By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 2:37 AM
A new book by Bob Woodward on the Obama administration's Afghan war deliberations presents three generals in the White House and State Department as the military's toughest, most persistent and most skeptical critics.
President Obama, who took office with relatively little experience with the military, tapped the generals for key positions that are traditionally filled by civilians.
The selections led some critics to complain that the appointments amounted to the militarization of the administration's foreign policy. The Woodward book, however, consistently shows the three officers - retired Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, retired Gen. James L. Jones and Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute - embroiled in heated disputes with the brass.
Lute, the National Security Council's unofficial "war czar" and the sole active-duty general among the group, is portrayed as among the biggest skeptics of the military's strategy to send a surge of more than 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan in an effort to shift the momentum away from the Taliban.
In late November, as the president made the decision to escalate the U.S. commitment to the war, Lute warned him that the approach was unlikely to succeed.
"Mr. President, you don't have to do this," Woodward quotes Lute as saying.
The Army general maintained that the Taliban's ability to exploit Pakistani safe havens, the persistent corruption within the Afghan government and the poor state of the Afghan security forces made it unlikely that the surge of forces would produce major changes in Afghanistan by July 2011.
Lute's strident questioning of the military's preferred strategy drew a stern rebuke from Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military's top officer.
"The secretary and I believe you weren't always helpful in the course of the review," Mullen is quoted as telling Lute.
"I hope the president doesn't have the same view," Lute responded.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the revelations in Woodward's book. "We're not in the business of offering literary criticism, and we are not going to start now," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "Our focus is on the mission moving forward in Afghanistan."
Senior White House officials didn't dispute Woodward's depiction of last fall's policy review as an emotional and often contentious process. They said the president is depicted in the account as decisive, willing to challenge the military brass and deeply engaged in the war effort.
The detailed meeting-by-meeting account, titled "Obama's Wars," describes how the top military and civilian officials in the Pentagon essentially barred serious consideration of any course of action that involved deploying fewer than the 30,000 additional troops that Obama eventually approved. Despite the critiques from Lute, Jones and Eikenberry, the only options that were seriously considered in the White House involved 30,000 to 40,000 more troops.
Obama selected Eikenberry and Jones and retained Lute, who was a holdover from the Bush administration, to compensate for his own lack of experience and contacts with the military.
Each of the three registered their concerns about the strategy in different ways. In early November 2009, Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, drafted a cable that was sharply critical of the military's counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, saying it was likely to both "increase Afghan dependency" on the United States and force the U.S. government to incur "vastly increased costs."
Jones, Obama's national security adviser, similarly was able to use his contacts in the Pentagon and knowledge of how the military's vast bureaucracy functions to question the Pentagon's requests for forces.
The three generals' efforts, however, seem to have had only a modest influence on the final war strategy - in part because top Pentagon officials such as Mullen, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates presented a united front in opposition to deploying any fewer than 30,000 additional troops.
Despite continuing high levels of violence in Afghanistan and ebbing popular support for the war effort, the often heated debate surrounding the war strategy has moderated in recent weeks. Both administration and Pentagon officials portray a December review of the strategy as unlikely to produce any major changes in approach. "This will be about fine-tuning," said a senior Pentagon official. "It is not going to be another review like the fall."
The next major question facing Obama is how quickly he will begin to pull troops out of Afghanistan after July 2011, his stated deadline to begin the withdrawal process. Petraeus, who took over as top commander in Afghanistan this summer, has advocated a gradual removal as responsibility for security is shifted to the Afghans.
Gates and Petraeus have said that the U.S. troop surge and strategy focused on protecting the Afghan people from Taliban insurgents appear to be showing tentative signs of progress.
But concerns remain about the competence of the Afghan security forces and President Hamid Karzai's government, which is deeply unpopular among Afghans and perceived as corrupt. Most military officials in Afghanistan cite poor governance and corruption as the major factors driving the insurgency. Although the United States is engaged in large-scale operations to drive the Taliban from population centers in the south and the east, military officials complain that there is still no coherent strategy to deal with governance and corruption problems.