On one level, Obama's extended agon with the military leaders -- Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen, and to an extent, Gates - is impressive. Relentlessly, he questioned assumptions and insisted on being presented with real alternatives to McChrystal's proposed troop surge and counterinsurgency. When the military leaders proved unwilling or unable to flesh out any real alternative, Obama built his own, changing the shape of the proposed surge in essential ways -- speeding entry and exit of the additional troops, eschewing full-blown counterinsurgency, seeking a handfhold for a "handoff" of responsibility to the Karzai regime, defining the mission down from defeating to "degrading" the Taliban and preventing their full takeover of the country. The "terms sheet" in which he laid out detailed conditions represented a concentration of presidential input that Petraeus, for one, saw as unprecedented: "There's not a president in history that's dictated five single-spaced pages in his life" (327). And Obama insisted that the entire team sign on, as it were-- to the "hard cap" on troop totals, the withdrawal date, the limited mission, etc. -- before he went public with it.
And yet. While Woodward takes no explicit point of view in the book, I suspect it would be hard to find a reader who doesn't come away feeling that the preponderance of evidence and strong argument is with those members of the team who ring variations on Richard Holbrooke's stark verdict: "It can't work" (p. 333). (In fact, Woodward's narrative shaping is arguably concentrated in his portrayal of Holbrooke: odd man out, lacking the president's confidence, but right in almost every utterance, including an uncanny forecast of the Pakistan floods of July 2010.)
I cataloged in a prior post the strong evidence aired throughout the deliberations (in Woodward's account) that standing up a stable government in Afghanistan was mission impossible -- that the Karzai government was hopelessly corrupt, that hand-off of responsibility to Afghan forces was impossible, that the Pakistanis were supported and sheltering the Taliban, who had safe passage from their safe havens in North Waziristan. In the book's final chapters, two assessments are I think close to definitive (aside from Holbrooke's brief one).
First is that of General Douglas Lute, Bush's war czar, who completed an exhaustive and very grim report on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan in late 2008, and who provided frequent reality checks throughout Obama's policy review in fall 2009. According to Woodward:
Lute wondered how the president had packaged this for himself. He surmised the following: The president had fast-forwarded and figured it would most likely be ugly following July 2011. Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn't be done. The surge would be expensive, but not so much that the country could not absorb it. Obama would have given the monolithic military its day in court and the United States would not be seen as having been driven off the battlefield. The only way Lute could explain the final decision was that the president had treated the military as another political constituency that had to be accommodated. "Because I don't think the review adds up to the decision," he said (p. 338).
The second is from Derek Harvey, Petraeus intelligence adviser and director of Petraeus' own intelligence apparatus in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On April 3, 2010, according to Woodward, the following transpired at a meeting of Petraeus and Harvey:
Harvey drew one of the most pessimistic pictures possible of the war. "Our political and diplomatic strategies are not connected to our military strategy," he warned. "It is not going to work. We're not going to achieve the objectives that we've set out for ourselves. We can get to a point of some transient stability and the appearance of success that will not be enduring, that might provide a window for us to withdraw, and to keep things steady for the next three or four years. But inevitably, it will result back to the Great Game," the 19th- and early-20th-century struggle for dominance in Central Asia.
Pulling no punches, Harvey listed the likely long-term outcome: "malign actors, disrupted, ineffective, collapsing government in Kabul; a reemergence of violent extremist groups and safe havens." In other words, a complete return to a pre-9/11 environment (p. 346).
That three-year window of "transient stability" looks disturbingly like what Nixon sought and won in Vietnam, as recounted by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland. Nixon came into office knowing that he couldn't win the war. This is from a conversation between Nixon and financial supporter Elmer Bobst in 1966:
"Bobst thought it [U.S. engagement in Vietnam] was an unmitigated disaster from which the United States must quickly withdraw. Nixon, said Bobst, agreed that Vietnam could not be "won" and that we would eventually have to withdraw." That withdrawal, however, must take place under the most strategically propitious circumstances -- whether they be one, five, or ten years in the future. Until that time, the public would just have to be told what the public had to be told (p. 138, citing former Nixon law partner Leonard Garment's 1997 memoir, Crazy Rhythm).
In August 1972, Perlstein writes, citing the Nixon tapes, that Nixon told Kissinger: "I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even even survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid." Kissinger's reply: "If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence" (p. 708).
One key difference is that Nixon also knew that a communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975 would not materially affect U.S. security, except on the prestige front and through the psychological effect on the U.S. military and policymakers and voters. Obama, on the other hand, presumably believes that a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would be a security disaster -- though Biden and others argued during the review that a reinstated Taliban probably would not welcome al Qaeda back into Afghanistan. I believe that Obama is aiming for a better outcome than a fig leaf. And in fact, a return to the Great Game does not equal a return of the Taliban to unrivaled power.
As for "a complete return to a pre-9/11 environment," we arguably already have that -- in North Waziristan.