‘Gaming’ Obama on Afghan War

As President Obama grappled with the Afghan War in 2009-10, he faced insubordination from Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates, a reality that Gates leaves out of his new memoir, as Gareth Porter writes for Inter Press Service.

By Gareth Porter

In Robert Gates’s new memoir, Duty, the ex-Secretary of Defense questions President Barack Obama’s lack of commitment to his administration’s Afghan War strategy, a claim that’s generating a Washington debate about whether Obama was sufficiently supportive of the war.

But the Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.

Gen. David Petraeus, as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan in 2010.

Gen. David Petraeus, as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan in 2010.

Gates makes only the most glancing reference in the newly published Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War to the issue of the beginning of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

The former Defense Secretary refers to “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers” by both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. And he describes a March 3, 2011 National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room which Obama opened by criticizing the military for “popping off in the press” and vowing to push back against any military delay in beginning the withdrawal.

Gates quotes Obama as saying, “ If I believe I am being gamed . . .” and says he left the sentence “hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.” Gates writes that he was “pretty upset,” because he thought “implicitly accusing Petraeus” of “gaming” him at a big meeting in the Situation Room was “inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus.”

“As I sat there,” Gates recalls, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

But Obama’s distrust of Petraeus was clearly related to the sequence of events related to Obama’s policy decision on Afghanistan and Petraeus’s signaling his desire to undermine it – all of which Gates omits from his account.

Obama was extremely wary of the military’s request for 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan on basic geopolitical grounds from the start, as documented by notes of National Security Council meetings used for Bob Woodward’s accounts of those meetings in Obama’s Wars and in an earlier account by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter.

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden argued in the meetings in September and October 2009 that the primary U.S. concern should be Pakistan, not Afghanistan, whereas Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen were insistent that Afghanistan be the priority, according to Woodward’s account.

The military leaders argued that the Taliban would welcome Al-Qaeda back to Afghanistan unless it was defeated. But Biden, acting with Obama’s encouragement, repeatedly attacked the argument and got CIA official Peter Lavoy to admit that there was no evidence to support it. Obama challenged another key argument by the military, asking why a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would not harm Pakistan’s stability.

It was clear to the officials supporting ISAF Commander Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops that the White House was not going to agree unless something was done to tip the scales in the other direction.

In a White House meeting on Oct. 5, Petraeus argued again that the Taliban movement would invite Al-Qaeda back if it took over, and Mullen, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all spoke up in support of that general theme, according to Woodward.

Six days later, McClatchy newspapers reported the White House had been “minimizing warnings from the intelligence community, the military and the State Department about the risks of adopting a limited strategy focused on al Qaida.” The story cited interviews with 15 “mid-level or senior military, intelligence and diplomatic officials” who said they agreed with what were described as “new intelligence assessments” that if the Taliban were to return to power, it would allow Al-Qaeda back into the country.

In fact, the intelligence community had not prepared any National Intelligence Estimate on that issue. Obama’s principal national security officials were putting their own twist on intelligence reporting.

The leaking to the news media of a politically damaging version of internal debate between the White House and the coalition pushing for a major escalation was nothing less than shot across the bow from Obama’s principal national security officials, including Petraeus, Mullen, Gates and Clinton. They were signaling to the President that he would incur a significant political cost if he rejected the McChrystal request.

In November 2009, Obama compromised with his national security team. He agreed to 30,000 troops instead of the 40,000 that McChrystal had requested, but not for a national counter-insurgency campaign to defeat the Taliban as Petraeus had wanted. The military effort would be only to “degrade” the Taliban.

And crucially, an evaluation in July 2011 would determine not whether a withdrawal and transfer of responsibility could begin but what it’s “slope” would be, according to the meeting notes cited by Woodward. Obama even insisted that the military not occupy any area that could not be turned over to the Afghan government.

On Nov. 29, Obama met with Gates, Mullen and Petraeus to get their formal agreement to the compromise plan. Mullen pledged that he would “fully support” the decision. Petraeus said he would do “everything possible” to get the troops on the ground “to enable … the transfer [to Afghans] to begin in July 2011.”

But danger signs appeared almost immediately that the pro-escalation coalition would seek to alter the policy in their favor. The day after Obama publicly announced in a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009, that U.S. troops would begin to withdraw in July 2011, Gates and Clinton suggested in Senate Armed Services Committee testimony that the President was not locked into beginning a withdrawal in mid-2011.

Obama responded by insisting that his press secretary tell CBS News that the July 2011 withdrawal was “etched in stone.” After hearing about that Obama comment, Petraeus told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, that was “a problem” and said, “You need to fix that,” according to Woodward. Petraeus added that he would let Gates and Clinton “deal with this one”.

After taking command of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in mid-2010, Petraeus was asked on “Meet the Press” on Aug. 15 whether he might tell Obama that the drawdown should be delayed beyond mid-2011. “Certainly, yes,” Petraeus responded, openly threatening to renege on his agreement with Obama.

In September 2010, John Nagl, a retired colonel who had been on Petraeus’s staff and now headed the Center for New American Security, told IPS that Obama would be forced by Republican pressure to “put more time on the clock”. And in December, Petraeus revealed to Obama’s main White House adviser on the war, Gen. Douglas Lute, “All we have to do is begin to show progress, and that’ll be sufficient to add time to the clock and we’ll get what we need,” according to Woodward.

