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The Problem With NATO Statistics


Now either NATO believes it is winning the war in Afghanistan or it has hired the erstwhile Iraqi information minister, the much-appreciated but rarely factually correct Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, to run its media campaign.

("My feelings -- as usual -- we will slaughter them all," Sahaf once said about U.S. progress in the 2003 war against Iraq.)

During a routine briefing this week in Brussels, a NATO spokesman regaled convened journalists with a 10-minute barrage of statistics. A distillation of a report given to NATO ambassadors earlier that day, the figures showed there had been a 64 percent hike in insurgent attacks in the period January-April 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008.

"IED events" -- explosions and discoveries of Improvised Explosive Devices -- had gone up by 81 percent.

Casualty figures caused by IEDs had declined by 9 percent. Civilian deaths were down by 44 percent, kidnaps and assassinations by 17 percent.

Overall, the NATO spokesman said, all this reflects the "increasing effectiveness" of the Afghan National Security Forces (50 out of the 79 "kandaks" or battalions are now operational), and, by extension, ISAF, whose job it is to create the conditions for the ANSF to operate.

Most (80 percent) insurgent attacks take place in "11-12 percent" of the districts (there were 398 at last count) -- like last year. It seems reasonable to assume these districts are mostly the Helmand, Farah, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan provinces, among others.

"Why has NATO failed to prevent the attacks if it knows 80 percent are highly localized?" a colleague asked.

"Part of the problem behind the increase in attacks is precisely that NATO is doing something about them," came the answer. This is a development of a tried-and-tested NATO repartee, which has been used to explain the very appearance of the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar after NATO-led ISAF troops deployed to the country's south.

As NATO went in, it started drawing insurgent attacks, so the logic goes.

This week's multiple suicide attacks in Khost, in which at least 16 people died and 50 were injured, were acknowledged by NATO as "well coordinated," but dismissed as "in essence a near-total failure considering the very limited effect they had for a very short period of time."

Now none of this is necessarily to say NATO is wrong. But there is a good deal of pessimism on the military side.

Among them the assessment of the outgoing ISAF commander General David McKiernan, who says the war against the Taliban has reached a "stalemate."

(Reacting to Washington's decision to fire McKiernan, NATO this week said it believes McKiernan "did very well.")

Or the appraisal offered by the former British SAS commander Major Sebastian Morley earlier last year: "We hold tiny areas of ground in Helmand and we are kidding ourselves if we think our influence goes beyond 500 meters of our security bases."

-- Ahto Lobjakas

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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