How the Pentagon Overrode Obama on Afghanistan – Why We Need to Get the Hell Out – Part 2

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen.

Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” Gives Us Ringside Seats in How Pentagon “Rolled” the President

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly Afghanistan can fall off the front page or off the news cycle.  And then something horrible will bring it back. But only briefly.

Like in this news, an Afghan guy dressed in a soldier’s uniform drove into a crowd that had gathered to see what US and NATO troops were up to in their neighborhood park. The guy donated a bomb – and people were killed – including 3 American soldiers. The park was in a relatively peaceful area of northern Afghanistan.

Then, there’s “news” that seems to tell us ‘everything is okay, and everything is under control’, what with the new security arrangement between the U.S. and the Karzai government.  On April 8th, it was announced that we and Afghanistan had signed a deal on the despised US-led night military operations – long an  “obstacle to a long-term strategic partnership between the two countries, including a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when all foreign combat troops are set to leave the country.”

So, with this new deal, the Afghan Special Operations Unit – a newly formed group — will have the authority to search houses and private compounds and arrest suspected insurgents, while U.S. forces will provide support “only as required or requested.”

This all is in the context of the Obama administration getting ready for a NATO summit this May on the future role of US forces in Afghanistan.  Reportedly, the summit of members of the U.S.-led military coalition and Afghan President Hamid Karzai “is not expected to determine the pace at which coalition combat troops will be withdrawn over the next 19 months, or the size of a U.S. follow-on force, but rather to confirm that the coalition will move into a support role for Afghan forces sometime next year.”

The  training of Afghanistan’s security forces has been a key element in the White House and Obama’s withdrawal planning. Expected to reach their combined numbers of 352,000, the training of Afghan army and national police is supposed to be several months ahead of schedule. But, we’ll see what the news brings. And how quickly Afghanistan falls off that frontpage or news screen.

So, it’s our  job – us – the alternative press – to keep Afghanistan in the news, in front of our fellow citizens, to keep the pressure on the White House and Pentagon.  Because we do need to get the hell out of Afghanistan. Now.

In my first part of this series, I made the observation that, based on Bob Woodward’s book,  “Obama’s Wars”, Woodward gave us:

a front row seat into how the US military overrode a sitting President of the US on the very critical issue of war. 

I made the outrageous claim that “the Pentagon railroaded Obama by boxing him in on his options, and substituted their strategy and plan for Afghanistan for his – the President’s.”  I continued:

Without letting Obama off the hook for the final decisions about Afghanistan, the record does show that he was frustrated, cut-off, insulted, threatened implicitly, lied to, usurped, blocked, delayed, undermined, undercut, disobeyed, manipulated, “rolled” and maneuvered into accepting the Afghan war plan of the generals and admirals.

During the White House’s Strategic Review of its plans for Afghanistan back in 2009, the Pentagon continuously refused to provide the President with serious and adequate options – despite his repeated and more and more frustrated requests and appeals. …[T]op Pentagon honchos undermined Obama’s decisions constantly, by questioning them after initially agreeing to them, and by finding exceptions to what they agreed upon.

The military establishment forced the President into a box, where the Pentagon’s option was the “last to stand”.  And in doing so, the military determined US policy in Afghanistan and circumvented civilian control of the military.

And now I’m back to substantiate this claim in this and a third part.

Based on my study of Woodward observations and analysis in his “Obama’s Wars“, he cited numerous incidences where the Pentagon chieftains overrode the sitting US President, Barack Obama, in formulating a military strategy for Afghanistan.

Fall 2009: Strategic Review of Options for Afghanistan

During the Fall of 2009 – a year after he was elected – President Obama began a Strategic Review of the Administration’s options in the Afghanistan war, then in its 8th year.  During this period the White House was developing its idea of a Counter Terrorism plan for Afghanistan.  The basic idea was that this plan would involve two forces of 10,000  troops each.  One would go after the Taliban, and the other would train the new Afghan army.  Vice-President Joe Biden was taking the lead for the White House in building support for this option and sounding out the military on the Counter Terrorism idea.

Yet at the same time, General Stanley McCrystal – then the top US commander of our and NATO forces in Afghanistan – had a different plan.  His plan called for an additional 40,000 American troops and which amounted to a totally different approach to the conflict.

