Opinion

Are we winning or losing in Afghanistan?

Until Washington gets serious about performance metrics that gauge both success and failure, we won't really know.

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American men and women have been fighting – and dying – in Afghanistan for more than seven years now.

Throughout history, Afghanistan has repeatedly proven itself a most daunting battlefield. If history is our teacher, it's no leap at all to conclude that our goals there – vague though they seem – are no more likely to succeed than fail.

Are our brave soldiers making progress or losing ground? Should they stay or go? President Obama has said the US won't "blindly stay the course" as it tries to secure Afghanistan from Al Qaeda. He's promised "clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable."

That's good news. Who doesn't want a yardstick for success? But when the stakes and the human costs are so high, don't we also need clear standards for stalemate and failure?

As an executive coach, I work often with CEO clients. I've found that their effectiveness depends on their discernment. Do they really know if their project is up, down, or sideways? Many don't, because while they often set benchmarks for success, they rarely ask the right questions to establish markers for failure.

I recently worked with a CEO who had added a new service. She admitted it was facing stiff competition, and the outcomes were far from assured. Although the service was launched 18 months before our first conversation about it and the results were unremarkable, she continued to be optimistic, saying that it "should be a success." I asked a series of questions designed to help her develop specific, measurable endpoints for success, failure, and mediocrity. She was taken aback by the questions around failure and mediocrity, yet, by the end of several discussions, she realized that the service line was indeed already at a failure endpoint.

It was time to cut her losses, which she did. She told me later that if she hadn't been asked those questions, she'd still be holding out hope for a victory celebration.

Leaders who set and stick with clear standards for win, lose, or draw are more likely to use resources wisely. The alternative is to confuse what should happen with what is happening, much as a losing gambler throws good money after bad, hoping this time will be different.

Until up, down, and sideways are delineated for Afghanistan, we are hiking without a compass: We won't understand how we are doing there, or even if our heading is correct, if we only define metrics for success.

When defining outcomes, I ask my clients many questions to help them be as specific as possible. I believe they know the answers, but it's helpful because no one's asking them to brainstorm about mediocrity and failure. What measurements will give us the clearest picture of performance? How will we know if we are headed in the direction of failure? Under what conditions might we defy dismal marks and press on? And so on.

There's no evidence or reports I can see that negative boundary questions have been asked and fully answered for our efforts in Afghanistan.

The administration, under pressure from Congress, is reportedly developing metrics for Afghanistan. "We're going to be measuring from every perspective," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But she wants to keep those metrics classified.

Therein lies a dilemma. War is not the same as business, and US officials are rightly concerned that broadcasting benchmarks (especially ones related to failure) could aid the enemy. Indeed, many lawmakers piled on Congressman David Obey (D) of Wisconsin when he called for a "fish or cut bait" assessment in Afghanistan.

But in a democracy, don't ordinary Americans have a right to know that measurable standards for guiding war decisions have been developed by the leaders who serve them?

Meanwhile, our strategy seems to be in flux. That Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, this month intensifies the argument for clear benchmarks for the war there – up, down, and sideways. Without them, this administration, like my CEO client, may be operating without the necessary clarity to make great decisions.

I respectfully challenge this administration to ask itself tougher questions about measurable outcomes in Afghanistan – win, lose, and draw – and, for extra credit, to do that in all future wars and conflicts before one boot ever hits the ground.

David Peck is president of Leadership Unleashed, an executive coaching firm and author of "Beyond Effective: Practices in Self-aware Leadership."

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