Point of No Return
It’s now evident, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, that Obama’s foreign policy has maintained many of the core elements of the global war on terror initiated by his predecessor—assassinations, drone attacks, heavy reliance on special forces, covert operations, and, in the case of Afghanistan, the continued use of American ground forces in combat. And, as in the years of Bush and Cheney, there has been no progress, let alone victory, in the fight against terrorism. The Islamic State has succeeded Al Qaeda as the United States’ most feared terrorist enemy, one that now reaches deep into Africa and sends shockwaves into Western Europe and America. Obama still views Russia, a nation with the same international terrorist enemies as Washington, as an evil empire that must be confronted rather than as an ally. Since 9/11 I have had access to some of the thinking inside the White House on the war on terror. I learned early in the Obama presidency that he was prepared to walk away from first principles. His first public act as president took place on January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, when he announced that he was returning the nation to the “moral high ground” by signing an executive order calling for the closing, “as soon as practical,” of Guantánamo. As of this writing, that has yet to happen, and more than ninety prisoners continue to fester there, with no due process and no accountability, to America’s shame.1
The number of Guantánamo detainees has since fallen to eighty.
Obama had described Afghanistan as “the right war” during his campaign and talked about the need for more troops on the ground there. Many of his supporters were not listening, or chose not to hear. I was told that within three weeks of taking office he informed his senior advisers at a secret National Security Council meeting of his plan to send an additional 17,000 American troops to join the more than 30,000 already stationed there. This outcome was not the product of an interagency staff decision, but a unilateral action taken by Obama and retired Marine Corps general James Jones, the national security adviser at the time. Obama and Jones were said to believe that the focus of American foreign policy needed to be on Pakistan, a nuclear power supporting and harboring the Taliban troops that had become the main opponent in Afghanistan after Al Qaeda’s retreat. There was much hubris and—as usual in new administrations—not much consideration of what had gone before. Furthermore, I was told by someone in a position to know that Jones had explained at one meeting, in essence, that “Afghanistan is not in our national security interest, but we don’t want to betray the good men who went there before. We will not abandon Afghanistan, but we will not let it get worse.”
Obama would spend much of his first year discussing what to do about Afghanistan. The debate was not about whether to expand the war there but how many troops to commit to what would become America’s longest and least successful war. The president, who would spend the rest of his time in office cracking down on press leaks and internal dissent, stood aside as a group of American generals staged what amounted to a public debate over the number of troops needed to “win” the Afghan war. At one point, a highly classified internal request from Army general Stanley McChrystal, an expert on special operations and commander of U.S. forces in the Afghan war, was leaked to the Washington Post within a week of its delivery to the White House, with no significant protest or sanction from Obama. McChrystal had asked permission to deploy as many as 80,000 more troops.
Obama eventually committed a first tranche of 30,000 additional American soldiers. It was a decision marketed as a compromise between a reluctant president and a gung-ho Pentagon. There was at least one senior member of Congress who had reason to suspect that Obama, despite his resentment of the military’s public posturing, had wanted these higher troop numbers all along.
By 2009, David Obey, a Democratic lawmaker from Wisconsin, was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, one of two committees responsible for funding all government programs, including secret military and intelligence activities. Elected to Congress in 1969, at the height of the anti–Vietnam War protests, Obey was an outspoken liberal. He had dared to take on George Bush and Dick Cheney over aspects of their war on terror that—as Obey and others in Congress believed—were not being shared with, and perhaps were not even financed by, Congress, as stipulated by the Constitution. Obey got nowhere with his protests, but his efforts in early 2005—including a little-noted speech on the House floor and the solicitation of a rush of unfulfilled promises from the Bush White House to provide greater communication—were remarkable simply for having taken place. He told me at the time that “disquieting” actions had been taken in secret and “Congress [had] failed in its oversight abilities.”
Obey stunned his colleagues in 2010 by announcing his retirement. He and I had talked on and off during the Bush years—he would listen but say little. Six or so months after he left the Congress he was more forthcoming. He told me of a presidential meeting he and a few other congressional leaders had attended at the White House in March 2009. The issue was Afghanistan, and Obama wanted them to know he was going to make a significant troop commitment to the war there. “He said he was being told by a lot of people that he ought to expand the war and then asked all of us, one by one, what we thought. The only word of caution came from [Vice President] Joe Biden, who raised a question about the cost. When it came to me, I said, ‘Mr. President, you could have the best policy in the world but you need to have the tools to carry it out—and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan are pretty lousy tools. If you did a surge in Afghanistan you will have to face the fact that it would crowd out large portions of your domestic program—except perhaps health care.’” (A later in-house estimate put the cost of the war, if forty thousand additional troops were committed, at $1 trillion over the next ten years, as much as the president’s health care proposal.)
At the end of the meeting, according to Obey, he had a private chat with the president and asked him whether he had ever spent time listening to the broadcasts of President Lyndon Johnson’s telephone conversations, in particular his discussions about expanding America’s commitment to the war in South Vietnam. Johnson had taped more than nine thousand of his telephone calls while in office. They created a sensation in Washington upon their public release in 2003—just as President Bush was expanding America’s war in Iraq. Obama said he had. “I then asked Obama if he recalled listening to the conversation with Richard Russell when they both talked about how upping the American effort in Vietnam wouldn’t help,” Obey said. “My point was that Johnson and Russell were making a decision to go ahead when they were telling themselves privately that it would not work.”
