General Electric Company fired its CEO, John Flannery, after 12 months because “the board had grown frustrated with the slow pace of change.” American taxpayers know exactly how the GE board felt whenever they see another headline about Afghanistan.
In September 2018, the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 17 years and there’s no end in sight. The CIA, the spearhead of the U.S. forces, reached Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley on 26 September 2001, just more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Military special operations forces arrived shortly after, and the combined CIA-military team connected with the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban and liberate Kabul by mid-November.
Maybe we should have quit while we were ahead: the tab so far is $840 billion for military operations, $126 billion for reconstruction, probably another $1 trillion for veterans’ health care, 0ver 2,200 dead, and over 20,000 wounded.
On 2 September, General Scott Miller assumed command of the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Since January 2002, the NATO command in its various guises has had 16 commanders, Americans commanding exclusively since 2007.
President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE isn’t comfortable with the extended mission in Afghanistan. He wants to win, but probably doesn’t see a way out, primarily because most of his advisors don’t know any means other than “money and time.” So, in August, he authorized an additional 4,000 troops for training and counter-terrorism missions.
American taxpayers were indulgent for the first decade of the Afghanistan project, but President Obama gave notice the tide had turned when he suggested America pursue “nation building here at home”. President Trump pithily seconded that when he asked, “What the f**k are we doing there?”
Maybe it’s time Trump gave his top three officials in country, the Ambassador, the Commander of NATO's Operation Resolute Support, and the USAID Mission Director 12 months to show demonstrable progress. But how will he determine success?
The war has spawned a flood of metrics that tell us more and more about how we’re “not winning” in the words of Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE. If you want to measure days of training, IED attacks, or number of people displaced by the fighting, we’ve got you covered. Adding to the confusion, competing assessments by the Department of Defense, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and the Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations disagree on the meaning of trends.
How can the President measure the leaders’ success or failure? By looking at:
- The amount of territory the Afghan central government controls or influences, currently under 60 percent of the country.
- The level of opium production. According to the latest report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime “opium production in Afghanistan increased by 87 per cent to a record level of 9,000 metric tons in 2017 compared with 2016 levels.”
Up to now, the senior leaders, the diplomats, generals, and reconstruction officials, worked like they had no deadline, which in the trade is known as “conditions based.” Instead, the leaders should be given a deadline and promise of no micromanaging by Washington. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of those metrics because they really measure the provision of public safety in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces, so the leaders should have a free hand to do what they must to succeed.
Twelve months will keep the NATO forces in place through the next Afghan presidential election on 20 April 2019. And speaking of elections, the 2020 election in the U.S. is on 3 November 2020, so a 12 months performance period for the three leaders will give the Republican candidates one year to campaign without having to promise progress in Afghanistan if there is none to be had. After almost two inconclusive decades there’s no shame in allowing domestic political considerations to drive Afghanistan policy. In fact, it’s about time.
And facile assurances, like from Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah that it “won’t be a 50-year engagement”, are indicative that some of that country’s leaders don’t understand that most Americans think it’s unlikely the U.S. will prevail, whether the strategy is dressed up at “time-based” or conditions-based.” They need the motivation the ticking clock provides, and the understanding that this may be the end of their claim on America’s attention.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).