It is only one sentence from a lengthy conversation, but it says volumes about how the Obama Administration escalated US intervention in Afghanistan. And it says just as much about the man behind that escalation: not President Barack Obama but General David Petraeus.
On 20 January 2009, in the midst of a wide-ranging conversation, Petraeus tells Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "The increase of 30,000 U.S. troops next year would also increase combat, leading to the possibility of increased civilian casualties in the short term."
The significance? Barack Obama, who on the same day was being inaugurated as the 44th President, had not agreed to "the increase of 30,000 U.S. troops next year". He had not agreed to any increase at all.
At the time, we noted this exchange on 22 January 2009 between reporter Robert Dreyfuss and two senior officials, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen:
Dreyfuss: During the campaign, President Obama said that he would, when elected, send perhaps two to three additional brigades of troops to Afghanistan. [A US brigade is 3000 to 5000 troops.] Lately, actually since the election, we've heard talk about as many as 30,000 troops -- significantly more than that -- going to Afghanistan. Have any decisions been actually made, pending this review that the president has talked about, in terms of how many American forces might go to Afghanistan this year?
Gates: No final decision has been made. Part of -- part of what the president made clear was that they intend to look at Iraq and Afghanistan holistically. And so I think part of the -- one of the things that the president will expect before making decisions is what the implications are not just for Iraq, but for Afghanistan. And I expect, as I say that, to be part of those decisions to be forthcoming pretty soon....
Mullen: I -- I really wouldn't add a lot except to say that these are the level of forces that the commander has asked for. So again, we've looked very carefully at how to do that. There have been some recommendations that have been made up the chain of command, but no decisions yet.
On 4 February 2009, we reported that the White House was claiming to hold the line against quick satisfaction of the military's demands, quoting Administration offcials in The Washington Post:"The president...wants to hear from the uniformed leadership and civilian advisers as to what the situation is and their thoughts as to the way forward. But he has also given pretty direct guidance"....Officials described Obama's overall approach to what the administration calls "Af-Pak" as a refusal to be rushed, using words such as "rigor" and "restraint". "We know we're going to get [criticism] for taking our time," said a senior official.
But of course Obama did eventually give way, cloaking his announcement in late March as a "compromise" that gave the military most, but not all, of the additional 30,000 troops. (In fact, when you add in support units, the total was close to the full request of the commanders.)
I presume, however, that David Petraeus did not have insider knowledge --- more than two months earlier --- of the Obama decision. So on what authority was he telling President Karzai that the escalation was already in place?
THE ORIGINAL CABLE
O 230734Z JAN 09 br>
FM AMEMBASSY KABUL br>
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6962 br>
INFO AFGHANISTAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
S E C R E T KABUL 000165 br>
EO 12958 DECL: 01/22/2019 br>
TAGS PINR, PREL, PTER, AF br>
SUBJECT: CENTCOM COMMANDER PETRAEUS JAN 20 MEETING WITH PRESIDENT KARZAI br>
Classified By: Ambassador William B. Wood, U.S. Embassy Kabul, Reasons: 1.4 (B and D)
1.(S) On January 20, CENTCOM Commander Petraeus, accompanied by Ambassador Wood and CENTCOM staff, met with President Karzai and his senior National Security staff.
2.(S) Petraeus asked Karzai to urge India not to curtail its cooperation with Pakistan. India would never have more positive Pakistani leadership than Zardari, Gailani, Kiayani, and Pasha and, in spite of the difficulties, now was the time to try to make progress in the relationship. Karzai said the U.S. should urge China to press Pakistan, over whom they had great influence, to cooperate with Afghanistan and with India. He noted that the Indians were prepared to offer Afghanistan light attack helicopters. A short discussion followed highlighting the adverse reaction in Pakistan to Indian provision of military equipment to Afghanistan.
Civilian Casualties and Afghan Participation in Special Ops
3.(S) President Karzai raised the civilian casualty issue. Petraeus assured him that the U.S. was taking every step to minimize civilian casualties for both humane and policy reasons. He noted the importance of the new tactical directive. Petraeus cited recent reports by the respected Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that clearly put the onus on the terrorists for civilian casualties, although it also called for more thorough and transparent investigation of allegations by the coalition.
