Foreign Policy

Woodward Book Shows Obama Never Knew Why We Were in Afghanistan


So argues Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. The evidence:

You don't need Woodward's connections to figure out that the Afghan War is a hideous, unwinnable, unnecessary mess. But the Post reporter's stenographic, fly-on-the-wall account of key meetings bolsters the case that the Obama administration should have recognized that from the start.

"We haven't really seen an Arab here in a couple of years," the Afghan theater commander admitted to Vice President Biden early on. Nor was there much reason to believe that the Taliban would risk providing al Qaeda a safe haven if the U.S. left.

Nevertheless, the military brass pushed hard for more troops. We'd have to provide security while we built a government Afghans could trust — and we might only have a year to do it. Unfortunately, the existing government was "a criminal syndicate," Gen. David Petraeus admitted at a meeting in October 2009. Biden, of all people, asked the pertinent question: "If the government's a 'criminal syndicate' a year from now, how will troops make a difference?"

"No one recorded an answer," Woodward reports.

If we leave too soon, though, Obama warned in early 2009, we'd see "denial of human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls."

That's what Time Magazine suggested last July, with a gruesome cover photograph of a teenage girl who'd had her nose sliced off by the Taliban. "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan" the caption read — no question mark.

Yet that brutal crime happened while we stayed, as did August's execution of a young couple from Kunduz province who had eloped against their parents' wishes. "Hundreds of men, stones in hand, closed in to carry out the mullah's death sentence," the Los Angeles Times reported…..

Last October, Woodward reports, National Security Adviser James Jones called an emergency meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The president was not happy": After countless meetings and dueling memoranda, "they had not found a way to articulate why the United States was in Afghanistan. What were America's interests?"

It was a good question then. A year and several hundred fallen soldiers later, it's still a good question.

My last look at Obama's Afghan mess from August.

NEXT: The Worst Column of the Year: Congratulations Richard Cohen!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Say that we’re leaving tomorrow. And add that, by the way, we’ll be conducting our next nuclear test in Waziristan in ten days.

    1. I’ve often thought this was a good idea. For instance, simply tell Iran that if they do not give up their nuclear ambitions, we nuke Tehran on Saturday, October 9.

      Can you imagine the panic in Tehran? And it’s not as if we haven’t nuked before.

      1. Why would Iran, or any other country, give up their nuclear ambitions?

      2. They know damn well the US isn’t going to do that; and if the president makes a habit of issuing empty threats, it reduces the credibility of future threats and their power to deter.

  2. Too many Afghans are barbarians. A few years of relatively benign (by historical standards) occupation isn’t going to change that.

    We should either get out and leave them to their barbarism, with the understanding that they keep it to themselves, or else, or we civilize them the old-fashioned way.

    I vote for the former.

    1. There’s a reasonable theory that during the occupation, we foster a new, benevolent central government with democratic institutions and the like.

      I believed in this theory when we first went into Afghanistan, I believe it much less now, if at all.

      They’ve got a pretty wild tribal culture over there. I think you can within reason have an effect on what few population centers they have there. But stopping a gaggle of villagers from stoning to death a young girl out in the sticks? Not gonna happen. This kind of shit still happens in India, a country which is supposedly teetering on the brink of entering the first world.

    2. Whoa, RC Dean is a non-interventionist now?

      1-20-09 sure changed a lot of things.

      1. Whoa, RC Dean is a non-interventionist now?

        Pretty much from day one I was a punitive-expeditionist.

        Certainly for Afghanistan, and I happen to think (still!) that a good case could be made for Iraq as well.

        Now, a stick-around-and-provide-cover-for-kleptocracies-ist, not so much.

    3. Chastise and leave. Make it clear that future chastisement is on the table if we get attacked again.

      1. By that, I meant we should’ve knocked off the Taliban then left in the first place. Now, we just leave.

    4. We should either get out and leave them to their barbarism, with the understanding that they keep it to themselves, or else, or we civilize them the old-fashioned way.

      The old fashioned way being genocide? It “worked” in North America and Australia.

