WASHINGTON — The White House Wednesday presented Congress with eight general yardsticks to measure success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but didn't say how they'd help the administration determine how well U.S. policy in the region is working.
Indeed, White House officials said they weren't sure if they'd use the metrics to help President Barack Obama decide whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Wednesday.
Instead, the administration official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the White House devised the metrics to hold itself accountable. A senior defense official, however, said the metrics also are designed to help guide the White House as it begins what could be weeks of deliberations about the way ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan, six months after it first laid out its goals there.
During a press conference Wednesday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said that he refused to be rushed on whether to send more troops, despite declining political and public support, mounting U.S. casualties, evidence that U.S.-backed Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai rigged his re-election last month, pervasive official corruption, a resurgent Taliban and halfhearted assistance from neighboring Pakistan.
If Karzai claims another term as president, as appears likely, and the outcome is considered illegitimate, it could further undercut domestic public and political support for the Afghan war and leave the White House hitched to an unpopular leader in Kabul.
Obama said Wednesday that he wants "absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."
It's not clear, however, that the metrics presented Wednesday will provide that clarity. Some metrics could be measured using statistics such as polls or economic variables, but about half of them are subjective, and each metric has between four and 14 sub-metrics. Two that are classified weren't released.
One metric, for example, calls for the U.S. and its allies to defeat extremist insurgencies, "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."
The 14 sub-metrics for that goal include: measure the level of corruption within the Afghan security forces; public perceptions of the security forces; the capability and size of the Afghan police and army; and percent of the population living under insurgent-controlled or government-controlled communities.
Others yardsticks include economic and political development in Afghanistan and Pakistan and improved security forces in both nations.
Other goals, especially those directed at Pakistan, might be difficult for the United States to reach, since it has few troops and little leverage in that country, where anti-Americanism has been rising.
For example, one metric calls for the development of "Pakistan's counterinsurgency capabilities," adding the United States should "continue to support Pakistan's efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups."
The senior administration official stressed that the United States isn't engaged in nation building in Afghanistan, even though one of the sub-metrics calls for measuring "public perception of Afghanistan's justice sector and commitment to providing the rule of law at the national, provincial, and local levels."
If the Afghans and Pakistanis achieve the goals with U.S. support, the United States will meet its goal of "disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al Qaida, the official said.
"The metrics are the strategy," he said.
The White House said it would review the metrics quarterly and present its findings to Congress by March, as Congress requested. It will determine success on a scale, White House officials said. In addition, it will appoint a team of experts to review progress in Afghanistan using the White House metrics so there's an independent analysis.
Congress demanded the benchmarks from the White House by Sept. 24 as concern grows that the U.S. may be committing itself to an escalating war with little prospect of success.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the United States "probably" will send more troops to Afghanistan in addition to the additional 17,700 troops and 4,000 trainers that Obama ordered this spring. There currently are 64,000 troops in Afghanistan.
McChrystal's formal request for troops is expected later this month, Mullen said.
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