Woodward's Obama's Wars is structured as a kind of coming-of-age novel: can Obama assert his authority over the military? Can he avoid simply acquiescing to their favored course of action in Afghanistan -- a fully resourced counterinsurgency? I've just passed what seems to be the climax of this plot: when Obama protests that the four-option menu they've drawn up at his insistence is really only one option: two choices are utterly unrealistic, and one of the remaining ones is a minor variant of the military's favorite plan, differing in little semantics -- tinkering with the mix and timing of a 40,000 troop surge. And the denouement is already clear: Obama narrows the mission, speeds up the timetable, adds the controversial draw-down date, and reduces the American troop commitment.
And yet to me, the closely narrated grueling deliberations that are the guts of this hero's journey have a Kafkaesque feel. That's because the commitment to a counterinsurgency mission -- however stripped down -- remains intact, despite clear and often repeated articulation -- by Biden, Eikenberry, Holbrooke, Peter Lavoy of the DNI, and General James Cartwright, of the following facts and uncontradicted hypotheses:
1) The Taliban itself is not a danger to the U.S.
Biden:..asked, "Is there any evidence the Afghan Taliban advocates attacks outside of Afghanistan and on the U.S., or if it took over more of Afghanistan it would have more of an outward focus?"2) The Karzai government is not a viable partner.
No evidence, Lavoy said (187).
Are we aligned with the Kabul government? [Eikenberry] asked. We assume yes. "I would challenge that assumption," he said. They were severely hindered by Karzai's weakness as president, the absence of a strong central government.
"Right now, we're dealing with an extraordinarily corrupt government" (218).
Biden broke in for a question. "If the government's a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?
No one recorded an answer in their notes (221).
Gates...[said] that he had little confidence in a civilian surge or in serious governance reforms by Karzai (258).3) The Taliban feeds on our presence.
The two weakest links were corruption and the Afghan police. "Our presence is the corrupting force," Holbrooke announced. All the contractors for development pay the Taliban for protection and use of the roads, so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, higher traffic on roads, and more troops, the Taliban would make more money (226).4) The attrition rate in the Afghan police is higher than the recruitment rate (Holbrooke, 226).
5) al Qaeda does not need Afghanistan.
[Brennan] said...Why would al Qaeda want to go back to Afghanistan, where the U.S. and NATO already had 100,000 ground troops.
No, Brennan said, they needed to think about places like Yemen and Somalia, which are full of al Qaeda. And al Qaeda is taking advantage of these ungoverned spaces where there is little or no U.S.troop presence..."We're developing geostrategic principles here, and we're not going to have the resources to do what we're doing in Afghanistan in Somalia and Yemen," Brennan said (227-28).
[DNI Mike McConnell, briefing the President-elect]: Priority one for the DNI, and now Obama, had to be the ungovernable regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network, and branches of the extremist insurgent Taliban had nested in 150 training camps and other facilities ...In September 2006, Paikistan had signed a treaty ceding full control of the FATA'sNorth Waziristan region to Taliban-linked tribal chiefs, creating a kind of Wild West for al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan (3).6. Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban and is hopelessly conflicted regarding goals and strategy.
I've been up at night reading the intelligence reports, Obama said...On one early page it said...that Pakistan was overwhelmed with concern that the United States would pull out of Afghanistan and the region as it had done before.
Much later, Obama said, the report warned that Pakistan dreaded having a large Afghan army on its border that might be in an alliance with India. One of the U.S.objectives is to build that army.
How do you explain the contradiction? Obama asked. What exactly was Pakistan worried about--too much or too little? "What am I to believe?"
Mr. President, they're both true, Lavoy answered (216).
7. Counterinsurgency can't work with an open border.
[General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs] doubted that an increase of 40,000 troops would pay off in the ways advertised. In his view, counterinsurgency could not work if the borders were not controlled. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border was notoriously wide open. Taliban fighters could cross into Pakistan to "rest, relax, and rearm," before returning to Afghanistan to kill Americans (235)These points, all fully aired in the strategic review, would seem to constitute an airtight case that, per Cartwright, "counterinsurgency could not work" in Afghanistan today. Yet the review continued to focus on finding a way to create conditions in which the chief responsibility for containing the Taliban could be "handed off" to the Karzai government.
Obama's response was not to change the goal but to radically limit the goal -- from "defeating" the Taliban to "degrading" and "containing" it. In fact, U.S. goals, as reshaped by Obama, rather closely resemble those articulated by Rory Stewart, the British former soldier in Iraq and civilian administrator in Afghanistan: prevent the Taliban from taking over the entire country, contain rather than defeating them, create conditions in which Taliban takeover can continue to be prevented with few or no U.S. troops on the ground. Stewart, however, advocated reducing U.S. troop presence now to about 20,000, providing targeted aid to selected projects, and maintaining that level of commitment over decades. Obama seems to have concluded that maintaining a messy, gradually improving status quo can't be done without a concentrated military effort to first give the Karzai "criminal enterprise" some of the leverage they've lost over the past eight years.