The arrival of a Bob Woodward book is attended with rituals as solemn and predictable as those of the annual Congress of the Communist Party in North Korea—there are the three days of excerpts in The Washington Post; a few days before that the obligatory spoiler piece in The New York Times where an enterprising reporter has obtained a copy of the heavily-embargoed tome; Woodward appearing for the full hour with Larry King; the defensive comments from the institutions that have something to defend—when asked to comment on Obama’s Wars, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell demurred, explaining “We don’t do literary criticism;” the quotable insider disses, the best being General Tommy Franks on the senior Bush Pentagon official Douglas Feith—"the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth”; and the telling anecdotes about key players in the narrative, such as the one about the intensely focused General Petraeus electing to stay in Iraq rather than attend the funeral of his father.
The action in all of Woodward's past five books has taken place largely in the bowels of the White House, often in the Situation Room, with occasional forays to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. If there is a shift outside the Beltway, it is usually to Tampa to visit the headquarters of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and adjoining parts of Asia. Woodward has written three books about the Iraq War and never visited Iraq, and he has written two books about the Afghan War and has visited Afghanistan for forty-eight hours (a visit well milked here).
As a result, Woodward’s books do not have the whiff of cordite but the waft of stale coffee, as harried staffers pull all-nighters to write papers that the “principals” will probably never read, and meetings drone on interminably because, while everything has already been said, not everything has been said by everyone. The notoriously garrulous Joe Biden makes an intervention at one National Security Council discussion of Afghanistan that a backbencher clocks at twenty-one minutes.
Woodward’s books are extraordinarily disconnected from the wars he is writing about, giving little or no sense of the history, the politics, or the culture of the countries where those conflicts are being fought, and providing mere sketches of America’s enemies, such as Osama bin Laden. The War Within, which chronicled Bush’s decision to “surge” more troops into Iraq, barely explained the strategic blunders of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the resulting Sunni “Awakening,” the movement of tribal militias that allied with the United States against Al Qaeda. Both of those developments preceded the surge, and were a necessary precondition for the tamping down of the Iraqi civil war. Woodward instead focused almost entirely on the National Security Council deliberations about the need for, and the scale of, the surge. This was a strangely one-dimensional view of the Iraq war, as if the conflict was largely about Washington infighting, rather than the successes and failures of the enemy, the implementation of military strategy, and the din of combat.
At their worst, Woodward’s books have the genuflectory feel of an administration amanuensis. Bush at War, the first in his quartet of books about George W. Bush, detailed the planning and execution of the campaign to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda during the fall of 2001, but it underplayed the inconvenient battle of Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden and hundreds of the hard-core of Al Qaeda slipped away to fight another day. At their best, Woodward’s books contain page after page of rich reporting that historians will be mining for decades to come.
Obama’s Wars fits firmly in the latter category and is in some ways one of Woodward’s finest books. It is also one in which Woodward himself appears as a character. Woodward recounts his two-day trip to Afghanistan in late June 2009 with National Security Advisor James Jones and a visit to Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine base in Helmand. “The moment was exhilarating and frightening …” he recalls, “anticipating a random shot into the camp…my mind raced.” This is an unintentionally hilarious moment, as Camp Leatherneck is one of the most boring places on the planet, a massive fortress sitting in splendid isolation in a vast desert manned by thousands of Marines. Inhabitants of Camp Leatherneck who do not venture out well beyond the wire are more likely to die from a heart attack brought on by the groaning buffets at the dining facility than by enemy fire.
In one memorable scene, Woodward shows Jones meeting with the Marine commander, Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson, who tells the national security advisor that his forces are “a little light.” Jones then explains to Nicholson and some twenty other assembled Marine colonels and lieutenant colonels that they can forget about making additional requests for forces beyond the 21,000 troops that Obama had already recently authorized, saying that any future requests for forces would be greeted by a “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment” from the president. (That is military shorthand for “what the fuck.”) As it would turn out, Jones got this wrong. Given that Woodward has been a longtime friend of Jones, it is not surprising that he is a central source for Obama’s Wars and is one of the few to emerge from its pages with his reputation unscathed. What is surprising is that Woodward never mentions his friendship with Jones.