      I don’t know how many times I’ve said that the Taliban thing in Afghanistan should have been met with a punitive expedition. Kill everybody in government you can locate, completely fuck up all infrastructue, leave and say “Don’t make us do this again, because we will”.

      1. The old fashioned way being genocide?

        Ethnic displacement, mandatory intermarriage, martial law – you know, the classics.

        Unfortunately (for them), the male populace tends to be excess to requirements.

        I prefer not to go that road, personally.

  3. I’m with RC Dean. And this:

    We’d have to provide security while we built a government Afghans could trust

    is the most hideous sentence ever.

    1. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration bought into this nation building enterprise to buy the support of various domestic liberal (the feminist and “human rights” crowd, essentially) groups and our European “allies”.

      What was called for was a brief punitive raid designed to capture or kill Bin Laden and enough of his deputies to decapitate al Qaeda and to demonstrate to the Taliban, and any governments that might be considering the same, that supporting and/or sheltering elements hostile to American interests would bring more of the same if they tried it again.

      Instead of leaving with a cowed and weakened Taliban (likely vulnerable to overthrow by the Northern Alliance) in place after a few months we have slogged it out for years at a huge costs of life an treasure only to have an ineffective kleptocratic puppet in place in danger of being overthrown by a resurgent and emboldened Taliban.

      1. Yeah the argument against having to “foster Human Rights” in Afghanistan is a fairly simple one: using that as a provocation to war essentially means endless war for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately the world is filled with governments who take joy in the abuse of their citizens.

        The reason for being in Afghanistan in the first place was actually a good one: to deal with the people responsible for 9/11. Now the best way to actually do that is not my specialty, but I do think that letting mission creep get us involved in trying to fix Afghanistan was a big mistake.

        1. Unfortunately, Voros, our continued presence in Afghanistan is not the result of mission creep. All of this has been there right from the beginning.

          Overthrowing the Taliban was part of the original plan, thrown in to sweeten the deal for reluctant human rights “activists” and feminists domestically.

          The building a “stable government” plan was there to get the Euro and Canadian “internationalists” on board.

          After all that, now all of those factions of the coalition are getting tired.

      2. Bullshit. Bush wanted his name on the nation-building. I’ll need some actual evidence that supposed human rights supporters wanted us to build instead of Bush wanting a shiny “created the first democracy in the Middle East” button on his chest.

  4. It’s pretty clear why Obama thinks we’re in Afghanistan: to show that he’s not a national security pussy. Same as the black president in that one season of 24.

  5. This is the realization I came to while the ship I was stationed on was supporting the Marines in Beirut in 1983: our “best and brightest”, whoever they are, are NOT running the government and even if they were, they cannot mold the world as they wish. Even if they were the Risk champs of their frat houses. Even the dullest enlisted man among us could smell the indecision and confusion. And the air stinks with the same now.

    1. If they knew anything about Risk they would have started in Western Australia. duh.

      1. Really, I can’t understand why the U.S. hasn’t seized control of that vital region.

        Or built an industrial complex in Brazil.

  6. LOL< does anyone know why we are in Afghanistan? I mean seriosuly.

  7. Imagine, if you will, that the President actually states that, in his opinion, the Afghans are pretty much barbarians, and seem to like it that way.

    Given our options (beating some civilization into them, or bringing the troops home), we are going to bring the troops home.

    Sadly, the Right and Left would be united in opposition. From the Left: How dare we insult the noble Afghan people! From the Right: Once we have troops in a country, we can never leave! Or the Communists terrorists win!

    1. Who are you and what have you done with RC Dean?

      1. Seriously, dude, I’ve always thought punitive expeditions were the way to go.

        You can look it up!

  8. Get the hell out and let the barbarians
    fight each other. If you want to fight them, join a new Lincoln brigade
    of mercenaires. All civilized nations shun Afghanistan. If some French or U.S. or Russian company wants to deal with them, then shun them too.

