CSIS's Afghanistan IED Metrics Report Does Not Tell the Whole Story

CSIS's Afghanistan IED Metrics Report Does Not Tell the Whole Story

by Captain Scott A. Cuomo and Captain Brandon J. Gorman

Download the Full Article: CSIS's Afghanistan IED Metrics Report Does Not Tell the Whole Story

We were recently sent the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 21 July 2010 improvised explosive device (IED) metrics for Afghanistan report. This report illustrates a significant spike in IED activity in Afghanistan over the past year. This report also suggests that in this same period there has been an exponential decrease in the number of IEDs found by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) due to local national tips or turn-ins. Upon reviewing this report, we can understand why one might argue that the current counterinsurgency (COIN) operational design in Afghanistan is flawed and/or in part responsible for the seemingly increasing IED threat. For a variety of reasons, we discourage anyone from using this report to draw conclusions on the tactical conduct of the fight in Afghanistan today, especially conclusions about how best to counter the IED threat.

We caution against doing so because the experiences of the Marines, Sailors, and Afghan National Army (ANA) Soldiers that we had the privilege to serve with in southern Helmand Province from October 2009 to May 2010 completely contradict the seemingly logical conclusion that one might make from the report: IED incidents continue to grow while IED turn-ins due to local national tips appear to be exponentially decreasing; therefore, more troops and resources in Afghanistan have not led to greater security and cooperation for and among the population, but rather increasing hostility between ISAF/Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Afghan people.

Download the Full Article: CSIS's Afghanistan IED Metrics Report Does Not Tell the Whole Story

From October 2009 to May 2010, Captain Gorman and Captain Cuomo served as Easy Company and Fox Company Commanders, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, respectively, in Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The views expressed herein are their own and do not represent those of the United States Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

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It is still all about the "conflict ecosystem"-notihing more, nothing less.

Kilcullen had it right in 2004.


All fair points. I'm not defending 3-24 by any means. However, the dichotomy between the Karzai government and what 3-24 says is required vis a vis a HN government for success seems to be a glaring reason we aren't having much success.

On another note, when we say "government" we hold an underlying (western) assumption that this means "central government." This is somewhat at odds with the people of Afghanistan, who have historically looked to tribal leaders for exercising political authority. I wonder if we are swimming upstream here by hinging success on a central government in a nation that has rarely had anything of the kind.

Finally, I question the Afghanistan mission on a grand strategic level. COIN is concerned with whether we CAN succeed in Afghanistan. I'm more concerned on whether we SHOULD succeed, as success is defined currently.

Steve Metz has a great video on YouTube about strategy, effectiveness, and efficiency. While establishing a democratic, free, blah blah blah Afghanistan very well might be the most effective way to fight AQ, it is most certainly NOT efficient. While a small counter-terrorism campaign based largely on intel-driven strikes and Spec Ops raid might only accomplish, say, 80% of what a COIN mission could, it might be able to accomplish that 80% at only 10% of the cost. Much more bang for the buck.


You are thinking, and that is good. (Too many just read and accept what they read).

I often point out that success or failure in dealing with insurgency lies in many fine nuances. Same words used with slightly different meanings applied; the bias of the interests of the parties involved; cultural differences, etc all contribute to getting off azimuth.

The COIN manual has a great deal of good in it, it is only these fine nuances that cause me to caution those who read it. My assessment is that these nuances are missing due to a lack of understanding of insurgency itself in the Manual. It much more a study COIN, and historically COIN meant simply putting or sustaining a government in power that will support your interests.

In para 1-7 the manual says "the long-term objective for all sides remains acceptance of the legitimacy of one side's claim to political power by the people of the state or region."

Ok, I don't have a problem with that, but it is again in the nunace. The manual takes the approach that this can be like an arranged marriage. You may not want it, but you have no choice and you'll get use to it.

In para 1-4, just prior to the phrase above, the manual says "Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government's rule." So, stop bitching and just consent! :-) One might argue that the insurgency itself is the people "taking charge of their own affairs" and seeking to produce a government whose legitimacy they recognize and are willing to consent to.

We still use "control" as a verb; as in "the government must control the populace." Control is better seen as a noun; as in "recognizing the legtimacy of their government, the populace was under control."

Fixing these several fine points would address the nuance issues and make this the first rate COIN document it claims to be now. The linkages of this manual to the current "COINdinista" crowd goes a long way toward explaining why so much of "pop-centric" COIN is disconnected from an understanding of insurgency as well.

Robert C. Jones:

I don't dispute your contention that COIN operations in Afghanistan have some major problems. However, it seems that your central argument is that any COIN effort must be built upon a HN government that the people of that nation support.

In fact, FM 3-24 says exactly the same thing. It does use the word "legitimate" but it then uses the words "supported by the people."

It seems to me that FM 3-24 supports your thesis.

Perhaps the narrative should be "Look here...we know that COIN ops require an effective government supported by the people. 3-24 says so. Why do we not heed our own doctrine?"


