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Friday, November 12, 2010

. . .and Woodward Rides Again

I have now finished Bob Woodward's latest real-time account of American diplomacy, policy and strategy, Obama's Wars,, covering the Obama Administration's first eighteen months, during which time it decided eventually to increase the American troop commitment to Afghanistan by more than 30,000 men. It was far more interesting than I had expected from various reviews, and in many ways far more depressing. As we all know by now, Woodward, who began as investigative reporter trolling among the lesser employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972, has for decades made his living printing whatever powerful men and women would tell him. This time his major sources evidently included Lt. General Douglas Lute, whom George W. Bush appointed as his czar for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who stayed on at the NSC; Tom Donilon, a former political aide with foreign credentials who served as Deputy National Security Adviser under retired General James Jones and has now replaced Jones; either Vice President Biden, or someone very close to him; General Cartwright, the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Richard Holbrooke, who would almost surely have been Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton and who is now the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of these people have provided Woodward extraordinarily detailed accounts of high-level meetings including President Obama--the kind of accounts which historians like myself normally have to wait 25 or 30 years to see. Had I the time, I suspect I could write at least fifty pages about this book and its various implications, but I do not. I'm going to confine myself, as I often say in the lecture hall, to about five main points.

The essential drama running through the book from Obama's inauguration to one year ago, when he announced the deployment of between 30,000 and 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, involves a polite but determined struggle between the President and the Pentagon to shape the next decade, really, of American foreign policy in Central Asia and, because of the stakes involved, in the entire world. Initially, both General Stanley McChrystal, who had just taken over in Afghanistan, and his more famous superior General Petraeus, then the CENTCOM Commander fresh from his relatively successful tour in Iraq, wanted to repeat what they continually refer to as the successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq with 40,000 additional troops and an open-ended commitment. The Taliban, they argued in effect, had to be "defeated" because of its previous connection with Al Queda, and because a Taliban victory would embolden jihad all over the world. From the very beginning of the discussion, President Obama accepted the need to change the deteriorating balance of power in Afghanistan. In an early meeting he asked whether anyone favored complete withdrawal, and no one, sadly, did. But at the same time, the President was determined not to make an open-ended commitment to the Taliban's complete defeat, set unrealistic targets for the build-up of Afghan security forces, or find himself in an ever-larger war when the next Presidential election rolled around in 2012. He would not go as far as his Vice President, Joe Biden, who wanted relatively small fores designed merely to seek out and kill Al Queda operatives and Taliban fighters, but he repeatedly clashed with the military as well. And the final mission statement, which he wrote himself and which Woodward reproduces, makes all this clear and insists that in the middle of 2011--that is, about seven months from now--the United States will be discussing how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and, in theory, what territory can now be given to Afghan security forces. Yet Woodward provides ample evidence that our military leadership, including General Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, never took this seriously. As soon as the decision was made they began trying to deprive it of all meaning by arguing that any withdrawals would have to be based on conditions on the scene, that is, on progress, and they have continued to do so in the last six months. Now the Administration itself is suddenly shifting the critical date three years forward,, to 2014. Is progress likely in either time frame?

Neither the President or, I am sorry to say, any of his top advisers seem to be willing to admit what the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan really is, and what options it actually leads the government of the United States. In order to talk himself into this decision, persuaded himself that 30,000 more troops could have some significant positive impact over the next eighteen months. Petraeus does not seem to harbor any such illusions. He has made his name and, indeed, saved the reputation of the U.S. Army by writing the new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and supposedly implementing it successfully in Iraq. Yet given his own assumptions, repeatedly reported by Woodward and elsewhere, I as a historian who has been studying these issues for many years would seriously question whether what Petraeus has done and is now doing counts as "counterinsurgency" at all. That is because the United States has been, and remains, a foreign occupier, and because nothing that we do will be lasting if it does not securely establish a client regime in power.