Most of the top honchos at the Pentagon supported Gen. McCrystal’s plan while despising the White House plan.  Chief among these high-level uniforms was Admiral Michael Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the very highest military official in the land – our land.  It turns out – as Woodward noted – Mullen did not even want the Administration’s option discussed and debated at the White House because he was so adverse to it.  The admiral even refused to provide Biden and his uniformed allies the necessary information or data on it.  (Woodward, pg. 236.)

For Obama, as I mentioned, the strategy in Afghanistan was based on the key element of transferring “security” to the Afghan government.  The President’s idea was to remove US troops when their Afghan counterparts were trained to successfully engage in the conflict.  To this end, at an October 14, 2009 meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), the President discussed the ideas of  “reconciliation and reintegration” – meaning reconciling with local tribal chiefs and former-Taliban elements, and reintegrating them into the governmental structures in Afghanistan.

This discussion forced an open display of division within the top echelons of the military – right in front of the President – which was verboten. Obama had turned to General Petraeus, then Commander of the US Central Command, near the end of the meeting and directly asked him about his experiences with reconciliation in Iraq.

As Petraeus was about to present his memo on the issue to the President – his commander in chief, Admiral Mullen – who had not seen it and who outranked the general – blocked Petraeus from handing Obama the memo and refused to allow him to response using his documents. Petraeus was then forced to proceed with his briefing without the famous memo – which Obama never did see. (Pg. 239- 241.)  So, open discussion and debate was thwarted right then and there.

To bolster their plan of counter terrorism, the White House wanted the Pentagon to run war games on the option to flesh out details and figure out what additional planning was needed.  But both General Petraeus and Mullen squashed the idea – successfully. The Pentagon never did run war games on Obama’s option, but yet, that fact remained unclear to the President – as it appears that he believed that they had, and was relying on the Pentagon’s analysis of the results.   (Pg. 245.) Petraeus is now CIA Director.

Woodward documents how the tensions began to build between the White House and the Pentagon on which way to proceed in Afghanistan. Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta – siding with the Pentagon – wanted  the White House to face reality.  Woodward quotes sources that said that Panetta’s advice to the President’s aids was:

“No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it. So just do it. Do what they say.”  (Pg. 247.)

Panetta is now Secretary of Defense.

On the issue of Pentagon troop requests for Afghanistan, then White House National Security Adviser, General James Jones, a retired Marine, had been reviewing this history.  Jones had come to the conclusion that former President Bush and his Robert Gates – his defense chief  – had been punting for years – pushing key decisions about troop build-ups down the road.  As he tried to patch this history together for a critique, Jones became offended by what he experienced as the inflexibility of the Pentagon brass, especially Mullen and General McCrystal, as neither would budge from their demands for 40,000 troops. (Pg. 249.)

At an October 26, 2009, meeting in the situation room – after 6 weeks of meetings for the Strategic Review, the President in a moment of frustration, declared that he wanted a decision about the troop additions in two weeks.  During this entire time, Woodward documented Obama’s complaints of the lack of choices from the Pentagon.  Obama said: “We don’t have two options yet. We have 40,000 and nothing.” (pg. 251.)

During this meeting, General McCrystal laid out his recommendation: it was a plan to keep US troops in Afghanistan for 10 years at a cost of $889 Billion. Defense Secretary Gates chimes in – he gives McCrystal’s request his full support.  Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backs McCrystal’s plan, and says the President should give him what he wanted. (Pg. 252.)

Clearly losing his patience, Obama replies:

“This is not what I’m looking for.  I’m not doing ten years.

And then gesturing towards McCrystal’s assessment, the President says:

“That’s not in the  national interest.”

Clearly frustrated, Obama finally stated that he was not ready to make a decision, that he had a vision of an option that included a surge for less than one year; he wanted everybody to go back to the drawing board and think some more.  More discussion is had. General Jones observed that the McCrystal plan did not address the turnover of security to the Afghans – clearly a huge gaping hole. At that point, Obama suggested a troop increase of only 15,000 to 20,000 American troops. Plus he stated: “I want an exit strategy”. (Pg. 253.)

After that meeting and in a further sign of the polarization over US strategy and troop numbers between the civilian and military leaders, Woodward recounts how a group of advisers and aides led by Vice-President Biden held a meeting to organize a counter-balance to what they perceive as the “hawks” in the discussion. At that point, the hawks included Gates, Mullen, Petraeus, McCrystal and now Hilary Clinton.   Attempting to rally themselves as a group, Biden is emphatic that Obama does not need to do a build-up of 40,000 troops – a clear indication of the split. (Pg. 254-55.)

