Measuring progress toward peace
The Washington Times
By Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel

Afghanistan’s important Aug. 20 vote is over. Whatever the outcome, a poll by the International Republican Institute, completed just before the vote, shows a fresh burst of hopefulness among Afghans, with optimism about the future back to the 60 percent level for the first time in years and renewed faith in the United States as well as NATO. However, this is likely the last time we will have the benefits of a fresh start; our popularity, as well as the Afghan government’s, has been declining at most points in the past few years, and the insurgency is gaining a greater foothold. We must make maximum use of this opportunity.

President Obama’s new strategy is a step in the right direction — but how, and how soon, will we know if it is working? With declining support for the war among Americans, this is not only a fair question but an important one. The president owes Congress a report in September on metrics for gauging progress in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Congress will provide Mr. Obama the money he needs for the nation’s wars now, but these indicators could be crucial next year — as midterm elections approach and as the buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan raises expectations about the progress we should be able to see there.

Using metrics in war is perilous business. Assessing progress in war — especially this kind of counterinsurgency mission and state-building enterprise — is more art than science. But while it may be art, it must not be fiction. Any theory about the war’s trajectory must be consistent with the facts. In this regard, metrics can help.

Based on our experiences in and out of government, we would offer several guidelines on how to interpret quantitative data from the Afghanistan conflict that may be useful in the coming months:

If we were to offer one message now, in late summer 2009, based on the above principles, it would be this: Be patient. This is not a call for indefinite suspension of disbelief. After eight years, the American and Afghan peoples are entitled to some straight talk about the war and some reasonable expectation of near-term progress. But the inputs to the new strategy for Afghanistan are only now reaching the battlefield (and indeed, a debate about sending more troops may occur soon as well). Given the nature of the military operations at hand and the pace at which Afghan security forces and civilian institutions can be built, it will take much or all of 2010 to know if these added resources are translating into a turnaround on the battlefield. The Afghan people probably are patient enough, after 30 years of war, to wait this long for clear results. Given the quality of our new strategy and new leadership for Afghanistan policy, despite the costs and the pain, Congress and American people should be as well.

Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution. Mr. O’Hanlon recently observed the Afghanistan elections with the International Republican Institute. Mr. Riedel chaired President Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy last winter.

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