The very idea of "counterinsurgency" implies, to me, an insurgent threat to an existing government which that government has to meet. Thus, Chiang Kai-Shek in the early 1930s in China carried out very successful counterinsurgency against Mao Zedong's Communist forces and drove them into a remote corner of the land, only to come to grief later after the war with Japan had totally transformed the balance of power. The British, a colonial power in Malaya, carried out a successful counterinsurgency against a small rebel group in the 1950s, and the Philippine government did the same. The El Salvadorean counterinsurgency in the 1980s, which relied on US material aid and advice, fought Marxist insurgents to a standstill and then wisely reached a settlement with them--even though I have been told by officers involved in that effort that the government never really reduced the rebels' strength. Those situations are not analogous to post-invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, however, at all, because in those cases the United States wiped out the existing government and had to try to build a new one. We have had only very modest success along those lines in Iraq (except in Kurdistan) and the government crisis there, which has now lasted the better part of a year, is not hopeful. We have had even less success in Afghanistan. What Petraeux managed to make happen in Iraq was a relatively successful occupation by American forces who made some key local alliances and managed to root out the worst insurgents and stand up some Iraqi forces of very uneven quality. We have not however left Iraq and it is not clear when the remaining 50,000 or so troops will do so. Our occupation of Afghanistan, now finishing its ninth year, was not large enough to be remotely successful, and Petraeus and McChrystal never promised to secure the whole country even with their maximum requests. They argue, however, without much evidence, that they can establish enough security for a strong Afghan government to come forward. That was our goal in South Vietnam as well and it seemed to have been largely achieved in 1971, but we had not, as it turned out, created a South Vietnamese government that could face the military threat from the North or the political threat from the Viet Cong. Local political forces decided the issue, just as they will in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in South Vietnam, we can only prevent the Taliban from coming to power in much of Afghanistan (though probably not all) if we remain there with large forces indefinitely. Some military leaders, to judge from Petraeus's much-quoted statement that we will leave these wars to our children, seem to believe that we will. What no one, throughout this whole book, was quoted as saying was that to do so would surely exacerbate the very problem we are trying to combat. This is the first major point I want to make.

Whether we admit it or not, the United States is clearly trying at this point to do at least two things: to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, and to prevent the spread of militant Islam anywhere the world. (A third objective established by President Bush--the destruction of any hostile Islamic state that poses a conventional or potentially military threat to American interests and allies--has been put on the back burner for the moment, but could easily return to the top of the list with respect to Iran.) We shall take up the question of terrorist attacks in the US in a moment. What seems obvious, meanwhile, is that the presence of American military forces in the heart of the Muslim world has consistently fueled Jihad, not moderated it. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been magnets for young Jihadis, just as Afghanistan was when the Soviets occupied it thirty years ago. Millions of Muslims--literally--will never accept the long-term American occupation of Muslim nations. The Taliban has become larger, more militant and better organized in response to our presence, as General McChrystal's initial 2009 assessment of the situation recognized. The obvious person to have raised this issue within the Obama Administration, it seems to me, is Secretary of State Clinton, but she evidently buys the argument that we must show resolve in Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel, and she also commented in one meeting that we had to stay in Afghanistan partly for the sake of women's rights. In fact, thinking over the experience of reading the book, I am not sure that the policy makers included a single person who qualifies as a genuine expert in the Muslim world and who might have made this obvious point. Although Administration figures from Obama on down differ on exactly how many Americans we need in Afghanistan, they all implicitly accept the idea that we can fight Jihad with exactly the kind of American-backed client governments that Jihadis resent the most.

The question of terrorist attacks on the United States emerges in the latter part of the book as critical, after the failure of two attacks, the Christmas day airplane shoe-bomber and the Times Square bomber, both of whose devices fortunately failed to function. The former was apparently trained in Yemen, the latter in Pakistan. And Pakistan, as responsible American officials do understand, is both the refuge of Osama Bin Laden at the moment, and the place where Al Queda is training young men with US or European passports to commit attacks in the West. Several people do mention during this book that it seems unlikely that Al Queda would ever return to Afghanistan, since they seem to be so much safer where they are. Yet the Administration persists in regarding Pakistan as our ally, and in believing, as is detailed at length in the book, that a mixture of very generous aid (billions of dollars annually) and avuncular tough talk can make the Pakistanis do something about it. Only a few of the bolder second-level Americans ever dare state the obvious: that Pakistan does not, taken as a whole, want to do anything about this problem. We have similar illusions with regard to Afghan politics and Afghan leadership, but I will leave those for another day.

