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Afghanistan by the Numbers

Measuring a war gone to hell.

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Here may be the single strangest fact of our American world: that at least three administrations — Ronald Reagan's, George W. Bush's, and now Barack Obama's — drew the U.S. "defense" perimeter at the Hindu Kush; that is, in the rugged, mountainous lands of Afghanistan. Put another way, while Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we've been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.

Imagine for a moment, as you read this post, what might have happened if Americans had decided to sink the same sort of money — $228 billion and rising fast — the same "civilian surges," the same planning, thought, and effort (but not the same staggering ineffectiveness) into reclaiming New Orleans or Detroit, or into planning an American future here at home. Imagine, for a moment, when you read about the multi-millions going into further construction at Bagram Air Base, or to the mercenary company that provides "Lord of the Flies" hire-a-gun guards for American diplomats in massive super-embassies, or about the half-a-billion dollars sunk into a corrupt and fraudulent Afghan election, what a similar investment in our own country might have meant.

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Ask yourself: Wouldn't the U.S. have been safer and more secure if all the money, effort, and planning had gone towards "nation-building" in America? Or do you really think we're safer now, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7%, an underemployment rate of 16.8%, and a record 25.5% teen unemployment rate, with soaring health-care costs, with vast infrastructural weaknesses and failures, and in debt up to our eyeballs, while tens of thousands of troops and massive infusions of cash are mustered ostensibly to fight a terrorist outfit that may number in the low hundreds or at most thousands, that, by all accounts, isn't now even based in Afghanistan, and that has shown itself perfectly capable of settling into broken states like Somalia or well functioning cities like Hamburg.

Measuring Success

Sometime later this month, the Obama administration will present Congress with "metrics" for... well, since this isn't the Bush era, we can't say "victory." In the style of special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, let's call it "success." Holbrooke recently offered this definition of that word, evidently based on the standards the Supreme Court used to define pornography: "We'll know it when we see it."

According to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, the Obama administration is reportedly rushing to "preempt Congress with its own metrics." It's producing a document called a Strategic Implementation Plan, which, DeYoung writes, "will include separate 'indicators' of progress under nine broad 'objectives' to be measured quarterly... Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to U.S. performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts." These are to include supposedly measurable categories like numbers of newly trained Afghan army recruits and the timeliness of the delivery of promised U.S. resources.

The administration is evidently now "tweaking" its metrics. But let's admit it: metrics in war almost invariably turn out to occupy treacherous terrain. Think of it as quagmire territory, in part because numbers, however accurate (and they often aren't), can lie — or rather, can tell the story you would like them to tell.

The Vietnam War was a classic metrics war. Sometimes it seemed that Americans in Vietnam did nothing but invent new ways of measuring success. There were, for instance, the eighteen indices of the Hamlet Evaluation System, each meant to calibrate the "progress" of "pacification" in South Vietnam's 2,300 villages and almost 13,000 hamlets, focusing largely on "rural security" and "development." Then there were the many indices of the Measurement of Progress system, its monthly reports, produced in slide form, including "strength trends of the opposing forces, efforts of friendly forces in sorties... enemy base areas neutralized," and so on. For visiting congressional delegations, the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. William Westmoreland, had his "attrition charts," multicolored bar graphs illustrating various "trends" in death and destruction. Commanders in the field had their own sophisticated ways to codify "kill ratios," while on the ground, where the actual counting had to be done in dangerous circumstances, all of this translated far more crudely into the MGR, or, as the grunts sometimes said, the "Mere Gook Rule" — "If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]." In other words, when pressure came down for the "body count," any body would do.

The problem was that none of the official metrics managed to measure what mattered most in Vietnam. History may not simply repeat itself, but there's good reason to look askance at whatever set of metrics the Obama administration manages to devise. After all, as in the Vietnam years, Obama's people, too, will be mustering numbers in search of "success"; they, too, will be measuring "progress." And those numbers — like the Vietnam era body counts — will have to come up from below (with all the attendant pressures). By the time they reach Washington, they are likely to have the best possible patina on them.

With the delivery of those new metrics to Congress seemingly imminent, I thought I might offer my own set of Afghan metrics for the worst year of the present war. Think of this as basic math for Americans. (All figures cited below are linked to their sources. If a figure has no link, just click on the nearest previous link.)


Annual funding for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002: $20.8 billion.

Annual funding for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2009: $60.2 billion.

