Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning

From the Archive:  As the 12-year Afghan War grinds to what many Americans see as failure, ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other hawks won’t admit their counterinsurgency “surge” in 2009 was a waste of lives and money or that U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was right when he warned President Obama, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern wrote in 2010.

By Ray McGovern (Originally published Jan. 27, 2010)

Nothing highlights President Barack Obama’s abject surrender to Gen. David Petraeus on the “way forward” in Afghanistan more than two cables U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry sent to Washington on Nov. 6 and 9, 2009, the texts of which were released by the New York Times.

No longer is it possible to suggest that Obama was totally deprived of good counsel on Afghanistan; Eikenberry got it largely right. Sadly, the inevitable conclusion is that, although Obama is not as dumb as his predecessor, he is no less willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for political gain.

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

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

Ambassador Eikenberry, a retired Army Lt. General who served three years in Afghanistan over the course of two separate tours of duty, was responsible during 2002-2003 for rebuilding Afghan security forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all U.S. forces stationed in the country.

In the cable he sent to Washington on Nov. 6, 2009, Eikenberry explains why, “I cannot support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 here.” His reasons include:

–Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not “an adequate strategic partner.” His government has “little to no political will or capacity to carry out basic tasks of governance. It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship.”

–Karzai and many of his advisers “are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

[Comment: I wonder where Karzai ever got that idea about military bases, perhaps because the United States is building them? I’ll bet Karzai also assumes continuing U.S. interest in the projected oil/natural gas pipeline from the extraordinarily rich deposits in the Caspian Sea area and Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, bypassing both Russia and the Strait of Hormuz. ]

–“The proposed troop increase will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role.”

–“We overestimate the ability of Afghan security forces to take over by 2013 and underestimate how long it will take to restore or establish civilian government.”

–“More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain and Pakistan views its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor.”

–“There is also the deeper concern about dependency. Rather than reducing Afghan dependence, sending more troops, therefore, is likely to deepen it, at least in the short term. That would further delay our goal of shifting the combat burden to the Afghans.”

Straight Talk

Eikenberry is even more direct in his cable of Nov. 9, 2009, taking strong issue with “a proposed counterinsurgency strategy that relies on a large, all-or-nothing increase in U.S. troops,” and warning of the risk that “we will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves.”

Condemning Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendations with faint praise, Ambassador Eikenberry describes them as “logical and compelling within his [McChrystal’s] narrow mandate to define the needs for a military counterinsurgency campaign within Afghanistan.”

“Unaddressed variables,” says Eikenberry, “include Pakistan sanctuaries, weak Afghan leadership and governance, NATO civilian-military integration, and our national will to bear the human and fiscal costs over many years.”

The ambassador complains that the troop increase proposal “sets aside” these variables, even though “each has the potential to block us from achieving our strategic goals, regardless of the number of additional troops we may send.”

Eikenberry also notes that it is hardly a safe assumption that Karzai and his new team will ever be “committed to lead the counterinsurgency mission we are defining for them.” The ambassador notes that Karzai “explicitly rejected” McChrystal’s counterinsurgency proposal when first briefed on it in detail.

Eikenberry does not stop there. Rather, he bluntly warns, in vain, it turned out, against a premature decision regarding a troop increase, arguing “there is no option but to widen the scope of our analysis and to consider alternatives beyond a strictly military counterinsurgency effort within Afghanistan.”

He adds, “We have not yet conducted a comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options. Nor have we brought all the real-world variables to bear in testing the proposed counterinsurgency plan. “This strategic re-examination could either include or lead to high-level U.S. talks with the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Saudis and other important regional players, including possibly Iran.”

Extraordinary.  Here is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan bemoaning the fact that, as the President approaches his decision on a large troop increase, there has still been no comprehensive analysis of the wider issues that remain “unaddressed” in McChrystal’s proposal.

NIEs, Anyone?

Taking an objective look at a complex national security problem is exactly the job for which President Harry Truman created the CIA, giving its director the task of drafting what became known as National Intelligence Estimates, which include the participation of all agencies of the intelligence community.

That no estimate has been prepared on Afghanistan/Pakistan and the “unaddressed variables” is an indictment of Obama and his deference to the military. The President and other misguided Democrats are hell bent on preventing the bemedaled Petraeus from painting them soft on terrorism. Letting Petraeus run the policy, while avoiding any critical intelligence analysis, is Obama’s safe, and cowardly, way out.

During my tenure at CIA (from the administration of John Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush), I cannot think of an occasion on which a President chose to forgo a National Intelligence Estimate before making a key decision on foreign policy.

However, in early 2002, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney set a new kind of precedent when they ordered CIA Director George Tenet NOT to prepare an NIE on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, out of fear that an honest estimate would make it immensely more difficult to attack Iraq.

That did not change until September 2002, when Sen. Bob Graham, then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned the White House that, absent an NIE, he would do all he could to prevent a vote on war with Iraq. That’s when a totally dishonest NIE was woven out of whole cloth (or, in the words of subsequent Intelligence Committee chair, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, fashioned from “created” intelligence) to hype a threat from non-existent Iraqi WMD.