  9. To get bipartisan support for a war you have to have two major components, and they need not be related to eachother:

    1. Women and minorities are in danger.
    2. Commies (no longer applies, otherwise we’d be invading DC)/ terrorists are hiding there.

    If only one of those scenarios are true, you will never get bipartisan support for your military venture.

  10. from your lips to god’s ear…

  11. Articulating politically why we’re there is clearly different than talking about it in conversation. Context. Learn it.

    God, this website is awful.

    1. Don’t let the door hit you in the retard on your way out.

      1. DERP

    2. Don’t let the door hit you in the retard on your way out.

      Or your whispering eye.

      1. Your blog is fucking awesome.

        1. I wrote it for you.

  12. There are two purposes for waging a foreign war: conquest (conquer and stay) or punishment (raze it and leave).

    The chances of the US creating the next Germany or Japan from the rubble of a third-world country are slim and none.

    The notion that nation-building somehow makes war noble is absurd.

    1. “”The notion that nation-building somehow makes war noble is absurd.””

      You have to sell it as noble to get the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

  13. “We haven’t really seen an Arab here in a couple of years,”

    Well, that’s probably because Afghanistan, like Iran, is populated by Persians. Glad that a US commander has such a great grasp of the theater of war.

    1. I’m assuming he’s talking about insurgent foreign fighters.

      1. Exactly, the Afghans referred to al Quaeda and the other foreign Mujahadeen as “Arabs”.

        probably because they were mostly Saudis with a few yemenis and other gulf state nationals thrown in.

        The general’s meaning was clear.

  14. I thought it was the goldmines and pipeline?

    Oh, right, the narrative. Duh.

    All this brass and no one can just make something up? Or is no answer a better answer?

  15. Several people have argued that true purpose of US military action in Afghanistan was (or should have been) a “punitive expedition” against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime. While they may have a point, a thorough punitive expedition in this case should involve keeping the Taliban out of power permanently.

    For fanatical regimes like the Taliban, the loss of power is more punitive than the death of some of their members or the destruction of infrastructure. Indeed the Taliban really didn’t give a fuck about infrastructure. And if they recapture Kabul and the rest of the country after the US leaves, they will have something to point to in order to claim “victory over the infidels”, thus giving their theocratic ideology a shot in the arm in propaganda terms.

    If some other regime, somewhere else in the world ever decides to weigh the cost and benefits of hosting an al Qaeda base on its territory, and they look to the example of the Taliban to get an idea of what might happen, they should see an unequivocal loss, not a mixed bag of: “well I have to fight a war for a while, but then I get to brag about defeating the superpower and still run the country…”.

    1. The only way to keep the Taliban out of power is to stay there ourselves and run the place in perpituity.

      That’s not going to work out real well.

      1. I doubt that doing that is the only way.

        If the US captures or kills Mullah Omar and most of the Taliban’s top management, and offers lower level rank-and-file members the opportunity to rejoin Afghan society under the Karzai-led government, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be enough of a fighting force to retake Kabul or most of the country. The US can further stack the deck against the Taliban by providing military aid to the ANA (such aid could be provided even if there are still Taliban factions trying to take over after US troops leave).

        Of course the US should also seek to capture or kill bin Laden and the top management of Al Qaeda.

  16. Watch Obama ratchet things up as the elections get closer….

  17. If there was a pragmatic brain cell left in the collective American Brain — which there’s not — we could come up with better options.

    We could at least extract every ounce of commercial value from these two countries we’ve invaded. There’s oil in Iraq — why do we need to control anything but the wells?

    It would be interesting to see an economic analysis of whether it would be profitable for a corporation to invade Iraq, pump the oil out, and pay for enough military force to protect the pipelines. No real need to control much else in the country, beyond insuring the locals don’t organize any effective resistance.

    Projected commercial value of extracted resources should be a real part of the analysis the next time we consider invading somebody.

    In Afghanistan I suspect we’d be way ahead on money if we invested heavily in better, more advanced armed UAVs, and skipped the ground forces entirely.

    There’s got to be better ways of making life hell for our enemies, at a more reasonable cost than what we’ve shelled out so far.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.