By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Administration officials are conducting what one called a "test run" of the metrics, comparing current numbers in a range of categories -- including newly trained Afghan army recruits, Pakistani counterinsurgency missions and on-time delivery of promised U.S. resources -- with baselines set earlier in the year. The results will be used to fine-tune the list before it is presented to Congress by Sept. 24.
Lawmakers set that deadline in the spring as a condition for approving additional war funding, holding President Obama to his promise of "clear benchmarks" and no "blank check."
Since then, skepticism about the war in Afghanistan has intensified along with the rising U.S. and NATO casualty rates, now at the highest level of the eight-year-old conflict. An upcoming assessment by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new military commander in Afghanistan, is expected to lay the groundwork for requests for additional U.S. troop deployments in 2010.
The administration's concern about waning public support and the war's direction has been compounded by strains in the U.S. relationship with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Facing their own public opinion problems, both appear increasingly resentful of U.S. demands for improved performance in the face of what they see as insufficient American support.
At a dinner in Kabul with Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for the region, and retired Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, after the Aug. 20 presidential election, President Hamid Karzai made clear his displeasure that the administration did not endorse his candidacy or his claimed victory, according to one U.S. participant.
The participant denied media reports that the dinner had erupted into a shouting match but acknowledged that Karzai "may have been unhappy with the fact that the United States did not immediately congratulate him on his victory." Amid widespread reports of fraud, and with only a fraction of the vote tallied, Holbrooke told Karzai that the administration would wait for official results confirming that a candidate had won a majority or whether a runoff was needed before commenting.
"There is a pretty intense atmosphere in Kabul right now," said the participant, one of several senior officials who agreed to discuss the deteriorating war situation, and the evolving administration strategy, only on the condition of anonymity.
Relations with Pakistan have grown similarly tense, with complaints from Islamabad about the pace of deliveries of U.S. military equipment and rising resentment over congressional attempts to impose restrictions on its supply and use.
"We are fighting this war today," a senior Pakistani military official said in describing U.S. assistance as slow and stingy. "What good is it two years from now?"
That official and others said there have been long delays in the delivery of helicopters, night-vision equipment and other supplies requested for the army's ongoing offensive against Pakistan-based insurgents.
In recent interviews, civil and military officials in Pakistan drew a sharp contrast between the billions of dollars in assistance that George W. Bush's administration gave, with few strings attached, to then-President Pervez Musharraf -- a general who came to power in a military coup -- and what they see as efforts to condition assistance to the democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari.
"Our soldiers wear less armor, their vehicles are less armored, and they have suffered more casualties" in the fight against the Taliban than the United States and NATO combined, the official said. Pakistani combat deaths since 2003 surpassed 2,000 this month as the military engaged Taliban forces in the Swat Valley.
"The only area where there is a tangible improvement is in training," the Pakistani military official said. Training aid has increased from $2 million to $4 million over the past year, he said, along with a doubling to 200 of the number of Pakistani army officers brought to the United States for courses.
Several Pakistani officials cited as particularly galling Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent visit to neighboring India -- where she reached agreement on a defense pact that will provide major quantities of sophisticated U.S. arms to Pakistan's traditional South Asian adversary. Clinton has scheduled a visit to Pakistan in October.
U.S. defense officials, anxious to repair what they have repeatedly acknowledged is a "trust deficit" with Pakistan, bite their tongues in response to the criticism. But they insist that Pakistan is getting everything it has asked for, at unprecedented speed.
"What you have is, frankly, an effort by the Pakistanis . . . to generate all the resources, all the assistance that is possible, and we would do the same thing if we were in their shoes," a senior U.S. defense official said. "But to make a statement that folks aren't moving rapidly, or that they're not getting more than they used to get, is just contrary to the facts."
The administration has asked for $2.5 billion in direct security assistance funds for Pakistan in 2010 -- 25 percent more than what has been approved for this year.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, "personally gets a daily update -- daily, mind you," on supplies shipped to Pakistan, the U.S. defense official said. "That should give you some sense of how riveted we are on this."
Although some Republican leaders in Congress have said that they would support adding troops to the 68,000 the United States will have in Afghanistan by the end of this year, many leading Democrats have questioned whether the administration's strategy of expanded economic and military support for both countries is working, and whether the likely increased toll in U.S. lives is justified.
Opposition to congressional efforts to legislate conditions on war funding and aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan is one area of agreement among the three governments. Iraq's failure to achieve benchmarks mandated by Congress provided an easy target for opponents of that war and contributed to the loss of public support in the United States.
Both the House and Senate versions of the pending 2010 defense spending bill include metrics and reporting requirements for the administration. Obama's strategy is "still a work in progress," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored an amendment in the legislation setting conditions on aid to Pakistan.
In the absence of strict guidelines from the administration, Menendez said in an interview, "we are definitely moving to a set of metrics that can give us benchmarks as to how we are proceeding" and whether Obama's strategy "is pursuing our national security interests."
The White House hopes to preempt Congress with its own metrics. The document currently being fine-tuned, called the Strategic Implementation Plan, will include separate "indicators" of progress under nine broad "objectives" to be measured quarterly, according to an administration official involved in the process. Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to U.S. performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts.
The White House briefed staff members of key congressional committees this month on an initial draft of the plan and invited comments. The "test run" will indicate whether final "tweaks" are needed, the administration official said.
"Ideally, it's a combination of objective and subjective" measurements, he said. "Obviously, not everything is 100 percent quantifiable, and we don't want to just get sold on the number. If you train 100 troops, that doesn't necessarily tell you how effective they are."
He added: "We don't want to hold ourselves to indicators that aren't going to show us anything. We want to make sure this is not just a paper exercise."