By Anne E. Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 6, 2009
President Obama, seated at the head of a conference table strewn with papers in the White House Situation Room, stared at charts showing various options for sending additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
He and his top national security advisers had been debating the way forward for two full months. On this day, Nov. 11, the president scanned the choices with a trace of irritation. At a meeting more than two weeks earlier, he had asked for a plan to deploy and pull out troops quickly -- a "surge" similar to the one that his Republican predecessor had executed in Iraq, but with a fixed date to begin withdrawals.
What was in front of Obama -- scenarios in which it took too long to get in and too long to get out -- was not what he wanted.
"I don't know how we can describe this as a surge," he said in a tone that others around the table registered as annoyance. "I'm usually more sedate than this," Obama acknowledged, according to a senior adviser who read from notes he took at the meeting.
By the time Obama returned 10 days later from a trip to Asia, military officials had come up with plans to deploy troops much more rapidly than originally proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The new plans also called for fewer U.S. troops than McChrystal had requested and specified that they would begin to come home by July 2011, starting a glide path toward ending a war that, according to opinion polls, only a minority of Americans think is worth fighting.
As described in interviews by more than a dozen senior administration and military officials who took part in the strategy review, the final number of 30,000 more American troops and the timing of their deployment were among the last policy elements to be finalized. Obama's new strategy, which he announced in an address to the nation last week from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., would push the total U.S. military force in Afghanistan to about 100,000 by mid-2010 and make new demands on America's NATO and other foreign partners.
After one revelatory discussion about the mission's goals, administration officials changed their chief objective from trying to eliminate the Taliban to making sure insurgents could no longer threaten the Afghan government's survival. The new strategy would include a closer relationship with Pakistan, along with a warning that the United States would step up its action against al-Qaeda camps in that country if the Pakistanis did not do it themselves.
In 25 hours of meetings that the president led over three months, participants reviewed in detail how complicated the Afghanistan conflict had become. The sessions were fluid, influenced by the ghosts of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the imperatives of a soaring budget deficit.
"What was interesting was the metamorphosis," said national security adviser James L. Jones, the only senior official who agreed to discuss the deliberations on the record. "I dare say that none of us ended up where we started."
Jones did not reveal his own position. But among a wide range of opinions as the process began, Vice President Biden was known to oppose a major troop buildup, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was publicly leery, and some of Obama's civilian advisers were privately opposed. When the president polled them on his final decision two days before it was announced, all endorsed it.
The new strategy allows the military to emphasize how much of McChrystal's vision the president endorsed and some of Obama's civilian advisers to say they conducted a wholesale redrawing of the approach to Afghanistan. For Obama, the immersion in the conflict, and in defining how the United States will fight it, makes a long and unpopular war his own.Basic reality
Obama and his war council gathered in the Situation Room for the first of what would be nine official review sessions on a crisp Sunday in the second week of September. All of those in the room were familiar with McChrystal's classified 66-page assessment of "serious and deteriorating" conditions in Afghanistan, which made clear that "we were starting from zero after eight years of war," a civilian adviser said.
The president indicated he wanted to start over, too. Rather than jumping into troop numbers or other recommendations, he told them, they were going to see "if we could just reach consensus" on the basic reality in Afghanistan and the conflict, another civilian adviser said.
Attendance at the meetings varied depending on who was in Washington and on the issue under discussion, but the central cast around the table included Jones, Biden, the secretaries of state and defense, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama's intelligence chiefs, and top generals and diplomats. Other senior advisers sat along the wall.
The approach, one senior adviser said, was colored by the what he called the "Shinseki legacy." As army chief of staff in 2003, then-Gen. Eric K. Shinseki told Congress that the United States would need "several hundred thousand soldiers" to maintain order in post-invasion Iraq. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz called the large estimate "outlandish," but in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion, senior military officers said Shinseki was largely right.
Obama "didn't just want a number picked out," said the official, who attended all the meetings. "He wanted the strategy to drive the number."
In discussions opened by intelligence briefings, officials explored a range of subjects, including the nature of al-Qaeda and Taliban havens in Pakistan, Jones said, as well as "the degree of corruption in Afghanistan. . . . Had we over-invested in the central government and under-invested in regional and tribal leaders?" Other discussions centered on the capabilities of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his security forces, what should be done in Pakistan and the effectiveness of civilian development efforts in Afghanistan.
Biden -- who had formed a grim assessment during a visit to Afghanistan in January and argued for fewer troops during the administration's first war review, in February and March -- questioned costs and asked why more forces were needed in Afghanistan if the objective was to destroy al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. Some thought his analysis reflected a misunderstanding of counterinsurgency and an overemphasis on bombs and missiles, but many, including Obama, found his sharp questioning invaluable.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who wrote the military's counterinsurgency manual and was responsible for the surge strategy in Iraq, saw lessons from that conflict that needed to be considered. Some worried that he was drawing invalid parallels, but the president, an Obama adviser said, "was taken with his real-world experience."
