This Is Not Obama’s War

Sometime this week the White House is scheduled to release the summary findings of a senior-level classified review of the Afghanistan war strategy. That review was set in place a year ago, when Obama announced his decision to couple an increase in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by some 30,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. military presence there to over 68,000, with a July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down that force and turning over responsibility for fighting the insurgency to Afghan security forces. In my assessment at the time of the process that led to Obama’s decision, I wrote:  “Reading between the lines of the NY Times story, then, we see a decision process in which the president’s early decision to remain in Afghanistan for fear of  ‘failure’ essentially closed off genuine debate about altering Afghanistan’s place in the War on Terror.  Thereafter, his options were largely dictated by one person – [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates – and shaped to achieve the widest possible consensus within the administration.  It was a pragmatic, lawyer-like decision process that in the end led to a continuation of the basic outlines of the War on Terror which Obama inherited from Bush, rather than exposing the president to a real debate on the substance of that War, as it pertained to Afghanistan, that may have produced genuine change.”

Subsequent to my analysis Bob Woodward published Obama’s War, an inside account of the process by which Obama arrived at his December, 2009 decision to couple a surge in troops with a drawdown date.  That account, I suggest, largely comports with my portrayal of a President who is essentially boxed in by his military advisers. Again and again, Woodward describes Obama pressing his military advisers – generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen – for options beyond their preferred request for 40,000 more troops, and again and again they come back to say, essentially, “there is no other option.”  Ultimately, Obama acquiesces to the military’s desire for a troop surge, albeit in a slightly scaled down version and with conditions, most notably the withdrawal deadline.

In Obama’s defense, there is a superficial logic underlying last year’s decision.  Rather than defeat the Taliban, Obama instead set the U.S. goal as “degrading” the Taliban insurgency in order to give the Afghan government time to develop sufficient capacity to maintain security without U.S. military support.  In short, he agreed to build up in order to be able to build down. As Woodward’s account makes clear, however, although Obama’s military advisers formally signed on to the December plan, they almost immediately begin interpreting the drawdown as conditional on circumstances on the ground.  And those conditions are not likely to be much improved, in large part because the troop surge does not address two key issues: the ability of the Taliban to use protected havens in Pakistan as secure staging grounds, and the inability of the Afghans to form a stable government with minimal corruption and broad popular support.  Lacking immediate solutions to either issue, Obama’s military advisers are likely to make the case for a longer military commitment, and in a larger form, than Obama would like.

Of course, having failed to fully come to grips with these issues in the first review, it is highly unlikely that they will be revisited in the latest go-around. Instead, it is almost certain that the results of the Obama administration’s internal review, to be released this week, will indicate that the Afghan policy is working. That is, it will report progress in training Afghan security forces and in regaining and holding territory once occupied by the Taliban. It will conclude by reiterating the general goals of the Afghan policy – degrading the Taliban – and restating the commitment to begin drawing down U.S. forces next July.  The description of progress might even be true.  But it says little about the long-term prognosis for Afghan stability. And it is almost equally certain that the military will continue to pressure Obama to minimize or even delay the troop drawdown, in order not to lose those gains, and that they will likely find a receptive audience in the Republican-controlled House and among some Republican Senators.

The real problem here is that, contrary to the title of Woodward’s book: this is not Obama’s war – it is Gates’ and Petraeus’.  To be sure, Obama will bear the consequences of the U.S. engagement there, but Woodward’s account makes it clear that in the end, Obama signed on to a strategy developed by Petraeus and backed by Gates not because Obama believed in it, but because he was provided with no other real options, beyond a proposal for a more limited counterterrorist strategy pushed by Vice President Biden that Obama appeared never to take seriously.  The inability to generate alternative options is partly the failure of Obama’s national security adviser Jim Jones, who seemed incapable of managing the NSC staff system. Woodward’s account portrays Jones as somewhat removed from day-to-day decisionmaking, with less than ideal access to Obama, and with the national security process really being driven by Jones’ nominal assistant Tom Donilon (who eventually replaced Jones as national security assistant.)

At a deeper level, however, I would argue that the failure to generate genuine options reflects Obama’s own unwillingness to exercise his commander-in-chief duties.  Reading Woodward’s account, one is struck by Obama’s reluctance to tell his generals what he really wants in Afghanistan, and to order them to develop a strategy for achieving it. Instead, he begins the review process by essentially asking them what they believe can be achieved in Afghanistan, and allows them to largely dictate the means for achieving it. If Obama genuinely believes that it is not in the U.S.’s long-term interest to be fighting a war in Afghanistan – and that is the impression one gets by reading Woodward’s book – it is his responsibility to tell his military commanders as much.  If they resist complying with that directive by giving him realistic options, it is Obama’s obligation to remove them, and to find generals who will support his goals.  Note that a president firing his key commanders is not without precedent – both Lincoln during the Civil War and FDR at the outset of World War II removed generals who appeared unwilling to follow their lead. Truman did as well, albeit belatedly, during the Korean conflict.  (Note that Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal was not driven by strategic disagreements – it was due to the public relations fallout resulting when McChrstal’s private conversations – which did not speak well of Obama or his aides – became public.)

To be sure, removing the architect of the “surge” strategy – the man who literally rewrote the Army manual on conducting counterinsurgency warfare – would generate a huge political firestorm. Gates would almost certainly step down as well (although he is scheduled to do so soon anyway.) Given this likelihood, one can understand Obama’s reluctance to take such an extreme step.  Politically speaking, it is far easier to give the generals what they want, at least initially.  But in so doing, Obama has merely postponed answering the hardest question, which is deciding what Afghanistan is worth in American lives and resources.  It is almost surely the case that, come July, he will be forced to revisit that issue once again.  The risk is that he will kick the can down the road, in the form of beginning a slow, lingering drawdown of troops.

Obama’s War?  Only in name – and in political repercussions.


  1. Matt,

    Do you think that a Democrat President is handcuffed and haunted to a greater degree than a Republican President by the attacks of Joe McCarthy regarding “losing China” in the 1940s?

  2. Peter – I’m not sure whether that’s the case or not. I do think it is harder for someone who has not served in the military to stand up to military advisers. In this vein, some argue that Clinton’s decision to compromise on allowing gays to serve openly in the military was driven partly by his feeling that he didn’t have the credentials to buck the generals. In Obama’s case, I think the situation is further complicated by the near reverence with which Petraeus is viewed by some members of Congress. Remember as well that Petraeus is a skilled bureaucratic infighter, and that he had strong backing from the civilian side of the Pentagon. Finally, I think Obama sees virtue in attracting bipartisan support for his prosecution of the war on terror – hence the decision to retain Gates. And Gates strongly backed the Afghanistan surge.

  3. Matt, a very fair and balanced assessment. I’d love to be a fly on the wall the next time you have lunch with Woodward.

    What we are really talking about here is leadership. I’ve seen very little from the White House. Much as I hate to admit it, I think W would have done just what you say: fire the generals who wouldnt go along. In fact, I think that he did just that with General Sinsecki (sp) who told him he needed 3 times as many troops to invade Iraq.


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