A version of this article appeared in The Nation on October 11, 2010.
Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars should scare the hell out of you. It is essential reading—between the lines—for anyone seeking a map out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here is one example: If and when a terrorist attack occurs in the United States which can be traced to Pakistan, the American military response will be a “retribution plan” to bomb at least 150 targets in Pakistan. The plan is “one of the most sensitive and secret of all military contingencies,” Woodward writes. There is no discussion of The Day After in this scenario of saturation bombing. Nor did the President and his advisers have “anything on the shelf [which] specifically addressed securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”
Such an attack already has been attempted this year, when Faisal Shahzad, who was funded and trained by the Pakistani Taliban, placed a car bomb in Times Square on May 1. Last year the FBI arrested an AQ operative, Najibullah Zazi, for planning to blow up New York subways with 14 backpack bombs, and also nabbed Chicago resident David Coleman Headley for planning an attack in Europe. Both individuals were trained in Pakistan.
In addition, Woodward reveals a May 26, 2009 secret presidential briefing headlined “North American al Qaeda trainees may influence targets and tactics in the United States and Canada.” According to the briefing, twenty Al Qaeda with Western passports were training in Pakistan safe havens to return to the West for high-profile actions. Elsewhere Woodward says Al Qaeda is recruiting and training people from 35 countries who don’t need visas to enter the US.
The reader is left with the impression that another massive and traumatic assault is to be expected in the US in the near future. We are living “on borrowed time,” according to one adviser. Obama himself vows to Woodward that “we can absorb a terrorist attack” and that “we are stronger” after absorbing the 9/11 attacks. He adds, in his low-keyed manner, “a potential game changer would be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists, blowing up a major American city.” Such is the new realism.
I am not ready to share this information with my ten-year-old son. Has Obama told his daughters? Is it best that no one know while trusting the experts to protect us?
As we await “the game changer,” we learn that the Pentagon already is protecting us by a top-secret war in Pakistan, the new “center of gravity,” plus an expedited escalation in Afghanistan featuring nightly raids by Special Forces. According to the New America Foundation, between 2004-7, there were only nine drone strikes; in 2008, the number rose to 34; in 2009, 53; there have been eighty so far this year. Night raids in Afghanistan have risen from one hundred per month, to 1,000 per month. The savagery is kept secret from the American people, but not the Muslim world.
That’s not all. Woodward neglects to describe, at least for this book, the secret Long War already unfolding in at least nineteen countries, under a classified order signed by Gen. David Petraeus last year. [NYTimes, Aug. 15 2010] But he does quote Petraeus saying, “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” Even more disturbing is the strategic thinking behind the policy, as described by national security adviser James Jones in an interview with Woodward. The Jones’ “theory of the war” consists:
- First, of asserting that “the United States could not lose this war or be seen as losing the war,” a classic Machiavellian maxim.
- Second, according to Jones, the war is “certainly a clash of civilizations…a clash of religions…a clash of almost concepts of how to live.” If the US is not successful, NATO, the European Union and the United Nations “might be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
Vice-President Biden is the sanest voice in the closed circle, though his own counterterrorism plan also depends on secrecy and relentless killing by drones and Special Forces. Obama pushes Biden to keep raising questions, and most important, Biden wonders if it’s not possible “to accommodate the Taliban the same way Hezbollah had been in Lebanon.” For a moment, we see the startling possibility of a rational exit plan, though it would require accepting a meaningful role for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future. Biden’s question is not pursued, at least not on the record.
A certain cluelessness, a willful blindness, envelops the advisers as they continue to escalate the war. Seventeen thousand new troops are sent on the pretext of protecting the Afghan presidential election, which was then rigged by the Karzai government. The later decision to send another 30,000 is the heart of Woodward’s inside history up to the present.
This combination of blindness and paralysis, once described by Barbara Tuchman as “the march to folly,” suggests the need for an urgent change of thinking, vision and strategy among Congressional doves and peace activists on the ground. Leadership and pressure will have to come from outside the circle Woodward depicts.
If there is any good news in Woodward’s book it is that Obama—along with Biden and his domestic advisers—insists repeatedly on an exit strategy from Afghanistan despite the opposition of his military advisors and Hillary Clinton. He fears that his presidency and domestic program will be capsized by the forever wars. The president is quoted as recognizing that he “cannot lose the Democratic Party” and that opposition to Afghanistan will keep increasing on Capitol Hill as the next presidential election nears.
The paradox is that he is escalating the war now in order to begin de-escalating sooner than his generals want, largely because of public opinion. On September 29, CNN reported, "58 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan." Most recent surveys show that approximately 75 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents are opposed, while 60 percent of Republicans are in favor of the war, the same Republicans who will vote unanimously against Obama in 2012.
