This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Sometimes it’s the little things in the big stories that catch your eye. On Monday, the Washington Post ran the first of three pieces adapted from Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, a vivid account of the way the US high command boxed the commander-in-chief into the smallest of Afghan corners. As an illustration, the Post included a graphic the military offered President Obama at a key November 2009 meeting to review war policy. It caught in a nutshell the favored "solution" to the Afghan War of those in charge of fighting it—Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, then–Centcom commander, General Stanley McChrystal, then–Afghan War commander and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among others.
Labeled "Alternative Mission in Afghanistan," it’s a classic of visual wish fulfillment. Atop it is a soaring green line that represents the growing strength of the notoriously underwhelming "Afghan Forces," military and police, as they move toward a theoretical goal of 400,000—an unlikely "end state" given present desertion rates. Underneath that green trajectory of putative success is a modest, herky-jerky blue curving line, representing the 40,000 US troops Gates, Petraeus, Mullen, and company were pressuring the president to surge into Afghanistan.
The eye-catching detail, however, was the dating on the chart. Sometime between 2013 and 2016, according to a hesitant dotted white line (that left plenty of room for error), those US surge forces would be drawn down radically enough to dip somewhere below—don’t gasp—the 68,000 level. In other words, three to six years from now, if all went as planned—a radical unlikelihood, given the Afghan War so far—the United States might be back close to the force levels of early 2009, before the President’s second surge was launched. (When Obama entered office, there were only 31,000 US troops in Afghanistan.)
And when would those troops dwindle to near zero? 2019? 2025? The chart-makers were far too politic to include the years beyond January 1, 2016, so we have no way of knowing. But look at that chart and ask yourself: Is there any doubt that our high command, civilian and military, were dreaming of, and most forcefully recommending to the president, a "forever" war—one that the Office of Budget and Management estimated would cost almost $900 billion?
Of course, as we now know, the military "lost" this battle. Instead of the 40,000 troops it desired, it got "only" 30,000 from a frustrated president (plus a few thousand support troops the Secretary of Defense was allowed to slip in, and some special operations forces that no one was putting much effort into counting, and don’t forget those extra troops wrung out of NATO as well as small allies who, for a price, couldn’t say "no"—all of which added up to a figure suspiciously close to the 10,000 the president had officially denied his war commanders).