The problem is that we generally see "official" as being the same thing as "legitimate". Couple this with our historic approach of establishing (if necessary) and sustaining in power a government that we believe will best serve/support U.S. national interests and what you have is us backing the government that WE see as legitimate; or even that the loyal segment of the populace sees as legitimate. Neither of those groups matter for the insurgency you are facing. For the insurgency you are facing what matters is how the populace it draws its support from sees the government.

So yes, the manual says "legitimate," just like a parrot can say "Polly wants a cracker"; but if one doesn't really understand what the words mean in the context of their use it causes problems. As I said, the COIN manual is just that, a manual of COIN tactics. What it lacks is a good grounding in an understanding of insurgency itself that fine tunes those tactics to produce the best effects for ending, rather than merely suppressing, an insurgency.

The TTPs of COIN were developed over a couple hundred years of Eruo/US efforts to maintain their interests in foreign land through such governments who would answer to them first; and through the efforts to keep those governments in power. This worked, in terms of it kept those insurgent flare ups from the populace suppressed. Now, with globalization this approach does not work. The populace is not only more empowered to sustain resistance in that far away land, but also more empowered to bring that resistance to your emperial doorstep.

We need to evolve as well.

Just for the record, paragraph 6-1 of FM 3-24 states:

Success in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support.

Perhaps the problem isn't necessarily with 3-24 after all...


Please know that I respect your insights... but I submit that the reason we fail in Iraq and Afghanistan isn't due to a "(mis)understanding of insurgency itself... or (mis)appreciation of "strategic context" ... but a faulty cognitive framework. Our failure to understand is based on our unquestioned assumption that the state and the nature of state authority over its subjects, evolves similarly across cultural frontiers. We have come to accept and embrace the state as the embodiment of all groups and government as the personification of the general will. We enthusiastically embrace the notion that the state functions as the determinant of all forms of social organization and arbiter of the private lives of individuals.

I submit that the "state" has evolved differently under Islamic conquest cultures (Arab, Persian, Ottoman, Central Asia (Afghanistan). State formation and administration under the Prophet Mohammed, Caliphates in Baghdad, Syria or Al Andalusia, Ottoman Empire, and present day Afghanistan has hasn't changed much over the millenia. Even today, the inhabitants of a province ceded by one sovereign to another insist that their individual rights, their local institutions, the franchise and privileges of their corporate bodies - all the features of their social life - remain unaffected by regime change. If change in the relationship is sought by the new sovereign, a renegotiation of the social contract commences in which fighting is a form of negotiation. We witnessed the same process play itself out in Iraq but sought to hide this fact by spin doctering and story telling.

In the above cited paradigm, "illegitimate governance" assumes a much different form. You are legitimate by the mere fact that you exist. You are illegitimate if you seek to impose a strong central government that encroaches on the autonomy and sovereignty of its subjects. Inclusion takes on a different meaning in a system in which the sovereignty merely means
"superiority"... a quality which belongs to the authority set above all others but that has no true superior in the temporal hierarchy of village, town and city. The rights and authority of the Karzai government are different in kind from other rights exercised by the village, town or city which are below it but it is not regarded as the source and author of these rights and authority. In an Islamic Republic, the only higher authority and legitimating source of constitutional authority is God. We keep asking ourselves why the Taliban seem to possess so much credibility and legitimacy in the valley... Hmmm...

The Karzai administration is not a sham of a government... it's survival strategy is an expression of much older forms of governance. Check out how the Amir Abd al-Rahman III who ruled Cordoba in Al-Andalus from 912 to 961 C.E. governed and you'll find little difference in how the Karzai administration seeks to embrace, build and manage coalitions of "sovereign" groups. Selecting the Amir's district and provincial governors is as old as Arab, Persian, Astan governance itself.

We seek to create a more inclusive union in Afghanistan? Like it or not, if we seek to be more inclusive, someone will have to identify, resource, allocate and manage patronage appropriately. Do we actually believe that the Maliki government in Iraq acted differently? What the hell do we think the Awakening or Sons of Iraq was all about?

Absolutely correct... the tactics of FM3-24 are not bad... but they are not new... Philip of Macedon applied the same tactics when he explained that all he needed was a mule laden with gold to force any pass. It is the judicious mix of carrot and stick, purse and sword, force and partnership... The reason we fail is not because our tactics are wrong or inapporpriate... It is because we execute these age old tactics in support of a faulty cognitive framework of "state power ueber alles" upon which our strategy of population centric COIN and "nation/state building" is based.

If we want the state to succeed then we have to impose it... We must conquer the countryside outright... If we want our system of governance to succeed then we must do what we did with Germany and Japan... We must destroy the villages, towns, and cities and totally discredit the ideology upon which the Afghan way of life is based so as to save the Afghans from themselves. Not so sure that this is good judo...

Ok... we should not destroy the villages, towns, and cities... but blaming the locals because they just don't know what is good for them isn't getting us any closer to the solution...


Some observations as one who was in RC-S during much of this period.

1. I am actually surprised at how many casualties we avoided through the use of MRAPs. (We may want to let the ANA have some of these if we really want to transition). Time after time a vehicle would be completely totaled by an IED and the crew would walk away largely unscathed. They aren't the most graceful vehicle off road where the SOF guys roam, but they do work.

