Obama's fight with the generals

Once again, premier investigative reporter Bob Woodward has Washington buzzing with another inside account of presidential policymaking, this time focusing on President Barack Obama's 2009 decision to surge 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

With exhaustive detail based on interviews with inside players and actual or reconstructed conversations, the book "Obama's Wars" describes how President Obama weathered lengthy and fierce infighting between his military and civilian advisers in arriving at the decision.

It confirms that the outcome was a split verdict, with the generals getting most of what they wanted in the new troop level but with Mr. Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden as a chief ally, revamping the strategy and target in the war.

Torn by the political perils of walking away from the challenge and the huge cost of an open-ended commitment in a war most Americans had soured on, Mr. Obama held interminable internal debates through the summer and fall of 2009 in quest of a remedy.

What he came up with was an effort to segue the war from the nation-building course on which George W. Bush had been mired to the original justification for going into Afghanistan in 2001 — to root out the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their enablers.

At the core of Mr. Obama's own deliberations, Mr. Woodward's book confirms, was his conviction that while the United States had obligations to Afghanistan, the prime mission had to revert to destroying al-Qaeda and the threat of further terrorist acts against America there and in Pakistan.

Accordingly, Mr. Obama focused on how to extricate the United States honorably from a military situation that was sapping the country's material ability in order to address the pressing challenges of a severe economic recession at home.

With Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in the forefront and his superior Gen. David Petraeus deftly maneuvering to apply his counterinsurgency strategy to the country, the book describes how the generals labored to box Mr. Obama in, and how he pushed back.

While eventually acceding to 30,000 troops rather than the 40,000 Mr. McChrystal insisted he needed, Mr. Obama pressured the generals to agree to an acceleration of the surge to enable a faster judgment on whether the refined mission could be accomplished within the two-year time frame Mr. Obama insisted upon.

His stipulation that a drawdown would start in July 2011 was a bitter pill for the generals to swallow, as was reflected in subsequent remarks by Mr. Petraeus and by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates suggesting a need for wiggle room.

While Mr. Petraeus focused on the numbers, Mr. Biden urged Mr. Obama to shift the strategy away from defeating the Taliban insurgency, which has supported al-Qaeda, to simply "degrading" it sufficiently to enable Afghan military and police forces to assume the task.

Mr. Woodward reports that Mr. Obama told his subordinates, after all the agonizing and before announcing his decision, that there would be no further buildup no matter what: "We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change … unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011."

The book also relates that Mr. Obama went around the table telling each of his main players that if they couldn't support the plan, to "say so." None did, though Mr. Petraeus did recommend that the transfer of security by July 2011 be "conditions-based," determined by what was happening on the ground — that wiggle room again.

The portrait of Mr. Obama that emerges from the book is of a deliberative president refusing to be stampeded into military proposals that could continue the nation-building pursuits of his predecessor. But he also indicated he was unable to bite the bullet and walk away from the whole mess — yet.

Mr. Woodward reports Mr. Obama telling Mr. Biden, just before presenting his decision: "I'm not signing on to a failure. If what I proposed is not working, I'm not going to be like these other presidents and stick to it based upon my ego or my politics — my political security."

So the war in Afghanistan goes on, with Mr. Obama betting heavily on the refocused mission to extricate his country (and his own political fortunes) from it, before facing an expected reelection bid in 2012.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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