Pakistan, to be sure, is not united on this point--but the most powerful institution in Pakistan seems to be the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, ISI, which has long maintained close contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that carried out the Mumbai attack in India, and with other terrorist groups--including, at least at one time, Al Queda itself. They seem to be playing a role similar to that of the Black Hand, the secret organization within Serbian military intelligence before 1914 that organized the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered the First World war. It is very clear, although it is only obliquely acknowledged in Woodward's book, that the ISI and the Pakistani government want the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. That is one reason they allow them to operate in safe havens on their side of the border and it may be why they do not stop attacks that have destroyed a number of American convoys supplying our troops over the roads from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Exactly why the Pakistanis cannot stop the training of terrorist who want to kill Europeans and Americans is less clear. It seems at least possible that some of the ISI shares the whole Jihadist agenda. Faced with this situation, the leadership of the American government continues to hope that Pakistan, facing the threat to itself, will turn over a new leaf. But the threat the Pakistani government worries about the most is India, and it is convinced, indeed, that our protege Hamid Karzai is a tool of Indian intelligence, as well as of the United States.

Incredibly, Pakistan for ten years now has managed to play footsie with both of the major antagonists in the war on terror, Al Queda and the United States. I have argued here repeatedly that it would behoove us to face reality and offer the Pakistanis a simple deal: we will disinterest ourselves in Afghanistan if they will hand over Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the rest of the Al Queda leadership. Instead Woodward makes very clear that a time bomb is ticking right now. Within another year, I predict, another western citizen trained in Pakistan will successfully carry out a significant attack in the US, killing dozens or hundreds of people. At that point, we are poised to strike as many as 150 targets inside nuclear armed Pakistan. If we do, I think almost anything is possible in return, including nuclear terrorism. Barack Obama, weakened as he is by the election and new setbacks abroad, will probably have to do something rather spectacular if an attack succeeds. The alternative of telling the American people now that we cannot prevent such attacks, and will probably have to live with one as the British, Spanish, and Indians have, seems not to be on the table.

I was appalled to learn, in fact, that General Jones had actually told the Pakistani President that Obama would have to respond because of political pressure in the United States. That, however, was only one of many incidents suggesting that a Democratic President--even one elected with a substantial majority like Barack Obama--cannot afford to follow his own instincts in foreign policy for fear of being branded a wimp. This came out frequently in the narrative. Republican Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham think nothing of telling senior military leaders like Petraeus to try to force Obama to do what they think is best. Obama was dissuaded from cutting back further on the Pentagon's troop request by the threat that Secretary Gates, the Bush holdover whom he had asked to stay on (and still wants to remain as long as possible), might resign if he did. No Democratic President, CIA director Leon Panetta remarks at one point, can afford to take on the Pentagon. It is almost as if one of the most critical provisions of our Constitution, that making the President commander in chief of the Armed Forces, does not apply when a Democrat is in the White House. Obama himself played to this appalling state of affairs at least once, telling Lindsay Graham that he had to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2011 not because the country needed it, but because "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." The idea that Democrats like myself might simply be right is, apparently, unmentionable.