2. Our COIN tactics are not the problem, it is our understanding of insurgency itself and the overall strategy we employ those tactics against that suck. Supporting the COIN efforts of an illegitimate Host Government is a fools errand, and we keep pouring more and more troops and civilians against that errand without truly squeezing the nuts of Karzai to come out of the sham of a government we helped build and create a much more inclusive one that has it controlled by a constitution that prevents the abuses of Presidential level patronage, illegitimate governance selection at the Province and District levels, and the vast corruption that the current constitution facilitates in spades.

Lesson number one not learned in Vietnam: Great COIN tactics in support of illegitimate governments we want rather than in support of legitimate governments the populace wants does not work. Afghanistan is chapter two of that same failed strategic approach.

3. If you surge more forces against a resistance insurgency you will both increase the motivation of the populace to join the fight AND increase the number of targets for those fighters to then engage. Spikes in the number of attacks, numbers of casualties, and reduction of popular support to GIROA for bring this surge on them is/was wholly predictable.

A surge of effort to address the problems of governance, the issues driving the revolutionary insurgency? Fine. A surge of motivated patriots from the US and our allies into the resistance insurgency without matching that effort at the top? Borderline criminal.

No, the tactics of FM3-24 aren't bad. They just lack grounding in a good understanding of insurgency itself and an effective strategic context to give them the best chance to succeed.

Metric: One sees the logistics requirement to send in more resources as a "strategy." Harder/faster is not the answer, this is not the Normandy beachhead or the Huertgen Forest where the senior leaders only need to focus on pouring more resources into the fight. This is an operation that requires a main effort of senior leader engagement with all of the stakeholders, friend and foe alike, with a goal of reducing the conditions of insurgency by turning down the heat. Currently the greatest source of heat is GIROA.

I forgot to add the disclaimer that I am no longer at CSIS and I do not speak for the organization or Dr. Cordesman.

Jason Lemieux

Im the one who prepared the IED slides for Dr. Cordesman. I wanted to address a few of the points raised by the authors, in order of relevance to their main idea:

"We think it is important that when drawing conclusions about COIN's effectiveness, and specifically the best way to attack the enemys IEDs capabilities, that we all dig much, much deeper than PowerPoint slide summaries for context."

-Dr. Cordesman actually made this point in his accompanying commentary:
"[These charts] show how many different ways the same raw data can be presented. This can be a critical issue when metrics are used in ways where only the metric is presented and not the raw data, and there is no way to know how different ways of using the data would change the result. The end result is "black box" analysis, and it is often made worse by the failure to source data, provide any estimate of uncertainty, or the confused of uncertainties based on statistics alone and not quality of the input data."

In retrospect, we should have included an abbreviated commentary in the presentation itself. I wanted to dig deeper into the factors behind the statistics (especially the stability of "found and cleared" over Winter 09-10, when the other statistics dipped considerably), but it was not to be.

"While unknown, we suspect the turn-in ratio presented in the CSIS report is significantly lower than what our units experienced, and most likely far lower than what most units experience, because nowhere in the NATO UXO/IED 9-line report is a unit required to state whether an IED find or attack was with or without the aid of a local national tip."

-A fair criticism. Our numbers came directly from the Joint IED Defeat Organization and we had to work with what we were given, but I agree that any such figures need to be taken with a grain of salt (on a side note, just how serious are we about COIN if turn-ins are not required reporting?). The missing data need not all point in one direction, however. As I pointed out on the "turn-in" slide, its possible that a significant number of not-turned-in IEDs have already been emplaced and are yet to be employed against ISAF. One could also counter that the authors units may have enjoyed an unusually high degree of success due to a variety of factors, only some of which were under their control.

"Recent advances in counter-IED efforts have often been focused too much on material, equipment, and training associated with new vehicles, systems, and other "things.""

-I wholeheartedly agree. It was quite disheartening to see, in my three tours in Iraq from 2003-2006 (before the publication of FM 3-24), maneuver warfare doctrine (specifically the need to seize the initiative and force the enemy into a reactive posture) so completely ignored by those who forfeited popular support as a "nice to have" thus giving the enemy free reign to emplace IEDs and then slept soundly in the knowledge that the troops they sent charging into IED-laden territory were equipped with the best armor that a bottomless pit of Chinese money can buy. But I digress...

"When both of these groups "believe," COIN fundamentals work, and the enemy is forced to either fight without popular support, or to reintegrate into the population."

-Could we still take as a given that COIN fundamentals work if the enemy equally believed in and applied them? COIN in itself, like everything else tried by the US military, does not guarantee success (leaving aside the question of whether the situation in Afghanistan even meets the definition of insurgency laid out in section 1-2 of FM 3-24). This may not have been the authors point, but it makes me very nervous when I hear servicemembers speak as if some red white and blue forcefield guarantees US victory in any war that the taxpayers continue to write blank checks for into the indefinite future. The troops need to believe in the mission, but the mission also needs to be believable. An effective military effort only addresses our most immediate needs in Afghanistan (and some would even dispute that).