Obama’s Wars By Bob Woodward
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
If you have a relative in the armed services or a friend who is a political aficionado, “Obama’s Wars” would make a nifty gift. It’s the latest inside look at Presidential decision making by Bob Woodward, whose previous books include “Bush at War” and “Plan of Attack.”
In these books Woodward interviews the President, major political figures, generals, and other participants. He tries as much as possible to have his sources confirm each other’s accounts, so as to ensure historical accuracy. Woodward goes to lengths at being impartial. This truly is the first draft of history.
Woodward first rose to national prominence in the early 1970s as part of a two man team of investigative reporters for the Washington Post, exposing the seamy side of the Nixon presidency in the Watergate scandal. Nixon was forced to resign to avoid being impeached.
The Obama who emerges in these pages is a deeply thoughtful man who gives due consideration to the consequences of his decisions.
Few Presidents have taken office amidst such calamity. An economic depression, two wars, a collapse of the financial system, the impending devastation of America’s industrial heartland by the bankruptcy of the automobile industry, and the ongoing threat of terrorism would have tested the most experienced President. Obama’s signature achievement – keeping the economy from imploding in 2009 – has brought him little credit due to persistently high unemployment. This book focuses on Obama’s policy on the war in Afghanistan.
This book sees two big problems hindering U.S. efforts to withdraw Afghanistan: the corruption of the Afghan government and Pakistan.
“Fixing the Afghan government was central to the mission if the U.S. was ever going to get out,” writes Woodward. “[Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, [emissary Richard C.] Holbrooke, and the intelligence chiefs, Blair and Panetta, all agreed that out-of-control corruption was the main problem.” General David Patreaus succinctly described the Afghan government: “I understand the government is a criminal syndicate.”
The corruption has fed the insurgency two ways. It has been one of the foremost recruiting tools for the Taliban, and undermined support for the central government. Understandably, few Afghans want to die for a criminal syndicate.
Pakistan is an extremely complex situation. It is “called ‘the most dangerous country in the world today, where every nightmare of the twenty first century converges’ – terrorism, government instability, corruption and nuclear weapons.” Pakistan’s porous and largely ungoverned border areas are a Taliban safe sanctuary from which insurgents rest, recuperate, and raid American forces.
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, is playing both sides in the Afghan war, helping the U.S. while supplying sanctuary to Taliban leaders. Woodward described a conversation between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“Do you really think the ISI could pick up [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar if they wanted to?” asked Clinton.
Karzai reached over and plucked a chocolate chip cookie from its plate. “They could deliver Mullah Omar like I can pick up this cookie,” he said.
After numerous studies, and lengthy discussions with generals, diplomats, and advisers, Obama made the decision to escalate the war with a “clear and transfer” strategy in which allied forces would clear areas of Taliban insurgents ad transfer them to Afghan troops. There was a provision that withdrawal would begin in 2011, a date since extended to 2014. The problem is the unwillingness of Afghans to die for Karzai’s government. The U.S. and itts NATO allies can clear any area they want in Afghanistan of insurgents, but there aren’t reliable Afghan troops to transfer them to.