One of the most lasting and lamentable concepts to have emerged from the Iraq War was that of the "Friedman Unit." Coined by Duncan Black, the "Friedman Unit" referred to the next super-critical six months in Iraq that Thomas Friedman was forever suggesting would be crucial in determining the outcome of the war. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) documented fourteen separate occasions when Friedman discussed those game-changing six months between November of 2003 and May of 2006, during which time Vladimir and Estragon managed to have the good sense to stop waiting for Godot to arrive and get on with their lives.
Now, all eyes are on General Stanley McChrystal as he prosecutes the War in Afghanistan. And in Dexter Filkins' lengthy New York Times magazine piece on McChrystal, the concept of time figures prominently:
"What do you need here?" McChrystal asked.
A translator turned the general's words into Pashto.
"We need schools!" one Afghan called back. "Schools!"
"We're working on that," McChrystal said. "Those things take time."
McChrystal walked some more, engaging another group of Afghans. He posed the same question.
"Security," a man said. "We need security. Security first, then the other things will be possible."
"That is what we are trying to do," McChrystal said. "But it's going to take time. Success takes time."
The questions kept coming, and the answer was the same. After a couple of hours, McChrystal put on his helmet and flak jacket, boarded the Black Hawk and flew to another town.
Success takes time, but how much time does Stanley McChrystal have?
When McChrystal's deputy, General Michael Flynn, imagines success in Afghanistan, he imagines a lengthy process extended far into the future.
"We are going to go in and ask for some resources," he told me. "If those resources are brought to bear in a timely manner, I believe that it's probably going to take us three years to really turn the insurgency to the point where it's waning instead of waxing. To do that we have to fix the Afghan security forces, we have to build their capacity and capability, and we have to absolutely culturally change the way they operate. And then I think beyond those three years, we are looking at another two years when the government of Afghanistan and the security forces of Afghanistan begin to take a lot more personal responsibility. The challenge to us is: What can we do in 12 months? What should we expect? If people's expectations are that we are going to have the south turned around, for instance, it's not going to happen."
And that may be hard to stomach, even more difficult to afford. But McChrystal put a hard end point on what he believes to be the critical, determining phase of the mission:
When the briefing was finished, McChrystal looked around the room. "Gentlemen, I am coming into this job with 12 months to show demonstrable progress here -- and 24 months to have a decisive impact," he said. "That's how long we have to convince the Taliban, the Afghan people and the American people that we're going to be successful. In 24 months, it has to be obvious that we have the clear upper hand and that things are moving in the right direction. That's not a choice. That's a reality."
I'm genuinely relieved that McChrystal doesn't seem to think in Friedman units. If only I could be sure of all the other major players! Spencer Ackerman points out the rub: "But who will judge whether we have indeed shown 'demonstrable progress' or have had a 'decisive impact?'"
Dexter Filkins: Stanley McChrystal's Long War [New York Times]