- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

The White House on Wednesday began to share details of a complicated new program aimed at gauging how the war in Afghanistan is going as it continued to resist pressure to reveal whether President Obama plans to dispatch additional troops there.

The administration dispatched senior officials to Capitol Hill yesterday to outline what it described as a novel and bluntly honest program to measure progress in the effort to deprive al Qaeda of a base of operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the ungoverned areas along the border between those two nations.

The program involves a team of diplomatic, military and intelligence analysts who will produce quarterly reports for the president. It also involves a separate, independent team of outside experts, referred to by administration officials as “the red cell” or “red team,” who will evaluate conditions using the same benchmarks. That team is meant to serve as a control group to ward off the potential of administration insiders preparing rosy, but inaccurate assessments of progress.

A senior administration official, who provided details of the new system to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the teams will monitor the level of insurgent-related violence, measuring how much of the population lives in areas under insurgent control, and conducting polling to determine “public perceptions of security.”

They will try to determine the self-reliance of Afghan security forces, by gauging the amount of corruption within those forces, and determining whether the police and the local military have won over the trust of the public.

Bruce Riedel, who headed the administration’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy earlier this year, said the benchmarks are “overdue.”

“This was promised in [Mr. Obama’s] March 27 speech. It’s absolutely essential that the American people be able to assess whether the president’s strategy is working. It’s a recognition by the White House that they have a hard sell, but one they have to make. He has to persuade Americans that this war is necessary and that his strategy is showing some impact,” Mr. Riedel said.

Some elements of the quarterly reviews will be made public, according to the official. White House officials said that making such blunt assessments, and then sharing them with the public, will be a novel approach, and acknowledged it will not be without perils.

Escalating violence and concerns that recent Afghan elections were undermined by fraud have contributed to a discernible increase in public anxiety about the conflict. Those concerns have also brought a heightened interest from Congress in understanding the course the president is plotting for the conflict in Afghanistan.

“There is no immediate decision pending on resources,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday during a brief public appearance in the Oval Office.

“I’m going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions,” he said. “We are going to proceed and make sure that we don’t put the cart before the horse.”

Ultimate success, Mr. Obama said, will be achieved if al Qaeda has lost its ability to operate from the region. But on the path to that goal, the groups intend to monitor progress in eight key areas - among them, levels of security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the stability of the governments in those countries, and the amount of international support for efforts in the region.

Under the supervision of the National Security Agency, the assessment team ran a dry run to see which metrics proved to be useful and which ones did not deliver a reliable sense of progress. The “red team” was created when officials there realized “there was a chance here we were going to be kidding ourselves,” a senior administration official said. “They provide a safety valve for us.”

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