Looking for the exit
Veteran reporter Bob Woodward's account of the Obama administration's policy in Afghanistan enhances Obama's reputation but increases pessimism about the country's future, writes David Tresilian
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"Peace yes, NATO no" chant demonstrators in Lisbon during the NATO summit on their way to their own counter summit
When Obama's Wars, veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's account of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy in Southwest Asia, was published in October, comment in the international press focussed on the revelations the book provided on divisions within the administration on the best strategy for the US to pursue and the unflattering light it shed on US allies in the region, among them Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai was "off his meds... while high on 'weed'," the book quoted US officials as saying, indicating that the Afghan president's intermittent failure to cooperate fully with US operations in his country -- the US currently has some 100,000 troops in Afghanistan -- could be put down to a medical problem rather than to the more predictable situation, repeated at least since the war in Vietnam, of a US client state testing the intentions of its patron and attempting to leverage the relationship for all it is worth.
Whether Karzai is indeed a manic-depressive, reliant on medications to control his mood swings, as is apparently suspected by members of the US administration, or whether he is playing some other, deeper game is not revealed in Woodward's book, which also provides little by way of explaining the foreign policy of Pakistan, a leading player in the politics of the region and the country on which, it is many times emphasised, the whole edifice of US policy in Southwest Asia depends.
This is a book that gives readers the inside story behind decisions made in Washington, but it scarcely looks beyond the triangle of White House, State Department and US Department of Defense at the Pentagon. It employs Woodward's signature method of reconstructing the context for key decisions by sifting through what seem to have been mountains of documents, including the minutes of dozens of meetings, briefings and on and off-the- record conversations, as well as, acting as a kind of centrepiece to Woodward's efforts, a July 2010 interview with Obama himself.
The essential story Woodward tells is the familiar one of a Democratic Party president elected on a wave of disgust at the policies of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and determined to put as much distance as possible between his administration and the one before it. This has been true in US domestic policy, where Obama has attempted to give the United States something like the kind of healthcare system that other industrialised countries take for granted, and in foreign policy, where Obama, having inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has done his best to rescue his country from what have become increasingly costly quagmires.
Obama, in Woodward's telling, entered office determined to find a way out for the US from Iraq, and US combat forces were withdrawn from that country in summer 2010, leaving a very uncertain situation behind them. As far as the war in Afghanistan was concerned, on entering office Obama was faced with a situation in which US forces, along with smaller contingents of troops from other countries gathered under the umbrella of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), had been in the country since the US-led invasion in 2001 that had toppled the previous Taliban regime. This was some seven years in total, longer than the US troop presence in Iraq, and after early successes the forces seemed to have lost their way.
US troop numbers had been rising, Bush adding 21,000 more at the beginning of 2008 and raising the total number of US troops in Afghanistan from some 26,000 in January to over 48,000 in June, with further increases added in the dying days of his presidency in September. However, if the aim of these increases was to stabilise the Karzai government and end the attacks threatening it in ever-larger parts of the country, then the strategy seemed to be failing. The US's original aims in invading Afghanistan -- to capture Osama Bin Laden and deal a mighty blow against Al-Qaeda and its Afghan government protectors -- seemed to have fallen by the wayside in what had since become a costly and apparently open-ended effort to support a client state and combat an increasingly powerful insurgency.
As soon as he was elected in November 2008, according to Woodward's narrative, and even before taking the oath of office as president in January 2009, Obama ordered a review of US policy in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is going to be his [Obama's] war," US Vice-President Joe Biden is quoted as saying. Returning from a secret visit to Afghanistan in January 2009 against a background of Pentagon requests for another 30,000 US troops to be sent to the country, Biden tells the president the "major headline from the trip. 'If you ask ten of our people what we're trying to accomplish [in Afghanistan], you get ten different answers... This has been on autopilot.' We can't be on autopilot, Obama responded. We need to get a grip on this and that's going to be the first order of business."
Getting a grip on Afghanistan turned out to involve getting a grip on the Pentagon, which was suspected of "trying to pull a fast one on a new president" and argued for a "counter- insurgency" strategy in Afghanistan that would involve blanketing the country in US troops, going far beyond a "counter- terrorism" strategy that involved merely trying to secure major population centres with more modest numbers. Not for the first time, the spectre of Vietnam was raised at White House meetings, with US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke noting "that 44 years ago President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers were debating the same issues [of troop increases] for Vietnam."
It can't have escaped Obama that Johnson -- a Democratic president whose domestic achievements were overshadowed by a disastrous conflict abroad -- had taken the advice of his military advisors and escalated the war in Vietnam, leading to his own eventual nemesis. In response to Holbrooke's mention of Johnson, there is "a confused silence" in the meeting. "'Ghosts,' Obama whispered." In the event, Obama approved the sending of a further 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan in January 2009, but it was made clear, according to Woodward, that there would be no more pending a comprehensive review of strategy.
Moreover, Karzai, "on medication [and suffering from] severe mood swings," "increasingly delusional and paranoid," and presiding over "a staggering level of corruption, inaction and snarled intelligence relationships," was apparently told that "things have got to change. President-elect Obama wants to be helpful, but this idea of picking up the phone, calling President Obama like you did President Bush, is not going to happen."
