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Obama, an Afghanistan war exit plan, and getting 'rolled'

Excerpts from a new Bob Woodward book on the Obama administration's debates over the Afghanistan war reveal a president deeply leery of open-ended commitment – and a military pushing for more control over war policy.

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Ever since, senior officers like Petraeus have been lobbying quietly, and not so quietly, for a greater commitment to counterinsurgency, or COIN, which calls for a massive US and NATO effort to protect the Afghan people across the country and recraft the politics of Afghan society. In the parlance of critics, Petraeus and McChrystal have been trying to "roll" the civilian Obama by flexing their public respect and greater understanding of military strategy and tactics to push the president into a longer commitment to Afghanistan.

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The portrait in Woodward's book is of a president determined to not be rolled. "This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama said to aides in a private conversation. "Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."

'I'm not spending a trillion dollars' on nation-building, says Obama

The book also carries a stark statement of intent from Obama about the limits of American power and a disinterest in "victory" as its traditionally defined. "I'm not doing 10 years," Woodward quotes Obama as telling Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an October 2009 meeting. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

That statement carries echoes of both former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous comment at the start of the Iraq war that "we don't do nation building" and President George W. Bush's leeriness of the whole concept before 9/11 shifted America's strategic thinking.

Consider this from President Bush, in a raucously applauded campaign speech the day before his election in November 2000, in which he took a shot at the Clinton administration's nation-building efforts in Somalia and the Balkans.

"Let me tell you what else I'm worried about: I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation-building and the military in the same sentence," Bush said then. "See, our view of the military is for our military to be properly prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place."

To be sure, on a personal level there are some revelations in the book. Woodward writes that Gen. James Jones (Ret.), Obama's national security adviser, called the president's political aides the "politburo" and the "mafia," and that Petraeus told aides last May that Obama's people were "[expletive] with the wrong guy."

IN PICTURES: US soldiers in Afghanistan


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