President Barack Obama trapped himself in the morass of Afghanistan by his post-election decision to show bipartisan continuity and to keep in place George W. Bush's military command structure, particularly Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus.
After his solid victory in November 2008, Obama rebuffed recommendations from some national security experts that he clean house by installing a team more in line with his campaign pledge of "change you can believe in." He accepted instead the counsel of Establishment Democrats who warned against any disruption to the war-fighting hierarchy and who were especially supportive of keeping Gates.
The results are now in. Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars, makes clear that it was Bush's old team that made sure Obama was given no option other than to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan. The Bush holdovers also lobbied for the troop increase behind Obama's back.
According to Woodward's book, Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, refused last year to even prepare an early-exit option that Obama had requested. Instead, they offered up only plans for their desired escalation of about 40,000 troops.
Woodward wrote: "For two exhausting months, [Obama] had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan.
"He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were "really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted.'"
Woodward identified Gates, Petraeus and Mullen as "unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end."
The effort to box Obama in reached a crisis point on Nov. 11, 2009, in the White House Situation Room when Obama confronted the three and complained, "You have given me one option [for the escalation]. We were going to meet here today to talk about three options. " You agreed to go back and work those up."
Mullen protested. "I think what we've tried to do here is present a range of options." But Obama shot back that two options were clearly unfeasible and the other two were variations of the 40,000-troop increase request.
The Bush holdovers even resisted passing along a "hybrid" plan that came from outside their group, from Vice President Joe Biden who had worked with JCS vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright. The plan envisioned a 20,000 troop increase and a more limited mission of hunting Taliban insurgents and training Afghan government forces.
Woodward reported, "When Mullen learned of the hybrid option, he didn't want to take it to Obama. "We're not providing that,' he told Cartwright, a Marine known around the White House as Obama's favorite general.
"Cartwright objected. "I'm just not in the business of withholding options,' he told Mullen. "I have an oath, and when asked for advice I'm going to provide it.'"
A Rigged War Game
Later, Obama told Gates and Mullen to present the hybrid option as one possibility, but instead the Bush holdovers sabotaged the idea by organizing a classified war game, code-named Poignant Vision, that some military insiders felt was rigged to discredit the hybrid option, Woodward reported.
According to Woodward's book, Petraeus cited the results of the war game to Obama at the Nov. 11 meeting as proof the hybrid option would fail, prompting a plaintive question from a disappointed President, "so, 20,000 is not really a viable option?"
Without telling Obama about the limits of the war game, Mullen, Petraeus, Gates, and then-field commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, asserted that the hybrid option would lead to mission failure.