Timeline Of War's Progress Differs In U.S., Kabul

Defense Secretary Robert Gates mused this month about the very different timelines in Washington and Kabul for progress in the war in Afghanistan. The notion of "two clocks" isn't new for military leaders. Gen. David Petraeus said Washington's clock ticked faster than the one in Baghdad. President Lincoln even grappled with the problem in the Civil War.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Steve Inskeep is on assignment this week.

We begin this morning with Afghanistan and a story about two clocks. One ticks in Washington, the other in Kabul. They measure progress in the war. The challenge: They are moving at very different speeds.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The tension between Washington's political cycle and the realities of a war zone overseas is not a new phenomenon. Just ask Peter Feaver, who served on President Bush's National Security Council until 2007, and before that worked for President Clinton.

Professor PETER FEAVER: (Duke University; Former National Security Council Staff): The question of two clocks, that's been a challenge that clandestine chiefs have had for a long, long time. You can go back to President Lincoln.

KELLY: And his struggles back during the Civil War, to show progress fast enough to win re-election in 1864. More recently with Iraq, General David Petraeus, then the top commander there, talked about the Washington clock.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Central Command): That clock is moving, and it's moving at a rapid rate of speed.

KELLY: And then General Petraeus said there was the other clock he answered to.

Gen. PETRAEUS: The Baghdad clock was not moving as rapidly.

KELLY: Defense Secretary Robert Gates was General Petraeus's boss back in 2007, still is today. At a Pentagon briefing this month, Secretary Gates mused on the challenge posed once again, this time in Afghanistan, by the need to synchronize two clocks.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): There is always a difference between the perspective in terms of timing in this country and certainly in this city, and what's going on in the country.

KELLY: So, how fast are the two clocks ticking? At that same Pentagon news conference, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put a number on it.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I do believe we have to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint over the next 12 to 18 months.

KELLY: So, progress within the next 12 to 18 months. But is that on the Washington clock or the Kabul clock? Let's start with Kabul and consider the question. In 12 to 18 months, can Afghanistan be lost? Steven Biddle says no. Biddle is defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He traveled to Kabul this summer, part of a team advising General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander there, on his war strategy. Biddle says of course there are downsides if the U.S. and its allies don't make progress on the ground quickly.

Dr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow For Defense Policy, Council On Foreign Relations): Any time you allow the Taliban to establish control over a populated area, it becomes harder to reverse that control later on. And the longer they stay in control, the deeper the roots they sink into the community and the harder it becomes to reverse that later.

KELLY: That said, the U.S. is about to slide into the ninth year of war in Afghanistan. Biddle says it's fair to assume that from a purely military point of view, not all would be lost if the current stalemate just persisted a while longer.

Dr. BIDDLE: The United States, if it wanted to pay the price, could keep this patient on life support, if you like, indefinitely.

KELLY: But there's the rub. The United States does pay a price in troops and treasure every day the stalemate drags on, which brings us to the Washington clock and why it's ticking considerably faster. The key question here: Can popular support for the war be lost in 12 to 18 months? Absolutely, says Peter Feaver, the former National Security Council official.

Prof. FEAVER: You don't need to win in the next 12 months in order to win in Afghanistan. What Gates and Mullen are talking about is you need to show progress in the next 12 to 18 months in order to hold the coalition together -the NATO coalition, but also the U.S. domestic coalition supporting the war.

KELLY: Feaver, who's now a professor at Duke, says that will be a challenge at a time when polls show American public support for the war evaporating.

Prof. FEAVER: A longstanding criticism of democracies, but especially the American democracy, is that Americans are impatient. They want to see success sooner than later. This was a criticism that people levied against the United States during World War II, indeed, throughout.

KELLY: Feaver says that's not because Americans are inherently fickle, but because, as he puts it, no one wants to be the last person to die for a hopeless cause. If President Obama can convince Americans that Afghanistan is not a hopeless cause, that it is in fact winnable, then they'll back him, Feaver says, and perhaps allow the Washington clock to tick a bit more slowly.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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