Obama’s Wars, A Book Report

Bob Woodward’s book is the most remarkable non-fiction work on politics and war that I have ever read.

President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen...

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In this remarkable narrative filled with direct quotes and statements backed by documented sources President Obama comes through as a strong leader desperately trying to get the nation on track to exit the eight-year (currently ten) unproductive war that he inherited.  It didn’t help that he backed it as a junior senator, but on coming into office and being briefed, it was quickly apparent that the Afghan war had been purely in a holding pattern with fuzzy goals against two religiously-inspired guerrilla enemies, al Qaeda and the Taliban, that only grew stronger with time.

Besides being impressed by Obama’s professionalism and calm demeanor, I was surprised

U.S. troops in Afghanistan

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at the insights of Vice President Biden.  Like the president, he too displayed an ability to look beyond the immediate challenges of the war for a way out of the impasse.  His concept of “counter-terrorism plus”, a strategy targeting al Qaeda leaders with special forces and a troop-intensive counterinsurgency, and bypassing the Taliban, made a lot of sense to me and reflected many of the same thoughts I have myself posted.

Presidents Karzai of Afghanistan and Zadari of Pakistan both come across as weak, ineffective leaders at the mercy of their respective corrupt militaries and other factions.  Defense Secretary Gates presents as a surprisingly indecisive bureaucrat who routinely waited to see which way the president was leaning before venturing his own opinion.

Importantly, there were stark differences fully on display throughout the book between

Special Forces Sniper

Special Forces sniper, by isafmedia via Flickr

the civilian and military perspectives about the war.  This should not be surprising, given the different roles of each.  For the can-do military it is unthinkable that the efforts and bloodshed of the past 8-10 years might have been for naught, whereas it is the duty of our civilian officials to consider both past and future in determining the nation’s path and the military’s orders.

Rather than summarize further, I will post below some of the highlights of the book I made on my e-reader.  Quotation marks reflect Woodward’s source as being literal.

McChrystal could order a counterinsurgency strategy, but many of the soldiers from the 42-nation coalition lived on bases designed to isolate them from average Afghans.  The intelligence collection was in shambles.  NATO had grown into a fig leaf that gave the cover of an international effort.

The Italians had sent an Afghan chef to culinary school back in their home country and were flying in the lobsters.

As far as Obama was concerned, there were two times in recent history when a president faced major decisions on war–LBJ in 1965 when the Vietnam generals asked for escalation and 2003 when President Bush decided to invade Iraq.  Both presidents had failed to drill down into the reasoning, the alternatives and the full consequences.  Obama was determined not to repeat that mistake.

Like Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them.  That might be “the single most important intellectual insight of the year,” Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting.  Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan.

A culture of can-do pervades the U.S. military, and generals rarely talk about the

“no longer possible,” especially in writing.

“The Pakistan core goal is right,” the president said.  That goal was to eliminate the al Qaeda safe havens, so chasing the Taliban might be a distraction to that.  “If there is an opportunity cost in order to go after the Taliban, it might not be a wise move to go after the Taliban.”  This sounded alarm bells for Gates, Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal.  There wasn’t much the president could say that could be more disturbing to the military.  His statement seemed to question the very wisdom of the war in Afghanistan.

. . . exposed a simple fact:  They had not found a way to articulate why the United States was in Afghanistan.  What were America’s interests?

The real issue was whether U.S. soldiers could conduct operations on the ground in Pakistan.

It was a revealing turn of phrase.  U.S. troops weren’t fighting in Afghanistan.  They were “working” in a “theater.”

The two weakest links were corruption and the Afghan police.  “Our presence is the corrupting force,” Holbrooke announced.  All the contractors for development projects 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.

About 80 percent of the Afghan police force was illiterate.  Drug addiction was common.  And many police were “ghosts” who cashed paychecks but never showed for duty.

Brennan’s head, as well as Blair’s and Panetta’s, woud be on a pike if there was another successful terrorist attack in the United States.

No, Brennan said, they needed to think about places like Yemen and Somalia, which are full of al Qaeda.

High body counts alone cannot end an insurgency.  The deaths often had the opposite effect.

How much does this cost?  Obama asked..  We don’t know, Riedel answered.  This is a review, not a budget.  But to put an American soldier in Afghanistan, to pay everything including his veteran’s bill, his health insurance, take care of his family, feed him and arm him, is roughly $250,000 a year.  Having an Afghan soldier on the ground is roughly $12,000.  And a committed, well-trained Afghan army unit knows the language, terrain and neighborhood.

Clinton’s deputy at State, Jim Steinberg, had privately told her he was worried they were on the path to another Vietnam.

“This is not what I’m looking for,” the president said.  “I’m not doing 10 years.  I’m not doing a long-term nation-building effort.  I’m not spending a trillion dollars.  I’ve been pressing you guys on this.”

“I want an exit strategy,” the president said.

George W. Bush had used the chiefs (military heads) to provide perfunctory opinions after he had made his decisions.

Just to be clear, the president said, “The goal is to defeat and dismantle al Qaeda,” the central threat.  But the goal in Afghanistan is to “disrupt the Taliban, weaken them so that the Afghans can handle it.”

The Pakistani leadership had claimed their government was so weak that it might collapse if the U.S. used any sticks.

The president asked good questions but quickly exhausted the wisdom of those in the room.  Instead of a real in-depth discussion, there was a scripted feel.  The military did not understand.

