An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Expectations Game

To win in Afghanistan, Obama is going to have start defining the terms of the debate in Washington.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, as Washington roars back to life and Gen. Stanley McChrystal heads to Capitol Hill to explain his new strategy, America’s flagging war in Afghanistan is certain to dominate the foreign-policy debate.

The new refrain of a growing number in Congress — that progress must be made in the next 12 to 18 months — is not tied to any legal finding or authority but has become Washington’s wisdom. But the advocates and politicians who are repeating this mantra are not thinking things through. Realism and honesty are needed to avoid the excessive expectations that have repeatedly damaged U.S. prestige and credibility in Afghanistan and at home.

The mantra sets a timeline without explaining how to meet it, a dubious approach to war. And it has dangerous consequences for U.S. partners. Pakistanis may rightly wonder whether we are asking for full-fledged war against the Taliban while suggesting that if we can’t win quickly we will bail out. They remember how the United States left Pakistan to care for millions of refugees after the Soviet withdrawal. Whether or not to trust us this time is essential to Pakistan’s decision making.

Afghans, too, worry about a second U.S. abandonment. Their confidence in us will not increase if we proclaim unrealistic timetables. Most dangerous, the insurgents may fight harder if they know the end point of our political will. Demands for rapid progress will only increase over time. Therefore the administration needs to aggressively define what “progress” means to keep the term realistic-which it won’t be if left to be settled by the political debate in Washington.

Obama must make a clear statement of what the United States and its partners expect to accomplish in this short time with an equally clear explanation of real limitations. We can build credibility if we under-promise and overachieve. At present we are doing the opposite by not explaining the inherent limitations of the situation.

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For example, refocusing the strategy on protecting civilians is correct but there are nowhere near enough foreign troops to accomplish this mission. Ultimately an Afghan government must protect its people. Larger and more effective Afghan forces are needed; they are now less than one third of comparable forces in Iraq. Yet if we decide tomorrow to enlarge the Afghan forces, money must be voted, contracts signed, equipment built, and forces recruited. Progress will be slow. If we push too many green Afghan troops too quickly into the fight we will grind them up and build little. Explaining this now may prevent inevitable limitations from being transformed into accusations of failure just as progress expands.

Adding civilians in an effort to do more at the provincial level may be an important rectification of past errors. But these civilians do not exist in government ranks. They have to be recruited. The full group is unlikely to be on the ground before December, and even then they will still have to learn their jobs and start projects.

Fighting corruption and improving the Afghan government’s efficiency are monumental tasks of social transformation. To make matters more difficult, change has been slowed by in the all-consuming nature of last month’s flawed presidential election. This political turmoil will be followed by parliamentary elections next year when Afghan politicians’ search for domestic political support may trump outside pressures for administrative reform and anticorruption drives (although promises will be copious).

Progress is possible. But if the administration continues to feed unrealistic expectations by leaving “progress” poorly defined, we are likely to be politically crucified on a cross of our own construction. Limited goals described now can build credibility if achieved. The same accomplishments touted only at the end of the year are likely to be drowned in a noisy argument about unresolved problems and unsecured areas.

Describing attainable goals starts with security because its decline has fed the sense of impending disaster. Afghans see insurgents closing around towns and cutting roads. This looks to them like an old story that ends with the fall of the government in Kabul. Winning in 12 months is not possible, but breaking the psychological perception of inevitable defeat is, and our first task must therefore be to create the belief that progress is possible.

I would suggest four actions. First, secure the provinces around Kabul. Afghans will judge their security by whether the population in these areas feels secure in their homes, administrators are able to work, and teachers to teach. Second, secure a few major roads for civilian traffic, especially the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Unrestricted commercial traffic on these key arteries without attacks or illegal tolls would mark a major security improvement.

Third, reduce crime in Kabul. For Afghans, crime marks a weak government, and for outsiders, it’s a major deterrence to investment. Stopping kidnapping and illegal tolls by police and arresting bank robbers (believed to have political protection) are essential. Finally, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, achieving defined goals for protecting the population must come with the recognition that only some areas can be secured soon.

Progress in these areas without losing traction in others is tough but possible. Most of these issues are receiving attention but the public is ignorant of what is realistic. The risk is that in a year, real progress will be dismissed as failure because serious security issues continue.

Beyond security, a few other priorities need attention. Parliamentary elections are due in 2010. They must be more credible than the mess we are now cleaning up. Some projects of significance in the economically neglected north and center need to start before security deteriorates there. But to move quickly and yet work in ways that build, not bypass, a more effective Afghan state will be difficult. Detailed project selection needs to be infused with reality in Afghanistan, not sketched from Washington.

Americans will understand limitations that are explained in advance along with thoughtfully conceived near-term actions. But we need to guard against the temptation to make short-term, “feel-good” promises now that destroy credibility later when they cannot be achieved.

Ronald E. Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.