“Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course,” President Obama said in unveiling his new Afghanistan strategy this spring. “Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress.” Unfortunately, finding useful metrics for assessing counterinsurgencies is not easy. Getting the force size right is key to a successful counterinsurgency, but there is no exact formula — even when you get the numbers right the troops may fail because of poor training, difficult terrain or shifting politics.

So how to best measure actual progress? The civilian fatality rate is clearly important — yet it is often a lagging indicator of changes in momentum. As important as reducing violence, therefore, is improving government institutions and the provision of services. This is hard to measure, but economic and quality of life indicators give some hint.

The American troop buildup in Afghanistan is proceeding on schedule, and contact with the enemy and violence have increased accordingly (though civilian fatalities, mercifully, have not increased). Convoys carrying NATO supplies are having fewer problems getting through, but travel for ordinary Afghans has not become easier or safer. There are other vital indicators that unfortunately the military is not tracking well at present. One is the crime rate. Another is the inflow of fighters across the border — it’s a notoriously difficult thing to measure, but the Pentagon figured out how to do it in Iraq.

As for Iraq, despite various horrible attacks, this year has not seen a reversal of previous progress against insurgents. More worrisome is the political scene; the Baghdad government has achieved 6.5 of the 11 “Iraq index” benchmarks we have laid out, which include steps like establishing provincial election laws and enacting amnesty laws. This actually indicates lost ground from a score of 7 in April. On balance, the situation is much improved, but hardly stable, especially since most American troop reductions have yet to occur.

Data For Afghanistan May 2003 May 2005 May 2007 May 2009
U.S./Other Foreign Forces (in thousands) 9/5 18/9 25/26 43/32
U.S./Other Foreign Troop Deaths 1/1 4/0 11/14 12/15
Afghan Security Forces (in thousands) 15 50 112 170
Afghan Security Force Fatalities 10 25 104 130
Afghan Civilian Deaths From War 30 40 45 200
Annual Opium Production From Previous Year’s Harvest (in metric tons/percentage of world total) 3,400/75 4,200/87 6,100/92 7,700/93
Per Capita Income (in U.S. dollars) 185 250 320 400
Telephone Subsribers (in millions) 1.1 2.2 5.5 7.0
Children in School (in millions) 2.9 4.7 5.5 6.3
Public Favorability Rating of U.S. (percent) 80 68 43 32
Public Favorability Rating of Afghan Government/Taliban (percent) 90/5 80/9 59/13 348/7
Data for Iraq May 2003 May 2005 May 2007 May 2009
U.S./Other Foreign Forces (in thousands) 150/23 138/23 150/12 134/5
U.S./Other Foreign Troop Deaths 37/5 80/8 126/5 25/0
Iraqi Security Forces (in thousands) 8 168 349 600
Iraqi Security Force Fatalities 65 259 197 39
Iraqi Civilian Deaths From War 800 1,800 2,600 340
Measure of Political Progress (on a scale of 0 to 11) 0 0 1 6.5
Electricity Production (average megawatts, official grid; prewar: 4,000) 500 3,700 3,700 6,020

View the Op-Chart
(graphic by Amy Unikewicz)

View the March 2009 Chart

View the December 2008 Chart

View the June 2008 Chart

View the March 2008 Chart

View the December 2007 Chart

View the September 2007 Chart