Administration aiming to set Afghanistan benchmarks
Stars and Stripes August 7, 2009
WASHINGTON — White House officials are weeks away from completing and publicly releasing metrics for how they’ll gauge success in Afghansitan, even as the number of U.S. troops in the country continues to rise.
Administration officials, led by National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, briefed members of Congress this week on the ongoing efforts to develop benchmarks for progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier this year, lawmakers set a Sept. 23 due date for the metrics, and both lawmakers and President Barack Obama have promised to make the measures public then.
For now, details of exactly what military officials would be tracking remain classified, but White House officials confirmed that key House and Senate lawmakers received a nearly finished product in their meeting with Lute and NSA staffers.
The American public, however, appears to be growing increasingly impatient. A new national CNN poll released this week showed that 41 percent of people questioned say they favor the war in Afghanistan, down 9 points from May, when half of those questioned expressed support. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the latest CNN poll said they opposed the Afghan war effort.
As part of the House’s version of the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill, lawmakers have asked for detailed reports throughout the year “outlining the U.S. security, governance, development, counternarcotics and regional strategy in Afghanistan.”
NSA officials said the metrics are fundamentally based on how well U.S. and NATO forces “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida” — echoing comments made by Obama during a speech in March outlining the new Afghanistan strategy.
But one item that may not be included is the death toll from skirmishes between U.S. troops and Taliban or al-Qaida fighters. Last month, American military leaders in Afghanistan announced they would no longer release those body counts, calling the numbers uninformative and potentially upsetting to civilians in the country.
White House officials would not comment on whether the death tallies are included in the latest draft of the metrics.
A spokesman for Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was pleased with the work thus far and confident the new metrics will be ready on Sept. 23.
Lawmakers have been receiving progress reports on Afghanistan from the Pentagon since inserting an amendment requiring the summaries into the 2008 defense authorization bill. The most recent report, issued in July, noted progress in stabilizing the region but added that U.S. forces continue to face “severe challenges” in the fight.
Members of the House have criticized that periodic report for being nearly five weeks late and incomplete, since it contains largely anecdotal and analytical summaries on the region.
Rep. John Murtha, chair of the House Appropriations’ defense subcommittee, again this week reiterated the need for “achievable and realistic benchmarks” for Afghanistan.
Still, White House officials said they were pleased with the meetings this week, getting only small changes and positive feedback from lawmakers. Additional discussions on the metrics will take place between the Defense and State departments over the coming weeks.