In Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars,’ Neil Sheehan sees parallels to Vietnam

In another of his superbly reported insider accounts, “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward recounts how a new president may have embroiled himself in a war that could poison his presidency — just as his predecessor, George W. Bush, destroyed his with a foolhardy war in Iraq and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were ruined by the war in Vietnam.

The grim mountains and deserts of Afghanistan are a boneyard of invading armies. The British rulers of colonial India sent an Anglo-Indian army there in 1839 to establish Afghanistan as a buffer state against the advances of imperial Russia in Central Asia. The enterprise faltered against Afghan resistance, and the main garrison at Kabul — about 4,500 troops and 12,000 family members and camp followers — decided to retreat back to India in January 1842. Afghan tribesmen fell upon them in the snows of the mountain passes and slaughtered them without pity. Only one man, a doctor named William Brydon, reached safety. A few others were spared as prisoners and subsequently rescued.

One hundred and thirty-seven years later came the mighty Soviet Union’s turn. In December 1979 Leonid Brezhnev dispatched the lead elements of a 110,000-man Soviet expeditionary force to rescue Afghanistan’s collapsing communist regime. The Red Army was a proud army. It had smashed Adolph Hitler’s Wehrmacht, once thought invincible. But after 10 years of fruitless Afghan warfare, the last elements of a broken and dispirited Soviet force climbed into their armored vehicles and headed back north to Russia.

The American war in Afghanistan began, of course, in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the refusal of the Taliban leadership to hand over Osama bin Laden and the other al-Qaeda leaders who instigated and planned them. President Bush, however, neglected Afghanistan in favor of his war in Iraq.

According to Woodward’s narrative, Obama seems to have first stepped into the Afghan war in a somewhat absent-minded way, granting the military 21,000 more troops for the conflict, without much examination, during the opening months of his administration.

By the fall, the commanders are back for more. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, an aggressive and highly regarded officer (until he blew himself up with disparaging comments about his colleagues and superiors in a Rolling Stone interview), had been appointed the new commander for Afghanistan on May 11, 2009. He had toured the country to reassess the situation and had handed in his report at the end of August.

Soon the bad news arrives at the White House. McChrystal wants an additional 40,000 troops, enough reinforcements to virtually equal the size of the Soviet commitment, 108,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan when added to the 68,000 already authorized for deployment there. The request is backed by Robert Gates, the secretary of defense; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David Petraeus, the most prestigious officer in the Army, thanks to his application of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, and the chief of U.S. Central Command, which covers American forces in the Middle East and South Asia from its headquarters in Tampa. (Petraeus took over as commanding general in Afghanistan after McChrystal was sacked for his indiscretion in June 2010.)

As there is minimal mention of Iraq in the book, Woodward takes his title from the arguments over the troop request that drag on through the fall of 2009 in the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing.

The military wants the 40,000 troops with no strings attached, no promise that this will be the last request and no fixing of a date when Obama can begin withdrawing them. The president sees the pit opening before him. “This is not what I’m looking for,” he says. “I’m not doing 10 years, I’m not doing a long-term nation-building effort. I’m not spending a trillion dollars.” He wants another, more flexible option with fewer troops and a built-in date to start withdrawals. But the military won’t give it to him. Gates, Mullen and Petraeus hold fast to the original request and put additional pressure on Obama through their supporters in Congress and the media. (The 29,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan do not figure in the argument because many are noncombat support troops and because it is uncertain how much longer allied countries will maintain their contributions.)

Finally, at the end of November, the president surrenders and gives the military most of what it demands. In a strategy memorandum dated Nov. 29, 2009, which Obama dictated himself and Woodward prints verbatim at the end of the book, the president approves a 33,000-troop surge for Afghanistan, bringing the U.S. force level there to 101,000. Obama estimates the cost at $113 billion per year. He specifies July 2011 as the time when reductions are supposed to begin but then undercuts himself by giving the military an escape hatch: The reductions are to be “based on progress on the ground.”

Vice President Biden, who stood by the president’s side and fought hardest against the military during the months of arguments in the Situation Room, warns Obama, as the president is about to hand out his strategy memorandum, that they could get “locked into Vietnam.” The comment is striking, because Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan bears a remarkable resemblance to Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy.

Under Vietnamization, Nixon bought time with the public at home by gradually withdrawing U.S. troops (he still spent the lives of more than 20,000 in the process) while shifting the burden of combat to the Saigon government’s forces and simultaneously strengthening them so they would presumably be able to stand up to their communist opponent once the last American combat troops departed. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and infantry weapons of all sorts were lavished on Saigon’s army and jet fighter-bombers and helicopters on its air force.

But unless they are mainly mercenary, armies usually reflect the nature of the society from which they are drawn, and Saigon’s society was ruled by a clique of generals and their wives and hangers-on whose incompetence and venality were monumental. When the North Vietnamese army launched another offensive in 1975, the Saigon forces possessed all they needed to fight, except the will. They collapsed and fled faster than their enemy could catch up with them.

In his strategy memo, Obama similarly posits strengthening the Afghan armed forces and police so that he will be able to gradually reduce U.S. troops. The rub is that Obama’s ally, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, preside over a massively corrupt government and show no evidence of willingness to reform it. Woodward also tells us that Hamid Karzai has become mentally unstable, given to severe mood swings and “increasingly delusional and paranoid.” It would be a miracle if an Afghan national army and police force able to take on the Taliban could be created in this void of morality and competence.

“Got Hope?” was one of the rallying cries of Obama’s supporters during the 2008 election campaign. He will need hope in Afghanistan. The Taliban obviously cannot defeat the U.S. Army in set-piece battles, but it does not have to do that to win the war. It can bleed us men and treasure, year after year, until the American people have had enough.

Neil Sheehan is the author of “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His latest book, “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,” will appear in paperback this month.

This article was published in the Washington Post.

Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward is available for pre-order at all Liberty Books stores and its website.

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