The ever-accumulating case against the war in Afghanistan was bolstered this week by WikiLeaks's dissemination of over 70,000 previously secret reports documenting in vivid and unvarnished detail the brutality and futility of the American mission there.
But even as the public's patience with the war in Afghanistan is growing shorter, the timeline for an American troop withdrawal appears to be growing longer.
There are increasingly clear signs that President Obama's vow to start withdrawing American troops less than a year from now will be fulfilled through a technicality if at all, and that the real timeline for significant troop withdrawal -- barring a change in course -- now extends at least to 2014, if not far beyond.
One signal was Vice President Joe Biden's offhand remark to ABC News earlier this month that the promised summer withdrawal "could be as few as a couple thousand troops" although "it could be more."
This from the administration's most prominent opponent of escalation, a man who had earlier said you could "bet on" a "whole lot of people moving out" in July 2011.
The uninspiring Senate testimony in mid-July from Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also raised red flags. Holbrooke repeatedly ducked questions about what the administration's desired "end state" is, and whether things are going along on schedule. He instead pointed senators toward a list of what he called "benchmarks."
But the document to which Holbrooke referred is in fact full of vague, sometimes entirely unmeasurable "milestones" that carry no deadlines and trigger no consequences.
"All of these benchmarks are designed to pacify onlookers on the Hill, help to justify our presence in the country, and set unrealistic goals that everyone knows are not going to be met," said retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a respected military strategist and author. "You're never going to achieve them. None of this is aimed at extricating American power and forces from anywhere."
So, asked for an exit strategy, the administration instead offered up guidelines for an endless occupation.
And then last week, in a nearly unnoticed development at an international conference in Kabul, world leaders including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed their "support for the President of Afghanistan's objective that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014."
That's right: The end of 2014.
"I was kind of struck that the 2014 didn't get more critical attention than it did," said Paul R. Pillar, formerly the CIA's top Middle East analysis and now a Georgetown University professor. "The war will have gone on 13 years at that point."
Pillar said he expected a strong public reaction along the lines of "Wait, what does that imply in terms of our troop presence? In terms of how fast or how slowly our withdrawal next year is going to go?" And: "Whoa, you mean it's going to be another four years from now... and even that's not total victory?"
And keep in mind that 2014 is the corrupt, ineffective Afghan President Hamid Karzai's best-case scenario. That's if all goes according to plan. And nothing in Afghanistan ever goes according to plan.
Indeed, the Guardian recently reported that plans made not so long ago to begin handing control of some provinces to Afghan security forces by the end of this year "have been quietly dropped."
The British paper also noted: "Gen. David Petraeus is said to be planning a campaign measured in years, not months."
The uselessness of the so-called "benchmarks" the administration is now citing, in a document entitled Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy, are particularly telling.
Some are specific -- but meaningless in the absence of a target date:
200,000 farmers and entrepreneurs have access to credit.
Some are naïve:
Improved service delivery at the sub-national level in the critical areas of health, education, and security.
"That means you're going to create a national system in a place that has never been a nation-state?" asked Macgregor, the military strategist. "If you wait for that one, you will be in Afghanistan for about 200 years."
Some are delusional. For instance under the heading of reducing corruption:
Appointment of competent, reform-minded leaders of critical ministries... and also to key provincial and district positions in the South and East.
Macgregor grumbled to the Huffington Post: "If they find them there, they should recruit them and use them here first."
Some are naïve, delusional, unmeasurable and meaningless all at once.
Afghanistan's neighbors begin to shift their policies to reinforce increased cooperation, over time.
Macgregor sees the benchmarks not as reflecting a sincere attempt to describe a way out of Afghanistan. Rather he sees them as a witting or unwitting reflection of the neoconservative desire to keep the American military deployed in that region indefinitely. "They're designed to keep you in Afghanistan, because you're never going to achieve them," he said.
"If you wanted to pick a place that was a nightmare for every conceivable form of nation-building, Afghanistan would be it," Macgregor said. Only the people that live there can fix their problems, he said. "It's not going to happen as a result of military power."
It's worth noting that the benchmarks document itself apparently went through a pretty serious declawing process, sometime between last September, when the Foreign Policy website got hold of an early draft, and January, when the first version of the existing plan was first released.
For instance, gone from the new plan is this commitment:
By March 30, 2010 and on regular intervals thereafter, the interagency will draft an assessment of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a check and balance on the interagency, a separate assessment will also be produced by a Red Team, led by the National Intelligence Council."
In the earlier draft, but missing from the final version, are actually measurable metrics, such as "percent of population living in districts/areas under insurgent control" and "Afghan Government's institutions at the national, provincial, and local level, including ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010" (already quite definitively resolved to the negative.)
The administration's aversion to real benchmarks is understandable, to a certain extent. So far, all accountability has got them is heartache.
Specifically, in audit report after audit report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Arnold Fields, has exposed major problems not just in accomplishing key goals, but also in the administration's attempts at measuring them.
For instance, the successful development of Afghan security forces is, of course, central to Obama's strategy. But the SIGAR reported last month that the "Capability Milestone" rating system (CM) that has been the Pentagon's primary metric for measuring the development of Aghan forces had overstated their capabilities.
Among other problems the SIGAR found, top-rated Afghan units were not capable of what the Pentagon said they were, and the rating system didn't sufficiently account for such endemic problems as attrition, corruption, poor leadership, drug abuse, and illiteracy.
And then there's the single biggest problem with benchmarks: Their fundamental misuse by this administration, just like the last one. Benchmarks only really mean something if meeting them -- or failing to meet them -- has consequences.
But Obama, just like George W. Bush did with Iraq, refuses to say what message he will take from these assessments. If we meet the benchmarks, does that mean mission accomplished and we can leave? And more realistically, if we fail to meet the benchmarks, does that mean we have to try harder? Or does it mean that we finally acknowledge the futility of the enterprise and withdraw?
Ironically, it was then-senator Obama who, back in 2007, asked then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice the exact questions he won't answer today, namely: What if things don't go according to plan? What if the occupied country's government remains in shambles? What exactly are the benchmarks for success? And what are the consequences if they are not met? Is the United States really willing to walk away? (See my December column, Obama's Questions for Obama.)
But when it comes to the "or else" part of the benchmarks, Obama, just like Bush, is boxed in because he has declared this to be a war that we must win.
Meanwhile, however, Obama remains on the record as saying that his commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended. "There's gotta be an exit strategy," he told CBS News last April. "There's gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."
But perpetual drift is as good a description of what we're seeing today as any. And the longer the drift continues, the louder the voices of concern and dissent will get.
Already, there are signs that the political dynamic that has fueled our war efforts may be shifting. Since 9/11, continuing the war has generally been seen by politicians as synonymous with supporting the troops and keeping our nation secure. (It's the ultimate victory of the Neocons.) In reality, of course, they are not synonymous at all -- if anything, they are inimical. But with the Republican Party in lockstep behind the war effort, the Democratic leadership -- terrified of appearing weak -- has gone along enthusiastically.
Now, however, there are signs that some Republicans are joining forces with some Democrats in opposing the war.
So far, they are short of critical mass.
And on Tuesday, 102 Democrats joined a dozen Republicans to oppose Obama's war supplemental in its entirety, resulting in a 308-114 vote.
With polls showing a distinct drop in support for the war, and opposition growing in Congress, Obama's options may soon become more limited.
"I think the political pressures back here are going to push the Obama administration into something more rapid than that 2014 implies," said Pillar.
WATCH Obama questions Condoleezza Rice about the Iraq benchmarks in 2003:
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.
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