Last week, in revealing the outlines of his new plan for Afghanistan, President Obama spoke about "benchmarks" that would be applied to measure progress. The comment inevitably raised parallels to the benchmarks that were demanded by meny members of Congress, including Obama, in regard to the 2007-2008 surge of US forces in Iraq. So far, at least, Obama has released no information about the benchmarks, and that -- among other things -- is giving rise to concern within the administration and in Congress that public and congressional support for Obama's Afghan plan might start heading south.
Yesterday, speaking at the inaugural conference of the the Foreign Policy Initiative, the new advocacy group launched by the neoconservatives -- see "Introducing PNAC 2.0" by ThinkProgress -- Rep. Jane Harman raised the benchmark (or "metrics") issue, and she pointedly recounted a conversation that she had with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the topic. Her conversation, she said, went like this:
"I said, 'So where are the metrics?'
"He said, 'They exist.'
"I said, 'So when are we going to hear about them?'
"He said, 'Well, we're not sure we're going to make them public.'"
Earlier on Tuesday morning, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, ridiculed the administration for not having set the benchmarks it promised, at a CFR roundtable that I attended. "President Obama said there would be no blank checks, and he promised there would be benchmarks," Gelb told me, in an interview. "But when he released his plan, you couldn't find a single benchmark in it!" Added Gelb, to the gathering of reporters:
"How the hell do you formulate a policy based on benchmarks if there are no benchmarks? And how the hell do you have a policy if there's no way to know if benchmarks are being met?"
Gelb also slammed John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for refusing to hold Obama's feet to the fire over the benchmarks. On Iraq, Gelb pointed out, Kerry and Levin were vociferous in demanding that President Bush provide specific metrics for the surge.
Meanwhile, John McCain, speaking at the Foreign Policy Initiative gathering, expressed concern that public and congressional support for the war in Afghanistan would weaken.
"There will be an increase in casualties. ... We can and must succeed, but it's not going to be easy." He urged Obama to consult closely with Congress to maintain political support or else he will face a "resurgence of antiwar activity."
Asked, by Robert Kagan, how deep is the support for the Afghan war in Congress, McCain said:
"It's problematic [and it depends] as to what transpires. I think that, a year from now, we'll be in a tougher fight than we are today. ... A year from now, we'll be looking at greater opposition to the war."
One poll, in the Washington Post, reports that Democrats are far more skeptical of the war in Afghanistan than Republicans. It showed that Democrats, by a margin of 57-41, said that the war is "not worth fighting," while Republicans supported the war by a margin of 77-20.