The talk in Washington of late has been Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars.
The books are piled in the front of every bookstore in town, and people are whispering in the usual “inside baseball” way, about who in the Washington security bureaucracies dissed whom to Woodward.
If it weren’t for the latest salacious bureau-gossip, the book would be rather boring—and tragic. Boring, not because the issues are uninteresting or because Woodward is a bad writer, but because the author records a dysfunctional White House internal decision-making process in which meeting after meeting features the same reasonable questions about the U.S. war in Afghanistan but in which nobody ever has very good answers to them.
Tragic because, as in Vietnam, the momentum of the war in Washington swamps the cogent logic of those skeptical of future escalation—including Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones (ret.), Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, Ambassador to Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry (ret.), Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, Deputy National Security Adviser for the Afghan and Iraq Wars Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, and Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. Opposed to these critics, largely in the White House national security structure, was the military chain of command—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, then-Central Commander David Petraeus, and then-commander of the Afghanistan War, Stanley McChrystal—and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who all seemed to want as many troops as they could extract from Obama.
And although pledging that Pakistan should be more important than Afghanistan and that reducing corruption in the Afghan government and improving Afghan governance—that is, the political aspects of counterinsurgency—were critical to some sort of (never clearly defined) success, these issues were cast aside, as most of the time in the endless meetings was spent arguing between deploying 20,000 or 40,000 more troops. The book catches the military trying to game the bureaucratic system by developing several unworkable options, which would lead to the only viable option being the insertion of 40,000 more troops. In the end, Obama felt he was being hoodwinked by the military, so he only gave them 30,000 more troops, with little actual military rationale for that number.
Obama essentially said, “I’m giving you 30,000 more troops, but this is it—don’t ask for any more, because we are beginning to pull troops out in July 2011.” Of course, he got the worst of all worlds with this deadline. The Pakistanis and President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban in Afghanistan heard “the U.S. is leaving” and decided they had better plan for a post-U.S. Afghanistan. Robert Gates and the military then began to say that only a few troops would be reduced, and then only if conditions on the ground warranted it.
The explanation of the 30,000 more troops included a caveat that this was not to be a nationwide counterinsurgency program; the troop insertion was just to help protect some of the Afghan population by clearing and holding Afghan cities, production centers (whatever those are), and U.S./NATO lines of communication in order to buy time for the training and transitioning of security responsibility to the Afghan security forces. Yet Obama rejected training 400,000 Afghan security forces for lesser, more ambiguous goals.
Vice Chairman Cartwright, seemingly the only general in the Pentagon hierarchy who expressed warranted skepticism of the counterinsurgency-lite strategy, noted that the Taliban could just avoid the cities or retreat to their sanctuaries in Pakistan. Cartwright’s observation is supported by the failed U.S.-backed counterinsurgency-lite strategy in El Salvador in 1983. Because the Salvadoran government did not have enough troops to protect the population of the entire country, the communist guerrillas simply migrated to where the army wasn’t.
This glaring hole in the strategy is a big one, because the Taliban, unlike the Iraqi insurgency, has not been primarily an urban insurgency. They can retreat to less populated and Pakistani sanctuaries and simply wait for the Americans to go home, which they now expect because of the July 2011 date for beginning withdrawal. Even if al-Qaeda returned to Afghanistan, which many in the U.S. security establishment doubt they will, they would probably train at secret bases in remote areas, not cities.
Ambassador and Lt. Gen. Eikenberry (ret.) and Lt. Gen. Lute pointed out that the Pakistani sanctuary, training of sufficient competent Afghan security forces, and Afghan corruption and poor governance are problems that are very difficult to solve. As noted by William Polk, a counterinsurgency expert who predicted the United States would lose the Vietnam War even before U.S. escalation occurred in 1965, the political and administrative aspects of counterinsurgency are 95 percent of a successful counterinsurgency effort and the military aspects only 5 percent. Thus, the Obama administration, when talking about troop levels, is making sure the meat is well cooked while the house is burning down.
The only political aspects of the war that the administration seems to be considering are domestic ones. Obama is portrayed as insisting on a firm date to begin withdrawing forces so he won’t lose “the whole Democratic Party” and willing to give Bob Gates almost anything, since he brings so much gravitas to the president’s administration (and, by implication, could resign if decisions don’t go his way). CIA director Leon Panetta reportedly advised that Democratic presidents simply need to give the military any troops they want.
One other major flawed assumption was that if the United States loses in Afghanistan, the enemy—radical Islam—would be emboldened around the world. This assumption brings back the domino theory from the Vietnam and Cold War era and substitutes radical Islam for communism. Yet in Woodward’s book, a substantial number of the president’s security team believe that even if the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, the group would probably be very leery of letting al-Qaeda back in. Wow, these radical Islamic groups really are different! Therefore, U.S. policy should be to drive a wedge between them, not artificially conflate the al-Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban, and Afghan Taliban threats, as the rest of the Obama administration seems inclined to do.
Lt. Gen. Lute and Deputy National Security Adviser Donilon predicted that even with the troop escalation, the dire conditions in Afghanistan would not change by July 2011. Shockingly, President Obama didn’t disagree with them. Richard Holbrooke said of the president’s new counterinsurgency-lite strategy, “It won’t work.” Even David Petraeus, then-U.S. Central Command commander and now the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, admitted privately about the war in Afghanistan, “I don’t think you win this war” and “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
In short, Woodward’s book documents what we all knew—and apparently what many in the Obama administration know too: that we are watching a slow-motion train wreck.
This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.