Shadow Government

The double-edged sword of Obama’s “Af-Pak” benchmarks

By Peter Feaver The lede for the advance stories on the new Obama strategy for his central front in the Overseas Contingency Operation Formerly Known as the Global war on Terror (OCOFKGWOT) is "benchmarks." We will set benchmarks for ourselves, for the Afghan government and military, for the Pakistani government and military, for our NATO ...

By Peter Feaver

The lede for the advance stories on the new Obama strategy for his central front in the Overseas Contingency Operation Formerly Known as the Global war on Terror (OCOFKGWOT) is "benchmarks." We will set benchmarks for ourselves, for the Afghan government and military, for the Pakistani government and military, for our NATO allies, for our UN partners — heck, I bet there will be benchmarks for the Taliban and al Qaeda, too.

Benchmarks are a fine way to tether a strategy to reality and identify how to evaluate the implantation of that strategy. But benchmarks are not a panacea. And they could become the petard on which the Obama team finds itself hoisted in a year or so.

What if NATO, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or anyone fails to meet the benchmark goal within the specified time? Will Obama declare the strategy a failure? And then what? What bailout plan is there for a strategy that does not meet its benchmarks? Will Obama walk away from Afghanistan, as a recent editorial in the Economist feared?

Those who praise benchmarks in the Afghan strategy are the same folks who rushed to declare the Iraq surge a failure because certain benchmarks were not met by 2007. Thank goodness the Bush team had a better understanding of strategy and war than that.

I hope the Obama team does, too. Yes let’s track the progress of the strategy according to benchmarks. But if the OCOFKGWOT is really in the national interest then it must be won. And winning will require a commitment to develop new strategies, not just declare old ones a failure, if — or more probably when — benchmarks are missed.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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