Shadow Government

Woodward’s missing chapters

One of Bob Woodward’s previous books, Bush at War, told how President George W. Bush and his advisors formulated policy towards Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, details how President Barack Obama’s administration formulated its Afghanistan policy in 2009-2010 (see here for earlier thoughts of mine in response to Woodward’s book.) A casual ...

Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

One of Bob Woodward’s previous books, Bush at War, told how President George W. Bush and his advisors formulated policy towards Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, details how President Barack Obama’s administration formulated its Afghanistan policy in 2009-2010 (see here for earlier thoughts of mine in response to Woodward’s book.) A casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that there was no U.S. policy towards Afghanistan in between.

That view is wrong. From 2003 to 2008 officials in the Bush administration struggled mightily to grapple with the growing challenges in Afghanistan, fighting (with modest success) to get more time, attention, and resources for a war overshadowed by the larger and bloodier one in Iraq. They started moving U.S. policy in the right direction, but only slowly and with small steps. This fight has important lessons that Woodward — and, I fear, the Obama administration — neglected in his latest chapter.

Here’s a review of the Afghanistan timeline:

  • In 2003 Zalmay Khalilzad, an National Security Council (NSC) staffer before his successive appointments as the president’s special envoy for Afghanistan and then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, lobbied for an increase in reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan. The security situation was relatively calm back then (compared to today) but it was increasingly evident that the Afghans needed greater help to rebuild their country. After the NSC approved his plan, called "Accelerating Success," U.S. assistance for all programs more than doubled from $1 billion in FY 2003 to $2.6 billion in FY 2004, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. (See also the GAO’s report.)
  • In late 2006 the NSC, led by special assistant to the president Meghan O’Sullivan and senior director for Afghanistan Tony Harriman, conducted a comprehensive strategic review of U.S. goals, aims, and progress in Afghanistan. This review, almost entirely unheralded by the media (compared to the reviews of 2008 and 2009) was a key strategic turning point for U.S. policy (here is a State Department briefing that mentions it). Following the review the United States tripled its assistance to Afghanistan, from $3.5 billion to $10 billion in a single year, including almost quadrupling assistance to the Afghan army and police, according to the Special Inspector General. This marked the starting point of serious international efforts to build Afghan security forces. Additionally, President Bush appointed a deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, my former boss — who substantially increased the interagency focus and pace of work on Afghanistan. Furthermore, Bush nearly doubled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan between the 2006 review and the end of his term in office.
  • In 2008 Lute led another NSC strategy review on Afghanistan, briefly mentioned in Woodward’s book and in the media at the time. Woodward correctly records that Lute and his team set up an intensive review — "19 in-depth meetings over six weeks" that were 2-3 hours apiece and involved all the U.S. agencies and departments, military and diplomatic officials, and Afghan leaders. The review recommended more resources, a counterinsurgency strategy, and a greater focus on Pakistan, among other things. Coming so late in the Bush administration’s term, the document could not guide budget decisions or troop deployments, but it did become a transition document that was briefed to incoming National Security Advisor Jim Jones. It was also fed into the first of Obama’s strategy reviews in 2009, led by Bruce Riedel. While Riedel had many inputs and wrote his own report, his report’s recommendations and conclusions were broadly consistent with Lute’s.

A cynic might read this history as proof that Afghanistan cannot be fixed. Every few years we reevaluate Afghanistan, determine that it is not working, and try to fix it with more money and more troops. It never works, so we should stop trying.

I read the history differently. It doesn’t prove that Afghanistan can’t be fixed, it proves that we’ve never really tried. At no point did Bush (or Obama) fully implement the reviews’ recommendations. Time and time again the interagency consensus was that Afghanistan needed massively more resources and faced considerably more challenges than anyone fully appreciated. Time and time again, Afghanistan was not a priority; funds were limited, troops were scarce, and thus Afghanistan was given what was available, not what the mission required. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen famously told Congress in 2007, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." That was the guiding principle of U.S. policy to Afghanistan. When the policy predictably failed to show results, the interagency ground out another strategy review. While it is a myth that the Bush administration simply ignored Afghanistan, the truth is still not very flattering.

But as Woodward’s book shows, Obama may be following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Obama and his advisors have likely bought into the myth that Bush ignored Afghanistan and thus believe they have already improved matters by merely paying attention. But Woodward’s account shows the president more concerned with amounts of time, money, and troops than with — dare to use the word — "victory." Rather, it shows the president redefining "victory" downward until it is achievable with the resources he was willing to commit. Obama rightly committed more troops to Afghanistan, but he is restricting the one resource the troops now need the most of — time. Obama, like Bush, is tailoring the mission to meet the resources rather than the other way around. That’s how the president should treat secondary efforts, not his top foreign policy priority or a shooting war in which U.S. vital interests are at stake.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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