X-posting Book review & impressions of Woodward's "Obama's wars" (1 of 2)
Halfway through "Obama's wars" by Bob Woodward. So far it is exclusively about Afghanistan (why the wars
Every BRF-ite should read it. Bob Woodward has given a grand sweep of how US fights its wars, the impact of Civil-Military relations on the conduct of the war by the US, the various fissures between intelligence agencies which enhances (or frequently limits) their capabilities, the methods and techniques (which involve robust debate and scholarly reviews) adopted to review their approach and the ruthless single minded pursuit of American interests. This is a very important book for every BRF-ite to read carefully to analyze Unkil's intentions and methods. This is review part 1 of 2, since I am only halfway through the book:
If I may speculate, the publication of this book in October carries a special significance. The publication of the McChrystal review of the afghan war progress forms a central incident in the book. McChrystal's review of the Afghan situation, initiated after the commencement of Obama's presidency was done in the context of Obama reorienting Afghan war as the central war of his presidency, a reversal of the Bush approach of the centrality of Iraq. This review was leaked to Woodward who wanted to publish it (~1 year ago). Then Woodward himself was invited to the Pentagon (along with the Washingtonpost editor and lawyer) to try and get him to not do it, or atleast redact a major portion of it. To understand the report's significance, the report was commissioned in the climate of 3 diverging pulls in the administration. (1) Essentially unlimited commitment to the war -- hundreds of thousands of troops. This option seems to have been given a final burial (2) McChrystal's plan of 30,000 soldiers to replicate Iraq's "surge" (more on this later) and the (3) Biden plan of counterterrorism+: 2 bases in Afghanistan, small elite force with significant mobility to strike anywhere at short notice, and round the clock aerial surveillance. In short, making life "Just about difficult" for Al Qaeda to not use Afghanistan and go elsewhere.
Now back to McChrystal review and the timing of the book: Woodward rightfully points out that only under extraordinary circumstances do US generals ever use the word "defeat" in writing -- and McChrystal had used the word more than a dozen times in his review! The most clear & chilling sentence:
"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentun in the near-term (by September 2010)...risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible"..."We run the risk of strategic defeat"
And this is October 2010.
Now on to the general review & summary: So far, the book is about the Administration operatives (who are "Win the next elections at any cost" mode) and an army of hyper competitive never-say-die generals (who are in "Win the war at any cost" mode). Their theatrics played out in the media, with one group trying to box in the other through public pronouncements. The administration itself consists of three cliques of people. The "Get Obama re-elected" group (of Rahm Emmanuel and Axelrod), The "Old Obama buddies" group and "Hired professionals for the job" group and the tensions between them. However, my review is not about those parts. I will organize this from an "India centric" viewpoint. First of all, everyone in the US seems to have come around to the view that Military victory (in the classic sense of taliban defeat and capitulation) is impossible. There are two reasons for this impossibility. 1. The current force levels of the US are inadequate for counterinsurgency and 2. Even if they militarily succeed, the other two "legs of the stool" -- Governance & Economic development in Afghanistan and Stability & co-operation of Pakistan is absent. Now, no BRF-ite should even for a moment think that Unkil is not aware of the double game being played by Pakistan: Right off the bat, in page 3 of the book, which details the President-elect Obama (he would take the oath of office many months later, this is during the transition period) being briefed on national security,
McConnell had laid out the problem dealing with Pakistan. It was a dishonest partner of the US in the Afghan war. "They are living a lie", McConnell said.
