Obama knew better: A quick reader’s guide to accompany the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers

President Barack Obama visits troops in Afghanistan May 26, 2014, at Bagram Air Field. Obama thanked the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines for their service. After his speech, he shook hands with each and every member present. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

An extraordinary new investigation from the Washington Post – The Afghanistan Papers – provides documentary evidence “that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

Reporter Craig Whitlock writes that the documents “underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.”

But each of those presidents faced dramatically different choices along the way.

And Obama’s culpability is unique in that unlike Bush and Trump, who can reasonably plead a certain degree of ignorance and stupidity, he knew better.

He almost certainly knew the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, but took a hawkish view, unlike his view of the war in Iraq, so that he couldn’t be cast as a dove. “When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won,” he declared. He spoke of “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

More than half of all the American soldiers killed in Afghanistan died between Obama’s inauguration and when he finally ended the U.S.’s official combat role in December 2014. (And there were still 8,500 U.S. troops there when he left office.)

Here’s some of what I wrote about this in October 2014:

What’s not clear to this day is precisely when Obama knew better; when he realized that the war in Afghanistan was hopeless.

By inauguration time, that conclusion seemed fairly obvious to many foreign-policy watchers. So why not him?

But one month into his presidency, Obama announced he was sending more troops there – 30,000, as it would turn out. Despite the obvious lack of what he himself had frequently described as a must — an exit strategy — he increased the number of troops in Afghanistan by 50 percent. And the monthly death tolls shot up.

Over 1,600 American servicemembers  have died in Afghanistan since the summer of 2009 — well over half of all the dead during the entire war – along with countless Afghans.

There were public signs in November 2009 that Obama was “rethinking” his plan. David Sanger, in his book Confront and Conceal, wrote that Obama actually began a “reassessment of whether the war was as necessary as he first believed” even earlier, in the summer of 2009. (At an off-the-record June 2009 dinner with historians the “main point” his guests tried to make was “that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson,” Garry Wills wrote  later.)

And according to Sanger’s murky sources, the recognition that things were hopeless came at the latest by June 2011.

But it wasn’t for three more long years —  until this May — that Obama finally announced U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016….

George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq sent vastly more people to their deaths than anything Obama did – nearly 5,000 U.S. servicemembers, plus over 100,000 Iraqi civilians – and left as many as half a million U.S. servicemembers wounded or otherwise permanently damaged….

But Bush at least thought the war in Iraq would do some good….

Bush also certainly saw – and exploited — the political upside of being a war president.

But he didn’t let loose the dogs of war simply because his political operatives told him it would poll well.

A look back at some other key moments:

In February 2009, Obama decided to send up to 17,000 more troops into the fight, doubling the number of American combat brigades in the country, despite the overwhelming evidence that it would do no good. As I wrote at the time:

A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for instance, concluded that sending in more troops was exactly what not to do. “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban,” the report said. “The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations…

“After seven years of war, the international community has failed to create the conditions for a sustainable Afghan state.”

Our best weapon, the report says, would be “a progressive and focused scaling down of combat troops on our own terms. This would neutralize the Taliban’s appeals for Jihad against unbelieving foreign invaders, open up space for Afghan institutions and
political solutions, and allow us to focus our efforts on areas where we can still make a difference.

In March 2009, after Obama established what he called narrower and more strategic goals for the war in Afghanistan, I wrote:

But his new plan doesn’t seem to meet his own standards. As he said in a CBS News interview just a few days ago, “There’s gotta be an exit strategy.”

Obama insisted that the commitment to Afghanistan isn’t open-ended: “Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan Security Forces, and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.”

But what if things don’t go according to plan? At some point, are we willing to just up and leave? Obama didn’t say — and it would be hard to imagine, given what he did say a moment later: “The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked.”

This is all more than a little reminiscent of the “benchmarks” former president George W. Bush and his aides established in January 2007 for Iraq, as they announced the “surge.”

Most of those benchmarks were subjective and amorphous, and Bush wouldn’t say what would happen if they weren’t met. Indeed, when the few concrete deadlines came and went without any success, neither Bush nor the media took any notice.

Here’s an excerpt from Whitlock’s piece today:

A person identified only as a senior National Security Council official said there was constant pressure from the Obama White House and Pentagon to produce figures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was working, despite hard evidence to the contrary.

“It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture,” the senior NSC official told government interviewers in 2016. “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

And while the Post’s haul of documents is amazing, let’s not forget an even bigger, and release of key evidence, in July 2010, when it could have made a difference:

The ever-accumulating case against the war in Afghanistan was bolstered this week by WikiLeaks’s dissemination of over 70,000 previously secret reports documenting in vivid and unvarnished detail the brutality and futility of the American mission there.



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