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Obama’s Wars

Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster, 2010, 464 pp.

Obama’s Wars is Washington Post star reporter Bob Woodward’s take on the decision making that led to current US policy and practice in Afghanistan and US policy toward Pakistan. The book is based on Woodward’s interviews with a number of senior officials in the Obama administration and documents received from various sources. It is not a comprehensive account of decision making in Obama’s administration but raises some interesting issues, and for that reason is well worth reading.

The president is portrayed as dissatisfied with alternatives his advisors presented in 2009 regarding US policy and practice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama apparently considered the options too narrow. Basically, all he could do was approve one of two military alternatives, the only real difference being the number of additional troops he could authorize the secretary of defense to send to Afghanistan.

Obama’s senior military and national security advisors were apparently surprised that he expected anything other than these alternatives, probably because he had said during his campaign for the presidency that he would prosecute the war in Afghanistan—that the campaign in Afghanistan was the war that mattered. The president’s pre-inaugural signal—whether he meant it quite that way or not—was that the US government would increase its forces in Afghanistan to bring about a relatively speedy resolution to the conflict that was favorable to the United States and its allies.

Under the circumstances, it was logical for the new president’s military advisors to offer only options for increased troop strength in Afghanistan. The president, however, seems to have wanted the executive branch to take a broader look at the situation in Afghanistan. He did not want to think about the campaign from just a military point of view. Accordingly, upon taking office, Obama commissioned yet another study on Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, events did not allow his administration to conduct the study, carefully discuss its findings, and then debate various alternatives. Also, once it was clear to others in the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department—to say nothing of Congress—that he was still thinking about US options, those with access to the president began pushing forward different ideas for him to consider. In effect, he did not lead the pack so much as try to get the yelping under control.

President Obama was constrained by the following argument, which he accepted: If the Taliban gain control over Afghanistan, they will provide a sanctuary to al-Qaeda, and then al-Qaeda will once more attack the United States—but a major attack like that of 11 September 2001 must not take place again. Once you accepted this argument, US policy had to consist of a fight to keep the Taliban from power or at least to wear down the Taliban so they would abandon support for al-Qaeda. The president did not seem to grasp that he was in some sense cornered—hemmed in first by his campaign rhetoric and then by his acceptance of the argument that not fighting the Taliban inevitably meant one or more major terrorist attacks on the United States.

But how best to combat the Taliban? Woodward shows that there was no consensus answer to this question. There were advocates of a counterterrorism approach, for example, but they were opposed by others who argued for a counterinsurgency approach. Some advisors wanted to focus on Afghanistan, but they were opposed by those who pointed with some justification to the ties between the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan’s government. There were debates about whether the policy was an “AFPAK” matter or a “PAKAF” matter.

In the course of such debates, military and civilian staff seemed actually to have grown more confused and frustrated rather than less. For example, if the Taliban had sanctuaries in Pakistan, and if the Pakistan military wanted the Taliban in power in Afghanistan as a bulwark against India, then how could an additional 20,000 or 30,000 or even 40,000 US troops “turn the tide” in Afghanistan? Even if the Taliban stopped fighting, how long could the US government and its allies keep troops in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban coming back? President Obama’s concern was that sending more US troops would drag out the conflict without ending it. He wanted to have a clear “end state” and not just some “light at the end of the tunnel.”

However, as Obama orchestrated the frustrating debate among his advisors and subordinates, the political and media pressure increased. Woodward tracks the debates within the administration in detail, noting that it was—as it should have been—the president who set the pace of the discussions and debates. But as Woodward shows, Obama was unhappy with what he was hearing, especially from his military advisors, and he chose to extend the debate, risking damage to his standing as chief executive and to his public image as commander-in-chief.

Both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, faced a very difficult problem in Afghanistan. Neither president wanted to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Both presidents favored a short and decisive military campaign against the Taliban. Both were also deeply concerned about protecting the citizens of the United States from a major terrorist attack. This meant both presidents wanted major gains using limited means. The enemies of the US government also knew this and behaved accordingly, presenting the president with a dilemma that he would rather have avoided.

Obama’s Wars shows the president against nation-building, which would require a long-term commitment of US troops. As Woodward points out, however, there was no consensus among Obama’s advisors and subordinates that a counterterrorist campaign focused primarily on al-Qaeda would work unless it also diminished the strength of the Taliban. It took the president some time to think his way through the debates and through the different views presented to him. Even as he paused to think, he grew aware that no matter what he did it might not work, and he did not want to run the risk of appearing to have been defeated.

Prof. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University noted in his very interesting Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime that “even the immediate subordinates of the man at the top only dimly understand, much less share, the acute pressures or the perspective of a prime minister or a president.” The value of Obama’s Wars is that it helps the reader sense these sorts of pressures as the president, his advisors, and subordinates worked in 2009 and the first part of 2010 to lay out what they hoped would be a successful policy in Afghanistan.

Tom Hone

US Naval War College Faculty, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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