Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Peter Bergen got wrong about Woodward's "Obama's Wars"

The current home page of The New Republic lures the reader to Peter Bergen's rather shapeless review of Obama's Wars  with a home page teaser:  "What Bob Woodward got wrong about Afghanistan and Obama." Well, what?  I'm still not sure. Notwithstanding Bergen's omniscient narrator stance, I didn't come away from his review feeling I understood more either about Woodward's book or about U.S. AfPak policy and its prospects for success. It's not that Bergen really in any way misrepresents what Woodward is about.  But his emphases struck me as off, or beside the point, on several fronts:

1) Bergen takes a swipe at the book, in tandem with Woodward's four prior books, for not being what it's not: an in-depth look at the history and conditions on the ground in the war zone. The book is focused on what Bergen admits it does a superb job relaying: the internal deliberations of the administration and the contest between rival points of view within it, represented chiefly (according to Bergen, anyway) by Biden's minimalist "counterterrorism-plus" and McChrystal-Petraeus's fully-resourced COIN.  The beside-the-point "lack of context" slam is further marred by war zone snobbery: Bergen laughs at Woodward for professing anxiety upon finding himself on the ground in the well-fortified Camp Leatherneck.

2) Bergen dismisses Biden's approach to the AfPak conundrum, but his only real evidence that it's wanting -- or that the book's lack of external context is a serious flaw -- is in his own brief against the hypothesis that a resurgent Taliban would not welcome al Qaeda or other terrorist groups back into Afghanistan.  This  argument does have some force, based on the undeniable facts that the Taliban welcomed an array of terrorist groups when it was in power, and that various Taliban groups, particularly the Haqqani network, now share safe harbor with al Qaeda and "a menagerie of jihadist groups" in the ungoverned regions of Pakistan. But those facts cut two ways. Holbrooke and Brennan use them to argue the opposite side of the coin from Bergen:
Like Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO counties? [sic]... (170).
Later, Brennan widens the sphere of rival havens for al Qaeda:
[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).
Indeed, at the book's very outset, Mike McConnell reveals to the President-elect that the Taliban and al Qaeda have a haven in Pakistan to rival their pre-9/11 position in Afghanistan:
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, Pakistan had signed a treaty ceding full control of the FATA's North 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).
That does raise the implicit question how al Qaeda and other jihadist groups could be any better situated.

If these voices within the book are not in themselves sufficient to counter Bergen's apparent conviction  that a Taliban ruling parts or even all of Afghanistan would greatly empower al Qaeda, neither is Bergen's rebuttal definitive. Among those who have have argued that a restored Taliban would likely not welcome al Qaeda into Afghanistan with open arms is a former Taliban propaganda minister and current freelance jihadist, Abu Walid al Masri. In a remarkable exchange of email with the Australian counterterrorism student and former practitioner Leah Farrall, al Masri argued in detail that the Taliban would have to keep al Qaeda at least at arms length because "the majority of the population is against al Qaeda for several fundamental reasons,"  e.g., the group brought destruction on the country, and destroyed the Taliban's Islamic Emirate.  Farrall herself, drawing lessons from the exchange, argues cogently that  Al Qa’ida prefers the US to stick around.

I'm not suggesting that these analyses settle the argument. Indeed, al Masri's is almost by definition an exercise of psychological warfare. Bergen may well be right. But he has hardly dispatched Biden, or by extension the "not especially analytical" Woodward (who by way of "context" would at best present another player's point of view), with this brief incursion.

3) Bergen effectively negates his own claim that Woodward's book[s] is/are "not especially analytical" by asserting immediately afterward:
Trawling Obama’s Wars for takeaways about the likely fate of the American project in Afghanistan, one can elicit five key points.

