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Afghanistan war: What success will look like

The Pentagon seeks metrics to show whether it is meeting its goals in the Afghanistan war, and will be able to start withdrawing in 2011.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / December 14, 2009

A US Army soldier from Task Force Denali Battle team 1-40 CAV hands out candies to Afghan children during a patrol at Shembawut village in Khowst province, Monday.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters



As President Obama directs 30,000 additional forces into Afghanistan over the next eight months, it’s still unclear what “finishing the job” will look like.

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Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, quipped that “you’ll know it when you see it.” That vague forecast left lawmakers cold, but Mr. Obama never used the word “victory” in his Dec. 1 Afghanistan speech in part because success will likely be nuanced.

The administration has dramatically pared back the idealistic goals pursued by the Bush administration – robust democracy, human rights, and a free-market economy – to the practical essentials:

•Deny Al Qaeda from regaining a haven in Afghanistan; disrupt, dismantle, and defeat it in Pakistan.

•Build the Afghan security forces to the point that they can maintain a reasonable level of security in Afghanistan.

•Degrade the Taliban insurgency to the point that Afghans can manage it.

•Curtail rampant Afghan corruption so that the government can begin to meet the most basic needs of its people.

“Progress towards each of those [is] important,” says Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon.

Achieving that will allow Obama to meet a primary goal of his new strategy: begin drawing down forces by July 2011.

To that end, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the new strategy will be assessed monthly and, in December 2010, will get a fundamental reexamination.

But finding “metrics” – the Beltway’s word for data that measure progress toward these goals – is problematic. The administration has yet to provide specifics about the metrics it plans to use.

Appearing on Capitol Hill the day after Obama announced the new strategy, Mr. Gates told lawmakers the administration had benchmarks on Afghan force recruitment, retention, fielding, and partnering, for example, but didn’t elaborate.

“The president’s made it pretty clear ... that he’s expecting to get monthly reports on how we’re doing against these,” Gates said.

Demand for metrics

But a war-weary public will also demand transparency. Metrics or benchmarks, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, are critical to the public’s understanding of the war.

“That is critically important to not only determining how we’re doing, but also, I think, in keeping the American people in seeing that progress is in fact being made, and where it isn’t – that a plan is now in place to try to change the direction,” he said.