Total funds for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002-2009: $228.2 billion.

War-fighting funds requested by the Obama administration for 2010: $68 billion (a figure which will, for the first time since 2003, exceed funds requested for Iraq).

Funds recently requested by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry for non-military spending in Afghanistan, 2010: $2.5 billion.

Funds spent since 2001 on Afghan "reconstruction": $38 billion ("more than half of it on training and equipping Afghan security forces").

Percentage of U.S. funding in Afghanistan that has gone for military purposes: Nearly 90%.

Estimated U.S. funds needed to support and upgrade Afghan forces for the next decade: $4 billion a year ("with a like sum for development") according to former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West. (According to the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, "It's a reasonable guess that for 20 years, we essentially will have to fund half the Afghan budget.")

Afghan gross national product: $23 billion ("the size of Boise" Idaho's, writes columnist George Will) — about $3 billion of it from opium production.

Annual budget of the Afghan government: $600 million.

Maintenance cost for the force of 450,000 Afghan soldiers and police U.S. generals dream of creating: approximately 500% of the Afghan budget.

Amount spent on police "mentoring and training" since 2001: $10 billion.

Percentage of the more than 400 Afghan National Police units "still incapable of running their operations independently": 75% (2008 figures).

Cost of the latest upgrade of Bagram Air Base (an old Soviet base that has become the largest American base in Afghanistan): $220 million.

Cost of a single recent Pentagon contract to DynCorp International Inc. and Fluor Corporation "to build and support U.S. military bases throughout Afghanistan": up to $15 billion.


Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2001: 12.

Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2009 (through September 7th): 186

Total number of coalition (NATO and American) deaths in 2009 thus far: 311, making this the deadliest year for those forces since the war began.

Number of Lithuanian troops killed in Afghanistan: 1

Two worst months of the Afghan War in terms of coalition deaths: July (71) and August (74) 2009.

U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, 2002: 5,200.

Expected U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, December 2009: 68,000.

Percentage rise in Taliban attacks on coalition forces using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in 2009 (compared to the same period in 2008): 114%.

Rise in Coalition deaths from IED attacks in July 2009 (compared to July 2008): six-fold.

Percentage increase in overall Taliban attacks in the first five months of 2009 (compared to the same period in 2008): 59%.

Number of U.S. regional command centers in Afghanistan: 4 (at Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Bagram).

Number of U.S. prisons and holding centers: approximately 36 "overcrowded and often violent sites" with 15,000 detainees.

Number of U.S. bases: at least 74 in northern Afghanistan alone, with more being built. (The total number of U.S. bases in Afghanistan seems not to be available.)

Estimated cost per troop of maintaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan when compared to Iraq: 30% higher.

Number of gallons of fuel per day used by the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan: 800,000.

Cost of a single gallon of gas delivered to the Afghan war zone on long, cumbersome, and dangerously embattled supply lines: Up to $100.

Number of gallons of fuel used to keep Marine tents cool in the Afghan summer and warm in winter: 448,000 gallons.

Number of troops from Georgia (not the U.S. state, but the country) being prepared by U.S. Marine trainers to be dispatched to Afghanistan to fight in spring 2010: 750.

Number of Colombian commandos to be sent to Afghanistan: Unknown, but Colombian commandos, trained by U.S. Special Forces and financed by the U.S. government, are reportedly to be dispatched there to fight alongside U.S. troops. (Note that both Georgia and Colombia are dependent on U.S. aid and support. Note also that neither the Georgians nor the Colombians would assumedly be bound by the sort of restrictive fighting rules that limit the actions of some NATO forces in Afghanistan.)

Percentage of American spy planes and unmanned aerial vehicles now devoted to Afghanistan: 66% (33% are in Iraq).

Number of American bombs dropped in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2009: 2,011 (a fall of 24% from the previous year, thanks evidently to a directive from U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, limiting air attacks when civilians might be present).

Number of Afghan civilian deaths recorded by the U.N. January-July 2009: 1,013, a rise of 24% from the same period in 2008. (Unfortunately, Afghan deaths are generally covered sparingly, on an incident by incident basis, as in the deaths of an Afghan family traveling to a wedding party in August, assumedly due to a Taliban-planted IED, or the recent controversial U.S. bombing of two stolen oil tankers in Kunduz Province in which many civilians seem to have died. Anything like the total number of Afghans killed in these years remains unknown, but what numbers we have are undoubtedly undercounts.)

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