Jones’s uncomfortable encounter with the Marine officers in Helmand is an early indicator of a leitmotif of the book: the tension between the military officers who wanted a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan for as long as it was going to take—in effect, well past the presidential election of 2012, and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars—while the president and much of his political team (at least initially) took the position that they wanted something far more modest. This tension was compounded by the fact that the new president had never served in the military and was a vocal opponent of both the Iraq war and the surge, while the Pentagon had gotten pretty much whatever it had wanted from Bush in the latter years of the Iraq war.
Woodward details how, early in Obama’s term, the Pentagon kept requesting different troop levels to secure the upcoming Afghan presidential election, which was scheduled for the summer of 2009. Those troop requests varied anywhere from thirteen thousand to thirty thousand soldiers, which added “to the suspicion” inside the Obama White House that “someone was trying to pull a fast one on a new president.” Eventually Obama agreed to send in 21,000 troops to secure the election. That was in addition to the some twelve thousand troops that President Bush had already ordered in at the end of his administration, reinforcements that had not yet arrived in-country. The net result was that there would be around 33,000 additional American forces going into Afghanistan in 2009 from January to the summer, doubling the American military presence there.
Meanwhile, during the first couple of months of the Obama administration, the recently retired veteran CIA officer Bruce Riedel led a task force to examine the president’s options in Afghanistan. On March 27, as the results of the Riedel review became publicly available, Obama announced that the goal of his campaign in South Asia was “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Few could quibble with such a goal, but the Riedel review would set the stage for many months of wrangling about how best to achieve it.
The primary recommendation of the review was a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign in southern and eastern Afghanistan, but the likely costs to implement such a campaign, in particular the sizeable number of American boots on the ground needed to execute it, was poorly understood by key players in the administration, which was only two months old. Obama announced that he would aim to modestly improve the size and the professionalism of Afghanistan’s police force, and almost double the ranks of the Afghan army over the next two years. He had now made Afghanistan a defining element of his foreign policy, and just as Iraq became “Bush’s war,” so the conflict that now embroiled both Afghanistan and Pakistan was “Obama’s war.”
To fight that war Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, the legendarily effective leader of Special Operations in Iraq, a long distance runner who famously eats only one meal a day. Once in Afghanistan, McChrystal banned alcohol on all NATO bases—no more after dinner shots of limoncello for the Italians!—and threatened to turn the one piece of greenery at NATO headquarters in Kabul into a shooting range. He was a monk-warrior who was the subject of a deluge of mostly adulatory profiles in the media (until that fateful one in Rolling Stone, which cost him his job.)
McChrystal’s first task was to assess the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. His review made a number of key points—that the situation in Afghanistan was “serious”; that the Taliban were running a de facto government in southern Afghanistan with shadow governors, sharia courts, tax collectors, and even Taliban ombudsmen to handle the complaints of the population; that the Taliban’s objectives were the control of Kandahar and Khost provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. To reverse this trend, McChrystal recommended a “comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign” to be achieved by protecting key population centers and main roads and doubling the size of the Afghan army and police. He also pointed out that “resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it." Translation: We need significantly more troops or we will lose this war. Around the time that one of Woodward’s sources slipped him a copy of the closely-held McChrystal assessment, CIA director Leon Panetta shrewdly observed to other cabinet members involved in the Afghan review that “no Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it.”
The public airing of McChrystal’s downbeat analysis did not come at a propitious moment for the Obama administration. A month earlier, on August 20, Afghans had gone to the polls for the first time in five years to elect their new president. The election was marred not so much by predictable Taliban violence, but by low turnout and by multiple and credible allegations of serious election day fraud, in particular by supporters of the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai. The flawed election and the pervasive corruption of Karzai’s government raised serious questions connected to a key aspect of counterinsurgency doctrine: Was there a legitimate Afghan government for the United States to support?
Another key question for skeptics of a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign was the exact nature of the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. On September 13, at the first of ten meetings of Obama’s National Security Council to deliberate over the new Afghan strategy, Biden explained that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were not intertwined as many in the intelligence community portrayed them, but “they’re actually very distinct.” Biden went on to say: “We’re assuming that if Al Qaeda comes back into Afghanistan, where it wasn’t, it would be welcomed by the Taliban. Is that a correct assumption? We have no basis for concluding that.”