4.(S) Petraeus noted that the increase of 30,000 U.S. troops next year would also increase combat, leading to the possibility of increased civilian casualties in the short term. President Karzai asked if we really knew who we were fighting. Petraeus was categorical that we had confidence in our intelligence and believed we knew who the enemy was. Karzai said that Afghans were suspicious of the U.S. because of the situation in Helmand. &The tribes must back you,8 he said, and that does not mean recreating tribal militias.
5.(S) Petraeus noted that Karzai had not acted on our request for 100 Afghans to accompany our special operations forces on night raids. Karzai argued that 100 Afghans would not give Afghanistan meaningful control over the operation but would force them to take responsibility when a mistake was made. He promised to study the issue further and called for greater Afghan participation in both the selection of targets and the implementation of operations. Petraeus suggested that on a pilot project basis we might consider putting more Afghans with one of our special strike forces so that they could in reality conduct the operation. He emphasized the importance that the U.S. should remain in a position to conduct after-action site exploitation for intelligence purposes.
6.(S) Karzai raised the issue of the use of dogs in house raids. He said it was unacceptable in the Afghan culture and was used by Taliban propaganda to undermine support for the coalition and the government. Interior Minister Atmar, with Karzai’s support, argued that if Afghans were allowed to be “first through the door,” they we prepared to run the risk of not using dogs in order to respect cultural sensitivities.
7.(S) Karzai raised the Quetta Shura. He said that Afghans didn’t understand why the U.S was making such an effort inside of Afghanistan, but was failing to go after the Taliban in Quetta. They thought either “the U.S. has been deceived by Pakistan” or “there was some secret deal” not to go after the Quetta Shura “because Pakistan was more important to the U.S. than Afghanistan.” He stressed the need to be able to go back to the Afghan people and make it clear that the U.S. was serious about defeating Afghanistan’s enemies.
8.(S) Petraeus assured Karzai that we considered the Afghan Taliban an important enemy which we were confronting in every way we could. He underlined our vital national interest in preventing global terrorism from ever again using Afghanistan as a launching pad. Karzai nodded affirmatively throughout the General’s presentation and said that the people of Afghanistan wanted to see more clearly that the U.S. would not allow Afghanistan to be a base for terrorism again.
Relations with New Administration
9.(S) Karzai raised recent critical statements attributed to Senator Clinton, but said he was enthusiastic about his relationship with her. Karzai stressed the need for us to address frankly our problems with each other and respond seriously to the concerns of each side. He praised the visit of Secretary Gates shortly after the Shindand incident in August and said that the visit had served to completely defuse the Shindand incident.
10.(S) Early in the discussion, Petraeus said that he would be returning to Washington for a first meeting with President Obama, and offered to convey a message from Karzai. Karzai returned to the message throughout the discussion, highlighting the need for mutual respect and cooperation, the need to resolve the civilian casualties issue and increase Afghan participation in special operations, and a tougher line on sanctuaries in Pakistan.
11.(S) In conclusion, Karzai said that 2009 would be a difficult and important year. Additional troops would make a big difference. Successful elections would be crucial.
12.(S) Karzai then invited other Afghan participants at the table to make comments. Minister of Defense Wardak called for increased coordination in the battle space, especially with the proliferation of the additional forces and additional players. He also argued for the eventual further increase of the National Army beyond the planned 134,000.
13.(S) Foreign Minister Spanta expressed concern about the “fragmentation” of the international community and urged the U.S. to play a more active role in making development assistance more coherent. He said that the target should not simply be to rebuild Afghanistan but to genuinely increase aid effectiveness.
14.(S) Minister of Interior Atmar said that it was important that our two constituencies -- the Afghan public and the U.S. public -- be able to see the two allies united and able to solve problems between them. He said there was still strong support for the American presence. He stressed the need: (1) to strengthen Afghan government institutions including the police, (2) to make clear that the U.S. cares for the wellbeing of Afghan citizens, and (3) to take meaningful action against the sanctuaries against the Taliban in Pakistan.
15.(S) NDS Director Saleh simply noted the need for a larger NDS and asked for U.S. support.