Judging What’s Vital—The Problems of Measuring Progress in Unconventional Wars

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Colonel Gregory A. Daddis is an Academy Professor of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He is author of No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War, published by Oxford University Press.

Examining editorials on the war in Afghanistan during the first half of 2011 leaves one hesitant to proffer a judgment on American strategy.  In fact, evaluations of the war’s progress have varied so widely in recent months that the very concept of measuring “progress” appears at best a questionable endeavor.  In February, two former military officers now heading the Center for a New American Security opined that “slowly but surely…the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity.”[i]  Others held far less sanguine views.  In March, a frequent consultant to American forces in the war-torn country argued that the millions of dollars being spent on infrastructure development “should be slashed immediately.”  The vast amount of money being infused into Afghan society, according to this observer, was failing to garner corresponding increases in support among the population.[ii]  Former New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb concluded that the “inescapable point of [such] news stories is that the U.S. military doesn’t know how to judge what’s vital inside Afghanistan and what’s not.”[iii]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. Army faced comparable problems in measuring its progress and effectiveness during the nearly decade-long war in South Vietnam.  Military and civilian leaders alike struggled with a similar lack of consensus over how well those prosecuting American strategy in Southeast Asia were achieving their goals.  While many histories of the war contend that the U.S. Army in Vietnam implemented a narrow strategy of attrition, for which “body counts” became the lone indicator of progress, the truth is far more complicated.  From the beginning of his tenure as the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) commander, General William C. Westmoreland crafted and implemented a broad strategy that accounted for more than simply killing enemy forces.  In fact, Westmoreland designed a campaign plan which included defending major political and population centers, preserving and strengthening the South Vietnamese armed forces, and reinstituting rural construction activities.  Rather than relying solely on “body counts,” the MACV staff followed its commander’s lead by developing a vast system of metrics to analyze and assess nearly every aspect of a highly complex war.

Unable to depend on metrics used in conventional conflicts like World War II or Korea—territory captured or enemy killed rarely told the whole story when combating insurgencies—MACV gathered statistics from across the political-military spectrum.  Staff officers collected data on pacification security, South Vietnamese army training programs, the damage being inflicted on the enemy, and, later in the war, even popular attitudes among the rural peasantry.  Other indicators reported on the effectiveness of South Vietnamese regional and territorial forces and on progress being made in economic and social development projects.  The collection effort was staggering.  One report alone—the Hamlet Evaluation System designed to help measure the progress of pacification in the countryside—generated a monthly average of 90,000 pages of reports.  When added to MACV’s other analysis documents, the U.S. Army in Vietnam was producing 14,000 pounds of reports daily.

Unfortunately for those attempting to make sense out of this astonishing amount of information, MACV put less effort in data analysis than it did in data collection.  In part, data collection had become an end unto itself.  It was, of course, difficult to gauge the sociological and cultural aspects of the Vietnamese insurgency.  How could American officers, many not well versed in the intricacies of unconventional warfare, assess the pulse of revolutionary warfare in the context of village life inside South Vietnam?  Understanding the social and political aspects of the National Liberation Front insurgency (better known by the pejorative term “Vietcong”) was challenging for even the most perceptive of officers. Americans literally were strangers in a strange land.  Thus, MACV tended towards data collection, in part, because it was more tangible to them.  Largely ignorant of Vietnamese language and culture, Americans focused instead on numbers—force ratios, incident rates, weapons losses, security of base areas and roads, population control, area control, and hamlet defenses.

Certainly, most U.S. Army officers in Vietnam realized intangibles such as will, morale, and political strength defied easy measurement yet nonetheless were important gauges of success.  With pressure, however, from both civilian and military chains of command to report progress, field officers substituted quantifiable metrics for a fuller understanding of the war’s course and conduct.  In the process, any commentator could justify his or her prognosis on the war by employing a panoply of statistics.  As Time reported accurately in early 1970: “For each good sign, there can still be found another, less hopeful sign…. As a result, every assessment of the war is self-contradictory.”[iv]  Such inconsistencies left civilian and military leaders, and the American public at large, bewildered as to which side actually was winning the war in Vietnam.  (A review of current historiography on the war suggests this debate has lost little of its fervor.)

Comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are fraught with peril, especially when interpretations of the former aim to prove or disprove certain positions concerning the latter.  Still, the problem of measuring progress and military effectiveness in Vietnam can offer useful perspectives to those attempting to judge what, in fact, might be vital in Afghanistan.  An objective reading of the long, disruptive conflict in Southeast Asia illustrates the challenges of defining progress and success in an unconventional environment.  Commanders in Vietnam struggled to determine whom to trust among the local population, where the main threat lay, and which political-military groups posed the greatest threat to government stability in Saigon.  Arguably, similar problems confront those waging war in Afghanistan today. The surplus of differing opinions on the state of progress in Afghanistan seems to indicate the unresolved difficulties of measuring what matters most in an unconventional war.

[i] Nathaniel Flick and John Nagl, “The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter,” The New York Times, 20 February 2011.

[ii] Bradley Klapper, “Ex-Pentagon adviser: U.S. should cut Afghan aid,” The Washington Times, 2 March 2011, citing consultant Mark Moyar.

[iii] Leslie Gelb, “Hoist By Their Own Words,” The Daily Beast, 26 February 2011.

[iv] “The Strategy and Tactics of Peace in Viet Nam,” Time, 28 March 1969, 19.

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