The South Asia Channel

Gates: What He Really Thought About the Afghan War

Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). 

In Duty, recently retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates gives readers an inside look at some of the most interesting national security challenges of the past eight years.  However, the book's generally cogent analysis of events diminishes when he turns to the challenge that occupies the second half of the book-Afghanistan.  When all his doubts and concerns scattered throughout the book are assembled, they present a powerful condemnation of the Afghan strategy that Gates championed, one that expended not only considerable blood and treasure (as if these weren't enough), but also inherently limited White House focus, on the strategic backwater of Afghanistan. 

Despite the focus of many reviewers on some choice words about President Obama and his closest White House staffers, Gates' book almost literally covers the world.  Through the eyes of a long-time intelligence and defense professional (CIA analyst, NSC director, CIA Deputy Director, Deputy National Security Advisor, and CIA Director, prior to his latest appointment), Gates provides a candid yet generally charitable look into the two presidential administrations, George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's, that he served as Secretary of Defense.  His insights into the characters of the principals he interacted with, the various crises he helped manage, and the day-to-day challenges of helming a Pentagon at war are more than worth the book's cover price.  For all the prioritization of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure, Gates also had to help deal with crises in and around Iran, Georgia, Haiti, Russia, Egypt, Libya, and Turkey, among others.  He attended talks in the Middle and Far East.  And he dealt with budget and personnel battles in his own building.  It was a busy time. 

But Afghanistan nevertheless looms large in the book, largely because, while there was unanimity in Bush's National Security Council about the path forward in Iraq, the decision on Afghanistan featured a great deal of division.  President Obama's cabinet, its so-called "Team of Rivals" (echoing Doris Kearns Goodwin's book of the same name) often showed more rivalry than teamwork.  Secretary Gates's tenure encompasses almost the entirety of Afghanistan's "second act" in the post-9/11 era.  While he was not in government for 9/11, nor for the initial invasion of Afghanistan, it was in late 2006 and 2007, after Gates' ascension to the Pentagon, that Afghanistan was once again identified as a problem.  Gates was in office for all the early "reviews"-notably those the National Security Council's Afghanistan team under "War Czar" Doug Lute in late 2008 (Full disclosure: I worked for Lute during this period, but on Iraq, not Afghanistan, and had virtually no interaction with the Afghanistan review), and of Bruce Riedel in early 2009, in addition to numerous smaller Pentagon-driven studies.  If Gates (or any other principal) was unaware of any Afghan-related facts, it was not for a lack of staff energy spent trying to find them.

It is well known (thanks to Bob Woodward, inter alia) that Gates was a proponent of the 2009 Afghanistan "Surge"-also championed by Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff), General David Petraeus (Commander, Central Command), General Stanley McChrystal (Commander, International Security Assistance Force) and Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State).  And Gates in his own words makes it clear that he was a proponent of the plans put forward by his generals.  And yet, in little gems throughout the text, he offers a litany of reasons why he believes the Afghanistan endeavor will fail. When compiled, these make a convincing case.  The tension between these two sides of Gates-supporting a policy despite having a myriad of doubts about its efficacy-is never resolved and presents a somewhat interesting puzzle.

Gates sees clearly the obstacles to a successful outcome in Afghanistan.  He knew that Richard Holbrooke's skills and personality "seemed unlikely to work" in the Af-Pak region "where the leaders, culture, and political conditions were not susceptible to the Holbrooke style."  He knew, based on the American experience with Iraq,  that the promised Afghanistan "civilian surge" would not materialize.  He knew that Pakistan has its own interests that differed greatly from those of the United States and NATO.  He knew that the "clumsy and failed putsch" against President Karzai by Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (whom Gates charges were "doing [their] best to bring about the defeat of Karzai" in the August 2009 elections) would further taint the relationship between Washington and Kabul.  He knew that if the coalition forces were seen as occupiers, that the "war would be lost."  He knew the President was not supportive of the war or willing to say he was confident about its outcome.  He knew the President was very wary of the incredible costs of maintaining an army in the field in a distant, landlocked country.  He knew that the payments by the CIA to top Afghan officials made a mockery of American anti-corruption efforts.  He knew that the parochial insistence of the United States Marine Corps Commandant in keeping command of all Marines under a Marine commander had poorly positioned too many troops in Helmand province, away from the population centers.  He knew that the President's closest national security advisors were almost devoid of significant national security experience.

Given these beliefs on Gates' part why did he support the proposed policy?  There is a touch of mea culpa when Gates confesses that the "team of rivals" did not serve the president well.  In fact, Gates reveals, they really offered up only one option, with two slight variants.  What were, at the time, described as radically differing and competing proposals-with Gates, Hillary Clinton, and the generals supporting a full counterinsurgency strategy, while the Vice President, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, James Cartwright, and Doug Lute (by 2009 demoted to NSC Senior Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan) proposed a more limited counterterrorism mission-were, in fact, the difference between 83,000 troops in the latter case versus 98,000 troops for the full counterinsurgency strategy.  This was in part due to the mini-surge of 17,000 troops that had already deployed for the security of the Afghan elections, but it is still startling to see how little difference there was between the two violently opposed camps.  And as to any difference in mission, Gates concedes that his view of "a geographically limited counterinsurgency" was "pretty close to what Biden had in mind."   In this paragraph, does Gates not essentially concede the point of his critics-that the Pentagon "boxed in" the President by putting a large troop bill, as the sole option, so effectively that even the critics could only blunt and not present a true alternative, in front of a new and inexperienced Commander in Chief who had described Afghanistan as the "real central front in the war on terror"?

Gates culminates this "between the lines" damnation with an unmistakably explicit one.  This quote has been often cited already, but deserves to be reproduced in full:

As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his own commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his.  For him, it's all about getting out.

While the failure in Afghanistan is more complex than the quote above, it certainly provides a good starting point. 

While Gates ultimately stands by and defends his decision to support and champion the strategy shift and troop increase in Afghanistan, his own words betray him.  The sum of all Gates' fears demonstrates that he had the available information to steer another course.  There will be many history and politics dissertations in the future that try to parse exactly what led to the confused and uncoordinated effort in Afghanistan.  How much was simple institutional inertia after the post-9/11 invasion?  How much was caused by the resources and attention diverted to the Iraq War? How much was hubris over the purported success of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq?  How much was the result of the President's campaign statement that Afghanistan was the "good" war?  How much was the need for a Democratic president to shift the perception that his party was weak on issues of war and foreign policy?  How much was Pakistan a facilitator of the Taliban resurgence? I suspect these questions will be debated for a generation.

But Gates has done a real service in producing a candid telling of his tenure as Secretary of Defense, under two Presidents and through two wars.  If he did fail in some way in his promotion of Afghanistan policy, this is more than offset by his tremendous service in a host of other ways-guiding the war in Iraq, Pentagon reform, his concern for service members.  This book should be read by all with interests in public service, defense policy and/or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a notable defense and intelligence professional transmits the lessons learned from his years in public life.

 

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International, LLC.  A retired infantry officer, he served two tours in Iraq, was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command-East commander in Afghanistan, and was a Director for Iraq on the National Security Council of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.  He holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant

 

 

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