All those Afghans, give or take a few million

By Al Kamen
Monday, November 2, 2009

President Obama is still working hard to figure out the next steps in the very difficult war in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in the field, is pressing for an additional 40,000 troops. Obama's top advisers are split. Americans seem to be increasingly skeptical about prospects for victory.

But the task has suddenly become a lot easier: The CIA has gotten rid of 5 million Afghans! Poof! Just like that!

Turns out the agency was substantially overestimating the country's population. The long-used number -- 33.6 million -- was derived from a 30-year-old census that has now been determined to be high.

Not just a little too high, but 5.2 million people too high. The new official count, 28,396,000, is lower by more than 15 percent. A CIA spokesman e-mailed Friday that the agency's population figures, both the old and new ones, were provided by the population division of the U.S. Census Bureau.

So that's a lot of phantom Afghans -- including maybe a few hundred thousand Taliban supporters, maybe a million? -- that we no longer have to worry about. It also means that Iraq is officially larger in population (28,945,657) than Afghanistan.

The CIA, which apparently posted the new numbers last week, acknowledged on its World Factbook Web site that "this is a significantly revised figure" and blamed the Soviet invaders for messing things up in the first place. On a more hopeful note, it says that "a new Afghan census is scheduled to take place in 2010."

But for now the change means the administration might want to revisit many of the metrics it uses to calculate the situation and the progress or lack thereof in Afghanistan. Per-capita income numbers may have to be reworked, per-capita aid figures are altered -- maybe Washington can get by with sending less aid.

And it may turn out, even discounting the phony ballots, that voter turnout in the recent election, as a percentage of those eligible, was substantially higher than had been thought.

Unclear why the numbers changed last week. The 33.6 million figure had been on the agency's site for quite a long time.

It may be that someone there or at the Census Bureau spotted Web postings by Steve Donnelly, an urban planner and demographer who signed up as a civilian to help the State Department sort out census and other matters in Tikrit and other sites in Iraq a couple of years ago.

Donnelly said he simply "started a link on Afghan population figures" the week before last "because I could not understand why the CIA Factbook and other supposedly authoritative sources always put Afghan population figures at 30 to 33 million when all my routine civilian sources always showed less then 27 million."

"I just looked at various open sources," Donnelly said, "because what people were using just didn't make sense."

Census counts, especially in a place like Afghanistan, are obviously iffy matters. "These figures are dynamic figures in a war," he said, changing constantly.

"Even in the United States, we can't be totally accurate," he said, but "there's a range of accuracy you try to get to for what you're doing."

Although Donnelly thinks the newly posted figure is more accurate, the various estimates from Afghan and U.N. sources trend lower. So "26 million looks pretty good to me," he said, "because it comes from people who might know" the area best.

A numerical change of this magnitude "forces you to rethink a lot of the tactical stuff," Donnelly said, so the new count, coming just before the new policies are set, could be significant.

Ballots, dollars, etc.

Speaking of Afghanistan and things that can't be counted too well, the second round of voting, set for Saturday, might possibly be cleaner than the one President Hamid Karzai stole -- some corrupt election officials have been moved out -- but it's hard to be overly hopeful.

Seems the United Nations, which is overseeing the elections, can't account for tens of millions of dollars given to the Afghan election commission, according to a report last week by the independent, nonprofit ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization.

The report, based on interviews with senior diplomats and two confidential U.N. audits, said total election costs are now estimated to be more than $300 million, with Washington paying between a third and a half.

(On another front, the U.N. Development Program paid $6.8 million for transportation services in places where there were no U.N. officials, a draft audit report said.)

"Everybody kept sending money" to the election commission, said Peter Galbraith, who was fired as deputy chief of the U.N. mission in September after protesting the election fraud. "Nobody put the brakes on."

Robert Watkins, a top U.N. official in the Afghanistan mission, told ProPublica that some commission employees had contributed to the fraud in the first round of voting. Shocking, no?

"It's clear that some of the people" working for the commission at the polling centers "were complicit in fraud," Watkins said. "Some of the staff hired were not working in the best interests of impartial elections."

Gambling? In Casablanca?

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