In the narrative that follows, Obama is shown as consistently opposing "mission creep," the idea that US interests implied an ever-expanding and open-ended commitment to keeping high troop levels in Afghanistan. Mission creep of this sort seemed a real possibility following the appointment of General Stanley McChrystal as US commander in Afghanistan in May 2009, McChrystal defining US aims as "defeating the insurgency" and arguing for the deployment of a further 40,000 US troops, with possibly as many as a further 80,000 for a "more robust counterinsurgency" if necessary.
There were worries, as members of the US National Security Council put it at the time, that "the president is being screwed by the senior uniformed military," and these were subsequently confirmed, perhaps, by McChrystal's own exit one month later in June following the publication of an interview in which he had seemed to mock US policies in Afghanistan.
Reluctant to entertain demands for escalation of this sort, "'we're going to begin with interests,' Obama said, 'and then figure out what it is we want to accomplish, how we're going to do it and eventually get to resources.'"
Woodward's book can only enhance Obama's own reputation: having inherited foreign-policy disasters for which he bore no responsibility, and having to deal with occasionally fractious and not always loyal elements within his own administration and the military, the president comes across as being determined to craft a coherent, realistic US strategy for Afghanistan and Southwest Asia. However, it should also be said that, perhaps surprisingly, it is Vice-President Biden -- rather than, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- who comes across as having had perhaps the greatest influence over US policy in the region.
Biden is presented as having been responsible for the "counter-terrorism plus" option later selected by Obama as representing the best chance for US success in Afghanistan. This "hybrid option," very different from McChrystal's recommendation of an open-ended counter-insurgency, recommended limited troop increases during a defined period, something which chimed with Obama's own intuitions.
Of attempts by the US military to wring further troop increases from a reluctant commander-in-chief, Obama is quoted as saying that "this is not what I'm looking for [in Afghanistan]. I'm not doing 10 years. I'm not doing a long- term nation-building effort. I'm not spending a trillion dollars." Biden's plan, involving a more modest surge in US forces in order to realise the restricted goals of "disrupting" the Taliban and training Afghan forces, seemed to be the best option.
Woodward's book ends with the "terms sheet" Obama eventually drew up for US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, under which the aims of the US military presence are defined as "to degrade the Taliban insurgency while building sufficient Afghan capacity to secure and govern their country." This strategy, the document says, "is not a fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building, but a narrower approach tied more tightly to the core goal of disrupting, dismantling and eventually defeating al Qaeda and preventing al Qaeda's return to safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
In order to achieve this strategy, an additional 30,000 US troops would be sent to Afghanistan, announced by Obama in December 2009, with a review of the situation in the country planned for December 2010 and the beginning of the withdrawal of US forces from the country in July 2011.
As Woodward writes, in order for this strategy to be successful there will have to be a turnaround in the fortunes of the Karzai government in Afghanistan, or at least in its ability to act in ways that support US interests, and there will have to be a change, too, in the behaviour of the government in Pakistan. The strategy depends on "degrading" the Taliban while building Afghan security forces through what is described as a "clear, hold, build and transfer" model.
Yet, while US forces have had some success in clearing Taliban forces from areas of Afghanistan, and then holding those areas against eventual Taliban return, they have had less success in building and transferring to the Afghan government. In fact, according to Woodward, the model had become more like "clear, hold, hold, hold, hold and hold. Hold for years. There was no build, no transfer."
The strategy once again links US fortunes in Afghanistan to the Karzai government, the building of the capacity of that government and the eventual transfer of responsibility for security in the country to it being essential parts of the "build and transfer" model. However, there have been few signs so far, now almost 10 years into the conflict, that the Karzai government is able to play the role assigned to it. Moreover, with Taliban fighters apparently crossing freely from bases in Pakistan, degrading their capacity may involve more than the attacks by US Predator drones that are currently authorised on its territory by the Pakistan government. According to Woodward, these attacks, first ordered by president Bush, were stepped up on Obama's orders soon after his taking office in January 2009.
Reading Woodward's book, it is impossible not to be reminded of the war in Vietnam. Anyone not so reminded can rely on the author or his cast of characters to do so. Not only are there parallels between Obama and Johnson, down to the two men's frustration at trying to introduce reforms at home, while becoming increasingly bogged down in inherited conflicts abroad, there are also parallels between the hold and transfer strategy in Afghanistan and the strategy of "strategic hamlets" in southern Vietnam. There is the danger of the Afghan conflict spilling further across the country's borders, further destabilising Southwest Asia as a whole, as the Vietnam conflict earlier did in Southeast Asia.
According to a story that appeared in the New York Times last week, the Obama administration is now moving away from the July 2011 drawdown date contained in its 2009 terms sheet for Afghanistan, instead "increasingly emphasising the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014."
One can only guess at what must have happened behind the scenes for the 2011 goal to have been abandoned. On the evidence of Woodward's book, in which Obama repeatedly insists on the need to get US forces out of Afghanistan by July 2011, it is unlikely to have been good news for the president.
Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars , New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, pp.441