Gates, who had been the deputy CIA director when the Soviet Union ended its Afghanistan occupation in 1989, warned against a repeat of the subsequent U.S. abandonment of the region. Throughout the spring and summer, Gates had counseled against a massive U.S. "footprint" in xenophobic Afghanistan. Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had watched the U.S. buildup in Vietnam as a junior Foreign Service officer in the early 1960s and felt he knew the meaning of quagmire.
Obama's style was to lead the meetings through questions, which he often jotted down in his small handwriting on a notepad. Details of the deliberations were repeatedly leaked -- along with a copy of McChrystal's assessment, published by The Washington Post on Sept. 21 -- and Democrats began to preemptively criticize any decision to increase deployments, while Republicans, when they learned of McChrystal's urgent call for more troops, accused the administration of "dithering" while Afghanistan collapsed.
Obama expressed frustration with the leaks, and at one point he told an interviewer that anyone who revealed private debates and documents should be fired.
Jones said that leaks sometimes upset the process by driving participants to "do things before you wanted to" but that some also had a positive "forcing function" in the debates. Once something was "out there," he said, "you cannot just say, 'We're not going to pay attention to that.' "'Defeat the Taliban'
By early October, it was clear that a process initially envisioned as lasting a few weeks would take much longer. McChrystal had argued that the worsening situation in Afghanistan could be turned around only by a full commitment to protecting the Afghan people and building up the government, with massive new U.S. resources over many years. But he had still not had the opportunity to formally explain his position to those taking part in the review.
His chance came at an Oct. 8 meeting of Obama's principal advisers, presided over by Jones -- the "dress rehearsal" for a full-scale National Security Council gathering the president would hold the next day. Speaking by video link from Kabul, McChrystal began with the policy underlying his approach, established by the White House review, hastily compiled in February, that led to Obama's March 27 strategy announcement and the deployment of nearly 22,000 new troops through the spring and summer.
In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a slide: "Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population."
"Is that really what you think your mission is?" one of those in the Situation Room asked.
On the face of it, it was impossible -- the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a significant part of the population. "We don't need to do that," Gates said, according to a participant. "That's an open-ended, forever commitment."
But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, and it was enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan -- the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.
"I wouldn't say there was quite a 'whoa' moment," a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. "It was just sort of a recognition that, 'Duh, that's what, in effect, the commander understands he's been told to do.' Everybody said, 'He's right.' "
"It was clear that Stan took a very literal interpretation of the intent" of the NSC document, said Jones, who had signed the orders himself. "I'm not sure that in his position I wouldn't have done the same thing, as a military commander." But what McChrystal created in his assessment "was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended."
Whatever the administration might have said in March, officials explained to McChrystal, it now wanted something less absolute: to reverse the Taliban's momentum, deter it and try to persuade a significant number of its members to switch sides. "We certainly want them not to be able to overthrow the government," Jones said.
On Oct. 9, after awaking to the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama listened to McChrystal's presentation. The "mission" slide included the same words: "Defeat the Taliban." But a red box had been added beside it saying that the mission was being redefined, Jones said. Another participant recalled that the word "degrade" had been proposed to replace "defeat."
Already briefed on the previous day's discussion, the president "looked at it and said: 'To be fair, this is what we told the commander to do. Now, the question is, have we directed him to do more than what is realistic? Should there be a sharpening . . . a refinement?' " one participant recalled.
Said a senior White House adviser who took extensive notes of the meeting: "The big moment when the mission became a narrower one was when we realized we're not going to kill every last member of the Taliban."Resources
McChrystal had offered three options for new troop levels -- 10,000, 40,000 and 80,000 -- each with a time frame for deployment and a level of risk. The 10,000 and the 80,000 were "throwaways," a defense participant said. With new objectives for Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning to solidify, Obama had been convinced by his generals of the need for additional forces to break the Taliban's momentum, but he had yet to settle on a number and a schedule for their deployment.
At a meeting Oct. 26, as he studied McChrystal's proposal for 40,000 new troops to flow into Afghanistan between March 2010 and summer 2011, the president first made clear that he wanted a faster troop deployment than he had been shown. "If the situation was as dire" as McChrystal portrayed it, a White House official said the president wanted to know, why couldn't they "get the troops in there to stop the momentum?"
As senior officials began to discern the president's intent, Petraeus convened a meeting of 200 military planners, drawn from the war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, at U.S. Central Command's forward operating headquarters in Qatar.
Another question was being revisited. During the waning days of George W. Bush's administration, and for months under Obama, the United States had largely given up trying to persuade NATO and other allies to send more resources to Afghanistan. Not only was the war unpopular overseas, particularly in Europe, but the U.S. military also believed that only Americans were capable of counterinsurgency. Jones, who once served as supreme NATO commander, said the United States had traditionally tried "to over-own this thing in Afghanistan."