After that debacle, new leadership was given to the NIE process in the person of Tom Fingar, who had run the intelligence unit at the State Department. It was Fingar who insisted on a bottom-up review of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear plans, which resulted in an NIE that helped prevent Bush and Cheney from attacking Iran, or encouraging Israel to do so.

That NIE, issued in November 2007, assessed “with high confidence” that Iran had stopped working on the nuclear weapons part of its nuclear program in late 2003, contradicting claims of Bush and Cheney. Of equal importance, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military had no appetite to take on Iran (or to acquiesce in Israel’s doing so) and insisted that the key judgments of that NIE be made public.

This time, on Afghanistan, it’s different. Army Generals Petraeus and McChrystal apparently persuaded the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, that they know what they’re doing and didn’t need any intelligence analysts reaching a different conclusion.

What’s the Rush?

From his vantage point in Kabul, Eikenberry seems impervious to Dick Cheney’s charges that President Obama is “dithering.” The first two (of three) subheadings in Eikenberry’s second cable are:  “We Have Time” and “Why We Must Take the Time.” He finishes with an appeal to “widen the scope of our analysis.”

Eikenberry is all but demanding a National Intelligence Estimate, but stops short so as to not to cross the President or to further antagonize Petraeus and McChrystal. Instead of requesting an NIE, Ambassador Eikenberry suggests that the White House appoint “a panel of civilian and military experts to examine the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and the full range of options.”

The list of issues he says this panel “should examine” reads like what the intelligence community calls the “terms of reference” for an NIE. (As a CIA analyst and manager I contributed to many NIEs and chaired a few myself.)

When the White House gave Eikenberry short shrift, he should have resigned, rather than support the misbegotten strategy Obama chose. [Eikenberry was replaced as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in July 2011.]

Part of Obama’s motivation in not ordering the customary NIE was to avoid any chance that its conclusions might leak, according to a source with good access. Unless CIA estimators are back to the Bush/Cheney days of cooking estimates to order, such a leak would certainly have made it more difficult for the President to render unflinching support to Petraeus and McChrystal.

Pity Obama. It is hard to believe he could be so naive to the ways of Washington and so dismissive of the possibility that there could still be patriots among senior officials dismayed at his remarkable retreat from the “transparency” he promised.

The New York Times reports, “An American official provided a copy of the cables to The Times after a reporter requested them.” Well, good for that patriotic truth-teller. And good, as well, for the New York Times for publishing them.

I am permitting myself to hope that still more truth-tellers will emerge from the woodwork, and even that The Times might begin to play the kind of key role it did 40 years ago, once it finally grasped that Vietnam was a fool’s errand.


It may be that one needs to have worked at senior levels on the “inside” to understand the twinge that I felt after downloading the NODIS cables made available by The Times.

As the cover sheet indicates, “NODIS” means no dissemination beyond the named “addressee and, if not expressly precluded, by those officials under his authority whom he considers to have a clear-cut ‘need to know.’” (Emphasis added. It is not entirely clear, but I assume that exceptions can now be made for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials of her gender.)

In my day we had to go to the CIA Director’s office, sign for, and read NODIS cables right there. No doubt there are similar controls today. So, in this case the whistleblower took considerable risk in taking it upon him/herself to make “transparency” real, not just Obaman rhetoric.

The irony? If, as I have been told, the President put the kibosh on preparation of an NIE for fear it would leak, we now have an even more instructive kind of leak. Thanks to The Times and its courageous source, we now know not only that President Obama elected to forgo an honest NIE, but that he did so in the face of very strong urging from Ambassador Eikenberry that Obama “widen the scope” of analysis before he simply kowtowed to the Army brass.

I imagine that in years to come, Eikenberry will proudly show his cables to his grandchildren. Or maybe he won’t, out of fear that one of them might ask why he didn’t have the guts to quit and let the rest of the country know what he thought of this latest March of Folly.

[Over time, President Obama changed his high command in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal was ousted in June 2010 after it was revealed that he and his staff were disparaging the President’s inner circle at the White House; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates retired in July 2011 and wrote a memoir castigating Obama for allegedly showing insufficient enthusiasm for the Afghan mission; and Gen. Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal in Afghanistan in 2010, was named CIA director in September 2011 but resigned in a sex scandal in November 2012.]

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He came to Washington over 50 years ago and worked as a CIA analyst under seven Presidents. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

4 comments for “Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning

  1. F. G. Sanford
    February 9, 2014 at 21:42

    This was Eikenberry’s “Caine Mutiny Moment”, and he knew, just as most military officers know, that in the real world, Willie Keith would have done hard time at Portsmouth Naval Prison. Even Herman Wouk countenanced the idea that Captain Queeg could have been handled more gently so as not to tarnish the reputation of an old “war horse”. Manning and Snowden are today’s Willie Keiths – trapped in a paradox in which the only right answer makes pariahs of the good guys.

