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Afghanistan Special: Bob Woodward, The US Military, and the White House's Crocodile Tears (Lucas)

UPDATE 0845 GMT: Juan Cole offers a post on protest over civilian casualties from airstrikes and on growing evidence of voting fraud in the Parliamentary elections --- this morning, the Independent Election Commission ordered recounts in seven of the country's 34 provinces.

Meanwhile, the US military maintains that the rising toll from improvised explosive devices proves its "surge" is succeeding.


I'm sorry but this is getting ridiculous. 

The Washington Post, in its continuing push of its reporter Bob Woodward's Obama Wars, publishes the first of three extracts this morning, "Military Thwarted President Seeking Choice in Afghanistan".

It's an interesting, well-written piece, as you would expect from Woodward, with high-level sources fuelling his colourful narrative of the private meetings in the White House as he moves towards his ta-da moment, "This stark divide between the nation's civilian and military leaders dominated Obama's Afghanistan strategy review, creating a rift that persists to this day."

I've got no problem with that --- for decades, this is Woodward has turned privileged access into exposure of the politics behind the public presentation of America's foreign policy and wars.

But at some point someone has to expose the exposure and reveal the costly game that is going on here. Bob Woodward is not going to do it, because to do so would cut off his access and his books. President Obama's advisors are not going to do it because it would reveal weakness beyond the "wise compromise" they wave so furiously in Woodward's account. And the US military certainly are not going to do it because it would pull back the curtain on their triumph over the White House and the person who is supposedly their Commander-in-Chief.

You know, Commander-in-Chief as in the man who --- according to the US Constitution and centuries of practice --- has the final say over his advisors and his generals. You know, President as in the man who was elected to take decisions, even if they were not amenable to his appointed staff. You know, leader as in the man who has promised --- again and again --- that there will be defined limits to and conditions on US involvement in Afghanistan and who has --- again and again --- broken those limits and set aside those conditions.

You are not going to get that analysis in Woodward's account, because it is fed by Obama's office. As they say in American football, "Protect your quarterback." 

Even when your quarterback has been knocked to the turf one more time.

Consider the opening episode in Woodward's episode. On 11 November 2009, the reporter paints a meeting in which the President is "directly challenging the military leadership at the table", demanding support for their request for more US troops. 

Yet, for some reason, the Woodward of Watergate omits the detail that three weeks laters, Obama publicly gave his military those troops. Instead, he gives the President some new clothes: "[Obama] dictated an unusual six-page document that one aide called a 'terms sheet', as though the president were negotiating a business deal".

We don't actually find out anything about that "terms sheet". Instead Woodward doubles back and tells a story of how the military --- through persistence, vagueness, and even deception --- moved Obama towards its desired endpoint. The President's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, rants, "Between the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen] and [General David] Petraeus, everyone's come out and publicly endorsed the notion of more troops. The president hasn't even had a chance!"

Obama protests, "Six years out from now, we're just back to where we are now? I'm not going to sign on for that." He tells his Secretary of Defense, "You have essentially given me one option. It's unacceptable." He indicates his preferred option: "It'd be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, 'You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we're going to put in 10,000 trainers because that's how we're going to get out of there.'"

But even though the military staged a "rigged" war-game to push its demand for 40,000 more troops, even though Obama was never given the other options he had demanded, the President never seized authority.

The cover would be that he would announce an increase of 30,000 troops rather than 40,000. The fig-leaf would be the July 2011 withdrawal of US combat forces.

Well, here we are, almost a year after the incidents in Woodward's account. And guess what? The same process is occurring again. David Petraeus --- after a nominal demotion to take charge of US forces in Afghanistan --- is already spinning the media to break the constraint of July 2011: "[This is] not a date when we rush for the exit and reach for the light switch to turn it out before leaving the room." More "private" forces are going in alongside the US military. 

And the "non-military" side of the US effort, once prominent in Obama's speeches, is now stuck in the morass of Afghan politics and dealing of favours. The Wall Street Journal adds another example this morning, "Federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal probe of one of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brothers, raising the stakes in Washington's sometimes-contentious dealings with the Karzai government."

I am against the US military intervention in Afghanistan. But, if it is going to happen, I would at least appreciate that it be done honestly and without these crocodile tears. I would like a President who says forthrightly, "This is what we are doing," rather than one whose advisors, over the following weeks and months, whisper to their favoured correspondent, "We didn't really like this but the military was so mean. What could we do?" 

You want sympathy, boys? Go find Oprah.

And Mr President: come out from behind your whispering staff. Face your military. Command or admit that you no longer command.

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