Obama Advisers Ignored Afghan Corruption Before Surge: Review

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward's new book is "Obama's Wars." Photographer: Richard Howard/Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

Late last year President Barack Obama announced his plan to send an additional 30,000 American troops to fight in Afghanistan. In “Obama’s Wars” (I don’t know why the second word is plural), Bob Woodward shows how he and his advisers arrived at that decision.

It was a very rational process -- which may be what makes the book so depressing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it plainly when she said, “We need some realism.” For all the realism those hardworking officials summoned up, they might as well have been sitting around and planning for the Rapture.

The main conflict was over the military’s request for 40,000 additional troops. Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates endorsed that figure. The skeptics included Vice President Joseph Biden and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

The problem, as Eikenberry phrased it (though the hawks didn’t disagree), was that the mission “cannot be won solely by military means.” Overwhelming the Taliban was essential, but it wasn’t enough. An exit strategy depended on fixing the despised, dysfunctional Afghan government.

But unless Woodward is leaving out big chunks of the discussion, the group never batted around ways of addressing the runaway corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s regime. The thievery was so intractable that Obama’s powerhouse planners seem to have tacitly -- perhaps unconsciously -- decided to ignore it and focus on an area where they could exercise some control: troop levels.

Criminal Syndicate

But as Biden demanded, “If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?”

Clinton’s answer -- which was also the position of General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command before he replaced General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- doesn’t ring with assurance: “The only way to get governance changes is to add troops, but there’s still no guarantee that it will work.”

Karzai was handled with a delicacy bordering on lunacy. “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely,” Gates is reported to have assured him. “In fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.” But Woodward makes clear Obama’s commitment to a drawdown of American forces beginning in July 2011.

Bush v. Obama

Anybody who has read the author’s chronicles of the George W. Bush administration will be struck by the change of atmosphere Obama brought. Open debate was not a hallmark of Bush’s rule, under which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “systematically emasculated” the Joint Chiefs of Staff and publicly chewed out anyone who disagreed with him.

But “vigorous debate” was exactly what Obama solicited -- he “wanted every argument on every side to be poked hard.” This open exchange of ideas was what former Vice President Dick Cheney famously called “dithering.”

The process was designed to bring differences of opinion into the open so they could be argued to a resolution. In that context, the sharp disagreements that reporters have savored like M&Ms in the wake of the book’s publication don’t seem all that newsy.

Woodward’s delineation of Obama’s decision-making process make “Obama’s Wars” more interesting -- and competent -- than his books on the Bush years. It’s less purple, and probably for a good reason: The buttoned-down Obama and his team didn’t drive Woodward to the ecstasies of histrionic prose that he couldn’t resist for the operatic villains of the Bush administration.

“Obama’s Wars” is published by Simon & Schuster (441 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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