Obama’s Long War

Obama’s Long War

Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars is essential reading for anyone seeking a map out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars should scare the hell out of you. It is essential reading—between the lines—for anyone seeking a map out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here is one example: if and when a terrorist attack occurs in the United States that can be traced to Pakistan, the American military response will be a "retribution plan" to bomb at least 150 targets in Pakistan. The plan is "one of the most sensitive and secret of all military contingencies," Woodward writes. There is no discussion of The Day After in this scenario of saturation bombing. That’s another secret.

Such an attack on American soil was attempted this year, when Faisal Shahzad, who was funded and trained by the Pakistani Taliban, placed a car bomb in Times Square on May 1. Last year the FBI arrested an Al Qaeda operative, Najibullah Zazi, for planning to blow up New York subways with backpack bombs, as well as Chicago resident David Coleman Headley, for planning an attack in Europe. Both were trained in Pakistan. In addition, Woodward reveals a secret May 26, 2009, presidential briefing charging that at least twenty Al Qaeda cadre with Western passports were training in Pakistan for high-profile attacks in the West. He also says Al Qaeda is recruiting and training people from the thirty-five countries whose citizens don’t need visas to enter the United States.

The reader is left with the impression that another massive and traumatic assault is to be expected in the near future. "We’re living on borrowed time," says National Security Adviser James Jones. President Obama himself says, in his low-key manner, that "a potential game changer would be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists, blowing up a major American city." Such is the new realism. As we await the "game changer," we learn that the Pentagon is already protecting us with a top-secret war in Pakistan, the new "center of gravity," plus an expedited escalation in Afghanistan featuring nightly raids by Special Forces. Between 2004 and 2007, there were only ten drone strikes; there have been seventy-eight in Pakistan so far this year, twenty-one in September alone—the most of any month. Night raids in Afghanistan have risen from 100 per month in May 2009 to 1,000 per month this past summer. The savagery is kept secret from the American people but not from the Muslim world.

That’s not all. Woodward neglects to describe, at least for this book, the secret Long War already unfolding in at least nineteen countries, under a classified order signed by Gen. David Petraeus last year. But he does quote Petraeus saying, "This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives." Even more disturbing is the strategic thinking behind the policy, as described by Jones in an interview with Woodward. According to Jones, the war is "certainly a clash of civilizations…a clash of religions…a clash of almost concepts of how to live." If the United States is not successful, NATO, the European Union and the United Nations "might be relegated to the dustbin of history." This passage underscores how the new "best and brightest" are so trapped in their assumptions that our future looks like a dead end. Only an intervention by the American people can save us from this combination of blindness and paralysis, once described by historian Barbara Tuchman as "the march of folly." We need an urgent change of vision and strategy among Congressional doves and peace activists. Leadership and pressure will have to come from outside the circle Woodward depicts.

The good news from Woodward’s book is that Obama—along with Vice President Biden and his domestic advisers—insists repeatedly on an exit strategy from Afghanistan despite the opposition of his military advisers and Hillary Clinton. He fears that his presidency and domestic program will be capsized by the forever wars. The president is quoted as recognizing that he "can’t lose the whole Democratic Party" and that opposition to the war in Afghanistan will keep increasing on Capitol Hill as the next presidential election cycle nears.

The paradox is that Obama is escalating the war now in order to begin de-escalating sooner than his generals want, largely because of public opinion. CNN reported on September 29 that 58 percent of Americans oppose the Afghan war. Most recent surveys show that about 75 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents are opposed, while 60 percent of Republicans are in favor of the war—the same Republicans who will vote unanimously against Obama in 2012. The troubling news is that current peace sentiment is focused on the visible wars, with little or no ground for public opposition to the secret war in Pakistan and the global Long War. An opposition movement, therefore, will have to pursue two distinct lines: first, a broad public pressure campaign against the trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives lost in the futile occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq; and, second, a steady educational campaign to frame the Long War as unsustainable and not in our security interest.

A sane exit strategy for Afghanistan, at least, is now on offer in a report by the Afghanistan Study Group, an ad hoc network of foreign policy experts assembled by the New America Foundation. To be sure, the report proposes de-escalation, not a complete troop withdrawal. It says little about Pakistan. The ASG represents the "realist" school of foreign policy, which de-emphasizes civilian deaths unless they affect US strategic interests. But in describing a process of extricating the United States from a war gone bad, the ASG report fills a gap where Congress and media have failed. It’s a simple message that undecided voters need to hear: a reduction from 100,000 troops now to 68,000 by October 2011 and 30,000 by July 2012, accompanied by all-party talks and regional diplomacy. Recent reports of talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban suggest that the ASG strategy is plausible, despite persistent Pentagon skepticism.

Afghanistan will remain at the center of media and political debate, and the secret war in Pakistan and elsewhere will probably intensify, with Obama determined to send ground troops secretly into Pakistan’s tribal areas if the Pakistani army is reluctant. Attacking Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries there is considered essential, even if Pakistan is destabilized in the process and even if Al Qaeda relocates elsewhere. And "there was always the prize: bin Laden," Woodward writes of the president’s thinking.

The quandary for peace advocates is that it is politically impossible to question going after "the prize" of bin Laden’s head. But that is akin to burning down a haystack to find a needle. Then would come blowback—and it could be fierce. According to Woodward, it is already under way, just malfunctioning so far. The Times Square car bomb was a "successful plot," according to US officials, because it was not detected by Western intelligence. The same is true of the airline bombing attempt last Christmas.

Generals and defense experts don’t do exit strategies. The top Obama (and Bush) adviser on Al Qaeda, Bruce Riedel, wipes away the Ivy League gloss to tell Obama, "Until we kill them, they’re going to keep trying to kill us." Asked to estimate how much the war will cost, Riedel tells the president he doesn’t know—"that’s politics, and not in my purview." If such groupthink prevails, the death spiral is inevitable.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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