A Way Out of Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
Sept. 28 2010 6:52 PM

A Way Out of Afghanistan?

The possible exit strategy hidden among the endless details in Bob Woodward's new book.

Obama's Wars.

Even more than his four-volume Bush at War series, Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, out this week, has so much inside detail, so many accounts of behind-closed-doors conversations (laced with quotation marks, as if they were verbatim), that one sometimes wonders if Woodward wired a source before he went into a Cabinet Room meeting and retrieved the tape afterward.

But this time out, beneath the usual he-said-then-he-said (then-he-said), lurks a saga of tragedy: about the snares and illusions of the war in Afghanistan, the corruption of war generally, and the jangle of motives—the convergence and clash of bureaucratic interest, personal ambition, and earnest strategic analysis—that led Barack Obama to escalate an armed struggle that he didn't begin and that he knew was fraught with great risk all along.

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Woodward is no Shakespeare. This tragic sense wafts up through the dense Beltway-bound thicket in only a handful of passages; but they're enough to imbue the book with a deep, uncharacteristic sadness.

And yet near the end, though much too subtly, Woodward points toward a possible way out of the quagmire—and, though he doesn't say so explicitly, it's a path we seem to be pursuing. So maybe, Woodward hints, though fleetingly, a full-bore tragedy might be avoided.

The book begins with President-elect Obama receiving his first really serious intelligence briefing, in which he learns that the Predator drones—those unmanned aerial vehicles with the remote-controlled cameras and smart bombs that have been bumping off terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan—work as well as they do only because of super-secret CIA paramilitary teams on the ground; the teams recruit locals, who tell them where the bad guys are and thus where to send the drones. The drones by themselves are no cheap way out. War, as always, is unavoidably hell.

Then comes the monthslong internecine debate, through most of 2009, over how to fight the war: How many troops, where, what they should be doing, for how long, and to what end. We've read much of this before (some of it in Woodward's own reporting for the Washington Post), but a few things stand out: the continued lack of clarity, all the way till the end, over just what U.S. interests are in this war; the uncertainty, even after Obama's decision, over whether even the best-run U.S.-led campaign would affect the ultimate outcome; and, amid this debate, the Pentagon's persistent efforts to box Obama in to the one option that the senior military leaders wanted to pursue.

At the beginning, all the major players agree that one goal should be to "defeat" the Taliban. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says he needs at least 40,000 more troops to do that. After a few meetings, everyone realizes this goal is impossible, so they change it to "degrade" the Taliban so that at some point the Afghan security forces can take the lead in handling the threat.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asks McChrystal if he could get by with fewer than 40,000 extra troops, given this less demanding mission. McChrystal replies, "No." Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser (and one of Woodward's hero-sources), complains afterward that Obama could decide to protect just two Quonset huts in Afghanistan, and the brass would still ask for 40,000 more troops.

This rings true. A former senior Pentagon official told me in the 1970s that James Schlesinger, then Richard Nixon's secretary of defense, asked the chief of naval operations to prepare a study of how many aircraft carriers the Navy would need if the president decided the United States should no longer defend the Indian Ocean. At the time, the Navy had 13 aircraft carriers, two of which patrolled the Indian Ocean. After a few weeks, the top admiral gave Schlesinger the study. Its conclusion: The Navy would still need 13 carriers.

In Woodward's account, even after Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops, the Pentagon kept coming back with plans involving 40,000. Even after he decided not to pursue an all-out counterinsurgency campaign, the Pentagon kept coming back with plans involving just that.

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