Whatever Petraeus did in the early weeks of 2011 to raise the ire of Obama in regard to the withdrawal issue, it was against the backdrop of repeated indications that Petraeus was hoping to use both his alliances with Gates and Clinton and pressures from the Republicans in Congress to push back the previously agreed date for beginning withdrawal and handoff of responsibility to the Afghan government.

Gates knew, therefore, that Obama was reacting to a history of having already been “gamed” not only by Petraeus himself but also by his bureaucratic allies maneuvering to remove the restrictions on the Afghan War that Obama had imposed. The self-serving Gates account conceals the dishonest tactics employed to get Obama’s agreement to the Afghan War escalation.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, will be published in February 2014.

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10 comments on “‘Gaming’ Obama on Afghan War

  1. bgrbill on said:

    Dear Robert, Petraeus backed the wrong horse in the 2008 presidential election , fueling rumors about the Benghazi “scandal”. That is why he was forced to resign. Petraeus’ roll in the hay with a subordinate was cover.

  2. Joe Tedesky on said:

    Well there you have it, Mr Porter’s piece here makes sense to why we are at this place we are at. This is a story of that hidden hand I am always curious to learn more about. People like Petraeus, Gates, Graham, and others would have Gandhi go to war.

    I won’t apologize for President Obama, but stories like this only goes to show how the establishment treats the new guy. I remember how McCrystal played the news media like a well tuned fiddle until he got his surge. The problem with having people like Gates in charge is there is no end to their plan. Just keep on keeping on!

    I will stay this, I always had my doubts about Petraeus, Gates, McCrystal, Graham…oh hell, there are to many of these screwballs to mention. You know who I am talking about. Presidents should start firing people, instead of pinning medals on these hawkish creeps. Here’s a thought; how about some good old fashion accountability?

    Stop with all the military, and start doing some statesmanship! At least cut down on the ‘blow-back’.

  3. Paul G. on said:

    Reminds me of JFK’s problems with the joint chiefs and the CIA; but unlike Obamascam Jack had the guts to sack Dulles, CIA chief, and maintain a secret collaboration with Khrushchev to end the cold war; which the Pentagon wanted to win by taking it nuclear. He also had the courage to cut bait in Laos, Cambodia and to start a withdrawal from Vietnam. He also categorically refused to give in to their desires to invade Cuba with US troops. Of course, all that was the cause of his assassination, see: Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It is a revealing commentary on that era that the only government officials the President trusted were his own brother and the General Secretary of the Soviet Union.

    Obama’s dilemma-if he has enough integrity to have a dilemma- illustrates how true Eisenhower’s warning of the influence of the Military Industrial Complex is still so unfortunately valid; if not more so.

    Obama, when once confronted by how he had sold out his “progressive” rhetoric, responded by referring to MLK’s fate. Had he been more up on the secret history of the US he would have referred to Kennedy.

  4. Guy Montaga on said:

    “Obama was reacting to a history of having already been “gamed”…”

    I concur. I asked Bob Woodward a question about this on NPR back in Dec ’10 (which he dodged); For details, see my Jan ’11 Woodward post at the Feral Firefighter blog. I also discussed the failed COIN strategy and the lead up to the Afghan surge in my 12/12 post “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” about Gen. McChrystals’ disengenous memoir and my Pat Tillman annotations to notes from the late Michael Hastings’s (excellent) book “The Operators” found in the April 2012 post “Something to Die For”.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      Mr Montaga, I wish it were you hosting ‘Meet the Press’. Someone such as yourself is what the media is lacking…like getting to the real story. Bringing up Pat Tillman, and McCrystal brings back some pretty sorry memories. In any case, continue with your reporting we need that!

  5. I’m curious, we know what Pat Tillman and Michael Hastings have been doing recently, what has Petraeus been up to since he was let go?

  6. Steve Naidamast on said:

    This piece by Gareth Porter sounds more like the build-up to World War I than to what JFK was facing, though I can see the similarities there as well.

    However, what the piece does fail to emphasize, which is just as important as those who were intent on subterfuge, is Obama’s lack of capability for the office he is in. He simply does not have the spine or backbone to deal with the underhanded machinations of his subordinates even when he is fully aware of what they are doing.

    As a result, I have to agree with Joe Tedesky in that if Obama did have any courage he would have already made a clean sweep of his entire senior security and military staff. However, the fact that he selected these people in the first place should give some indication as to how inept his judgement has been…

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      Steve thanks for agreeing with me. What I picture is no president (especially since JFK) has is much authority as we all imagine. I really believe that new president (not Bush) are read the riot act. I just wish as you stated one new president may take some kind of bold stand, but I am not sure how that would work. Cheney, LBJ, seemed to know how to push people’s buttons…then again consider who they are!

  7. Chris I on said:

    This is Leadership 101. The President is Commander-In-Chief…take charge. The only people who were really gamed were the 2000 American dead in Afghanistan since the President assumed the office.

  8. Gregory Kruse on said:

    People like Petraeus, Gates, McCain, and Gayham have no loyalty to this government. They are only loyal to the international corporations they hope will make them fabulously rich.