There's an AP report out today (via Google's recommend frame) that says, among other things, that terror attacks were up sixteen percent in Afghanistan in 2007. I'm seeing a lot of commentary, especially on TV, about how this means that the war in Afghanistan, and by extension the war on terror, is not working.
Now, I hate to spend time throwing cold water on a report like this, since it appears to lend support to a position - that the war in Afghanistan is neither as successful nor as obviously correct as is generally believed - that I subscribe to.
But this is a pretty stupid way to measure success in a war. Indeed, latching on to one statistic or even a set of statistics and trumpeting movement one way or the other as evidence of a strategy's success or failure is almost never useful in any context, and least of all perhaps in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign, whose aims are primarily political and thus difficult to measure.
A version of this idea (as it pertains to big-city police work) was explored with some grace and eloquence by the television show The Wire, particularly in the fourth and (from what I'm told - I am still waiting for the DVD) fifth seasons.
The dilemma for the press, in a nutshell, is that it's very difficult to do hard reporting on complex topics without resorting to just writing up rundowns of various statistics. So even a well-meaning, professional press is going to fall back on this kind of thing some of the time.
Unfortunately, public institutions are necessarily run by people whose livelihoods depend on favorable depictions in the press, which leads those people (and by extension, the institutions) to focus on the short-term improvement of various benchmarks at the expense of serious long-term strategic thinking about how to actually fix systemic problems.
As failed counterinsurgency wars rage on and on, this sort of perverse incentive structure gets expanded to the point of absurdity. In the beginning of 2008, for example, Iraq war supporters were trumpeting statistics showing a decline in violence lasting several months as evidence that "The Surge Is Working!"
Looking only at the six-month trend in question, one could be forgiven for ascribing some credibility to this interpretation, but looking at it in a wider context the whole thing can be seen to be rather silly. The idea, apparently, is that by inserting more soldiers into Iraq, the US will be able to reduce violence to the point that it can start... reducing the number of soldiers in Iraq.
The Afghanistan narrative we see here is the other side of that coin. In Afghanistan, a fairly small detachment of US forces (around 25,000) is working to protect government officials while also patrolling the country engaging various terror groups. Although an uptick in terrorist violence certainly isn't a sign that this strategy is working, it would hardly be cause for celebration if such patrols result in a reduction in terrorist violence in 2008.
After all, in both Afghanistan and Iraq the ostensible goal of the US mission is to eventually be able to leave. To do that without just admitting defeat, the systemic problems preventing political unity and pluralism in those countries must be fixed.
But since no one has any idea how, when, or why that would ever happen, we just watch the numbers, shake our heads, and continue the slaughter.