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Obama's Wars
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VINE VOICEon 19 December 2010
"Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them." -- Romans 16:17 (NKJV)

Every leader values having subordinates who quickly, effectively, and eagerly obey without complaining once a decision has been made. In Obama's Wars, you can see that the president's selections of top appointees mostly didn't include seeking out such people. It's not surprising that when it came to deciding whether to surge troop levels in Afghanistan that the people involved followed their own agendas, rather than the president's. Bob Woodward was able to gather so much evidence about the process from participants that they might as well have invited him into all of the meetings in the first place. It's a disturbing level of "disclosure" about what are supposed to be secret topics.

Because of concerns about increasing terrorist threats to the United States, everyone involved felt the urge to do what they knew how to do: Send more troops to Afghanistan. After reading this book, you'll wish that they spent as much time on improving ways to track down and stop terrorists on their way to North America from al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia rather than on killing as many Taliban as possible.

The ultimate decision is simply a sop to the military leaders, not a practical plan to accomplish anything. It reminded me of the methods being used to reduce unemployment: Spend trillions without having a clear idea of what the benefit is because a worse result seems unacceptable. If some "experts" with credentials can supply a rationale, run with that fig leaf and spend, spend, spend. While that's fine when it comes to money, you have to wonder about its relevance when lives and safety are at stake. It feels like Vietnam all over again to me. No one wants to "lose" a war . . . even if the war's original mission never was a very good idea.

I was particularly discouraged to see how little real thinking went on in the decision. It was just a lot of wrangling over preexisting positions that were based more on "hot air" than on facts and solid ideas.

During the Bush years, the decision would have just gone forward backing up the military. In this case, it's hard to see that such an "in-depth" policy review added much to the process. It felt more like reading about a moot court competition than good decision making by top minds.

As for the book, Bob Woodward stays a little too removed in his comments. For too much of the book, he operates more like a court reporter than as a journalist who takes the news and explains what it means.

I came away with a heightened appreciation for the sacrifices and dedication of those who put boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. These brave troops deserve better leadership in government and in the Pentagon.
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on 10 October 2010
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."
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on 4 April 2011
The war in Afghanistan has brought only problems without solutions - safe havens for al-Qaeda in Pakistan, government corruption, drug-running, and the failures of the Afghan army and police.

As US General David Petraeus said, the Afghan government `is a criminal syndicate'. Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, admitted, "Our presence is the corrupting force." As long as Afghan society does not change, its corrupt institutions can't change. Whether Afghanistan achieves development and democracy is up to the Afghan people. Outsiders can never bring either.

NATO aimed to defeat the Taliban through counter-insurgency war, but this would require another 100,000 US troops. President Obama has rejected this option.

The Taliban do not advocate attacks outside Afghanistan. We should negotiate with them, to isolate and defeat al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is the real threat to Britain, not the Taliban, so we should focus on stopping al-Qaeda carrying out terrorist acts here in Britain.

NATO has had the wrong strategy, so it uses the wrong tactics. Less than one per cent of the Afghan people live in Helmand, yet 12 per cent of US troops are there. NATO forces are bombing Afghanistan every day (ignored by our media), but as Woodward points out, "The great lesson of World War II and Vietnam was that attacks from the air, even massive bombings, can't win a war." Drone attacks in Pakistan will not win the war in Afghanistan (nor will air warfare alone win in Libya).

Some US generals and politicians set conditions for withdrawal, but if withdrawal depends on achieving development and democracy there, the troops will stay forever.

Some say, if we pull out, our soldiers will have died in vain. But how would making yet more soldiers die in vain add meaning? Only if continuing the war brought victory, which it won't.

President Obama has pledged that in July this year the USA will begin withdrawing its troops, without conditions. We must do what we can to ensure that this happens, to successfully end the war.
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on 19 November 2010
This book doesn't have any great "insight" into the decision making analysis - just list of people who make them. Almost all of this information is available in NYT and WP. The turf wars made me feel my project team is better organised - though we deal with something infinitely less important.

This book is a giant minutes of meetings - gets tedious and repetitive. The biggest surprise was that General P (the future President) believes Pakistani safe heavens are an irritant, but not the key !!!!

Otherwise book is well presented. Fast read.
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on 20 February 2015
Although it had some flashes of interesting commentary on the positions of the main state players especially on Pakistan and India and how self interests of these two intersect over Afghanistan, it mostly reads as the minutes of the countless meetings held by the never ending and byzantine agencies in the US security apparatus. Meetings manned by people who are probably important in that world, but personally I really didn't care very much what the Director of the Joint Staff thought about Whoever's latest review.

What struck me was that Obama really didn't have a clue about much of what was going on, and how to resolve it, other than revolve people in the various agencies. I was also struck and just how appreciative the new administration of Obama was of the old Bush one, and confirmed for me that ordinary voters never effect real change at this level and how one President can slot straight in from the previous and carry on in exactly the same manner as before. That elections create only an illusion of change.

Not really recommended for a over view of the Afghanistan conflict and its impact in that region of the world. The Human price of the war on the population not considered beyond the American's amazement that some of the native administrators sometimes got upset that drone attacks killed dozens of people. That is price of victory we are told. Looking at it from a UK perspective, I was also struck by the almost zero impact the British effort in Afghanistan has in Washington. Woodward included maybe a handful of fleeting reference to the UK's effort, not his intention i'm sure, but does illustrative just how the US admin view them. I am sure that is reassuring to those 453 UK Service people who have died in this 21st century rerun of 19th century "grand game" colonialism.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 March 2014
First of all - I've just read the 12/2/11 review by Glidd of Glood - and he's got it spot on, so I won't repeat his points. Second of all I'm from the UK but I read all kinds of things and picked up this hardback in a bargain bin. So forgive me coming from a standpoint of being pretty ignorant of the American political machine.

