Bob Woodward's new book on the battle within the Obama administration over commitment to the Afghanistan war, objectives, and exit strategy promises to be awkward for the president and his party as midterm elections in November get closer.
Excerpts published in the Washington Post this morning show Gen. David Petraeus demonstrating the kind of contempt for his civilian bosses that cost former chief of the Afghan war, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his job. It shows a President Obama deeply leery of an open-ended commitment to war in a country referred to since the 19th century as the graveyard of empires.
Excerpts also show a military establishment pushing for more control over war policy, with senior officers favoring a long-term commitment to a population-centered counterinsurgency strategy, rather than a mission more narrowly focused on Al Qaeda.
Little in the substance of this is new. Obama's desire for a withdrawal timeline and a limit on the blood and treasure to be spent in Afghanistan, as well as historical evidence that points to the difficulty of getting a counterinsurgency strategy to work in Afghanistan, have been discussed in the press since at least last summer.
But Mr. Woodward's book does frame the extent to which strategy disagreements between the civilian leadership and the military brass approached open warfare. And it demonstrates that Obama appears to have more in common with the pre-9/11 Republican Party than he does with the liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic Party.
The book focuses on the strategy review last winter that led to an ongoing surge of about 30,000 troops in the country. It makes the case that Obama effectively overruled his own general's demands for more troops and more time by penning a six-page "term sheet" – a sort of work order – that placed limits on what the military can do in-country and made it clear that all steps should be in the direction of troop drawdowns, not more surges, starting in 2011.
Lobbying for counterinsurgency
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.
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."