A few days later on October 30, 2009, Obama had a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House, looking for allies.  The President complained to them that for the past two months, Mullen, Petraeus, and McCrystal had been locked into their request for 40,000 and refused to budge from that position.  Obama wanted the Joint Chiefs’ opinion, pleading to them.  He said:  “I have one option that was framed as three options.  I want three real options to choose from.”  (Pg. 257-58.)  Yet, in the end, the Chiefs already had been side-lined by Mullen and were definitely out of the top loop, and … were not that helpful to the President.

“Disrupt” versus “Defeat”

As Woodward observes, Obama was trying to develop a strategy of “disrupting” the Taliban – a strategy counter to one that was geared to “defeating” them.  The Pentagon wanted a real war, they wanted the enemy defeated. Yet, even though some military people agreed with the White House idea, Admiral Mullen was still the top dog and wheeled a lot power.  This power was enormous as Woodward shows.

When the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army officer, sent a memo to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton laying out his opposition to any plan that relied on a huge increase in US forces, saying that the Administration and Pentagon had “not studied every alternative,” Eikenberry learned first hand of Mullen’s largesse.

Once he was shown the memo, Admiral Mullen became very angry, and declared that the memo “is a betrayal of our system.”  When General Petraeus, Mullen’s ally, found out about Eikenberry’s memo, he went ballistic.  And combined, the power that these two military men wheeled was sufficient to isolate Ambassador Eikenberry from the Pentagon, with Woodward editorializing that the cooperation between the civilian and military on Afghanistan had been “blown to pieces.” (Pg. 261-62)

At a November 9th review of the McCrystal plan, the discussion was on  the issue of how many Afghan soldiers and police officers would be trained with US funds. The hawks pushed for 400,000 – as a important part of General McCrystal’s plan. Petraeus and Mullen wanted a long-term project, and wanted funds to order equipment, such as mortars, artillery, and other military infrastructure for Afghanistan.  General Jones – the White House NSA adviser – saw that the Pentagon wanted to build in Afghanistan the same kind of empire they had built in Iraq.  (Pg. 262)

Joe Biden commented that this plan would take six years.  It was clear to the Vice-President during this meeting that the military leaders were not giving up their quest for 40,000 new troops. Biden found that they acted “as if it was written in the Holy text” and that they were becoming increasingly dogmatic.  At that point, as Woodward documented, Biden unloaded and called the 400,000 number hollow BS.

But Mullen and Petraeus stuck to their argument, with Gen. McCrystal pushing back hard for that figure.  To Woodward, it appeared that Petraeus’ attitude was that because he had done it before, he could do it again; Woodward wonders for us whether the general had his own political ambitions. (Pg. 262-63)

 Part 3 will be forthcoming.

A lawyer and grassroots activist, I was finally convinced by Patty Jones to start the OB Rag, a blog of citizen journalists, after she got tired of listening to my rants about the news. Way back during the Dinosaurs in 1970, I founded the original Ocean Beach People’s Rag - OB’s famous underground newspaper -, and then later during the early Eighties, published The Whole Damn Pie Shop, a progressive alternative to the Reader.


  1. avatarbreakingthesilence says

    This analysis has the ring of truth. Generals want to win wars, not withdraw because a war is unwinnable (and certainly they aren’t interested in whether a war is ethical.) Much of the world despises the US for perfectly justifiable reasons. A US/NATO loss in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan will be excellent news for the rest of the world. A devastating loss might do what the Vietnam humiliation did–keep us from starting any more murderous neo-colonial bloodbaths for another twenty or thirty years or so. But that’s too much to hope for. Excellent article. I’ll read the book. Many thanks.

  2. avatar says

    It seems that the goal of this article is to exonerate the President Obama from the responsibility for escalating the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing flurry of atrocities. It states: “Without letting Obama off the hook for the final decisions about Afghanistan…”. Well, then please elaborate on this in your next part for it did read as if you kept Obama “on the hook” at all. I understand the political reality we are in right now: the war opposing voter must either keep hoping that Obama will complete the military mission in Afghanistan by 2014 or accept the PNAC-type foreign policy from Romney next year. Let just not be naïve about the US foreign policy in general: it transcends the partly lines because it is dictated by the Military Industrial Complex.