Illusions of Omnipotence
There is a remarkably telling scene 350 pages into Bob Woodward’s detailed and depressing new book about Barack Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The story tells us all we need to know about the triple bank shot strategy we are following in Afghanistan and how likely it is to fail.
In May of this year, as Woodward tells it, months after the President’s national security team had coalesced around the current Afghanistan strategy, Obama was briefed in the White House Situation Room about the political and military status of the geographic center of the American effort – the Afghan city of Kandahar.
The then-American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “presented a map of Kandahar and its suburbs that attempted to lay out the tribal dynamics,” Woodward writes. “It was a crazy quilt of overlapping colors that resembled a piece of modern art.”
Woodward recounts in Obama’s Wars, his new bestseller, that the details of the 20 tribes represented at the heart of the Taliban insurgency “would almost require a Ph.D. in Afghan culture for an American to comprehend.” During that same briefing, McChrystal also presented to the President slides identifying more than three dozen political power brokers in Kandahar. The general was attempting to show who in the Taliban hierarchy was jockeying for influence and authority. The slides and photos illustrated a hugely complex set of rivalries, loyalties, crime, corruption, family relationships and ambitions.
After studying the slides for some time, Obama said, “This reminds me of Chicago politics…you’re asking me to understand the interrelationships and interconnections between ward bosses and district chiefs and the tribes of Chicago like the tribes of Kandahar. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve lived in Chicago for a long time, and I don’t understand that.”
McChrystal, Woodward writes, quipped amid much laughter,”If we are going to do Chicago, we’re going to need more troops.” A funny line, but chilling in what it says about the reality of impacting a place and people with which we have such a limited understanding. If understanding Chicago politics is tough, Kandahar must be next to impossible.
With the nation and the media completely preoccupied with the looming mid-term elections, it’s worth noting that a full on review of U.S. and NATO progress in Afghanistan is scheduled, as part of Obama’s strategy, for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One suspects the review will not bring much holiday cheer.
While American and NATO officials have recently reported the deaths of hundreds of Taliban leaders, the Associated Press also reports that many Taliban attacks continue, including the killing of the deputy mayor of Kandahar and numerous police officials. And, while the Taliban may be in the process of being “degraded,” that’s the word Obama settled on to explain the current objective regarding the insurgents, it may be just as true that the Taliban, still able to move with relative ease back and forth across the Pakistani frontier, is merely standing down in anticipation of regrouping and refitting during the Afghan winter.
Meanwhile, a critical pillar of Obama’s strategy – improvement in the operations and honesty of the Afghan government – remains in serious doubt. As Woodward’s almost day-by-day account of the development of the Afghan strategy points out, getting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to behave and perform better is absolutely essential to the goals of disrupting the Taliban, quickly turning the fight over to the Afghans and drawing down American troops. As further proof of how difficult it is going to be to create a stable, unifying government in Afghanistan, the recent flurry of coverage suggesting that secret reconciliation talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban have been held has been forcefully denied by Taliban leaders.
Reading Woodward’s book is a bit like watching a well known old motion picture, one you have seen so many times that you can mouth the lines right along with the actors. There is an unmistakable feeling that we’ve seen this movie before and the ending never changes.
In his recent Washington Post review of Obama’s Wars, Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of one of the definitive books on the American experience in Vietnam, notes that Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan – pressed by his national security advisers – is based on a large dollop of hope and a 21st Century updating of Richard Nixon’s last ditch strategy of “Vietnamization.” But hope is an attitude, not a strategy, and turning that earlier war over to an incompetent government that couldn’t command broad support didn’t work.
“The Taliban obviously cannot defeat the U.S. Army in set-piece battles,” Sheehan writes, “but it does not have to do that to win a war. It can bleed us of men and treasure, year after year, until the American people have had enough.” The old movie plays on.
In a brilliant synthesis of the last 100 years of American foreign policy, presidential historian Robert Dallek recently described what he called “the tyranny of metaphor” – three enduring illusions that have shaped every president’s reaction to world events since Woodrow Wilson.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Dallek says one of the enduring myths of our foreign policy is “the surefire effectiveness of military strength in containing opponents.” Dallek, one of the historians Obama has consulted since moving into the White House, says the President has a nuanced and realistic view of what military power can accomplish and Woodward makes it clear that Obama has pressed his military advisers hard and constantly to justify their recommendations with regard to troop numbers and strategy. Nonetheless, when his exhaustive Afghanistan review was finished a year ago, Obama essentially accepted a “split the difference” option between what Gen. David Petraeus wanted for Afghanistan and what much more skeptical advisers were urging on the President.
One can’t help but think that while it is encouraging that Obama has displayed, to invoke the old phrase, a minimum high regard for the omnipotence of our brave and overworked military, he has also embraced a path in Afghanistan based more on hope than reason; more on what we’d like to happen than what history tells us is likely to happen.
Near the end of the Woodward book, Obama is quoted as telling his generals, “Be careful we don’t start something for which we don’t have resources to enable completion.” He then adds, “keep thinking about how we’ll know if we are succeeding and when we’ll know.”
Woodward’s book brilliantly captures the division over Afghanistan that exists among civilian and military advisers to the President, not to mention the competing views inside the military, even while Obama attempts to find a plausible path that might address the enormously difficult, perhaps impossible, task of working our will on corrupt governments whose fundamental objectives are rarely in sync with our own.
It is gratifying to see Obama and his advisers struggling mightily to get their arms around this ten year war, but at the same time tragic to see yet another administration tossed on the rocks of American illusions of omnipotence.
Come Christmas, the expected outcomes of the Congressional mid-terms and the election’s impact on the next two years of Obama’s presidency may be among the least of the Commander in Chief’s problems. Lyndon Johnson came to regard Vietnam as the “bitch of a war” that wrecked his presidency. Afghanistan, on top of a broken economy and a fractured political system at home, is really threatening to become the same for Obama.