How not to lose the American people on Afghanistan
By Peter Feaver With America’s newspaper running a huge story on the casket ceremony at Dover, and with NATO allies struggling with the mounting human toll in Afghanistan, it is appropriate to return to the issue of how casualties affect public support for continuing the war. As it happens, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed ...
By Peter Feaver
With America’s newspaper running a huge story on the casket ceremony at Dover, and with NATO allies struggling with the mounting human toll in Afghanistan, it is appropriate to return to the issue of how casualties affect public support for continuing the war. As it happens, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed this very issue himself in a wide-ranging interview published over the weekend in the LA Times.
Gates’s thesis is largely correct. According to the LA Times:
Gates said that Americans would have the patience to continue the war in Afghanistan only if the new military approach began to move the conflict out of deadlock. ‘If we can show progress, and we are headed in the right direction, and we are not in a stalemate where we are taking significant casualties, then you can put more time on the Washington clock,’ he said.”
This is an adequate bumper-sticker summary of the argument that my colleagues and I developed, although a more complete summary would note that public prospective expectations of success interact with their retrospective judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the war. In the Afghanistan case, both are in play — surprisingly so since there is no WMD-intelligence-failure to undermine the rationale for the Afghan war. Yet Gates is right to emphasize the prospective judgment about success because that is the one that is most in jeopardy and, I would argue, most affected by prevailing elite debates.
So how can the Obama team shore up public support for Afghanistan? First and foremost, they have to develop a strategy that will, in fact, lead to success. Facts on the ground matter and no amount of lipstick can beautify a pig. The Obama team is still feeling its way in Afghanistan but the combo of Gates-Petraeus-McChrystal does inspire confidence that they will adjust the strategy as needed to maximize the chance for success, provided that they have the support of the President. Essentially this same team (plus General Odierno and Ambassador Crocker) did just that in Iraq in 2007. Back then they had the unqualified support of the President — they were, after all, implementing the new strategy he had developed and chosen — and they refined the “surge” strategy as needed to produce remarkable results on the ground. Something like that is necessary in Afghanistan now.
Necessary, but not sufficient because such changes may take time and the public must be persuaded to hang in there while the strategy plays itself out. For this piece, presidential rhetorical leadership matters and a persuasive account to the public on the strategy and how to evaluate its effectiveness in light of unfolding events is essential. In short, the Obama team must develop credible measures of effectiveness and articulate them. The Obama team has already indicated that they are trying to identify such measures, seeking to avoid the measures that the media sensationalize — attack numbers and kill numbers — and focusing instead on indicators related to local governance and economic development.
As it happens, the Bush Administration wrestled with just this sort of problem. In the declassified explanation of the pre-surge Iraq strategy released in November 2005, the Administration sought to identify for the American public how to evaluate the progress (or lack thereof) of what was dubbed the “stand-up/stand-down” strategy:
We track numerous indicators to map the progress of our strategy and change our tactics whenever necessary. Detailed reports – both classified and unclassified – are issued weekly, monthly, and quarterly by relevant agencies and military units.
- Many of these reports with detailed metrics are released to the public, and are readily accessible. For example:
- Gains in training Iraqi security forces are updated weekly at www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil;
- Improvements in the economy and infrastructure are collected weekly by the State Department (www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/iraqstatus/) as well as USAID, which continually updates its many ongoing programs and initiatives in Iraq (www.usaid.gov/iraq);
- Extensive reports are also made every three months to Congress, and are accessible at the State (www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/2207/) and Defense (www.defenselink.mil/pubs/) Department websites.
- Americans can read and assess these reports to get a better sense of what is being done in Iraq and the progress being made on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
- Some of the most important metrics we track are:
- Political: The political benchmarks set forth in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 and the Transitional Administrative Law; the number of Iraqis from all areas willing to participate in the political process as evidenced by voter registration and turnout.
- Security: The quantity and quality of Iraqi units; the number of actionable intelligence tips received from Iraqis; the percentage of operations conducted by Iraqis alone or with minor Coalition assistance; the number of car bombs intercepted and defused; offensive operations conducted by Iraqi and Coalition forces; and the number of contacts initiated by Coalition forces, as opposed to the enemy.
- Economic: GDP; per capita GDP; inflation; electricity generated and delivered; barrels of oil produced and exported; and numbers of businesses opened.
- Other indicators are also important to success, but less subject to precise measurement, such as the extent to which principles of transparency, trust in government institutions, and acceptance of the rule of law are taking hold amongst a population that has never known them.
- These indicators have more strategic significance than the metrics that the terrorists and insurgents want the world to use as a measure of progress or failure: number of bombings.”
Such efforts at public persuasion can have an effect. In the academic study I did with my Duke colleagues, we discovered that the measures of effectiveness that the public identified as the ones they watched to see if the Iraq war was leading to success or failure were essentially the very same ones that the Bush Administration emphasized in its own rhetoric. In my judgment, this was so for two reasons: (1) the Bush Administration rhetoric on this issue was reasonable — the measures of effectiveness the Administration was emphasizing were plausible and grounded in a reasonable “theory of the case” and so persuasive to a rational public; and (2) the Bush Administration devoted extraordinary amounts of presidential capital, especially time and focus, on the Iraq war.
I am reasonably confident that the Obama team will develop a similarly well-grounded “theory of the case” in Afghanistan. And I am very confident that this team has the rhetorical chops to persuade the American people, should they devote the effort to doing so. I am less confident that they will devote that effort because they have launched so many other initiatives requiring equal-or-greater expenditures of presidential capital.
A last word: the Obama team needs to minimize self-inflicted wounds of the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot sort. The public will not believe the Obama team is on a successful trajectory if they themselves indicate they are more preoccupied by short-term politics of the matter than the substance. Such a perception is harmful and unnecessary. The truth is that President Obama is a war-time commander-in-chief and, like all war-time commanders-in-chief, his political fortunes will rise or fall with success in the war. Ultimately, focusing on getting national security right is both good policy and good politics.
U.S. Department of Defense/The National Security Archive via Getty Images
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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