In late August 2009, General Stan McChrystal sent home a report from Afghanistan saying that, without a commitment of more troops, the Afghan mission was likely to result in failure. McChrystal really wanted 50,000 troops but was convinced to tailor his request to 40,000. In October 2009, after two months of deliberations, the president authorized 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan on a time-limited basis.
Afghanistan was the home of the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks, candidate Obama said, and was far more important to US national security than George Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure had ever been. Some critics at the time excoriated the White House for taking so long to answer a burning need in a war that the president had called his main focus during the election campaign, and further criticized him for his seemingly arbitrary reduction of McChrystal’s request from 40,000 to 30,000. The president’s supporters countered that Obama had already sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan soon after taking office and cited the two months between McChrystal’s dire report and the president’s eventual decision as proof of his calm, deliberative nature, purportedly in stark contrast to that of his shoot-from-the-hip cowboy predecessor.
Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars” places the decision in a much different light:
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.
“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”
George Bush was a baseball fan, and when he ordered the Iraqi surge in 2007, he was three runs down, bases loaded, behind in the count and swinging for the fences. Having essentially committed his reserves, the country was all in – there were virtually no troops left to deploy that could be maintained on a sustainable basis.
Barack Obama is a basketball player and it now seems clear that he chose a different strategy, the fadeaway jumper: If the ball goes through the hoop, so much the better, but if it does not, the player’s momentum takes him back to his own side of the court, ready to play defense. (The fadeaway, by the way, is one of the hardest shots to master in basketball; most players and coaches consider it the weakest offensive option.)
Speaking of basketball, homeland defense and other such games, the president also had this to say about terror attacks at home:
A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here “a potential game changer.” He said: “When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one where you can’t afford any mistakes.”
Calling a nuclear attack on the homeland “a potential game changer” is perhaps one of the strangest possible formulations for any president to utter: In the smoking devastation of a nuclear attack that would undoubtedly take tens of thousands of American lives, what game, precisely, would the president consider to have changed?
Given his demonstrated desire to only do what is minimally necessary to retreat from Afghanistan with the pretext of having done what could be done, one intuits that “the game” is not fashioning something that looks like victory abroad, but rather the president’s cherished domestic agenda that seeks to reform American life down to its core – health care, energy policy, immigration, education and the environment.
We will never know whether the 40,000 troops that McChystal wanted would have been sufficient to set the conditions for an honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan. With American soldiers now dying there at ever increasing rates, we may now be learning that the 30,000 the president chose to send were too many to die, too few to win.