The book's heroes include several second-level officials. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired general now in Afghanistan, tried in a leaked cable (which I believe I commented on at the time) to warn Washington that Hamid Karzai would never change to the extent necessary to make our Afghan dreams come true. I am adding to this post on Sunday evening, and it has already provoked a comment claiming there is no analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but it is wrong. Any intervention of this type is ultimately hostage to our local clients, and Karzai and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai bear an almost uncanny resemblance to Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, who were equally unable to stem the rebel tide. President Karzai's interview this weekend calling for a smaller and less aggressive American presence perfectly echoes what Nhu was saying during 1963. John O. Brennan, the NSC deputy for counterterrorism (the post once held by Richard Clarke), evidently understands that what we are doing in Afghanistan cannot possibly help him prevent terrorist attacks on the US. But as in 1964-5 under LBJ, the senior "principals", with the exception of Biden (another parallel), backed the expanded effort. I have often remarked that nearly ever ambitious person eventually reaches a level at which he is no longer paid to think. I'm glad I've never gotten there.

Which brings us to Barack Obama the man. This is, surely, the most detailed account we have yet of Obama as President, and it was not reassuring for me. He is highly intelligent and has some good instincts, but he is, above all, a consensus builder who strives to reconcile the consensus with his own views--sometimes at the expense of reality. And in foreign policy as in economic policy, he is obviously a centrist who trusts expert advice. Given the domestic and foreign policy innovations that George Bush had put through in his eight years in office, that meant that Obama was not going to try to undo them and get us on a truly new path. He is, sadly, handling the Bush legacy the way Dwight Eisenhower handled the legacy of Roosevelt and Truman. Today's newspapers report that the White House is going to cave in on the extension of all the Bush tax cuts. The President's own deficit commission has released a draft report that is almost incredibly conservative, and very dangerous. Obama now presides over an America that has moved very far from the right, and he has repeatedly proven that he has no plans to do very much about that.


Patricia Mathews said...

If you have any tolerance for science fiction at all, read Harry Harrison's "Deathworld." The parallel with the current situation in Afghanistan is exact.


The most salient quote: "Although all life on Pyrrus competes for survival individually, they react collectively to natural disasters. The grubbers, with the assistance of their talkers, have integrated themselves peacefully into the planet's ecosystem, killing only for food or in self-defense. The junkmen, however, think only of killing, and kill everything they can simply because they can. The ecosystem is simply responding in kind, and in fact cultivates mutations around the city dedicated to the sole purpose of killing humans."

Bozon said...


Thanks for this lengthy review. I have not read his book.

I tend to agree with your views re appropriateness of military options we have pursued over there.

I recall agreeing with Michael Howard, after 9/11, when he suggested that covert operations was the better solution than anything like a war in Iraq or elsewhere;

as also Biden has apparently concluded.

Too bad such views lack wider traction.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

David , With the exception of your attempt to compare the morass in Afghanistan to Vietnam , which was quite off base, this commentary on Bob Woodward's inside reporting is very illuminating and rather sad. Ike's warning of what would occur with an unchecked military have proved to be quite accurate . The only bright spot I have seen lately was Clapper's victory in wresting away a few billion from the Pentagon's budget . What do you think has to happen before a true mandate for change can be implemented ?
The Lighthouse-Bluff

Anonymous said...

.... and Orszag Rides Again.

Safer Social Security


Seth C. Burgess said...

Very interesting commentary! Whether troop draw down in Afghanistan occurs in 2011 or not will be an interesting tell-tale for the President.

Anonymous said...


I am sure you have angered many by comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam, but I certainly see many similiarities. As someone with first hand COIN experience, I can tell you that without a reliable partner nation government (or one who can realistically become reliable) the only choice you have is to govern yourself. If that isnt feasible or politically possible, then you need to relook your strategy. I now have almost seven years working in Colombia and can state with complete certainty that our success is mainly a result of the Colombians and not US involvement. We have certainly helped and been critical, but without their leadership and political committment it would not have been possible. When I raise this point to those who are working the Mexico situation, I get blank looks or told that "this situation is different-we can't afford not to do otherwise". I am simultaneously befuddled and dissapointed as you are that some of our government leaders can't seem to distinguish between what we can realistically achieve and what we would like to acheive. Wasn't this the main point of our S&P class?

Mike-S&P Class of 2008