The troubling news is that current peace sentiment is focused on the visible wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – with little or no ground for public opposition to the secret wars in Pakistan and the global Long War. An opposition movement, therefore, will have to pursue two distinct lines:
- First, a broad public pressure campaign against the trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives lost in unwinnable occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq;
- Second, a steady educational campaign to frame the Long War as unsustainable and not in our security interest. [Similarly, the public had to oppose the Vietnam and Central American wars while also challenging their basis in Cold War ideology.]
To wage such a complex and protracted battle for peace, some timelines may be helpful:
- December 2010. The president’s team once again will review the “extended surge” going on in Afghanistan. It will be important to condemn the narrowness of this review, since according to Woodward not a single White House or military adviser “thinks we ought to leave Afghanistan.” A lopsided review is most likely to rubber stamp the current policy, with the military opposing any significant withdrawals. The recent proposal of the Afghanistan Study Group for talks with the Taliban and a substantial US troop withdrawal by 2012 should be on the table too. The moderate AFG proposal is to pull 32,000 troops by October 2011, and another 30,000 by July 2012, at savings of $60-80 billion each year. That would still leave 40,000 American troops, increasingly in a training role. [www.afghanistanstudygroup.com]
- May-July 2011. Congress debates war funding and exit strategies as Obama’s July deadline to “begin” withdrawals nears. According to Woodward’s account, it is certain that Obama will begin “thinning out” American troops, and that any timeline proposals will come from Congress. Obama’s goal, similar to Iraq, will be to promise a steady shift from a “combat” to an “advisory” mission during the 2012 presidential election in hopes of running on a platform of ending two wars. [Woodward says that Obama wants to be “at pre-surge levels” by 2012, “the year Obama would almost surely seek re-election.] [p. 297]
- December 2011: Deadline for final withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq. This is a potential nightmare for Obama as long as Iraq continues to spiral towards the Iranian/Shiite orbit, and Al Qaeda returns to the forefront of armed resistance. If Obama keeps 50,000 troops in Iraq, they will not be sufficient to impose order militarily; if he pulls them out, he risks political loss.
- Spring 2012: Presidential primary season combined with annual budget debate over war funding. American deaths in Afghanistan will climb over 1,000 under Obama’s watch, while the current tax costs of $113 billion per year for military operations and $5.2 million for civilian programs may see little change if funds simply are transferred to the Afghan army and police.
Only public opinion and a forceful Congressional bloc can accelerate Obama’s slow transition out of Afghanistan. A November 2009 chart which Woodward includes projects the US as shifting to an “advise/assist” role shortly after the 2012 election, reaching the 38,000 troop range in 2015, down from the current 100,000, the same glide path proposed by the AFG report. That’s only if all goes well for the planners, whose key assumptions are dubious: “TB [Taliban] degraded/manageable by ANSF [Afghan army], ANSF capable of securing gains, sanctuaries in Pak eliminated or securely degraded, [and] AFG governance sufficient to stabilize country.” If these goals are not achieved, a plan B is left unexplained.
Of course, a slow withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, however painful, is better than a blank check for permanent counterinsurgency, which is a Petraeus strategy Obama rejects: “’ ‘No way,’ the president said…We’re not making Afghanistan a long-term protectorate…This is not a nationwide counterinsurgency’…Such a strategy would not be sustainable with the American public [and] it would break the budget.”
While Afghanistan will continue as the center of media and political debate, the secret war in Pakistan and elsewhere will intensify, with Obama determined to send ground troops into Pakistan’s tribal areas if the Pakistani army is reluctant. Attacking Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries there is considered essential, even if Pakistan is destabilized in the process and even if Al Qaeda relocates elsewhere. And “there was always the prize: bin Laden,” Woodward writes of the president’s thinking.
The quandary for peace advocates is that while it is politically impossible to question going after bin Laden, the idea is akin to burning down a haystack to find a needle. Then comes blowback—and it could be fierce. And if the needle is invisible? The blowback will come anyway. According to Woodward, the blowback already is underway, but just malfunctioning so far. The Times Square car bomb episode was a “successful plot,” according to top US officials, because it occurred without detection by American or Western intelligence. The same was true of the airline bombing attempt last Christmas. Either would have been followed by the planned retribution against 150 Pakistan sites.
No one in the inner circle suggests getting off the treadmill altogether. Talks with the Taliban, long promoted by the Karzai government, the Saudis and the Europeans, have been resisted by the Americans while they hope to further decimate the insurgents. That hard-line opposition may be yielding, according to recent reports. There is no way to lessen the American military presence by July 2012 without at the same time permitting space for power-sharing with the Taliban and other insurgents. The administration fears the usual conservative charges of “appeasement” and “losing” Afghanistan. But the status quo is a cul de sac too. A top Obama (and Bush) top adviser on Al Qaeda, Bruce Reidel, says that “until we kill them, they’re going to keep trying to kill us.” Asked by the president how much all this will cost, Riedel says he doesn’t know. He excuses himself by saying “that’s politics, and not in my purview.”
And so the treadmill turns.