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Obama's Wars

Obama's Wars - Bob Woodward Welcome to the sausage factory. When Otto Von Bismarck made his comment about the undesirability of witnessing the making of legislation, he could easily have included the making of foreign, particularly military policy.

When President Obama took office, he was faced not only with having to clean out the economic monkey cage the prior administration had left covered with feces, he also had to cope with two inherited wars. He had some very definite ideas on an approach to the Afghanistan War in particular and that is the focus of Woodward’s latest.

The primary battle here is Obama’s desire to limit the cost and duration of our combat in Afghanistan versus the military’s desire for constantly increasing resources. Most of the military favored a program of counterinsurgency that entailed protecting the population while going after the Taliban. This would require many more troops than other options. There is a telling moment when two maps are shown at a meeting, one showing the population centers and the other showing the troop deployments. The mismatch was obvious, as was one extremely huge hole in the plan, the near absence of troops at the Afghani-Pakistani border where most of the Taliban fighters crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s nearly ungovernable tribal areas.

One issue that was central to the policy discussions was whether US policy should seek to destroy or disrupt the Taliban. It was fascinating to see this play out.

There is a formula to Woodward’s books. He interviews as many of the players as possible, corroborates their versions with others, gets his paws on official documents, and reports the blow-by-blow of the discussions that lead up to final policy action. It is a good formula and Woodward is an expert practitioner. Of course many of the interviewees are spin meisters who do what they can to get their side of a particular conflict into the record. There are many, many opinions expressed here, and I felt at times that Woodward slipped his own bias into the reportage by merely repeating what they had told him, without checking to see if what had been said was true or not. While it might be a useful thing to have a stenographer in chief, a bit more evaluation might have been in order. He goes beyond at times, echoing in his own words a view of this or that person. Still, this is mother’s milk to policy wonks. Also the level of detail can get to be too much. One must wade through a thick soup of names, dates and references to documents to get to the real jewels of information.

It was interesting to see the non-stop politicking that goes into the creation of our military policy. It is not a pretty picture, bearing far, far too much resemblance to middle-school theatrics. It is as if every morning the players, political and military, check their facebook pages to see who has one-upped the other. Even his holiness, David Petraeus, is a player in the eternal publicity wars. Even after a decision is made, the players keep the game going, continually attempting to influence policy, and their own positions, by leaking to the press material designed to corner or embarrass the president, or to attack an opponent. To steal a line from Burn Notice, “Generals, what a bunch of bitchy little girls.”

One thing that was crystal clear was what a disaster Karzai is as an ally, whether on or off his meds. It was no news to me that Pakistan is no better an ally, particularly as it provides safe haven for much of the Taliban force battling in Afghanistan, as well as a hidey hole for Al Qaeda. I was pleased to see a look at the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Is it possible to separate the two? And it was informative to learn of some of the organizational chaos inside the ISI, which may be the single most important player in the conflict. But one thing that comes through clearly is how complicated the issues are in attempting to craft the best approach to the conflict. Obama comes across pretty well, as a president who is willing to drill down into wonkish details in order to fashion the best policy. Also, he is willing to give the military specific directives, something prior presidents have been loath to do.

There have been many books written about the ongoing conflict in AfPak. There is no one book that can tell it all. But Obama’s Wars offers real insight into the current US perspective, and that is a worthwhile thing.


It was as if there were six or seven different personalities within the ISI. The CIA exploited and bought some, but at least one section—known as Directorate S—financed and nurtured the Taliban and other terrorist groups. CIA payments might put parts of the ISI in America’s pocket…but the Pakistani spy agency could not or would not control its own people. (p 4)

When the gunfire ended [in the Mumbai terrorist attack] the body count totaled 175, including six American citizens. The siege had been organized by a group called Lashkar-e-TAiba, which means the Army of the Pure and is commonly referred to by the acronym LeT…the open secret is that LeT was created and continues to be funded and protected by the Pakistani ISI. The intelligence branch of the Pakistani military uses LeT to inflict pain and hardship on India, according to U.S, Intelligence. The gunmen had, quite possibly, committed an act of war. (p 45)

Secretary Clinton addressed the consequences of not engaging with the Pakistani public for the past several years, contributing to America’s unpopularity there.

“There hadn’t been much public diplomacy in recent years,” she said. The history of the United States abandoning the region after the Cold War still hung over everything.

Meanwhile, “the US relationship with India is growing steadily,” she said, which to say the least was characterized as a negative in Pakistan. When the Pakistan media ran negative stories, there was not enough pushback. Where was a “counter-propaganda plan?” she asked.

“There’s been lack of sufficient funding, people, concepts, structures and authorities,” said Petraeus, chuckling. “Other than that we’re doing great.”

For much of the Bush presidency, U.S. policy had coddled Musharraf and disregarded the 170 million people in Pakistan. Clinton wanted a decision on multiyear, civilian assistance for Pakistani infrastructure, energy, and agriculture, in addition to media outreach. (p 209)