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Walkback Fail: Counterinsurgency, the Taliban and Talladega Nights

It really helps to have metrics when stuff like this happens. Yesterday The Wall Street Journal published a story on all of the ways in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s command considered Afghanistan to be in crisis mode. It was very good, very comprehensive, and very compelling. Its headline summed the whole thing up by saying that the Taliban was ‘Now Winning.’

Then the Pentagon freaked out. “The general did not say the Taliban is gaining the upper hand,” a McChrystal spokesman told NBC. “That’s not how we are characterizing this,” spokesman Geoff Morrell said. Well, obviously. But counterinsurgents, particularly when operating in foreign cultures, face overwhelmingly uphill battles. They have to convince a populace to deny passive support, at great personal danger, to a band of thugs willing to rule through force who know the area and the culture much better. And they have to convince a populace to actively side with a government that, in this case, is incapable, incompetent and often absent in key regions. These are “Talladega Nights” rules. If you’re not first, you’re last.

Independent observers, though, clearly see merit to The Journal’s headline. Some not-so-independent observers do, too: Kimberly Kagan, an adviser to McChrystal’s 60-day strategy review, has a thorough analysis in Foreign Policy of the myriad ways in which the war effort is in deep trouble. Indeed, pretty much every public statement from every adviser to McChrystal’s review has conveyed the same sentiment. Recognition that the Taliban is winning isn’t the same thing as saying failure is inevitable or the war is lost or the whole thing is hopeless. If Pentagon officials — indeed, if McChrystal’s command — conflate the difference, then they really will be Rumsfeldizing the war in an important way.

Gen. David Petraeus is fond of saying that “hard is not hopeless.” As a general principle, he’s right. But the war really will be hopeless if the Obama administration doesn’t, at a minimum, articulate clearer goals for the war and definable ways for measuring how they’re achieved. If there were some metrics in place, there wouldn’t be any arguing about the propriety of a newspaper headline.

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