Bob Woodward is on the verge of publishing his latest book, titled “Obama’s Wars,” which describes a White House consumed with infighting and turf battles while President Obama desperately looked for a way to exit Afghanistan.
Woodward’s account shows President Obama more focused on leaving Afghanistan rather than winning the war with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This contrasts with the Obama from the campaign, who touted the Afghanistan War as the more important conflict. According to the Washington Post:
“According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.
“‘This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,’ Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. ‘Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.'”
The account suggests a White House in disarray over what to do about Afghanistan.
“But most of the book centers on the strategy review, and the dissension, distrust and infighting that consumed Obama’s national security team as it was locked in a fierce and emotional struggle over the direction, goals, timetable, troop levels and the chances of success for a war that is almost certain to be one of the defining events of this presidency.
“Obama is shown at odds with his uniformed military commanders, particularly Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command during the 2009 strategy review and now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.”
While the military pressed for 40,000 extra troops and a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan, President Obama resisted such suggestions, pressing for a way to leave Afghanistan. Indeed, Obama told Woodward that he doesn’t like to think in terms of “victory” or “defeat.”
“Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the ‘classic’ terms of the United States winning or losing. ‘I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?’ he said.”
Eventually, the President agreed to a compromise strategy that fell between what the armed forces wanted and a more narrowly focused, counter-terrorism strategy advocated by some of his more dovish advisors, including Vice President Biden. President Obama has, in essence, decided on a contradictory approach that involves the addition of 30,000 troops, a campaign to clean out the insurgents in both Afghanistan and the tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan, and to be out by late 2011. Furthermore, the President listed specifically what the military is not allowed to do to expand the war.
The danger of that strategy lies in the potential for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to be able to hold on past 2011, leaving the Obama administration the choice between pushing on past its self-imposed deadline or leaving Afghanistan to its fate.
Why the self-imposed limitations on the scope and duration of the war in Afghanistan? Partly it seems that the Obama administration is haunted by the shadow of Vietnam. Obama seems obsessed with the idea of an open-ended, costly war consuming his administration, diverting it from the domestic agenda that he really cares about. Indeed, some of the conversations recorded in “Obama’s Wars” could have come right out of the Johnson or Nixon White House.
Furthermore, as the New York Times reports, there are political considerations:
“Mr. Obama’s struggle with the decision comes through in a conversation with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who asked if his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011 was firm. ‘I have to say that,’ Mr. Obama replied. ‘I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.'”
This attitude contrasts with the Bush approach that eschewed domestic political considerations, focusing instead on winning. That approach bore fruit when the surge in Iraq succeeded despite domestic political opposition, including from then-Senator Obama.
By taking limit, half measures in Afghanistan, the Obama administration runs the risk of making Vietnam 2.0 a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either America will be stuck in a quagmire by falling short of doing what is necessary to win, or President Obama will decide to cut his losses and run, bowing to the pressure from his liberal base, leaving Afghanistan to be retaken by the Taliban. Either way, Obama is in danger of conjuring a military disaster in Central Asia that will be hard to recover from.
Sources: Obama’s War, Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 2010
Bob Woodward book details Obama battles with advisers over exit plan for Afghan war, Steve Luxenberg, Washington Post, September 22nd, 2010
Woodward Book Says Afghanistan Divided White House, Peter Baker, New York Times, September 22nd, 2010