That was a strange thing to say. When Biden made these observations it was well known that Al Qaeda had been harbored for many years largely by the Haqqani network, the most ferocious of the Taliban militias, in its headquarters just across Afghanistan’s eastern border. And before the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had sought and received shelter from the Taliban for half a decade, despite the tremendous international pressure on them to expel bin Laden. After the attacks of September 11, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was prepared to lose everything—and did—for the principle that he would not hand over bin Laden. Since then the Taliban had never condemned Al Qaeda or bin Laden, nor had they given up any members of the group. In fact, some branches of the Taliban had drawn closer to Al Qaeda both in ideology and tactics following the destruction of their cruel regime.
In short, there was no basis whatsoever for concluding that if the Taliban returned to power in some shape or form in parts of Afghanistan, they would suddenly morph into a posse of realists and expel Al Qaeda. Quite the opposite. Wherever the Taliban has held territory, whether in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, at the heart of their project was the provision of sanctuary to Al Qaeda, despite the tremendous costs associated with doing so, and the occasional internal debates among Taliban leaders about whether this course of action was really wise. Joe Biden may be a “realist,” but Mullah Omar is not.
It was also an error to focus only on the threat from Al Qaeda. When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, they hosted a wide range of Muslim terrorist and insurgent groups, from the Philippines to Morocco. And in the parts of Pakistan that the Taliban continue to control today, they host—in addition to Al Qaeda—a menagerie of jihadist groups. All of these groups have now adopted the Al Qaeda playbook of attacks on American and Western targets, and they number tens of thousands of fighters collectively.
In part because of his more “realistic” assessment of the relations between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Biden advocated for something much more limited in scope than a counterinsurgency campaign to degrade them. Termed “counterterrorism plus,” this approach boiled down to retaining the massive American bases at Bagram and Kandahar, which would allow Special Forces teams to raid anywhere in the country, while it would also permit the continued American command of Afghan airspace. The flaw with this approach was that it did not clarify how such a policy would substantially differ from what George W. Bush had done in Afghanistan, which was to maintain a light footprint and purse a counterterrorism mission, a strategy that coincided with the revival of the Taliban and the various jihadist groups aligned with them, including Al Qaeda.
In one of his key findings,Woodward recounts how General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, went behind the back of his boss Admiral Mike Mullen who “despised” the counterterrorism option. Cartwright worked up numbers for Biden that showed that it would take an additional twenty thousand soldiers to execute “counterterrorism plus”: half of them Special Forces to hunt insurgents, and half of them trainers to build up the Afghan Army.
Obama never seems to have seriously considered this approach. At one meeting, he declared that “I do recognize that it would be difficult to execute a counterterrorism plus strategy without a good foothold in Afghanistan. That intuitively makes sense, because without it you're not going to get good intelligence.” In other words, you needed more American boots on the ground in more places to generate the intelligence that would then lead to successful Special Forces counterterrorist operations.
In a public appearance in London in the fall of 2009, McChrystal made it clear that he believed a policy in Afghanistan that focused largely on counterterrorism, Biden’s preferred option, would lead to failure. He said that success required a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign. Once again, senior Army officers seemed to be getting out ahead of their political bosses in Washington. Jones called Mullen and told him that McChrystal’s speech was “insubordination or stupid.” Obama quickly summoned McChrystal to Denmark—where the president was receiving the Nobel peace Prize at the same time that he was considering how to ramp up the war effort in Afghanistan—and gave McChrystal what one can only assume was something of a “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.”
The following week McChrystal presented to the National Security Council his recommendations about what it would take to reverse the momentum of the Taliban. The first option was a further eleven thousand trainers to build up the Afghan army; the second option was forty thousand more soldiers through 2013; and the last an additional 85,000 troops. McChrystal and the Pentagon brass well understood that the first and third options were not going to fly. The first did not suffice to make much of a difference in disrupting the Taliban, while the third was politically out of the question. McChrystal also proposed doubling the size of the Afghan army and police up to 400,000 men. Over time Obama and his political advisors would whittle these requests down to thirty thousand more American soldiers and tell the Pentagon to develop a plan to train up a smaller number of Afghan soldiers and policemen, but in the end, as Woodward points out, “the military was getting almost everything” it wanted.
