As Obama battles for reelection, White House aides have sought to depict the president as an engaged and decisive leader on national security matters. But the Helmand deployment also exposes the limits of his understanding of Afghanistan — and his unwillingness to confront the military — early in his presidency.
Just weeks after Obama took office in 2009, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged him to approve the 17,000-troop increase before the new White House had finished a review of war strategy. Mullen said the additional forces were needed to secure the country in advance of Afghanistan’s presidential elections that August. But White House officials never pressed the Pentagon for details about where the new troops — the first major military deployment of Obama’s presidency — were heading. If they had received them, they would have learned that more than half of the forces were heading to a part of the country that was home to about 1 percent of its population.
Excerpted from “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor, covered the Afghan war from February 2009 to July 2011. The book is based upon his reporting for the newspaper and more than 70 original interviews. Material in this excerpt is drawn from interviews with numerous U.S. government and military officials with direct involvement in Afghan war policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Copyright © 2012 by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Nobody bothered to ask, ‘Tell us how many troops you’re sending here and there,’ ” said a senior White House official involved in war policy. “We assumed, perhaps naively, that the Pentagon was sending them to the most critical places.”
The problem escalated later in 2009 when McChrystal asked for 40,000 more troops. Some of the new forces would be sent to Kandahar. Others would secure the regions around Kabul as well as a few Pashtun-dominated pockets in the north and west where insurgent activity had increased. But thousands of the additional troops were slated to go to Helmand — on top of the nearly 11,000 Marines who already were there.
McChrystal wasn’t happy about devoting a third of his surge to Helmand, but he believed the Marines had to expand their counterinsurgency operations across the province to demonstrate momentum to the Afghan people. “We had to show we could fulfill our commitments,” he said.
The military’s counterinsurgency strategy was supposed to place troops near civilian population centers to protect residents from insurgents, not chase bad guys in the desert or remote valleys.
When McChrystal presented his troop request to Obama’s war cabinet — he spoke via a secure video link from Kabul to participants in the White House Situation Room — he displayed a map of Afghanistan dotted with blue bubbles that indicated where he intended to place the new forces. Several bubbles were in Helmand.
But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet — which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more Marines in Helmand. The civilians didn’t know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.
From his seat along the wall, Obama’s top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy — whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries — they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.