Thirdly - if Bob Woodward has won a Pulitzer Prize then I should enter myself for Miss World. The writing style of this book is AWFUL. And, as I'm not American, I sometimes struggled to keep up with all the different Generals and what roles they play and where their responsibility starts and ends.

It's not about "wars" - it's a day by day, meeting by meeting account of Obama coming to power and trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan and the constant demands, from the military, for "more troops to win this war". When no one is really sure what winning looks like or how it should be defined.

Having finally struggled through it I'm confused as to why Edward Snowden is a traitor and yet a book like this is just fine. A book that not only describes how the US administration thinks but also repeats critical comments made about the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. How is having that stuff in the public domain helpful? And why is ES being punished when it seems that Senators and Generals can sit around a table with the President and then walk out and tell a journalist, supposedly word for word, what was said by whom and so on.

I came away with a nasty taste in my mouth, feeling like Obama is in an impossible job - one which I wouldn't want for all the tea in China.

He brings to the table an analytical, measured style and yet, despite thinking over and over again that he's got an agreement, the next day some General pops up in the press with an off-message quote (I'm paraphrasing here). And then they come to the next meeting and they are back at square one and the frustrated Pres is left saying "I thought we agreed this last time".

Overall it just left me feeling depressed. Having read about all the back biting, media manipulation and the overly powerful military. I would say I almost feel good about British politics now....but that would be a step too far.
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on 9 October 2010
I found it hard to put down Bob Woodward's latest, although it's not a quick read.

He introduces a big array of characters. They consist of the hands on military guys like McChrystal and Petraeus, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates and a bunch of White House staff. Then there is a bewildering variety of security advisers. For decades the USA has had a bunch of security agencies and they do snap at each other's heels.

Obama comes out well, partly because he doesn't gang up on anyone. This book mainly details a long series of meetings designed to assess McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan. (The title is misleading: this book is about Afghanistan, not Iraq). Obama is diligent in making sure everyone's voice is heard, in not rushing a decision, and most of all in being determined not to be steamrollered by the military.

In today's paper we learn that General Jones, National Security Adviser, who frankly comes out of Woodward's book as limp (as McChrystal illadvisedly said to Rolling Stone back in June) has just been sacked (as McChrystal was) for telling tales out of school in Woodward's book. Obama told Woodward about McChrystal he welcomed debate but wouldn't tolerate division.

For someone like myself who doesn't read the papers and blogs in depth this is a very useful account of Where the Americans are currently at in central Asia.

One of the problems is Pakistan. Current conventional wisdom is that Pakistan is fighting the Taliban and Al Quaeda within its own borders but also supporting them. They need American aid and fear their wrath but they also want the fundamentalists because they scare India. The attack on Mumbai was run by a terrorist group based in Pakistan for example. Pakistan also fears that a Taliban-free Afghanistan would be India's ally.

Another key issue is that while the Americans have more or less driven Al Quaeda out of Afghanistan and with the extra numbers show signs of making a real impression on the Taliban at the time of Woodward's writing there were still few signs that they were doing much of a job in terms of getting to a point where Afghanistan's own security forces would be ready to take over. This is what the USA believe they have achieved, more or less, in Iraq, but of course Afghanistan is a different country and corruption is out of control.

In all the debates Woodward recounts there is very little about how this can be sorted.

Nevertheless MacChrystal comes across as an incredibly talented guy who was making things work. Unfortunately he liked to party with Rolling Stone journalists and tell the truth, not always a good policy.

The other message is, for all those who supported Obama: you picked the right guy. Although Clinton for me comes out well too. Her contributions were few in number but probably decisive.
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on 5 November 2011
I really like the inside stuff, conversations,and what goes on in the white house. and Bob's work captured that each and everytime. I first read Bob's book on the Bush administration, and this edition on Obama's is just as good.
I hope there is a sequel on the latest updates on Afghan wars.
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on 3 March 2013
After reading 'The Price of Politics' I decided to read 'Obama's Wars', Woodward's earlier work on the Obama administration. And I have to say this book was a disappointment after the excitement of 'The Price of Politics'.

The content of the book is very interesting. Woodward proves once again he is unique in acquiring often damning information about the failures of George W. Bush and members of Barack Obama's inner circle. But some of information is stretched out over four or five pages when it could easily have been cut down to one. Sometimes the words went over my head and I had to force myself to re-read whole sections of the book, something I never had to do with 'The Price of Politics'.

Slightly disappointing but worth a read.
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on 2 January 2011
I would strongly recommend this book. It offers a fascinating insight into the inner White House discussions regarding the war in Afghanistan. Woodward has incredible access to high level sources; indeed Obama is only half-joking when he comments that Woodward would make an excellent "Head of DNI". What I found so interesting, but also disturbing is the sense that Obama, like few other Presidents is able to grapple with the complexities of this war and understand its ultimate futility and disturbing parallels to Vietnam, he is clearly persuaded by many of Vice President Biden's arguments against further increases in troops, and yet... despite fighting his corner, and holding innumerable roundtable discussion where the hopelessness of the Afghanistan war is exposed he ultimately agrees to 30,000 more troops being sent to Afghanistan. And what is so revealing in the book is the sense that despite being the President and Commander in Chief of the mightiest military on the planet, Obama is boxed into a policy set by the Pentagon.

Read this book to get a better idea of the Obama presidency and the man himself who I think generally comes out of it well (he does reject some of the militaries more outlandish requests), and also to understand the dreadful policy predicament that America and Nato has got itself into in Afghanistan. Forget the tittle-tattle of Wikileaks, this is the book to read....
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