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Biden warned Obama during Afghan war review not to get 'locked into Vietnam'

President Obama's comments on preventing another 9/11 and America's ability to "absorb a terrorist attack."

When Obama met with an inner circle of National Security Council staffers later that Saturday, the president sounded like he was still tentative about the 30,000-troop strategy. "This is the way I'm leaning," he said, adding sharply, "but the door is not closed. I got [foreign policy speechwriter Ben] Rhodes writing two speeches. And I want to hear from you guys one last time."

Army Col. John Tien, an Iraq combat veteran and former Rhodes Scholar serving on the NSC, was junior in rank, so he spoke first. The U.S. military has thousands of active-duty colonels and it was unusual for one to be able to advise the commander in chief directly, particularly just before a defining decision.

"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?"

The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.

Lute could see that Obama had reached a fork in the road and was pausing.

"Mr. President," he said, "you don't have to do this. I know you know this, but let's just review the bidding here. How do we think things are going to look in July of '11?"

Lute told Obama that he saw four main risks in the Afghan war. First, there was Pakistan, the heart of many of the problems because of Taliban and al-Qaeda havens there. Second, governance and corruption in Afghanistan - huge problems with no practical fix readily available. Third, the Afghan National Security Forces - army and police - probably could not be fixed even with a decade-long effort costing tens of billions of dollars. Fourth, international support from the 41 U.S. allies in Afghanistan was in peril.

"When you look at these [risks] discretely," Lute continued, "you might be left with the impression we can manage this risk. But I would offer you another model. Look at them as a set, and then you begin to move, in my mind, from a calculated risk to a gamble."

Lute did not have to add that gambling was no way to make policy. "I can't tell you that the prospect here for success is very high," he said. "And if you add those risks up and ask me where I think we'll be in July 2011, sort of your big decision point, I'm telling you I think that we're not going to be a whole lot different than we are today."

Lute drove his point home. "We want to get from here to there, but, my God . . . how in hell are we going to do this?"

"Yeah," the president said graciously, indicating that he did not disagree. "Thanks for being candid. It can't be easy for you to come in here and tell me that. Basically, we're going to have to execute our heart out to make this work."

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