These pretty clearly undercut the case that a full-blown counterinsurgency effort can work:
The first, of course, is that Hamid Karzai is a deeply flawed partner. A second related issue is the epic venality of Karzai’s government; Clinton, Holbrooke, and Panetta are all cited as believing that “out-of-control corruption was the main problem.” Third, there is the matter of the Al Qaeda/Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. Riedel, who led the first Obama “AfPak” review, aptly summarized Pakistan’s complex relations with these militants: “the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time.” Fourth, if the strategy is eventual “transfer” to Afghan control, in the east of Afghanistan where the United States had had a substantial troop presence for years, there had been no transfer to Afghan control: “The model had become clear, hold, hold, hold, hold and hold. Hold for years. There was … no transfer.”

The final problem is that the Taliban do not want to make peace because they believe either that they are winning or that they are not losing, as their strategy is simply to wait out the clock until the Americans depart.
Is that all?   My own review of Obama's Wars went over almost precisely the same litany -- and drew the to-me obvious conclusion that Woodward's narrative is shaped to highlight the inherent futility of the mission in Afghanistan.  The exhaustive presentation of competing points of view in the actors' own words is, it's true, something of a Rorschach, and admirers of Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen, Clinton and Gates may admire their role in shaping the final decision. But I see no lack of analytical rigor for all that. And via his own "takeaway" Bergen inadvertently seconds my sense that in this book the deck is pretty clearly stacked in favor of the skeptics.

4) As far as I can tell, TNR's teaser for the review -- 'what...Woodward got wrong' -- brings the reader to rest, at the end of a very long review, on "something," as Bergen writes, "that happened after Woodward’s book was published." That is:

At the meeting of NATO member states in Lisbon in November, Obama promised that the American commitment to Afghanistan will now stretch to the end of 2014. Even Biden has admitted that the “drawdown” in July 2011 could amount to as few as two thousand soldiers.
Now, it's not Bergen's fault if a TNR editor misdirected readers of his review to think that he had some core criticism of Woodward's book -- which obviously can't be faulted for failing to take into account something that happened after it was published.  Again, as a review of Woodward's work, the piece is rather formless, and like many such pieces, it is ultimately directed toward presenting Bergen's own analysis and policy prescription. But what exactly is Bergen's point about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan?  That some equivocal, highly conceptual moving of the withdrawal goalposts (actually, simply putting up a second goalpost to bookend the beginning of withdrawal) is a saving grace, erasing the original sin of signaling a withdrawal timeline?  Apparently:
Why is the 2014 withdrawal date a potential game changer in Afghanistan? For many reasons. Taliban leaders now have the difficult task of having to explain to their foot soldiers that they will have to hang on for yet another four years against a much larger and better resourced American military presence. It gives the rapidly growing Afghan army time to grow to the point where it is able to fight back against the Taliban. It reassures Afghan elites that they can plan for a more secure and prosperous future without moving their funds or themselves out of the country. It may allow for some kind of genuine (uncorrupt) political force to challenge the Karzai mafia. It signals to regional players, above all Pakistan, that the United States has a long term commitment to a stable Afghan state and that it is going to be waste of time for Pakistani intelligence services to continue playing footsy with elements of the Taliban in the hopes of a quick American exit from the region. All these developments will not eliminate the Taliban, but they might make the Taliban irrelevant, which is about as good a definition of victory as we can hope for.
So: "this dramatic shift in Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan" is a game-changer -- because it extends the military's original desired target date from 2013 to 2014. That was easy! Never mind the five pillars of futility that Bergen detailed above -- just chalk out the back line of the end zone, and there's daylight on the gridiron.

In fact, I would argue that if, as Bergen approvingly quotes Woodward, "“July 2011 was a date with some meaning and none at all,” the same is true of the 2014 date. Who would have thought that a draw-down ostensibly to begin in summer 2011 would most likely have been completed before 2014?  It's not true, as Bergen suggests, that Obama's caveat that the target date to begin withdrawal would be subject to conditions on the ground was "little noticed": it was endlessly parsed. Neither date means either everything or nothing: they are conditional targets, designed to signal sufficient but not infinite commitment.  Perhaps they're none the less futile for all that,  but one is not an original sin redeemed by the other. Nor is Woodward's alleged analytical reticence redeemed by Bergen's ex post facto insight.

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