This was quite surprising, given the misgivings that so many of Obama’s key advisers had about ramping up American forces and efforts in Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the point person at the National Security Council for Afghanistan under both Bush and Obama, is quoted as saying that “I can’t tell you that the prospect here for success is very high.” Biden consistently took the view that “the war was politically unsustainable,” while his national security advisor Antony Blinken opined that “I don’t know if they can ever pull this off.” Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, thought that countries such as Yemen and Somalia were potentially more of a threat to the United States: “Afghanistan was a small piece of real estate … his worry was the rest of the world”. Rahm Emmanuel termed the war “political flypaper.” Of the president’s national security team, on the civilian side only Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton seemed to embrace wholeheartedly a large increase of American forces in Afghanistan. It is hard to recall another American war in which so many of the president’s top advisers were so ambivalent about approving a substantial escalation of forces.
More serious than what the key players told Woodward or one of his sources about their misgivings about the war—and, in fairness, who wouldn’t have misgivings about the outcome of something as complex as the war in Afghanistan?—were the official dissents about the evolving Afghan strategy filed by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Those dissents carried special weight as Eikenberry had served two tours in Afghanistan as a senior military officer, including as commanding general in 2006: he could hardly be considered a critic of the Pentagon, and he had also spent three years living in Afghanistan. In the first of two stinging cables that he filed to Clinton in November 2009, Eikenberry described Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner” and raised serious questions about the abilities of the Afghan army and police to grow in size and efficacy. In his next cable, Eikenberry poured considerable cold water on McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan, which he pointed out was not matched by a similar effort on the civilian side, and would cost a great deal, while it had scant chance of success if the Taliban continued to have a safe haven in Pakistan. Instead of sending a sizable new contingent of American soldiers, Eikenberry made the anodyne recommendation to appoint a “panel of civilian and military experts to examine the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.” Richard Holbrooke had the unenviable job of telling General Petraeus about the contents of the Eikenberry cables, and Petraeus went “ballistic.” One of the key tenets of counterinsurgency theory is seamless civilian-military cooperation, which “had just been blown to pieces.”
If one ghost hovering over the discussion of Afghanistan was that of Vietnam, where an earlier Democratic president had come to grief by escalating a war in Asia, another ghost was that of the “surge” in Iraq, which had been opposed by the key officials presiding over the Afghan review, including the president himself, the vice president, and Secretary of State Clinton. Of course, the surge in Iraq had succeeded for a number of reasons, including the Sunni Awakening, but Obama had never publicly conceded that he had been wrong about it. At a meeting late in the review process, Obama said, “I’m not saying it’d be the exact same plan as Iraq, but I am looking for something that is a surge to create the conditions for a transition.”
As a quid pro quo for securing a substantial troop increase, Obama told Pentagon officials that they had to get those troops into Afghanistan quickly, and out before the 2013 drawdown date they had originally proposed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates countered with a “withdrawal” date of July, 2011. This served to paper over the continuing disputes between the Pentagon and the political side of the White House: military commanders could draw comfort that the withdrawal would be “conditions-based”—it was obvious to them that conditions in Afghanistan by July 2011 would not merit a significant drawdown—while the politicians in the West Wing believed that the date would be the moment for a substantial drawdown. Biden explained that come July 2011, "a whole lot of people [would be] moving out." As Woodward drily observes, “July 2011 was a date with some meaning and none at all.”
During the speech in which he outlined the new policy, Obama announced that an additional thirty thousand troops would be sent to Afghanistan, but most news accounts of the speech seized on the fact that the presidentalso said that some of those troops would be coming home in July 2011 as they transferred responsibility for a number of Afghanistan’s provinces to Afghan security forces, although there was a large and little-noticed caveat inserted in the speech: that this drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. And at the time only one of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces (Kabul) was under the control of the Afghan army and police.
The July 2011 withdrawal date was designed by Obama officials to send a signal to the American public that the commitment to Afghanistan was not an open-ended one, while also signaling to the Afghan government that American patience with the fecklessness and corruption of the Karzai administration was evaporating. The gambit turned out to be too clever by half. Taliban leaders told their flock that the hated foreigners would soon be heading for the exits, which was a fillip to their morale, while Afghan government officials collectively sped up the pillaging of untold millions of dollars to feather their anticipated exiles in Dubai. (Many Afghans believe that the withdrawal of international forces from their country would be a prelude to a renewal of the civil war that devastated Afghanistan in the 1990s.)
