Obama’s war of political necessity

Candor cost Gen Stanley McChrystal his job as US commander in Afghanistan, while President Obama was credited with a political masterstroke — replacing the general with a loose tongue with a general with a golden tongue.

But maybe Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, would not be treated as a source of revelations if more attention had been paid to what McChrystal said than the way he said it.

The renegade general’s portrayal of a president who “didn’t seem very engaged,” suggests that Obama’s claim as both candidate and president — that Afghanistan was a war of necessity — was a political posture that would eventually prove to be untenable.

In June, Michael Hastings wrote:

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

Bob Woodward (no relation to me) now portrays a commander in chief intensely focused on getting out of Afghanistan and surrounded by advisers who fought with each other.

The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

But Mr. Biden is not the only one who harbors doubts about the strategy’s chances for success. Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s Afghanistan adviser, is described as believing that the president’s review did not “add up” to the decision he made. Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is quoted saying of the strategy that “it can’t work.”

Obama’s problem: either an exit strategy was a necessity or the war was a necessity but he couldn’t argue for both.

Besides, whatever he might actually believe, he had already boxed himself in by pursuing a political strategy that hinged on his ability to portray himself as an opponent to the war in Iraq who was not an opponent of war per se.

The war in Afghanistan was Obama’s shield against Republican attacks. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he said in 2002 when laying out his credentials as an un-antiwar Illinois State Senator.

If Obama as a candidate and as president was to have been more candid, he might have expanded on a theme he touched on only briefly — his affinity with Ronald Reagan but more specifically their apparent shared belief that American wars are best fought in secret using mercenaries.

While the reporting on Woodward’s book is likely to focus on the infighting surrounding a president who appears to lack conviction, the New York Times report also has new details on a covert war in which it seems likely that the Durand Line (dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan) means as little to the US government as it does to the Pashtun people.

[Obama’s Wars] reports that the CIA has a 3,000-man “covert army” in Afghanistan called the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, or CTPT, mostly Afghans who capture and kill Taliban fighters and seek support in tribal areas. Past news accounts have reported that the CIA has a number of militias, including one trained on one of its compounds, but not the size of the covert army.

I guess they couldn’t call them the neo-mujahadeen — or what might be even more fitting: the Afghan Contras.

As a Journeyman TV report revealed earlier this year and as has been demonstrated many times before, US-backed militias often end up becoming death squads.

Update: Justin Elliott at Salon picks up the same theme and includes a paragraph that appeared in an earlier version of the New York Times report:

Mr. Woodward reveals the code name for the CIA.’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan, Sylvan Magnolia, and writes that the White House was so enamored of the program that Mr. Emanuel would regularly call the CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, asking, “Who did we get today?”

The White House chief of staff sounds just like former President Bush with his adolescent, comic-book conception of push-button warfare. Hellfire missiles don’t indiscriminately shred human bodies and destroy homes — they “get” targets and the targets can be chalked up on a scoreboard.

Did an editor at the New York Times decide that the man who might be hoping to become the next mayor of Chicago should be saved some embarrassment?

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4 thoughts on “Obama’s war of political necessity

  1. Christopher Hoare

    So the Afghan war is a war of ‘political’ necessity? The Afghan civilians are dying to make Obama look good? It’s necessary to feed the Republicans their quota of blood to keep them from getting too restive? Oh, I see, it’s a Democratic domestic necessity. All right, then.

    Thomas L. Friedman writing in The International Herald Tribune: “In recent years, I have often said to European friends: So, you didn’t like a world of too much American power? See how you like a world of too little American power – because it is coming to a geopolitical theater near you.”

    Bring it on. The whole world needs to see less American ‘hard power’ exercised; fewer American war machines tearing holes in the world’s fabric; fewer sovereign nations threatened for doing something America thinks contrary to their interests; fewer nuclear carriers sent as ‘gunboats’ to pacify the ‘heathen’. Yes, there are some nasty states out there in the world, but the US doesn’t have the guts to tackle them — they might fight back.

    If we really need to do something about the world’s disputes we ought to have a forum to deal with the problems diplomatically … what? We already have one? Well I’ll be … you’d never know it.

  2. DE Teodoru

    Afghanistan once again proves that bad SURGE-ons can’t help repeating bad SURGE-ry. Because his patient Iraq survived, Petraeus insists that he has to be allowed to try again the same bad SURGE-ry on Afghanistan for no other reason than because his reputation as a SURGE-on is at stake. That sums it up and the sight of such ignorance about the lessons of Vietnam from a general that did his PhD Thesis on the Vietnam War sais a lot more than I need say.

    Petraeus bravely uttered the obvious: if we keep allowing Israel to not only murder Arabs as vermin but also to make us carry out “WORLD WAR IV” against Islam that their neocon flunkies– desperate to have their “mesh-hood” recognized by the Israelis– we’ll be shooting ourselves from the rear. But then, as MONDOWEISS exposed in e-mails, Petraeus suddenly sang of his own armored pro-Zionism claiming he had all the dumbest of neocons advising him (actually, he used them as peanut gallery). All that this proves is that, rather than retire on the JINSA board, Petraeus intents to move from the Pentagon to the White House as President. McChrystal was his campaign manager who never grasped what a bad SURGE-on Petraeus is because, to his mind, as a soldier he needs to be, arrogantly cocksure. Well, from that first encounter with Obama McChrystal came to believe that he could intimidate the President into allowing them all the time, assets and troops needed to SURGE in Afghanistan for as long as they want. Typical of the Napoleonic soldier, McChrystal tactic is to “advance and then see….” Well, what McChrystal didn’t see is that the generals Petraeus and he screwed and those wanting a return to a mechanized army with lots of war toys rather than a COIN army with lots of SpecOps troops, put Hastings on McChrystal’s tail as if he were a “Reaper drone” and, in his arrogance, McChrystal took the bait. Now McChrystal is out and Petraeus is exiled to Kabul HQ running his losing war instead of his presidential campaign. To me they are all scum for putting our mom&dad soldiers through their Kabuki dance. But as I start to read Woodward’s book I’m very glad that the people who talked to some of us because we WOULDN’T write a book have decided it’s time to talk to someone who would. History rises out of the cesspool that is the Pentagon clean as if the s–t just can’t stick to it. From the bowels of TOP SECRET, the REAL STORY will always prevail. It’s up up us to learn its lessons.

  3. scott

    Kerry would have had to surge in Iraq, Obama had to surge in Afghanistan. Only McCain could have withdrawn from both theatres, though I’m not sure he would have. In 04 I was and remain sure that Bush wanted to get out of Iraq faster than Kerry. He knew, by then that appearances were all that was worth preserving. I don’t say that out of some GOP affinity, just the cowardly nature of politicians. And, the fact that Dem candidates don’t have enough viscera to challenge the pentagon

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