In Afghanistan, time is running out, Pentagon worries

The next year will be crucial, several top defense officials say. The US must begin to show progress or risk losing public support.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, President Obama's nominee to be commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.
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Top defense officials say they have about a year to show the American public that they are winning in Afghanistan. But as the US prepares to apply its new strategy there, those same officials are trying to square the need to demonstrate quick success with a fundamental aspect of counterinsurgency warfare: Results don't come quickly.

The man President Obama has nominated to lead the American mission in Afghanistan agrees. It will take at least 18 to 24 months before the US can begin making progress: establishing security, developing an economic base, and creating stronger governance, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

"I believe counterinsurgency takes time," he said.

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General McChrystal's nomination to replace the current commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is a sign of the sense of urgency concerning the mission there. General McKiernan was fired last month after Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded he was not moving fast enough to stem the Taliban's momentum.

Top administration officials say the next year is crucial. Mr. Gates has said he believes American public support for the war in Afghanistan will evaporate over the next year without some early successes. James Jones, national security adviser, said in Washington last week that "we should know within a year" if the new US strategy is successful.

"The clock is ticking, and this war is going south," says a senior military official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media on such a sensitive matter. "We have to turn it around quickly."

While Mr. Obama's popularity ratings are high, only about half of Americans support his plan to expand the mission in Afghanistan, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken last month. At the same time, about 42 percent of Americans think it was a mistake for the US to invade Afghanistan, according to a Gallup poll taken in March. That marked a 12 percent increase compared with earlier this year.

American opinion on the war may complicate Obama's ability to commit to Afghanistan in the way that is necessary for a counterinsurgency, which can take years. This may reinforce the need to demonstrate successes early on.

"Although defeating an insurgency takes a long time – some 10 years on average – it is possible to demonstrate local progress on a shorter timeline, even one constrained by congressional election calendars," says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Nagl, a noted counterinsurgency expert, says the US must do a better job of conveying to Afghans and Americans the importance of the mission and the depth of the threat posed by Al Qaeda's operations in the region.

McChyrstal, who will be joined in Afghanistan by a new three-star subordinate commander, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, is expected to be confirmed and in Afghanistan by late June. He has been huddled in a small office deep inside the Pentagon, called the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, to prepare for his confirmation hearing and to pull together the pieces of the strategy he will be charged with implementing.

His predecessor, McKiernan, has been credited for reducing civilian casualties but criticized for not finding effective ways to implement the Obama administration's new strategy on the ground.

McChrystal said Tuesday he would need time once in Afghanistan to assess the insurgency. Only then would he create an action plan for the more than 21,000 troops that are deploying there this year.

"I believe [the war] is winnable but I don't think it will be easily winnable," said McChrystal, a former Special Operations commander.

Developing a strategy will be only one of the crucial tasks handed to McChrystal. The new commander must also settle on ways of measuring the effectiveness of operations there so that he, Congress, and America can know if the strategy is working.

Such measures were used during the surge of forces in Iraq in 2007 and 2008: They included the number of security forces trained and the hours of electricity available to Iraqi households. The number of American casualties also served as a flawed measure – but one that resonated with the American public.

Military officials are scrambling to come up with a similar framework for Afghanistan. For instance: How does the US measure the strength of the nascent Afghan government, or the degree to which the population trusts its police?

Moreover, Iraq didn't have a poppy crop that financially fuels the insurgency, nor did it have the kinds of "safe havens" that the tribal areas of Pakistan offer Afghan militants. All these variables make the effort to assess victory – and to convey that to the public – more complex.

"Right now, we're sort of still in the process of finding what the measures of effectiveness will be," says the senior military official.

There is also a debate about how much of those metrics can be made public. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have indicated that some metrics may remain classified.

As the clock ticks on the new American mission in Afghanistan, Afghan officials worry that the demand for short-term success might trump America's long-term commitment to the country.

"The success of the long-term strategy should not be measured by the immediate results," says Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the US.

Top defense officials say they have about a year to show the American public that they are winning in Afghanistan. But as the US prepares to apply its new strategy there, those same officials are trying to square the need to demonstrate quick success with a fundamental aspect of counterinsurgency warfare: Results don't come quickly.

The man President Obama has nominated to lead the American mission in Afghanistan agrees. It will take at least 18 to 24 months before the US can begin making progress: establishing security, developing an economic base, and creating stronger governance, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

"I believe counterinsurgency takes time," he said.

General McChrystal's nomination to replace the current commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is a sign of the sense of urgency concerning the mission there. General McKiernan was fired last month after Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded he was not moving fast enough to stem the Taliban's momentum.

Top administration officials say the next year is crucial. Mr. Gates has said he believes American public support for the war in Afghanistan will evaporate over the next year without some early successes. James Jones, national security adviser, said in Washington last week that "we should know within a year" if the new US strategy is successful.

"The clock is ticking, and this war is going south," says a senior military official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media on such a sensitive matter. "We have to turn it around quickly."

While Mr. Obama's popularity ratings are high, only about half of Americans support his plan to expand the mission in Afghanistan, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken last month. At the same time, about 42 percent of Americans think it was a mistake for the US to invade Afghanistan, according to a Gallup poll taken in March. That marked a 12 percent increase compared with earlier this year.

American opinion on the war may complicate Obama's ability to commit to Afghanistan in the way that is necessary for a counterinsurgency, which can take years. This may reinforce the need to demonstrate successes early on.

"Although defeating an insurgency takes a long time – some 10 years on average – it is possible to demonstrate local progress on a shorter timeline, even one constrained by congressional election calendars," says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Nagl, a noted counterinsurgency expert, says the US must do a better job of conveying to Afghans and Americans the importance of the mission and the depth of the threat posed by Al Qaeda's operations in the region.

McChyrstal, who will be joined in Afghanistan by a new three-star subordinate commander, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, is expected to be confirmed and in Afghanistan by late June. He has been huddled in a small office deep inside the Pentagon, called the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, to prepare for his confirmation hearing and to pull together the pieces of the strategy he will be charged with implementing.

His predecessor, McKiernan, has been credited for reducing civilian casualties but criticized for not finding effective ways to implement the Obama administration's new strategy on the ground.

McChrystal said Tuesday he would need time once in Afghanistan to assess the insurgency. Only then would he create an action plan for the more than 21,000 troops that are deploying there this year.

"I believe [the war] is winnable but I don't think it will be easily winnable," said McChrystal, a former Special Operations commander.

Developing a strategy will be only one of the crucial tasks handed to McChrystal. The new commander must also settle on ways of measuring the effectiveness of operations there so that he, Congress, and America can know if the strategy is working.

Such measures were used during the surge of forces in Iraq in 2007 and 2008: They included the number of security forces trained and the hours of electricity available to Iraqi households. The number of American casualties also served as a flawed measure – but one that resonated with the American public.

Military officials are scrambling to come up with a similar framework for Afghanistan. For instance: How does the US measure the strength of the nascent Afghan government, or the degree to which the population trusts its police?

Moreover, Iraq didn't have a poppy crop that financially fuels the insurgency, nor did it have the kinds of "safe havens" that the tribal areas of Pakistan offer Afghan militants. All these variables make the effort to assess victory – and to convey that to the public – more complex.

"Right now, we're sort of still in the process of finding what the measures of effectiveness will be," says the senior military official.

There is also a debate about how much of those metrics can be made public. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have indicated that some metrics may remain classified.

As the clock ticks on the new American mission in Afghanistan, Afghan officials worry that the demand for short-term success might trump America's long-term commitment to the country.

"The success of the long-term strategy should not be measured by the immediate results," says Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the US.

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