But under the radar, McChrystal had his own wolf, Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL, who had taken command from him of the Joint Special Operations Command in June 2008.  The scale and lethal intensity of McRaven’s attacks in Afghanistan was at a level almost unimaginable to anyone without TOP SECRET CODEWORD clearances.  the “jackpot rate” –when the strikes got the intended target–had jumped from 35 percent to 80 percent.

When he later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it.  “There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.  That’s what the staff gets paid to do.”  (This was called the president’s “term sheet”, issued to avoid ambiguity in his orders.)

Donilon had studied his history poring over and absorbing what he felt were the mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq.  In neither of those wars had the president been precise in his instructions.  Obama had fixed that with the terms sheet, which Donilon considered to be a historic document and model for presidential decision.

And then there was the saddest lesson, to be learned again and again … that war

Joe Rosenthal - Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (...

Image by luvi via Flickr

is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.”

Woodward’s book is the most candid portrait imaginable of the forces within government that determine world history.  Such access in the future is hard to imagine, but I hope it happens.  Every citizen in this democracy of ours needs to know that history doesn’t just happen.  It is made by human beings who are mortal and fallible, and this book sounds that moral loud and clear.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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4 Responses to Obama’s Wars, A Book Report

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    It seems we both finished the book at the same time and now draw similar conclusions.

    One point which we both mentioned was Biden’s seemingly clear thinking, though as I pointed out and you did not, he was ably assisted by Lindsay Graham during the combined trip to Afghanistan soon after the Nov 2008 election.

    The two of them analyzed the problems better than anyone else in government, in my view. Unfortunately Graham “did his thing to help” then was out of the internal process as a “sausage” was constructed.

    Also something neither of us mentioned was the output, finally of the “strategic review” in the fall of 2009. It resulted in a 6 page document essentially written by the President himself. He was trying very hard to “tie the review” all up in a package, seemingly out of real frustration. I do not criticize his attempt to do so but believe he failed both in concept and to make that document “stick” as a real national consensus after the fact. Thus the McChrystal fiasco, again out of frustration but this time from the field commander himself, not the President.

    One example why I continue to be so frustrated. It is over the real meaning of two words yet to be defined and/or accepted by anyone in the whole “machine” of national security.

    Recall the insertion in early 2009 of the word “defeat” related to the Taliban. In the fall of 2009 that word was changed to “degrade”. Now please explain, simply what either of those words really mean in the context of war fighting, particularly the word”degrade”. How in the hell does anyone ACHIEVE those goals or at least one of them and then have EVERYONE, including the public, accept such metrics?

    Great book for sure. But afterwards, still a F… Mess crying for another “strategy”.



  2. Jim Wheeler says:


    Yes, it was remarkable how we both posted on this within minutes of each other!

    You are correct to point out Lindsay Graham’s contributions. He is clearly the rare kind of politician who rises above petty partisanship in the national interest. Too bad we don’t have more like that. He exemplifies statesmanship, a nearly extinct congressional meme.

    As for the 6-page document, while I did not personally comment on it, it was in my highlights and I think that passage speaks for itself. I agree with Woodward that it is an historic first for Presidents, and a good one. I was struck by the circumstances that motivated Obama to create it. He repeatedly asked for 3 options and got only one that was viable, the 40,000 increase. Clearly his military advisors, given the nation’s investment in money and blood over 8 years, found zero alternatives to “victory”, even though they couldn’t adequately define “victory”. They were balking at even explicit orders! I think the president came to the conclusion that the political reality was the same as the military reality. We couldn’t “win” and “losing” was not an option. Hence, sausage, as you aptly say.

    Also, it occurs to me that before we condemn Obama for not better resolving this we should consider something only vaguely mentioned in the book: the threat of mass resignations by staff and particularly the military advisors. There was one telling reference to the behavior of the military staff of the Vietnam era, Thomas Moorer, et. al., and how they failed to put their jobs on the line over tactical manipulations of the war by the politicians, and I endorse that in spades! I vividly recall being disgusted with them at the time. There seemed to be a sense that the present group was loathe to repeat that shameful performance. I think Obama recognized that the threat of rebellion would have been a public relations disaster for Obama and the Democrat party. Once committed, Americans do not “cut and run”. Hard to argue with that, and yet, 10 years now and no significant progress. Aargh!

    It is one thing to contemplate and plan a war and quite another to inherit a done deal. Despite his support of it as a freshman senator, he inherited a war that was started without fulfilling the Powell Doctrine (Wiki version). When you do that, your options are limited. And looming over the whole mess is the elephant in the room that didn’t even need mentioning in the Situation Room: Pakistan’s nuclear missile capability. Sausage indeed!



  3. ansonburlingame says:


    I am now engaging in further debate on the war in Afghanistan in additional blogs. I have posted the second in what will probably be a total of three or maybe four blogs altogether.

    Once posted, I HOPE that a good and rather long discussion will ensue. I care not where it takes place. Your blog and comments thereto, my blog and comments or some other “arena”, it makes no difference to me.

    But in my view we must get all the options on the table to clearly define the discussion, by us “normal citizens”. Note the comment from a newcomer on my What is War blog. We must avoid “overanalysis” in our debate to avoid getting bogged down. But we must get the pertinent thoughts “on the table” concisely if possible, as well.

    More to come.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    For Anson and anyone else still linked,

    Below is a link to a summary of expert opinions on the Afghanistan conundrum. I recommend it – just one page.



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