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Unhelpful statistics: US stop monitoring level of Taliban control across Afghanistan

May 6, 2019

…but the data is likely being collected anyway and look for the data to return publicly if it starts to show more positive news…

The US military are apparently no longer tracking the ebb and flow of the conflict in terms of Taliban/government control of districts and provinces.

SIGAR says the NATO-led mission, Resolute Support, “formally notified SIGAR that it is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence.”

A copy of the communication from the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, which was provided in the report, stated that district stability data “was of limited decision-making value to the Commander.

It is difficult to be sure of the motives for this but easy to suspect that the data is not demonstrating sufficient US military success.  Measuring “stuff” is difficult – what should you measure? how do you measure it? what do the measurements show? how confident can you be that you are measuring all the things you need?  There was a similar debate and reversal of policy regarding “bodycount”, the counting of insurgents killed.  The process was confused.  In the post-2001 Afghanistan conflict, the US began announcing Taliban deaths, then stopped doing so in around 2011, then started again and then stopped once more in 2018.  Counting bodies was unhelpful when it clashed with the harsh reality: military and independent analysts were still assessing that the number of Taliban still fighting in Afghanistan was the same or growing (see my early report here, which now urgently needs updating), regardless of the number of deaths reported.  I seem to recall that some deployed US units kept their own bodycount separately anyway during the “no body count” years.

Monitoring the amount of Taliban control of the country has been controversial.  Data – and definitions of the data – have always made caution necessary.  It can be a very stark indicator that things are not going well, even when the situation is more nuanced, so the charts are politically sensitive and open to claims and counter claims.  It seems very plausible to conclude that, because the data is going away, it is no longer helpful to the US/Afghan government cause to publicise it – i.e. the outlook is proving gloomy and therefore bad news is being suppressed.  I suspect that the data will still be collected – perhaps in a different format – but only for internal use.  Look for this data to return as soon as the number of districts under Afghan government control starts to go up…

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