I am closing in on the end of Obama’s Wars, the Bob Woodward account of the strategic review of Afghanistan strategy that took place in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. The book exposes for me how little we comprehend the complexities and interdependencies of geopolitical actions and decisions, and how one dimensional our TV and editorial debates can be. I would recommend the book (or any of Woodward’s books for that matter) to anyone who loves reading the newspaper and recognizes the names Mullins, McCrystal, Petraeus, and Gates. If you fall into those two groups, visit your local library and borrow a copy.
As a public service, here are some of my takeaways:
1. Stakeholders leak policy positions to political pundits to gain strategic advantage. Everyone in the White House organization and the Pentagon organization has an agenda, and these folks, with the best of intentions in many cases, will do whatever it takes to imprint their ideas on American foreign and military policy. One way in which these individuals accomplish this goal is to leak selected pieces of information to the Washington punditry. These pundits, puppets actually, print or report the one-sided content of internal discussions (on background, of course) in order to corner the President or other high level officials into making political decisions instead of decisions that may be more in line with the best interests of our country. Drive the news cycle and force your policy competitor to respond to the public to your slanted question. My healthy skepticism of the opinion press goes up geometrically with every passing page.
2. Pakistan can help the U.S., but must not be seen as helping the U.S. If the Pakistani government is viewed within its borders as helping the U.S. to fight terrorists inside the country, they risk being characterized as a U.S. puppet, and that is a recipe for inviting more jihadists into their space. Any Pakistani support must be keep low key, because that is in Pakistan’s vital interests. That is not to say that the Pakistani government isn’t playing both sides in this fight – they are. It is more an admission that to succeed in the region, we must take into account the strategic outlook of Pakistani leadership. We need each other to achieve our different objectives.
3. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are linked but not mutually dependent. If the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, it is not a certainty that Al-Qaeda would be welcomed back with open arms to use the country as a sanctuary. Remember, the Taliban was ousted for playing nice with Al-Qaeda, so they may not be as accommodating this time. They don’t have to be. The Taliban is happy to accept Al-Qaeda’s help in fighting the infidels, but that might be the extent of their alliance right now. As a 3a, the Taliban is not a monolithic organization. They have their own internal factions and power centers struggling for dominance. Who is really in charge?
4. A timeline to withdraw troops is not an admission of surrender. Without a timeline, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan would have no incentive to do anything to stabilize his own country. Karzai loves having the U.S. in Afghanistan, because it provides him protection to continue his corrupt style of governing. His bold words of rebuke to the U.S. after any bombing raids gone wrong are required for Afghan consumption. Bottom line, without a deadline, Karzai would just continue to ask for more help from us, and pound away at us in the world press as invaders.
5. Civilian leadership of the military in this country is a critical Constitutional check and balance. What becomes clear in the book is the momentum that military conflicts can gain without constant oversight and review. The military is built to fight, and they are very good at it. The military is trained to always say they can do anything, and they can win at all times. It is up to the civilian leadership to channel that instinct, and control that instinct, so that national interests are met. Left with any ambiguity, the military will redefine the mission to match their own comfort zone.
6. The mistrust between India and Pakistan plays an enormous role in the thinking of regional leaders. Americans can probably never fully grasp how that dynamic between these two nuclear powers affects every decision in Afghanistan and Asia, but it does. The paranoia these two nations feel about each other cannot be underestimated, and the impact of that paranoia on every action/reaction by the U.S. cannot be underestimated.
7. Biden is a very smart guy, and he’s been involved in international affairs for almost 40 years. I have supported him in the past, but after reading this book, God help us if he becomes President. Maybe he is playing the role Obama has asked of him, but does not come across well in the book.
What is clear from the account is that the art and science of war is a 3 dimensional chess match, and the list of things we don’t know when it comes to evaluating Afghan strategy could fill another book (or two). The number of variables that could turn the war in our favor, or destroy all of our progress to date, is infinite and mostly out of our control. Ultimately, everyone is making their best guess, and I hope they are right.
My final takeaway from the book could apply to many of the political debates I have had over the past several years. Very smart, very engaged, and very well informed individuals could look at the exact same set of facts and reach different conclusions. That doesn’t mean that I am not always right, though.