Paging through Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars,” I should not have been surprised that the index lacks any entry for “intelligence.” The excerpts that dribbled out earlier this week had made unavoidably clear that there was, in fact, no entry for intelligence in the disorderly process last fall that got the Obama administration neck-deep in the Big Muddy—to borrow from Pete Seeger’s song from the Vietnam era.
Before reading through Woodward’s book, the excerpts already published had left doubts in my mind that the Obama White House could be host to such an amateurish decision-process-without-real-process. I had seen a lot of White House fecklessness in my 30 years in intelligence analysis, but it was, frankly, hard to believe that it could be so bad this time.
Could it be true that, after going from knee-deep to waist-deep in the Big Muddy by his early 2009 decision to insert 21,000 additional troops, the President would decide to plunge neck-deep without a comprehensive intelligence review of the impact of the earlier reinforcement and a formal estimate of the likely impact of further escalation.
As it turns out, it was I who was being naïve. I can no longer avoid concluding that a hubris-hewed presidential mix of innocence abroad and raw politics at home slid Barack Obama into a decision that will cost thousands more lives and, in the end, be his political undoing. Add to the mix a heaping tablespoon of, let’s say it, cowardice—and stir.
The procedure (or lack thereof) followed last fall virtually ensured that President Barack Obama would be forced, against what were clearly his better instincts, to be diddled by the four-stars into an escalated March of Folly deeper and deeper into Afghanistan. His intelligence and security advisers, themselves naïve and inexperienced, failed the President miserably.
Intelligence? Who Needs it?
Those familiar with late-20th Century history of foreign policy decision-making in the White House know that rarely was a key decision made without formal input from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Whether the President chose to heed the insights provided by National Intelligence Estimates or not, it was de rigueur to commission an NIE in advance of important decisions.
Obama’s national security adviser, former Marine four-star James Jones, could not have been unaware of this. Indeed, former three-star-now-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, was begging for such an assessment as the White House deliberations went on. The ambassador had more ground-truth knowledge of Afghanistan than all the other President’s men, and women, put together.
Before retiring from the Army, Lt. Gen. Eikenberry had done two tours in the thick of things there. During 2002-2003 he had the unenviable task of trying to rebuild the Afghan National Army and police forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In a cable from Kabul on November 9, 2009, Eikenberry took strong issue with “a proposed counterinsurgency strategy that relies on a large, all-or-nothing increase in U.S. troops.” He noted that there were “unaddressed variables” in the Pentagon plan for further escalation, like “Pakistan sanctuaries and weak Afghan leadership,” that could “block us from achieving our strategic goals, regardless of the number of additional troops we may send.” Eikenberry specifically warned that there could be “no way to extricate ourselves.”
He insisted on the need to bring “all the real-world variables to bear in testing the proposed counterinsurgency plan.” Confident that an honest intelligence estimate would issue similar cautions, he pleaded for a “comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options.”
Eikenberry could hardly have been more blunt in warning against a premature decision for a troop increase, arguing, “there is no option but to widen the scope of our analysis and to consider alternatives beyond a strictly military counterinsurgency effort within Afghanistan.”
Petraeus: We’ve Got It Covered
According to Woodward, Gen. David Petraeus dismissed Eikenberry’s proposal as “laughably late in the game.” Though the ambassador had “reasonable concerns,” Petraeus felt they had all been asked and answered.
Eikenberry had already incurred the wrath of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen in a cable of November 6, in which he wrote, “ I cannot support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 here.” Eikenberry went on to adduce six game-changing facts. Taking into account any one of them, much less all combined, showed such escalation to be a fool’s errand.
Mullen reportedly reacted very strongly, saying, “This is a betrayal of our system.” In Mullen’s world, if you dare cross what the top brass has already decided, you are a betrayer! No comment could point up better the pitfalls of ceding determining roles in strategic decision making to four-stars officers with died-in-the-wool notions of the requirements of military discipline—even in what should have been free brainstorming of possible alternative courses.
Retired Marine four-star national security adviser James Jones bears primary responsibility for letting Mullen, Petraeus, and non-cashiered Gen. Stanley McChrystal marginalize Eikenberry and other senior officials with similar concerns. No matter how many stars you wear, or have worn, generals/admirals almost always defer to active-duty four-stars in charge of the battlefield.
I believe it is more a matter of Jones’ instinct than conscious decision. Woodward has this to say about Jones:
“Jones was sure that the best answers, if there were any, would come from a review that adhered to the formal NSC [National Security Council] system. Procedure and protocol mattered to the retired Marine general.”