In fact, I will go a step further and claim that so far the book has covered 3 aspects. (1) The Army-Administration relationship and its impact on the conduct of the war (2) Suicidal behavior of Pakistan and their perfidy (3) To a lesser extent, Karzai's inability to work towards some semblance of a decent administrative structure. A good chunk of the book is about Pakistan's double dealing and Unkil's planning to take into account the double dealing. For example
On the stick side, Riedel said, they had looked at the extreme option of invading Pakistan....immediately dismissed it. (On the carrot side debating whether Pakistan should be rewarded with hundreds of helicopters)
....There werent enough helicopters in the world to change Pakistani behavior
Sometimes, the absurdity is even highlighted
Zardari talking with Khalizad:
Zardari dropped his diplomatic guard. He suggested that one of the two countries was arranging the attacks by Pakistani taliban inside his country: India or the US. Zardari didnt think India could be that clever. Zardari talking with Bob Woodward:
On relations with India, he took pride in what he deemed a significant liberalizing moment. "I've allowed Indian movies for the first time"
In this context, and in the context of Unkil's realization that a counter insurgency is unlikely to succeed, Unkil wants to "Change the facts on the ground". Which essentially means a change in Pakistani behavior. Like blind sheep, every discussion mentioned in the book about "Changing Pakistani behavior" goes back to gaining Pakistani trust by doing something or the other. The administration and the army seems to have bought hook line and sinker, Pakistani claim that resolution of disputes with India would cause it to abandon terrorism. However, it seems to me that three assumptions have not been challenged
1. How will rewarding bad behavior (on the part of Pakistan) ensure Pakistan's compliance to its end of the bargain? What if they demand more? Riedel himself dismisses Pakistani demand of a civil nuclear deal as (paraphrased) "They will simply pocket it and keep doing what they are doing, claiming that it is their right to get a deal like India"
2. What does appeasing Pakistan mean in the larger content of Unkil's strategy in Asia? vis-a-vis China and India?
3. Why not use tools and leverages that exist to punish them?
Unkil's acceptance (in some form or the other) Pakistani position that support of terrorism is in some sense a natural thing to do in its competition with India, is just one aspect of why India should not pin its hopes on the US. The other significant aspect is that US itself is in a "drawdown" mode. Listing a few national interests. Paring down that list to bare essentials. Achieving that bare essentials using minimum casualities and money. In this sense, every objective in Afghanistan is questioned and its scope reduced. For example: The quality of training of the Afghan armed forces, whether to "defeat" or simply "disrupt" the taliban (there are several rounds of discussion between the National Security advisor, Defence secretary, Petraeus, Director of National Intelligence etc. about the single word "Defeat" vs "Disrupt" in the strategy document)This has convinced me that India relying on the US to accomodate Indian national interest in Afghanistan in some form or extent is a losing strategy on India's part
A few random thoughts and excerpts:
1. On predator drones, Woodward asserts again and again that the drones themselves are just one aspect. Without accurate HUMINT the drones are useless
The US had scored an extraordinary intelligence coup in the ungoverned regions of Pakistan as a result of blending...human sources and technical intelligence...He (McConnell) said, The real breakthrough had been with human sources. That is what President Bush wanted to protect at all costs....without spies, the video feed from the Predator might as well be a blank television screen.
2. The degree to which everyone is prepared to question their assumptions and even winning strategies, hire outside consultants and produce sharp strategy documents is astounding. If GWB's administration had done this 9 years ago, Afghan war would have had a different color now.
3. Everyone wants to fix India-Pak "issues". For example in one of the main strategy meetings on Afghan war
...everyone in the room said it had to be done without fanfare or public attention (India-Pak issues). Otherwise India would go beserk. India thought that the US was filled with closet Pakistani lovers.
When it came to India--a country outside of Holbrooke's portfolio but central to Pakistan's concerns--Holbrooke said in his theatric baritone, "I will deal with India by pretending not to deal with India".
and Obama laying out his objectives
I see three key goals. One protecting the US homeland...two, concern about Pakistan's nuclear weapons...third goal about Pakistan-India relationships
4.... but that doesnt mean that a majority of the book is devoted to India-Pak. India is hardly mentioned at all. Maybe 1 or 2 pages. In the context of Mumbai,
CIA intelligence showed no direct ISI link, Hayden told him (Bush). These are former people who are no longer employees of the Pakistani government* (Footnote: The CIA later recieved reliable intelligence that ISI was directly involved in training for Mumbai)
5. For comic relief, one of the SEAL missions into Pakistan produced heavy civilian casualities because
But in that part of the world, people often ran towards automatic weapons fire and explosions..to see what was happening
6. While propounding "Nook Nanga" theory, this has to be taken into account:
And most tellingly, nothing on the shelf specifically addressed towards securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Obama's team would have to develop a graduated plan dealing with a range of circumstances, from Pakistan losing a single nuclear weapon all the way up to the Pakistani government falling to Islamic extremists.
I am only halfway through the book, my impressions might change. Rest of the review after I finish the book. And I havent lost sight of the fact that this is October 2010 and the national bird of Pakistan seems to be frisky these days....