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The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama

Mr. Obama was a state senator from Illinois in October 2002 when he famously condemned Iraq as a “dumb war.” But in the same speech he also said, “I don’t oppose all wars.” He was referring to Afghanistan, which he viewed as a just war to hunt down the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again,” he told the crowd that day in Chicago’s Federal Plaza.

By July 2008, as the Democratic nominee for president, Mr. Obama had embraced Afghanistan as a priority over Iraq — the “good war,” in a phrase that he never actually used himself but that became so associated with his approach it was sometimes wrongly attributed to him.

Mr. Obama praised the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq that year not because he believed that the United States could transform Iraqi society, but because he thought that reducing the violence there would allow the nation to turn its attention to Afghanistan.

“This is a war that we have to win,” he declared. He promised to send at least two more combat brigades, or roughly 10,000 soldiers, to Afghanistan.

The United States was hardly on course for victory. Although there were already close to 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan as Mr. Obama campaigned that summer, the Taliban were gaining momentum. In a bloody debacle, nine American soldiers were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wanat when the Taliban brazenly overran a remote Army outpost in the far eastern province of Nuristan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Mr. Obama in calling the situation in the country “precarious and urgent.” More than 100 Americans would die in Afghanistan by the end of 2008, a larger number than in any other prior year.


Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey’s coffin was carried from the Glen Hope Baptist Church in Burlington, N.C., in July 2008. Corporal Rainey, 22, was one of nine American soldiers killed in the Battle of Wanat that month. Credit Peter Schumacher/The Burlington Times-News, via Associated Press

When Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, he ordered a quick policy review on Afghanistan by a former intelligence analyst, Bruce Riedel. But even before it was completed, he accepted a Pentagon recommendation to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 70,000 American troops on the ground.

By the fall of 2009, with the Taliban showing increased strength, Mr. Obama’s military commanders, backed by the elders on his war council, including Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state, were pressing him to go much farther.

They urged on him an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that had helped turn around the war in Iraq — a troop-heavy, time-consuming, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.

The strategy, known by its acronym COIN, would require as many as 40,000 additional American men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, his advisers told him.

“There was still the afterglow of the surge in Iraq, and the counterinsurgency narrative that had made the military the savior of the Iraq war,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I don’t believe Obama was in a position to pick a debate with the military on Afghanistan, and to assert what would be his worldview.”

“In many ways, I think, he deferred,” said Mr. Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Although Mr. Obama agreed after months of internal debate to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he placed a strict timetable on the mission, saying they would have to be withdrawn again, starting in July 2011. His aides later said he felt hijacked by a military that had presented him with a narrow band of options rather than a real choice.

The Obama Era

Over the next months, The Obama Era will explore the sweeping change that President Obama brought to the nation, and how the presidency changed him.

Even some former military commanders agreed, saying that the troop deployments were framed in a way that made choosing a smaller number — 20,000, for example — look like a path to certain defeat.

“President Obama was asking the military for broad options,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired general who served as the commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and was later Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Kabul. But, he said, the military gave Mr. Obama only “variations” on “the more robust counterinsurgency model.”

Mr. Eikenberry, who wrote a politically explosive but prescient cable in late 2009 raising doubts about the wisdom of the surge, diagnosed a deeper problem with the policy. Was it simply to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for Al Qaeda? Or was it to turn Afghanistan into another Denmark? “When he came in, everyone knew we were going to do more,” Mr. Eikenberry said. “But what we were trying to achieve was difficult to define.”

Given Mr. Obama’s innate wariness of nation-building, it didn’t take long for him to grow disenchanted with the Denmark option. A few months into the surge, in the spring of 2010, David H. Petraeus, the commander of the Pentagon’s Central Command and an architect of the strategy, was briefing him on the state of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Drawing on anthropology theory from the University of Chicago, General Petraeus explained to his commander in chief how neighborhoods in Kandahar related to one another. Mr. Obama listened for a while, then cut him off. “We can’t worry about how neighborhoods relate to each other in Kandahar,” he curtly told General Petraeus, according to people in the room.

“Obama believes the military can do enormous things,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser. “It can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But a military can’t create a political culture or build a society.”

‘Afghan Good Enough’

Source: NYT > World

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