Obama’s Afghanistan strategy: Don’t listen to the generals

During the Iraq War, Democrats ripped George W. Bush for supposedly not listening to his generals about sufficient troop commitments and strategic and tactical decisions in the field.  Consider that when reading the Washington Post’s report from Bob Woodward’s inside look at the stewardship of Barack Obama in the Afghanistan war.  Not only did Obama ignore the recommendations of his generals, he wound up writing his own war plan to spite them:

President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

Frustrated with his military commanders for consistently offering only options that required significantly more troops, Obama finally crafted his own strategy, dictating a classified six-page “terms sheet” that sought to limit U.S. involvement, Woodward reports in “Obama’s Wars,” to be released on Monday.

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives. …

Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. “I’m not doing 10 years,” he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

This explains why it took Barack Obama months to finally decide on a plan — but not how he got himself in that position in the first place.  Recall that Obama campaigned on fighting in Afghanistan more robustly than Bush did, blaming him for using resources on Iraq that should have gone into the Af-Pak theater.  Starting in 2007, Obama publicly embraced the COIN strategy for Afghanistan that wound up working in Iraq.  What Woodward describes is a man who got confronted with the definition and costs of the strategy he had loudly espoused for years for the first time, and realized he didn’t have a clue what he was talking about the entire time.

The rest of the Post report focuses on the interpersonal conflicts within the war management structure, which given the above, hardly seems surprising at all.  The military men don’t trust the political aides, which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in American warfare, although one has to derive a little humor from national security adviser James Jones’ nickname for them: “Politburo.”  (I bet that went over well in the West Wing when it came out.)  Petraeus may be the loyal company man publicly but privately told his aides that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy” during this period.

The only really notable revelation here is not that surprising:

An older war – the Vietnam conflict – does figure prominently in the minds of Obama and his advisers. When Vice President Biden rushed to the White House on a Sunday morning to make one last appeal for a narrowly defined mission, he warned Obama that a major escalation would mean “we’re locked into Vietnam.”

Obama kept asking for “an exit plan” to go along with any further troop commitment, and is shown growing increasingly frustrated with the military hierarchy for not providing one. At one strategy session, the president waved a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, which put a price tag of $889 billion over 10 years on the military’s open-ended approach.

And instead of listening to his generals, particularly Petraeus, who kept saying that the only exit strategy was to defeat the enemy and keep Afghanistan secure, the man with no military experience whatsoever wrote his own doctrine.  Petraeus, ironically, wound up having to implement a plan he very much opposed.  This sounds closer to the errors of Vietnam than their solution.

Update: Heritage’s Conn Carroll says they called this when Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy.