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Viewpoint: Measuring success in Afghanistan

As the biggest anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan since 2001 continues, the challenge of how to hold on to and rebuild areas previously held by insurgents remains.

Fotini Christia, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has recently spent time in Afghanistan, sets out the latest ideas on how to measure the success of such operations.

Measures of success in Afghanistan

Artwork by Thalia Chantziara who accompanied Fotini Christia in Afghanistan

The number of dead Taliban fighters or a decline in poppy production used to be typical ways of gauging the success of an operation.

But these can be misleading when trying to measure the long-term success of a military offensive and the rebuilding that follows.

Militants readily label their dead as civilian casualties and a decrease in poppy production gives no sense of what has replaced opium or whether the cultivation has simply moved on elsewhere.

Now that Nato commander Gen Stanley McChrystal has shifted the focus in Afghanistan from defeating insurgents to protecting civilians, new benchmarks will have to be created. These will form an important test of his new counter-insurgency strategy.

District officials living in the district

Several local government officials have been unable to live in their assigned districts because of security concerns. If they were able to do so it would indicate increased security.

In Nad Ali, one Helmand district where the current coalition offensive is taking place, there are 60 government officials but most of them are not in the district, according to a spokesman for Helmand's governor.

Across Helmand there are 980 government officials, but not all of these are able to live in their post. But a new centrally run initiative has selected Nad Ali as a district in which to prioritise recruitment, promising much higher salaries to new district officials here.

Cost of transporting goods

The cost of transporting goods is increased by violence and the chances of being attacked on the roads. If transport costs on a route were to fall it would be a positive sign.

In 2007 Afghanistan's lorry drivers' union estimated that each vehicle pays more than $6,500 (£4,216) annually in taxes and bribes extorted on Afghanistan's roads.

Such costs are an important measure of the security situation.

Number of stores open

Legal market activity is a sign that the situation is returning to normal and stores opening in local bazaars show that there is increasing confidence in security and the local economy.

Reports of explosive devices

If the proportion of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) accurately reported to the authorities by the local population were to rise it would suggest a decline in support for the insurgents.

Local officials in Marjah and Nad Ali say it is difficult for residents to report the location of IEDs. But Helmand's governor says that meetings with tribal elders have been fruitful over the issue of sharing information.

Children going to school

Functioning schools are a sign of effective government and parents sending their children to school suggests confidence in the government and in the security of the local area.

There are 95 schools closed out of 235 in total in Helmand, the local education authority says. In districts such as Nad Ali and Deshi, school attendance is particularly difficult owing to the security situation.

Helmand's literacy rate was put at just 5% in 2007 by the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development.



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