Obama sharpens Afghanistan goals

President Barack Obama next month will send Congress a new plan for measuring progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an effort to build confidence among wavering Democrats and give sharper direction to a costly and increasingly bloody war, White House officials told POLITICO on Saturday.

The administration has begun seeking feedback on the plan from lawmakers and their staffs. The finished version is to be delivered to Capitol Hill by Sept. 24, a congressionally mandated date for a report on Afghanistan.

"There's an intense impatience here for results, and I think an absolutely understandable impatience among the American people for results," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity, as did other officials and aides interviewed for this story, to speak freely about a policy that's still being formulated. "In the course of August, these plans will be complete."

Along with an array of dozens of numerical indicators, a system of red, yellow and green indicators will help White House and congressional policymakers spot which objectives are in trouble, which are unchanged since the last report, and which are showing significant progress.

"We don't have a long track record here in terms of measuring progress and then sharing that assessment with Congress," a second official said. "I think they are all from Missouri right now: They want us to show them. Matter of fact, they want to see the effects."

A senior administration official said Saturday: "Because we believe the American people deserve clarity on our progress in Afghanistan, we have compiled a comprehensive set of metrics based on the objectives laid out by the president and informed by a stringent intelligence review. We have briefed members of Congress and their staffs over the past few weeks. Work has already started on the first quarterly round of measurements and we expect to continue engaging Congress in the months ahead."

The matrix is referred to in the West Wing as "the SIP" — Strategic Implementation Plan. Officials says it's ambitious enough that they joke it should have been named the GULP.

"[National Security Adviser James] Jones' signature is actually on the document, and it directs actions here in Washington, so [there'll be accountability] among departments and agencies, State, Defense, the intelligence community, various parts of the intelligence community," an official said. "It also, however, specifies some actions that we expect to be taken by the first tier of American leaders in theater."

The official said one measurement is "the proportion of the Afghan population that is now secured." Others will put demands on Obama's new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal; the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry; and the ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson.

"On the military side, there have been 21,000 additional troops requested," the official said. "The president has approved the movement of those troops, and we're going to track and make sure they arrived. On the civilian side, there's an order of magnitude less than 21,000 civilians who have been requested, and we're going to track their progress."

The document will include specific metrics under nine broad objectives — some of them classified, and divided roughly half for Afghanistan and half for Pakistan. The list has not been released, but is likely to leak after it goes to lawmakers.

Aides say that behind the scenes, Obama is demanding in his expectations for Afghanistan, which he has called the "central front... in the battle against terrorism." 

One aide said part of the accountability built into the new plan is "walking into the office over there" — the Oval — and responding to the President when he says, 'Where are we on my nine [objectives]?'" 

Another official added: "And, 'What do you mean you only have progress on this objective? What about the other eight? And how are these nine coming together in an integrated way?'"

A pair of upcoming events is about to push Afghanistan to the forefront of the news, after months in the background while Congress wrangled over the president's domestic agenda:

--President Hamid Karzai faces reelection on Aug. 20 in a what an administration official called "a chance to reset the Afghan political stage." Karzai has two serious challengers, although many allied officials think he will hold on.

"The United States is impartial: we do not support or oppose any particular candidates," an aide said. "Our priority is that the Afghan people choose their president from a level playing field and under conditions that create an election outcome accepted as legitimate by the Afghan people and by the world."

--McChrystal, the commanding general, is expected to call for additional troops in a strategic review to be delivered to the Pentagon in late August or early September. That's going to be a momentous and painful decision for Obama, who already has encountered resistance from his own party to the wider commitment he announced in March.

Officials say a call for new troops would be a tough sell, both in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill, but are leaving their options open. The 143 reported American military fatalities so far this year mean 2009 is almost certain to replace 2008, when there were 155 American fatalities, as the bloodiest year to date in a conflict that's approaching its eighth full year.

One aide said: "If the only thing you could change is add more troops and everything else stays the same as today, I think that would be a tough sell because the President would say, 'Well, wait a second. Do you mean we're going to throw more troops at this problem? Where's the civilian effort? Where's the economic development effort? What's going on in Pakistan that influences what's going on in Afghanistan? And how about our international partners? What exactly have they ponied up?'

"So, if I were to take to the President of the United States a solution that said, 'Look, let's dial up the troops,' he's going to say, 'Wait a second. This is like one tenth of the problem here. What about the rest of the story?'"

The nine objectives are subsets of the big goal that the president set in his big speech on March 27 outlining a new strategy referred to internally as "Af/Pak": "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

Different parts of the government have begun gathering information to fill into the plan to form a statistical baseline that will allow policymakers to measure progress. "There are nine plans that are due to us," an official said. "The first one was due [July 31], and they actually did what we told them to do on time."

The official said the plan "will, over time, hold us accountable for what it is we are trying to do."

"There is a metrics portion here that says that we are going to measure our progress in routine intervals, and then we are going to assess how we are doing, where we are making progress and where we are not making progress and where adjustments need to be made," the official said.

"So it is a bit of an unusual Washington document in the sense that it holds people accountable, puts them on a timeline, and it describes very carefully what is required against that timeline, and then it says, 'Oh, by the way, we are going to review your progress.'"

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