Best Defense

Barno: Woodward shows us how Obama was boxed in by his generals

For an informed take on Bob Woodward’s new book, I thought it would be interesting to hear from my CNAS colleague retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, back when it was thought of as the good war. I think he is right: Woodward has made ...


For an informed take on Bob Woodward’s new book, I thought it would be interesting to hear from my CNAS colleague retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, back when it was thought of as the good war. I think he is right: Woodward has made Gen. David Petraeus the unlikely villain of the book, and Vice President Joe Biden the equally unlikely hero.  

By Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense book reviewer

After powering through Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars on my Kindle this past week, I came away profoundly uneasy. It was a compelling and immensely readable account, but much of its message was troubling.

Not because of the book’s unbroken account of fractious infighting, over-sized battling personalities or the lengthy debate among Obama’s national security team. I actually see this high level blood-letting generally as a pretty good sign. Vociferous arguments among smart, tough players at this level are required to shine light back into every corner of the competing arguments. And there are few issues more worthy of fulsome discussion than an ongoing war, especially one going badly.

My unease came from the gathering realization as the pages turned that the president was heading toward making his final decision — one upon which untold lives and tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars would rest — without getting his chance to dispassionately and fully evaluate the fullest range of possible choices.

According to Woodward, Obama’s guidance to his team was clear: “I want an exit strategy” and “I’m not doing a long-term nation-building effort” and “I’m not spending a trillion dollars.” Despite this, it appears from the very detailed narrative that all the options he receives are simply variants of The One Big Option: a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy focused on securing the Afghan population.

“The One Big Option” thematic repeats itself throughout the book. But the book’s real argument is more subtle. Woodward’s unstated thesis seems to be that the (young, inexperienced) [resident was locked in a battle of wills with a (powerful, politically savvy) military leadership who were consumed by their own singular idea of how to fight this war. And that at the end of this painfully long policy review, Obama just gets outflanked by generals who are hell-bent on having it their way. While this notion may be an attractive to those who are inherently suspicious of the role of the military in the United States’ political life and foreign-policy, I found it unpersuasive.

The president is the commander-in-chief — and as such, he is ultimately responsible for U.S. military actions overseas. He not only issues the orders that commit troops, but also frames the national policy that those deployments will support. He owns the policy decision “ends” at the strategic level, but must also understand and approve the broad “ways” by which his strategy will be carried out in the field. Further, he must balance the resources required to carry out these decisions — the “means” of people, time and dollars that will always remain precious commodities. The military influences that process, often in outsize ways — but the President owns it.

But Woodward’s description of the narrow set of options presented to the president by his military commanders rings true. In NSC discussions, the “zero” option of “get out of Afghanistan now” is always the throwaway. Unsurprisingly, no one supports it. But all the other options are simply some variant of The One Big Option: a population-centered counterinsurgency strategy. The variants only tinker with numbers of troops — will this COIN strategy be implemented with 20,000, 40,000 or 80,000 soldiers? Or as the military might put it: will you accept high risk, moderate risk, or low risk? And the more boots on the ground, the less risk of The One Big Option failing. Was that truly the “Full Monty” of options that were capable of meeting the president’s guidance after nine years of war?

One facet of this intimate narrative is seeing the remarkably small circle of key players who shape the President’s final decisions. Unlike his predecessor in the Oval Office, Obama did not bring in regular tranches of outside experts on warfare from whom he could extract new ideas. Instead Obama relies almost entirely on the formal national security staff process, in which a fairly small set of well-known actors clashed or connected, but who ultimately represented generally predictable institutional positions. The wisdom of the nation is coalesced into discomfortingly small pools in the situation room.

The only notable outliers nudging the president toward any “outside the box” choices seem to have been led by the vice president. Biden comes out of this account surprisingly well. He actively marshals a clutch of inside dissenters who improbably come closest to giving the president the one serious option outside the received wisdom of a large-scale COIN investment. The Biden team’s option is called “CT Plus” — a very different kind of 20,000-man “surge” that would focus on rapidly building Afghan security forces while shifting the war to a decisive thrust against both Al Qaeda terrorists and their intractable allies in the hardcore Taliban. At the end of the process, they never really get their day in court. As Peter Schwartz might say the “official future” had been set: The One Big Option of population-centric COIN.

Woodward’s account is not a verbatim transcript of history — but it is clearly a rather well-informed description of the 18-month Washington process leading up to a significant presidential decision on strategy for Afghanistan. Without question, his depiction is missing key parts, cruelly unfair to some players, and exceedingly generous toward others. But it remains the best account we have of an extraordinarily important decision by a wartime president on a strategy whose costs in either blood or treasure will impact every American for years to come.

What’s missing in this prolonged strategy debate stand out? What was the end game the United States was trying to achieve? What would the enduring commitment — if there were to be one — look like? How did this decision nest inside broader strategic calculus and national priorities — for dollars, troops, global security and international influence? How would the cost versus benefit of these choices fit within broader risks and opportunities, including domestic ones? And how was this going to be viewed around the region and around the world?

Woodward’s account in some ways describes a detailed and through decision-making process — led by a very engaged president — focused on what seems to be the “Island of AfPak.” There is little broader context for a decision that will have global implications, seriously impact domestic resource allocations, and help shape the United States’ future role as an enduring (or declining) superpower.

How this future unfolds should keep all of us on the edge of our seats. Nine years on, time is not on our side. And in a sense, we have leapt half way across the chasm. As the president states (battalion commanders in Kunar and Wardak, take note), this approach is “not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building… but a narrower approach (focused on Al Qaeda).” Both the July 2011 timeline and the middle-ground choice of 30.000 troops argue that w
e have effectively settled on splitting the difference.

Most disturbing to me is that even after 18 months of serious effort, we have yet to define our enduring end game — much less how we get to it.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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