A common observation about Woodward’s work is that it is not especially analytical, and Obama’s Wars is no exception. Readers must make their own determination of what is important in the thickets of Woodward’s reporting. Trawling Obama’s Wars for takeaways about the likely fate of the American project in Afghanistan, one can elicit five key points. The first, of course, is that Hamid Karzai is a deeply flawed partner. A second related issue is the epic venality of Karzai’s government; Clinton, Holbrooke, and Panetta are all cited as believing that “out-of-control corruption was the main problem.” Third, there is the matter of the Al Qaeda/Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. Riedel, who led the first Obama “AfPak” review, aptly summarized Pakistan’s complex relations with these militants: “the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time.” Fourth, if the strategy is eventual “transfer” to Afghan control, in the east of Afghanistan where the United States had had a substantial troop presence for years, there had been no transfer to Afghan control: “The model had become clear, hold, hold, hold, hold and hold. Hold for years. There was … no transfer.”
The final problem is that the Taliban do not want to make peace because they believe either that they are winning or that they are not losing, as their strategy is simply to wait out the clock until the Americans depart. During the review process, General Petraeus presented a memo that laid out in some detail why peace deals with the insurgents in Iraq had worked and why such deals might be more difficult in Afghanistan. Petraeus noted that the Iraqi insurgents felt that they were not going to win militarily while ordinary Sunnis had wearied of the insurgents, especially because of the foreign leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its oppressive practices and indiscriminate violence. He explained that almost none of the same conditions exist in Afghanistan: Taliban leaders are largely indigenous, not foreigners, and in some areas the Taliban provides better governance and security than the government of Afghanistan.
One could also add that the Taliban leadership, including Mullah Omar, has taken every opportunity to say that it has no interest in a peace deal. Mullah Omar's intransigence is predictable. It is worth recalling that a decade and half ago Mullah Omar anointed himself Amīr al-Mu'minīn, “the Commander of the Faithful,” a rarely invoked religious title used by the Prophet Mohammed’s immediate successors. This does not suggest that Mullah Omar is an Afghan Metternich, but rather a fanatic who believes that he is on a mission from Allah; and the history of successful negotiations with fanatics is not encouraging.
So what does this all mean? History suggests that an insurgent group that is pitted against an incompetent and corrupt government with no capacity to reform itself, and has a reliable safe haven to retreat into, and is not convinced that it is losing militarily, can sustain itself more or less indefinitely. That is the bad news. The good news is something that happened after Woodward’s book was published. At the meeting of NATO member states in Lisbon in November, Obama promised that the American commitment to Afghanistan will now stretch to the end of 2014. Even Biden has admitted that the “drawdown” in July 2011 could amount to as few as two thousand soldiers.
This is a longer time commitment than the 2013 withdrawal date that top Pentagon officials had originally advocated as the Obama team considered its options in Afghanistan. Yet this dramatic shift in Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan has gone without much comment in the United States, perhaps because it does not fit neatly with the narrative of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president and the supposedly weak on national security Democratic Party. Rather than substantially winding down the American commitment in Afghanistan a year before the 2012 presidential election, Obama has now committed the United States to another four years in Afghanistan with a troop presence that now stands at some 100,000. Imagine the moaning and gnashing of teeth on the left this would have precipitated if a Republican president had embraced such a policy.
Why is the 2014 withdrawal date a potential game changer in Afghanistan? For many reasons. Taliban leaders now have the difficult task of having to explain to their foot soldiers that they will have to hang on for yet another four years against a much larger and better resourced American military presence. It gives the rapidly growing Afghan army time to grow to the point where it is able to fight back against the Taliban. It reassures Afghan elites that they can plan for a more secure and prosperous future without moving their funds or themselves out of the country. It may allow for some kind of genuine (uncorrupt) political force to challenge the Karzai mafia. It signals to regional players, above all Pakistan, that the United States has a long term commitment to a stable Afghan state and that it is going to be waste of time for Pakistani intelligence services to continue playing footsy with elements of the Taliban in the hopes of a quick American exit from the region. All these developments will not eliminate the Taliban, but they might make the Taliban irrelevant, which is about as good a definition of victory as we can hope for.
Peter Bergen, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since 1993, is the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation.