Does Robert Gates memoir hint at Obama's next Afghanistan moves?

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he witnessed a president making the right decisions and following the right strategy in Afghanistan, but not really believing in them.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Barack Obama stands in the East Room of the White House in Washington with, from left: Vice President Joe Biden and outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, April 28. 2011.

In his new memoir spanning his years as secretary of Defense, Robert Gates offers a harsh assessment of President Obama’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan – the war that, in comparison to the Iraq war, the president always said he considered a necessary war to safeguard America from terrorist attacks.

What Mr. Gates says he witnessed in the Obama White House was a president making the right decisions and following the right strategy, but not really believing in them.

“I believe Obama was right in each of [his] decisions” on Afghanistan policy, Gates writes towards the end of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” set to be released next week. That would include Mr. Obama’s decision in late 2009 to “surge” 30,000 additional troops into the war to stabilize Afghanistan before a US pullout.

But earlier in the 640-page book, Gates makes a more critical point, when he describes a president who was “skeptical” of his own Afghanistan policy, “if not outright convinced it would fail.”

Gates says his dealings with Obama convinced him as early as 2010 that the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” He continued, “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

It is likely to come as little surprise to foreign policy experts, and to many Americans in general, that Obama came across as focused on “getting out” of Afghanistan. He came into office pledging to get America out of two wars and to play down the Middle East in general to refocus on Asia.

Thus the White House debated for months before the Afghanistan “surge” decision – whereas George W. Bush had no second thoughts or ambivalence about his course of action concerning the Iraq war.

The book may be more damaging in Gates’s portrayal of the president, and the White House in general, as mistrustful of the military brass conducting the Afghanistan war.

At one point, the former Defense secretary chronicles a National Security Council meeting in March 2011 at which the main topic is the pace of a drawdown from Afghanistan. Gates quotes Obama as charging the military leadership in Afghanistan with “popping off in the press” about the withdrawal.

And then, according to Gates, the president suggests that the top officers – including Gen. David Petraeus, at that time the commander of forces in Afghanistan – might be angling to slow or delay the coming drawdown, and he concludes with an incomplete but loaded sentence: “If I believe I am being gamed ...”

For Gates, this suggested a lack of trust in Petraeus, and perhaps even in Gates himself.

Obama’s aversion to being “gamed” may help explain the drawn-out path the president is taking in setting post-2014 Afghanistan policy – in particular, in determining how many US troops (if any) will remain as a stabilizing, training, and counterterrorism force.

Again, it will be news to no one that the United States, and Obama in particular, are “being gamed’ by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader has negotiated a status-of-forces agreement to allow an as-yet unspecified number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan, but continues to refuse to sign it.

Despite the recommendation of a high Afghan council, or loya jirga, to sign the agreement, Mr. Karzai is holding off, now saying it should wait for presidential elections to replace him in the spring. What many analysts fear is that Karzai, convinced the US is desperate to stay, will demand more to make that possible, or even press the US to overlook a fraudulent election that favors the Karzai family.

Gates reports in “Duty” that Obama “can’t stand” President Karzai. That fact, coupled with the knowledge he is being “gamed’ by the Afghan leader, might suggest that Obama will follow the “getting out” instinct that Gates sensed in the president from the beginning – and will go with the “zero option” for US troops that the White House has never taken off the table.

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