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Gates-gate: Is Obama the Only Problem with the Afghanistan War?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Excuse me while I defend President Obama.

To be sure, this doesn’t happen often, if ever. But this Robert Gates story, whipping through Washington like wildfire, feels like smoke in our eyes.


It all started with an article by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post about the former secretary of defense’s new memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” Gates, Woodward writes, had concluded “by early 2010 (that) the president ‘doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war (in Afghanistan) to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.’”

Getting out: my one, probably accidental, convergence with Obama. But I digress.

Woodward continues: “Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was ‘skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,’ Gates writes.”

A commander in chief sends Americans to war “convinced it would fail”? The ensuing dudgeon has never been higher among Obama’s critics, which, of course, should include me.

But there are a couple of points to take into account about this particular revelation from the Gates book via Woodward (the book’s release date is Jan. 14).

First, I found myself lingering over Woodward’s description of “the president’s own strategy.” To be sure, any war Obama fights as president belongs to him, but there is more to this story. Back in 2010, I recall reading a shocking insider account about how the military brass virtually imposed the Afghanistan “surge” strategy on Obama. The headline over this earlier Washington Post story was: “Military thwarted president seeking choice on Afghanistan.” The writer was again Bob Woodward. In fact, the earlier article, one of a three-part series, was adapted from Woodward’s 2010 book “Obama’s Wars.”


I wrote about this series at the time (“Hail to the Junta?”), noting: “The stories – anonymously sourced as usual and, as such, questionable even as they undoubtedly influence subsequent coverage – describe a president frustrated, ill-served and finally overwhelmed by military muscle concentrated in the hands of Defense Secretary Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen and then-CENTCOM chief Petraeus.”

The other side of the new Gates assessment, to be sure.

It was an alarming tale Woodward told in 2010 – and, which, to my knowledge, none of the principals, including Gates, has ever refuted. “As Woodward frames the behind-the-scenes struggle,” I wrote in 2010, “Obama ‘was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out.’ Meanwhile, ‘his top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end.’”

Literally. “I don’t think you win this war,” Woodward quotes Petraeus saying privately. “I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. … Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

I’d say it was high time to fire any general whose battle plans stretch into eternity. But that’s another story.


In his 2010 reporting, Woodward detailed how Obama asked Gates and Mullen to prepare a so-called “hybrid option” for consideration. This was Vice President Biden’s plan to nix the nation-building central to counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) and focus on Taliban-hunting and training Afghans. This option is more in line with the “lily pad” strategy envisioned by retired Army Gen. Paul Vallely, which I wrote in support of at the time. In Woodward’s telling, Mullen and Petraeus failed adequately to prepare and present this “hybrid option” as presidentially requested. What accounted for this apparent insubordination? Woodward explains that the Pentagon brass didn’t like the non-COIN plan. They wanted their COIN “surge” of 40,000 troops. They got it, of course, trimmed by Obama to 30,000 troops.

Given that Woodward reported on these machinations behind Obama’s “own strategy,” his omission in the Gates story seems odd.

It could be that Gates’ depiction of a cynical president will serve as a handy pivot away from the responsibility for the futile, wasteful COIN wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which spreads across two administrations, both political parties and all through Congress. We left Iraq “too soon,” goes the COINdinistas’ lament since the U.S. withdrew (finally) in 2011. We are about to leave Afghanistan “too soon” (I hope) is the refrain now. Everything is Obama’s fault? Perhaps that will become the narrative of choice. Talk about cynical.


Note, however, that in this Gates-Obama huff-and-puff, the COIN strategy itself remains unscathed – not even mentioned. Personally, I didn’t believe either in the COIN strategy that the Pentagon, according to Woodward, all but forced on a weak civilian leader in 2009 (and I have frequently written about COIN to explain why). It seemed clear COIN would fail in Afghanistan based on its failures in Iraq. And it did.

These are profound failures in two war zones, tied to both political parties, but we have yet to reckon with them. We may never do so. The left is disinterested. The right is content to rap Obama for cynicism and political calculations. A lot of smoke, a lot of headlines, but little light – the perfect recipe for repeating disaster.

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