Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.
American Public: We want to go to Kabul. How do we get there, Mr. President?
President Obama: It’s 75 miles to Kabul.
Well, we now have President Obama’s benchmarks for Afghanistan, such as they are. The most embarrassing thing about the document leaked by the administration earlier this week is the way it’s being treated by administration officials, exposing their ignorance about strategy. Said one official interviewed by McClatchy:
“The metrics are the strategy,” he said.
Please, please, please get this through your head, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Senior Administration Official: evaluative instruments are not strategy. The President should appoint a special prosecutor to discover the source of this leaked quote. He should then remove them from the national security team and reassign them to elephant cage cleaning duty at the National Zoo, because the only thing for which they’re demonstrating talent is shoveling huge piles of crap. If the metrics comprise the “strategy,” we have no strategy.
Using metrics to respond to the question “what is our strategy in Afghanistan?” is like responding to a request for directions to Kabul with the distance to the destination. The information isn’t totally useless, but it tells you nothing about specific steps needed to get there. Should I take a car, bus, train or plane? Should I take the interstate or the back roads? Can I afford the cost of fuel or a ticket? Is the trip worth the cost? If, instead of answering these questions, a person simply suggested you drive around and just check the signs on the highway to see if you’re getting closer, you’d think they were nuts. Yet, that is exactly what the administration is asking us to do in Afghanistan. Again: Evaluative instruments measure the outcomes of a strategy; they are not themselves a strategy.
But, as stated before, these evaluative instruments are not totally useless. For example, if we consider the non-classified metrics, we get a pretty clear picture of just how much trouble we’re in:
Objective 2a. Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan.
[These metrics include a whole boatload of measures for the political situation inside of Pakistan. Shorter version: under current U.S. policies, we’re screwed in Pakistan. Notably, metric #5 under this objective is “Pakistani public opinion of government performance.” How, exactly, will the nation perceived by Pakistanis as the largest threat to their country be of any assistance to the Pakistani government’s standing with the public? The best thing we could do in this regard is, apparently, to run, not walk, out of Pakistan.]
Objective 2b. Develop Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities; continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups.
[See prior parenthetical. One wonders whether the massive refugee crisis caused by Pakistani COIN operations in Swat or the grotesque murderous rampages undertaken by the Pakistani counterinsurgents even factored in to this objective.]
Objective 2c. Involve the international community more actively to forge an international consensus to stabilize Pakistan.
[Again, there’s one international community in particular that could cease and desist its activity in Pakistan and get us much closer to this objective. Hint: it ain’t Poland.]
Objective 3a. Defeat the extremist insurgency, secure the Afghan populace, and develop increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance.
[Notable metrics under this objective include: “Level of insurgent-related violence” (Whoops.); “Percent of population living in districts/areas under insurgent control” (Darn it.); “Public perceptions of security” (whoops); and “Ability of the ANSF to assume lead security responsibility” (Ha ha.).]
Objective 3b. Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.
[Notably, metrics under this objective include “Afghan Government’s institutions at the national, provincial, and local level, including ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010” (D’oh!); “Demonstrable action by the government against corruption, resulting in increased trust and confidence of the Afghan public” (Fail.); and “Public perception at the district level of the Afghan Government’s effectiveness and sustained ability to provide services.” (Whoops.)]
Objective 3c. Involve the international community more actively to forge an international consensus to stabilize Afghanistan.
[Notable metrics include: “Support from allies, international organizations, and other key regional countries in providing resources to Afghanistan” (Peace out, UK, Canada, and Italy); “Prospects for the Afghan Government and international community to fund the development, operations, and sustainment of the ANSF” (Sorry); and “Ability of NGOs to operate independently and freely” (Bzzzzt).]
The benchmarks document also represents an attempt to delay an accountability moment for the administration’s performance on Afghanistan until the end of the first quarter of 2010. From earlier in the document:
Process: By March 30, 2010 and on regular intervals thereafter, the interagency will draft an assessment of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a check and balance on the interagency, a separate assessment will also be produced by a Red Team, led by the National Intelligence Council.
This assessment process assiduously avoids an assessment of the administration’s actions until next March. Why? Because they screwed up, big time, by sending the newly deployed troops into Helmand rather than Kandahar. From TIME Magazine:
…last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. …Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course…The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand’s neighbor to the east…”Kandahar is the center of gravity in this insurgency,” says John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine…
Kandahar is the capital city of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority…It is where the Taliban began. It has been run, in a staggeringly corrupt manner, by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai — who, according to U.S. investigators, has extensive links to the opium trade. As the Karzai government has grown more unpopular, the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated…But the troops who should be securing Kandahar are fighting an elusive enemy in Helmand.
What can be done now? The military will want more troops to paper over its strategic mistake.
So please, folks, ignore the fact that we’ve already failed based on the last set of benchmarks we set for ourselves; ignore senior advisers’ intellectual dishonesty about “fresh starts”; and please don’t evaluate us before we have time to sweep a massive strategic mistake under the rug. We’ll let you know 15 months into the presidency how it’s going.
A Better Set of Questions
- What, if any, are the specific strategic developments which will force the core Taliban leadership to capitulate?
- What are the specific steps needed to force these developments?
- What are the consequences of these steps beyond their effect on the insurgency?
- Do we have the resources or strategic freedom needed to take these steps?
- Are these steps morally justifiable to the American people, the Afghan people, and the international community?
- What are the opportunity costs for using these resources in this way? Is the overall national interest served by using these resources on this endeavor versus other priorities?
- What are the specific factors needed for a government that is legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people generally and the Pashtun communities specifically?
- What are the specific political developments that could make continued military action on the part of the majority of the insurgents unattractive compared to participation in the civil processes of the government of Afghanistan?
- Which of these developments are acceptable to the United States compared with the risks and costs of continued conflict in Afghanistan?
- What are the specific steps needed to cause these developments?
- Are those steps possible within the political constraints of Afghan domestic politics?
- Who has the power to take these steps in the Afghan political realm?
- Can they be convinced to do so?
- What are the specific developments that should signal to the United States (including strategic developments and developments in domestic and Afghan politics) that these strategies have failed and that the endeavor should be abandoned?
- When should we make that assessment?
- Who is the legitimate assessor?
- How will pursuit of strategic and political objectives in line with the above affect domestic politics?
- What are the political conditions needed within the United States for the current administration to maintain control of foreign policy?
- Do these conditions exist, can they be sustained while pursuing a given policy, and if so, what is the administration’s plan to do so?
- What are the prospects for that plan’s success?
- What are the consequences to the overall national interest should the pursuit of this strategy lead to a weakening of Congressional leadership’s and the President’s control of the overall national agenda?
- What level of political risk is the administration willing to accept in pursuit of their strategies? Congress?
The answers to these questions won’t take us to Kabul. They’ll take us home.