Obama was not initially optimistic about recruiting more allied troops. "Have they checked with their political leaders? Because they don't seem to be in favor of it," he told Gates at one point during the deliberations when the defense secretary raised the possibility of convincing the Europeans. The remark prompted some laughter.
But gradually, Jones said, they decided that a more achievable strategy, coupled with better consultation and Obama's popularity in Europe, would spark new interest and resolve. "It morphed into: We're going to share this with NATO," Jones said. "At the end of the day, everybody finally got a hold of what that means -- that, basically, if you do the right thing in terms of the international community," you could get a better result.
Meanwhile, the initial results of Obama's call for a faster deployment schedule were disappointing, and he repeatedly told the military to go back to the drawing board. "I don't want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years," he said at one session, according to a senior adviser's notes.Sending a signal
On the evening of Oct. 29, Obama flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet a returning C-17 cargo plane. In its hold were 18 flag-draped "transfer cases" carrying the remains of soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents. He stepped inside the plane for a few minutes with the caskets.
October was the deadliest month in Afghanistan for U.S. troops since the 2001 invasion. Fifty-eight troops died, more than three times the toll during the same month last year. A senior administration official said Obama "always believed it was important for him to acknowledge the sacrifice" at some point in the review.
When he met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon on Oct. 30, Obama heard about the severe strain on U.S. forces, which since 2003 had been fighting two wars. He also made clear that he wanted more options for the number of troops and how they could be deployed.
He wanted to send a signal to Afghan President Karzai that "this is not open-ended," recalled one adviser who was present. Two days later, Karzai claimed victory in Afghanistan's presidential runoff as his chief rival withdrew from the race, leaving questions about his popular legitimacy unresolved. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, had argued for weeks that an undefined troop commitment would increase Karzai's dependence on the U.S. government.
The day before the Nov. 11 meeting, during another "dress rehearsal," military planners did not include the "bell curve" charts in the presentation. Biden heard about the omission, according to one participant, and made sure Jones knew the president wanted the deployment schedules outlined the following day. They were.
Turning to Petraeus early in the Nov. 11 meeting, Obama said, "What I'm looking for is a surge." Obama had opposed the troop increase in Iraq as a U.S. senator and never fully embraced its apparent success as a candidate.
Petraeus, now the head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan, backed McChrystal's request for more troops. He was "only too happy" throughout the deliberations to share the similarities and differences between the two conflicts, Jones said.
What Obama wanted to know, Jones said, was: "Can we do it quicker? If we narrow the mission, and tighten the timelines, are there some effects we can achieve quicker?" It was a question that the military had often answered negatively, he said. "They just said . . . we can't do it any faster, because of logistics or whatever. Everybody [had] accepted that."
Obama adjourned the meeting without settling on any of the four troop options presented. But Option 2A showed a deployment curve that began as a slow slide downward in July 2011, part of the timeline he would eventually adopt.
After his return from Asia, Obama convened a Nov. 23 session on how to gain leverage over the Karzai government. Gen. James E. Cartwright, a Marine Corps aviator and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, argued that the number of additional U.S. troops was less important than how quickly they arrived and departed. A deadline, he said, might focus Karzai's mind.
Obama, according to one participant, counseled participants "to be very realistic about this." But the discussion set in motion his decision to announce a withdrawal deadline -- a part of the strategy that Republican congressional leaders in particular have argued would encourage the Taliban to sit out the war until then. According to notes taken by a senior adviser at the meeting, Obama explained his goal: "We send a message to Karzai of a short-leash, which is necessary now."
The idea, a senior administration official said, was to "inject a sense of urgency into the Afghan training program." If it's a secret, he said, "it's not leverage." It was eventually decided to leave the speed of the withdrawal, once begun, for later determination. Gates insisted that language qualifying the pace of the drawdown as "conditions-based" be inserted in Obama's speech.The strategy
Just after twilight on Nov. 29, Obama gathered Biden, Gates, Petraeus, Jones, Emanuel, Cartwright and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Oval Office. He had called Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier.
He had made his decision.
Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops would arrive in Afghanistan by summer, and NATO would be asked to send at least 5,000 forces. A full review would occur in December 2010 to determine where, and at what pace, the strategy was working. In July 2011, troops would begin to return home, although no timeline would be set for full withdrawal.
Obama then went around the room asking one question: Do you support the strategy?
"If they didn't support the decision, he was going to issue another decision" until there was unanimity, a senior administration official said. "But it was his assessment that everyone could and should get behind it."
Each of them did. Obama then walked downstairs to the Situation Room to brief Eikenberry and McChrystal by secure videoconference. Later that night, he took a first draft of his nationwide address, planned for two days later, back with him to the White House residence.
On a chilly evening at West Point, Obama addressed a hall full of subdued cadets, some destined for harm's way under the strategy he outlined.
"As president," he said, "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests."
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.