My experience in providing intelligence support to administrations from John Kennedy to George H. W. Bush was that NSC “procedure and protocol” in addressing key foreign policy decisions almost always included a request for intelligence support in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate. And yet, retired Marine general Jones deferred to active duty four-stars Mullen, Petraeus, and McChrystal. This time—no need for an NIE, thank you very much.
Similarly, retired three-star and now Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry folded his tent and silently slunk away. It may not have even occurred to him that he might have had the strength of his convictions and loudly resign so that the rest of us would have insight into the dubious policy decision that would throw still more soldiers and Marines into the Big Muddy.
Speak-No-Evil CIA Chief Panetta
At his confirmation hearings, CIA chief Leon Panetta, a 16-year veteran in the House of Representatives, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he “would always be a creature of Congress.” That is the kiss of death; no one with that mindset should be director of any intelligence organization.
Woodward writes that Panetta never volunteered his opinion to the President and that Obama never asked for it. Remarkable. Jones should have insisted on getting an “opinion” from the lawyer Obama appointed to head the CIA, but didn’t. Neither did Congress.
Not that Panetta lacked an opinion. I don’t mean an unexpressed intelligence opinion on the projected effects of this or that course of action in Afghanistan. Panetta’s opinion, Woodward writes, pertained to the fact that “Obama was facing a huge political reality.”
From the point of view of an intelligence professional, retired with no stars, the following may just be the most damning two sentences in Woodward’s book. The author says that Panetta told other principal advisers:
“No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it … So just do it. Do what they say.”
(Harry Truman, who created the CIA not to conduct assassinations or fire missiles from drones but rather to give the president, without fear or favor, unadulterated intelligence on developments abroad, must be rolling over in his grave.}
Small wonder that retired four-star admiral Dennis Blair, as Director of National Intelligence nominally Panetta’s boss, called the Afghanistan review process “the goddamndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
According to Woodward, Blair complained that Jones had no control. Rather, Jones was happy to share his responsibilities with younger, more activist NSC officials—like his deputy Tom Donilon, counterterrorism chief John Brennan, and, at times, even White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel.
History will not look favorably on the naïve, lawyerly tone and substance of “President Obama’s Final Orders for Afghanistan Pakistan Strategy, or Terms Sheet.” (See page 385-390 of Woodward’s book.) In an op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post, Eliot Cohen notes aptly that Obama’s six-page ‘Terms Sheet” reads like “a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategic document.”
“So Basically, We’re Screwed”
In May, Vice President Joe Biden invited Ambassador Eikenberry to his office, and asked him “Where do we stand?” Eikenberry was typically candid, emphasizing first what an unreliable partner Karzai was. Woodward provides this account of what the ambassador told the vice president:
“He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds,” Eikenberry said, trying to account once again for Karzai’s erratic behavior. “They’re not producing governance in Marja. And we haven’t tackled the hard problem, Kandahar.
“And now we’re saying, essentially, that Karzai’s going to produce a political solution for Kandahar. That’s completely irresponsible to suggest that … so basically, we’re screwed.”
Come on, generals. It is the young people we send to war from our inner cities and small towns who are “screwed.” Our much vaunted “professional army” is comprised largely of those caught up in an unjust and uncaring poverty draft.
Some come back hidden in what the Army now calls “transfer cases,” rather than coffins. Thousands others come back maimed for life. Few come back whole. Just this past week at Fort Hood, Texas, four decorated veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took their own lives, adding to the 14 other suicides this year at Fort Hood alone.
I was singularly unimpressed by the comment of base commander Maj. Gen. William Grimsley on the tragedy: “It’s personally and professionally frustrating as a leader.”
Yes, sir; no sir. Generals and admirals, it’s not about you. It’s about those you send into needless war. And it’s about the people our own soldiers brutalize as they become brutalized themselves by the experience. You need to watch that U.S. Army gun-barrel video of the brutal killing of civilians in Bagdad on July 12, 2007, all judged to be in accord with the “rules of engagement.” (Just type “collateral murder” in the URL line in your computer.) You’ve already watched it? Watch it again.
And you need to get out into the field with the troops, where your heart can be touched by direct experience so that your highly disciplined mind can be opened to alternatives and challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is about the only thing at this point that can help to inject some balance into your thought process. Afghanistan is not some kind of war game or political pawn.