I look forward to reading Bob Gates’ memoir. He’s a smart, interesting, honorable man who has witnessed a lot of history. From this review, at least, it appears to be something more than the double-barreled assault on Obama cable news readers (who haven’t read it either) are portraying it to be.
I’m sure there are some surprises in the book, but the pre-release headline about the administration’s division over Afghanistan isn’t one of them. Obama went through a long, drawn-out policy formulation process on Afghanistan in 2009, and while none of the players argued their positions in public, it was evident in news reports that there were two factions. One, led by Joe Biden, favored a “counter-terrorism” strategy, with a smaller U.S. footprint and a more narrow mission focused on terrorist groups. The other, led by Gen. David Petraeus and other Pentagon brass (presumably including Gates), favored a “counter-insurgency” strategy like the “surge” Petraeus mobilized in Iraq, following the counter-insurgency manual Petraeus had written. It featured nation-building by the Army along with fighting. It had a broader scope: creating a functioning national government, using U.S. troops to organize village councils to create a political counter-weight to the Taliban. It would require more troops and more time.
As I recall, in the end Obama brought the Pentagon guys into the Oval Office and agreed to send more troops (though not as much as the generals wanted). But he made Petraeus agree that the mission would be extended only if there were measurable results. Petraeus would get the chance to show that his field manual strategy would work.
I remember seeing a photo I wish I’d saved of a U.S. soldier, in full body armor, sitting in a hut talking to an Afghan family. He looked like a giant space trooper out of Star Wars, and I recall wondering how anyone thought the differences between foreign soldiers and Afghan peasants could be bridged. “Restrepo,” a great documentary about the war, features a young female officer who spent a year in tireless efforts to win the trust of villagers in a remote, contested valley. She was making headway – until her tour was up, and then she was out of there, with no replacement in sight. “This isn’t going to work,” I remember thinking. I also remember the year all eyes turned to Helmand Province, where the U.S. troops were going to use every military and nation-building tool in the toolbox to take back a Taliban stronghold. It didn’t work. As in Vietnam, the U.S. troops would control the villages by day, the Taliban after dark.
By 2011, the failure of the nation-building strategy was clear to Obama. In his book, Gates writes: “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Well, yes. Petreaus’ strategy wasn’t succeeding, and Obama had lost confidence in it. Karzai, whom Biden had always hated, turned out to be a disaster, unable and not that interested in rooting out corruption and establishing a competent government. A smooth exit for the U.S. was the best Obama could hope for.
In the end, Gates concludes the president was right about Afghanistan and Iraq: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
As the Gates book tour plays out, we’ll see a lot of talk about Gates turning his fire on Obama and such nonsense. It would be far more useful to revisit the positions of Biden and Petreaus in 2009 and consider who was right. I’d very much like to hear Hillary Clinton’s take on it.