbers and assert that one in seven is too high. But then again, where do we put the detainees if we want to keep them forever? Not in my backyard apparently. There are no easy solutions to this problem, one that was hard enough even before the Bush Administration screwed it up beyond belief. That only one in seven are getting back into the fight is actually good news.

And this gets us back to the recurring theme: cognitive consistency. Ok, the process in play is not just psychological but political--that opponents of Obama will want to take the darkest possible interpretation to undermine him and his supporters (perhaps even myself) will always take the most positive to try to win the political battle of the moment.

The measurement problem--how do we know we are making progress, how do we know we are making good decisions--is incredibly hard. Did we overreact to H1N1 or not? No pandemic thus far, but the effects of preventive efforts, like deterrence, are really hard to measure. And we are really impatient. I remember being asked by the media days after the bombing of Serbia started about the policy's failure, and folks were quick to judge the invasion Iraq to be a failure because of the sandstorms. In both cases, the objectives were reached in a reasonable time frame, but one that was longer than expected. So, expectations drove the perception of success. More problematically, the real question for both campaigns is not whether US military could achieve its goals, but whether the effort was politically and strategically sound? What are the goals, what are the costs, and what are the second and third order consequences of the policy?

One of the common threads in most of the discussions I have had with miltiary types in Canada, the US, Brussels and Afghanistan is that progress in counter-insurgency campaigns is incredibly difficult to measure. Body counts clearly do not suffice, but neither do number of clinics or schools opened. The best way to measure is whether locals, Afghans in this case, are willing to bet on the government or the insurgents. Are they willing to provide action-able intel to NATO, ISAF and the Afghan government, do they sit on the fence, or do they help the insurgents? Unfortunately, this information is classified.

Even if we had such a measure, that indicated trends in where the Afghans stand, we could still debate about how much progress is appropriate given how much time has passed and how much has been expended. Unfortunately, the debate would probably not turn so much on the facts, but on how it could best be played. Again, 1 in 7 recidivists among the detainees is really not bad. Perfection is not an option.

Sorry for the rambling, but then again, you can best measure for yourself whether this post was progressive (illuminated) or regressive (confused or even destroyed knowledge).

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