Bob Woodward's book portrays a great divide over Afghanistan

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SUPPORTERS OF President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan can only be disheartened by the portrait of his administration provided in Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." By Mr. Woodward's account, many of the president's senior White House advisers believe that the modified counterinsurgency strategy he adopted last year is doomed to fail -- and some suspect the president shares their views.

The administration's lengthy deliberations about whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan last fall produced a sharp debate between Mr. Obama's White House and the military commanders responsible for Afghanistan -- and the rift appears to endure. By the middle of this year, the book reports, Vice President Biden was "more convinced than ever that Afghanistan was a version of Vietnam." The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, is quoted as saying, "Basically we're screwed." National security adviser James L. Jones's view is "you can't win." Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who is the senior coordinator for Afghanistan on the National Security Council, says, "This is a house of cards."

It's possible, of course, that all of the dissenters are correct; the results from Afghanistan so far this year have been mixed at best. Yet Mr. Obama's chosen commander in the theater, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has been reporting signs of progress -- and the administration appears not to be considering significant changes in the strategy for now. Mr. Woodward's reporting raises a question we have asked in the past: Why does the president continue to employ aides -- including an ambassador in Kabul -- who do not support his policy and are frequently at odds with those trying to implement it?

What's most disturbing in Mr. Woodward's book is the evidence it offers that Mr. Obama's own commitment to his plan is weak. The president is described as preoccupied with finding "an exit strategy" that will reduce the U.S. military involvement as quickly as possible. "This needs to be a plan about how we are going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Mr. Woodward quotes him as saying in one meeting.

Mr. Obama repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources to domestic priorities -- though spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. He is portrayed as citing purely political reasons for setting the deadline of July 2011 for beginning a withdrawal: "I can't lose all the Democratic Party," he is quoted as telling one senator.

In Mr. Woodward's narrative, Mr. Obama repeatedly rejects the notion of a military campaign in Afghanistan lasting eight or even five more years. Yet Gen. Petraeus and other commanders have made it clear that success will require a long-term commitment.

Perhaps the most damning assessment of the president comes from Gen. Lute, who Mr. Woodward says concluded that "Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn't be done . . . the president had treated the military as another political constituency that had to be accommodated." For the sake of the Americans fighting in Afghanistan, and the families of the 360 service members who have died there this year, we hope that is not the case.

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