In "Obama's Wars," uber-journalist Bob Woodward extends his fly-on-the-wall coverage of President Bush's Iraq campaign to the new administration's decision-making on Afghanistan. It makes for fascinating reading.
During his campaign, Barack Obama had promised to withdraw from Iraq and concentrate on winning the real war in Afghanistan. Shortly after taking office he approved an increase in troop strength by 21,000 soldiers. Not long afterwards, the defense establishment came back to request considerably more - a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" moment for the new president. He decided to chair personally a thorough review of the war's goals and options.
Woodward's reconstructive journalism is by now familiar to us. By leveraging his unparalleled access, he conducted extensive interviews with the virtually all the main actors - even President Obama granted him an audience - and perused numerous classified documents. From these sources he has recreated a blow-by-blow account of events in almost real time. He offers very little critical analysis or commentary of his own, but he has produced a gripping narrative that makes his readers feel as though are locked in the Situation Room with the principals as they agonize their way towards a decision.
The room was filled with Big Egos. These were all highly able and patriotic men and (in the case of Secretary Clinton) women, but they were far from constituting an effective decision-making body. There were clear dividing lines between the military and the political staffers, "the Water bugs," as General Jones the then National Security Advisor derisively termed them. Within the military establishment, too, there was a broad range of differing viewpoints. Woodward shows us all of these and exposes much dirty laundry: General Petraeus expresses his dislike of Dan Axelrod, "a complete spin doctor;" Vice President Biden describes Richard Holbrooke as "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met;" virtually everyone in the room groans as Petraeus - "Mr. Counterinsurgency" - says for the umpteenth time "what I learned in Iraq." Woodward's book has become part of the story itself, prompting resignations and provoking denials and explanations.
So complex is the US military and political decision-making apparatus that the ultimate decision fell to one man - who arguably lacked much of the experience, the instinct (John Podesta describes the President as feeling nothing in his "gut") and above all the time to do it justice. Nonetheless, President Obama takes on the challenge, analyzing the situation in his cerebral and dispassionate way. Frustrated by the lack of real options tabled by his advisors, he crafts his own strategy, a hybrid of the military's request for a troop surge and the vice president's (who, by the way comes across very positively in this account) recommendation of a limited mandate and a step-down. Troop strength will be increased by 33,000 and withdrawal will begin in 2011. To be sure that there was no room for misunderstanding, the President then personally dictated a five-page memo (provided as an appendix in the book) outlining the campaign's goals and strategy.
The conclusion articulated in Obama's memo was that the US goals are to "deny safe haven to Al Qaeda" and to "deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government." The whole thing smells of Vietnam, not only in terms of the struggle's intractability and unpopularity but in the realpolitik of the solution: hit the enemy hard in the short term, soften them up for peace talks, negotiate an exit and hope for a decent interval before all hell is unleashed. Even before the ink was dry some of the players were predicting the plan's failure: "It can't work," opined Holbrooke.
The first of two fundamental problems, of course, is that the Afghan war is not winnable. The country is too vast, its borders too porous and the Taliban too ferocious and too amorphous to allow either a conventional military victory or a successful counter insurgency program - which military doctrine suggests would require an impossible 400,000 frontline troops plus support infrastructure. Furthermore, the Afghan government is far too ineffectual, corrupt and despised - President Karzai, we are told, is both venal and bi-polar - "on his meds, off his meds' - to credibly receive a transfer of the problem. Faced with this reality, the US must constantly define its objectives more narrowly and less ambitiously.
The second fundamental problem is that the real problem is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. Not only is Pakistan and its shady Inter-service Intelligence agency playing a complex double game in the Afghan conflict, but it itself is chronically unstable, and - armed with 100 nuclear warheads and linked to a substantial diaspora of potential terrorist recruits in the West - a potentially much greater security threat than Afghanistan ever could be. This is well recognized by the players in Woodward's book - but they have no clear strategy to deal with it, other than to ignore it and hope that the worst does not happen.
All in all, this is profoundly worrisome. Hope may be audacious, but as one of the book's characters remarks, "hope is not a strategy."