Senator Russell was a segregationist and archconservative from Georgia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and a longtime Johnson confidant. The conversation in question took place in May 1964, fourteen months before Johnson would make a major commitment of American troops to the war. It remains one of the most riveting and instructive of the presidential recordings. Both men agreed that any American escalation would lead to a major war with China, with untold consequences. “I’ll tell you,” Russell told Johnson, “it’ll be the most expensive adventure this country ever went into.” Johnson answered, “It just makes the chills run up my back. . . . I haven’t the nerve to do it, but I don’t see any other way out of it.”
Obey then asked a third question: “Who’s your George Ball?” Ball, a high-ranking member of the State Department in the Kennedy years, was renowned as the only senior official in the government to argue again and again—at great personal cost—against Kennedy’s decision to escalate the American presence in South Vietnam. Obama did not answer. “Either the president chose not to answer, or he didn’t have one,” Obey told me. “But I didn’t hear anyone tell the president that he ought to put on the brakes in Afghanistan.”
In a review of my interviews about Obama’s early decision to raise the ante in Afghanistan, one fact stood out: Obama’s faith in the world of special operations and in Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan who worked closely with Dick Cheney from 2003 to 2008 as head of the Joint Special Operations Command. JSOC’s forces include elite Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, and they have won fame in countless books and movies since 9/11 for their nighttime operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the jihadists in Iraq. It was a JSOC SEAL team that killed bin Laden at his redoubt in Pakistan in early 2011. There is no ambivalence about the skills and determination of those special operators who took part in Obama’s renewed nighttime war against the Taliban in 2009 and thereafter. But, as I was told at the time, there is another side to the elite units. “You’ve got really good guys who are strongly motivated, and individual initiative is the game,” a former senior military official said. “But JSOC’s individualism also breeds a group of childish men who take advantage of their operational freedom to act immaturely. ‘We’re special and the rules don’t apply.’ This is why the regular army has always tried to limit the size of the special forces. McChrystal was not paid to be thoughtful. He was paid to let his troops do what they want with all the toys to play with they want.”
This former senior official, who has been involved in war planning since 9/11, was pessimistic at the time about Obama’s reliance on special operations. “The intersection between the high-mindedness of Obama and the ruthlessness of Dick Cheney is so great that there is a vacuum in the planning. And no one knows what will happen. My own belief is that over time we’re going to do the Afghanization of the war”—trying, as in Iraq, to finance and train an Afghan Army capable of standing up to the Taliban—“and the same thing will happen to them as happened to our South Vietnamese Army allies. In the end, the Taliban, disciplined and motivated, will take the country back.”
McChrystal was cashiered in June 2010, after he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone making a series of derogatory remarks about the president and others in the White House. According to one of McChrystal’s advisors, he thought an early face-to-face meeting with the president was inconsequential and trivial—little more than a “10-minute photo op.” By then, there was much concern about a major aspect of McChrystal’s approach to the war, which was to find and kill the Taliban. I was visited that June by a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross whose humanitarian mission is to monitor, in secret, the conditions of civilians and prisoners of war in an effort to insure compliance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The ICRC was even granted limited access to the prison at Guatánamo, among other facilities in the war on terror, with the understanding that its findings were not to be made public. The official who sought me out did not want to discuss the prison system in Afghanistan, about which there have been many public revelations. His issue was the Obama administration’s overall conduct of the war. He had come to Washington in the hope of seeing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior State Department officials, but had been shunted aside. His message was blunt: McChrystal’s men were killing the wrong people. “Our inspectors are the only visitors from a secular institution who are tolerated by the Taliban leadership, and you Americans are killing those who support our activity,” he said. “You are killing those Taliban who are not jihadists—who don’t want to die and don’t give a shit about bombing Times Square. They have no grudge against America.” The indiscriminate targeting of all who are Taliban, he said, “is reaching a point of no return, and the more radical and extreme elements are picking up momentum.”
At one point, he said, there had been a heated internal debate among the Taliban leadership about the use of chemical weapons in an attack on Kabul, the Afghan capital, and the moderates won. The ICRC wouldn’t say how it learned of that debate, but the official added, “The guys who prevented that use have been smoked out”—assassinated by JSOC operators—“by the Americans. The moderates are going down.”
A longtime consultant to the special operations community depicted the mindless killing in Afghanistan as a “symptom of the weakness in the U.S. policy for combatting terrorism: It’s all about tactics and nobody, Republican or Democrat, has advanced a strategic vision. The special-ops guys are simply carrying out orders, like a dog eager to get off the leash and run in the woods—and not think about where it is going. We’ve had an abject failure of military and political leadership.”
The American-led coalition unilaterally declared an end to the Afghan war at the close of 2014. And, as widely predicted, the Afghan National Army, supported at an annual cost of billions by the Obama administration, continues to be riddled with corruption and lacks leadership and motivation. Obama again decided last year to send over more troops, under the guise of advisers, and, inevitably, they have been drawn into combat. They kill and are killed in the name of democracy—a word that has dwindling appeal and little relevance for many Afghans.
Did any of the dozens of analyses put forward as the president reviewed the options in 2009 and in 2015 estimate the number of innocent lives that would be lost as a consequence of the American surge? Were those presidential advisers skeptical of the capability and motivation of an upgraded and modernized Afghan army able to find a place at the White House planning table? Is there an American soldier who wants to be the last to die in Afghanistan?
It is not too early to dwell on Obama’s legacy, a deepening concern for any president as the end of his tenure approaches. It would be easy to say it will be mixed—on the plus side there was the health-care bill and America’s recovery from the economic shambles left by the Bush administration. He faced an unbridgeable congressional impasse caused by an increasingly radical Republican opposition. But Obama, whatever his private thoughts, still speaks of American exceptionalism and still believes, or acts as if he does, that the war on terror, a war against an ideology, can be won with American bombers, drone attacks, and special forces. There is no evidence yet for that belief.