  2. Gareth Porter
    February 9, 2014 at 14:36

    You are absolutely right, Ray. EIkenberry should have resigned in protest when his warning within the administration was not heeded. And since it was leaked, it would make even more sense for him to do so. His dissenting view that the war was not going to go well was unambiguous, and he owed it to the country to sacrifice his position in the establishment to go public and warn against it. He should have been one of those for whom Dan Ellsberg has been pleading for many years to blow the whistle based on information they have about policies that are clearly wrong and against the national interest. It is a said commentary on the nature of the national security elite that he failed to do so.

  3. February 8, 2014 at 22:23

    Looking back, this strikes me as a particularly sad example of how “Duty, Honor, Country” once taught at West Point has been eclipsed by “Salute Smartly, Go Along, Get Along.” In late 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador in Kabul (a retired Lt. Gen. and one of the brighter of the West Point-trained caste) blew his chance to help bring to an end the carnage in Afghanistan.

    Likely as not, it was simply beyond his ken that he would be answering a higher duty-honor-country call by doing the honorable thing and NOT GOING ALONG sheepishly with what he knew to be a fool’s-errand – the time-limited “surge” of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. Eikenberry apparently lacked the courage to risk forfeiting his place in the Officers’ Club and the Establishment. And so, he did not speak up publicly, as he watched Generals Petraeus and McChrystal and “windsock Bobby Gates” maneuver President Obama into what boiled down to a decision to sacrifice our troops on the altar of political expediency. There is enough shame – more than enough – to go around.

    Writing from Kabul in November 2000, Eikenberry kept warning, “We have time; we must take the time.” He appealed to the White House to appoint “a panel of civilian and military experts to examine the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and the full range of options” … to “widen the scope of our analysis.” (I suppose that, as he realized he was not getting through to the President, he may even have leaked the two well-reasoned cables that found their way into the New York Times.)

    The list of issues he suggested such a “panel” would examine reads like what the intelligence community calls the “terms of reference” for a National Intelligence Estimate. (I contributed to many NIEs and chaired a few myself. Good things can happen as a result of tell-it-like-it-is analysis. The Nov. 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear capability and plans played a huge role in preventing Bush from launching a strike on Iran).

    So, just two years later, without an NIE, Obama’s White House deferred to Petraeus/McChrystal/Gates, who knew only too well how an honest NIE can derail plans for more war. With the received wisdom that accompanies those rows of medals and ribbons, who would need an NIE? The generals and Gates knew that an honest NIE, in the mold of the one on Iran, would put the intelligence community on the side of reason (Eikenberry’s), and they would have none of it. Their artfulness with leaks to the media regarding the “necessity” of a surge successfully mousetrapped Obama. And, like Br’er Rabbit, Eikenberry didn’t say nothing.

    Eikenberry’s appeal for more serious analysis and his well-reasoned criticism of the logic of the surge had ended up in the circular file. At that point, he should have resigned on principle and made his views known publicly, rather than actively promote the misbegotten strategy Obama chose. Instead, Eikenberry took the cowardly way out; he saluted sharply, reversed himself, and spoke publicly in favor a surge he knew was noxious nonsense and would leave lots of troops and other people dead – and for what? Look at Afghanistan now.

    Was it too much to ask a retired Lt. General to put real duty, honor, country first and SPEAK OUT – and try to prevent further death and destruction from yet another feckless escalation? Instead, Eikenberry took active part in a fraudulent sales-job with Congress and U.S. allies, with thousands more casualties and destruction the result.

    The story is so common now – and so corrupt. Eikenberry placed priority on staying in good odor with the West Point alumni/fraternity and the Establishment. I wonder how he regards his behavior in retrospect, as Afghanistan disintegrates after four more years of unnecessary carnage – and apparently, one more to go.

    Contrast that with Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who never went near West Point but had duty, honor country circumcised on their hearts. They knew instinctively they could NOT sell their souls – and sell out their comrades and the rest of us – for personal advancement and comfort.

    As recent disclosures make clear, far too many of the high brass abuse their power in unconscionable ways, with impunity. Sadly, there seem to be at least as many general officers ready to abuse their own consciences, as well, for the basest of reasons. Whatever happened to “Duty, Honor, Country?”

    • Joe Tedesky
      February 9, 2014 at 01:49

      Mr McGovern, thank you for your service, and great article.

      What you present here is a glimpse inside the working of our military verse it’s civilian leadership. I am with you that all officers are not honorable. I saw this first hand some many years ago when I served in the Navy. What your article points out though, is the good guys don’t always make it to the top.

      Yet, the real top turns out to be on the bottom. You probably know the story of John F Kennedy asking Dwight Eisenhower to meet him (JFK) at Camp David. Ike advised the new young president on where he (JFK) went wrong in his handling of the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy would later go on to prevent WWIII with his brilliant actions with his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      With all of what is going on currently in the world we can only hope President Obama has had his Kennedy/Eisenhower moment. I hope!

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