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Thoughts on Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars"

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Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars" concerns not just the war in Afghanistan but also the ideological war in the White House between hawks and doves, as well as the war that occurred inside the President's head.

Obama felt torn between the desire to avoid another Vietnam and his desire to protect America from al Qaeda. Obama also wanted to avoid criticism and resignations from Pentagon generals.

The US military and its backers favored an ambitious escalation of the war in Afghanistan, involving 40,000 or more troops and a long term commitment to nation building. The code word for this strategy was "counterinsurgency." The civilian advisers were skeptical that much progress can be made in Afghanistan. They favored a smaller escalation ("counterterrorism") and wanted a fast exit from Afghanistan.

Nobody seriously proposed giving up entirely and leaving Afghanistan, though Woodward indicated that Obama toyed with the idea.

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So it's probably not correct to call the two camps "hawks" and "doves." Maybe they should be called "super-hawks" and "partial-hawks."

The supporters of the military's position included Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stan McChrystal, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Opponents of a large surge included Vice-President Biden, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, Senior Adviser and Coordinator for Afghanistan-Pakistan Douglas E. Lute, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and political advisers such as Rahm Emanuel (boo!) and David M. Axelrod.

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Ambassador Eikenberry in particular warned about the terrible corruption in the Afghanistan government and about the unreliability of the Pakistani allies. For example, eighty percent of Afghan policemen were illiterate. Drug addiction was common. Many police were "ghosts" who accepted pay but never showed up for work. Attrition was higher than enlistment. The US ended up financing the Taliban because operatives had to pay bribes to Taliban-affiliated fighters to use the roads. Karzai was delusional ("on meds") and his brother ran a criminal syndicate.

Even more important than the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghans is the divided loyalties of the Pakistani military. The ISI helped launch the suicide attack in Mumbai, India and routinely protect terrorist groups within their territory. Pakistani President Zardari is weak. Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani is "India-centric" and refuses to worry much about Afghanistan and anti-Western terrorists.

A main theme of the book was that Obama may have been "rolled" by the military (especially Petraeus and McChrystal) and by the Secretary of State. Were Petraeus and Clinton laying a trap for the President? Were they setting the stage for 2012 or 2016, when they could run for the Oval Office?

The book portrays Obama as a victim of the military and a victim of Bush. The military made embarrassing leaks to force the hand of the President. Obama dearly wanted to avoid another Vietnam, but the pressure from the military and from Republican Senators such as Lindsay Graham was too high. It's difficult for a Democratic President -- especially a young and inexperienced one -- to resist the recommendations of the uniformed military.

During the months long debate in 2009 about the escalation, discussion concerned questions like the following. Should the goal in Afghanistan be to defeat the Taliban? Or was defeating the Taliban impossible, so that the most that could be hope for was to "degrade" the Taliban? Should the number of troops be increased by 20,000? 25,000? 40,000? 85,000? The military said that 85,000 would be ideal, but the recognized that it was politically and fiscally impossible.

On the question of the size of the escalation, the military refused to take no for an answer, even after Obama gave clear orders that he wanted an escalation of "only" 30,000 and that he was not interested in counter-insurgency or "nation building."

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Richard Holbrooke said starkly, "It [the surge] won't work."

Obama reportedly said, "Nothing would make Rahm happier than if I said no to the 30,000 [troops]."

After much debate, Obama was firm that 30,000 would be the limit, that troop withdrawals should begin in July, 2011, and that no further escalation would be possible. Obama did not want an extended war in Afghanistan or a "counterinsurgency" strategy that involved nation building. He did not want another Vietnam. (Obama and his advisers had read many books about the Vietnamese War and the Iraq War.) Obama was unsure of whether his decision was the best one.

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DFA organizer, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See http://WALiberals.org and http://TruthSite.org for my writing, my (more...)

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