Obama Offers Ways to Rate Efforts in Afghan Region

Posted in United States , Afghanistan | 17-Sep-09 | Author: David E. Sanger, Thom Shanker | Source: New York Times

Young afghan children look on as a US soldier secures the area during a mission at a village in the Baraki Barak district of Logar Province in August 2009.

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration delivered to Congress on Wednesday about 50 measures to determine whether a broad military and nation-building campaign to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan was succeeding, paving the way for the White House to argue that the American combat effort in the region would not be open-ended.

The long-awaited measures were delivered in closed meetings with key members of the House and Senate, just as President Obama emphasized that he would take his time in evaluating a forthcoming request from the military for more combat forces.

"My determination is to get this right," he said, as he met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, whose military forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in two years.

"There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things I'm absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right," Mr. Obama added, in words that appeared intended to calm Democrats who have raised objections about deepening the American combat involvement.

But Mr. Obama faces growing skepticism, if not outright opposition, from several members of his own party over the direction of his Afghanistan policy.

"I really have great misgivings about adding additional troops without some sort of timeline and an understanding that the rest of the world, particularly our NATO allies and others, are going to play a significant and robust role," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.

Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, added: "It's really important that they have a clearly articulated, understandable policy that has an endpoint in military terms that everyone can understand. I don't think they're there yet."

Many of the ways the administration told Congress it would measure the success of the mission were familiar: the disruption of terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the building of effective justice systems and the development of economic security, with an emphasis on agriculture instead of narcotics.

Administration officials said they hoped the measures would build confidence - in Congress, around the country and among allies - that the administration was assessing progress honestly, even if the review fueled political arguments over how long the United States should remain engaged in combat missions.

"This will be an honest effort to grade ourselves," one senior administration official told reporters, saying that in some cases "there will be a significant public relations challenge" if the White House, or an outside panel, determines that elements of the program are failing.

The official, who the White House insisted could not be identified, volunteered that the effort to grade progress would meet an early test in Afghanistan. One of the measures, written before last month's presidential vote there, called for an assessment of whether the country was holding "credible elections."

"Guess what? That one's not going to get a glowing rating," he said. The vote appears to have been so deeply ridden with fraud that Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have been torn about how openly to criticize President Hamid Karzai; many in the administration fear they will be working with an ally seen as illegitimate by many Afghans.

The senior official said that the administration, in conducting its quarterly assessment of how well the standards were being met, would look at polling data to indicate "whether the election was viewed as legitimate by the Afghan people."

Mr. Obama seems acutely aware that he is confronting two clocks on the American engagement in Afghanistan that are ticking at different speeds: a political clock here at home, and a combat clock in the region. The White House is concerned about dividing Democrats on an increase in forces in Afghanistan at a time when the president is trying to hold the party together on his health care overhaul.

Meanwhile, pressure from the Pentagon to approve additional forces is building, since the new military strategy calls for rolling back insurgent advances and protecting the population.

A senior House Democrat on military matters emerged from the closed-door briefing to express support for continuing the mission in Afghanistan - and for sending additional combat troops if requested by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior commander in Afghanistan.

The Democrat, Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has called for the administration to write specific and detailed measurements for success in the war.

"It's a tough fight," Mr. Skelton said in a telephone interview. "But this is a true national security effort, and that's why we need a way to show progress toward a solid outcome."

Although the bulk of the metrics presented to members of Congress are unclassified, some remain secret, including those for measuring success in the effort to "disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks."

Army Secretary Is Confirmed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm Representative John M. McHugh, a New York Republican, as secretary of the Army. He will join Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, on President Obama's military team.