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On Bob Woodward’s Revelations

I haven’t read Bob Woodward’s new book yet (apparently, it hasn’t been released yet), so I will reserve final judgment until I do. But based on the excerpts published so far in the New York Times and Washington Post, I am less exercised than some colleagues about what it reveals.

The book’s most explosive revelation is said to be a quote from Obama: “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.” This is a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense, defined as what happens when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Would it have been better if Obama said we couldn’t survive a terrorist attack? Probably it would have been preferable if he had said nothing at all, because his nonchalant way of talking seems to slight the pain incurred by 9/11 casualties and their families. Moreover, his comment might be interpreted as though he didn’t care much about terrorism. I doubt that’s true or fair, and, in fact, there is a case to be made for advertising our ability not only to defend against, but also to absorb terrorist attacks, based on the theory that this may deter potential attacks.

Most of the other excerpts concern infighting among Obama’s aides over Afghanistan policy (this is a surprise?) and Obama’s desire to create an exit strategy — also, not exactly news. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling his aides. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

On the contrary, I believe the plan in Afghanistan needs to be about how to achieve victory — not about how to leave early. Obama’s emphasis on an eventual pullout, which led him to announce a timeline for withdrawal, is, I believe, deeply misguided and actually makes it harder for us to leave by making it harder for Afghans to trust us.

But I judge a president more by his actions than by his words. For all of Obama’s talk about an exit strategy, the fact remains that he has consistently stiffed those in his administration who favored a precipitous pullout. Now all the signals emanating from the administration suggest that the vaunted December policy review won’t amount to much and that we are unlikely to see a major drawdown next summer. Obama may talk exit strategies but his actions support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.

The most interesting news in the Woodward excerpts concerns the CIA’s private army – 3,000-strong Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. It is common knowledge that the CIA has been running black ops in Afghanistan but Woodward sheds light on the strength of its forces and suggests that they have penetrated into Pakistan as well — apparently only for intelligence gathering and not actual fighting, though who knows?

On one level, this is encouraging news, which shows how our presence in Afghanistan can be a strategic asset to deal with terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. On the other hand, this raises all sorts of troubling questions about what the teams’ impact is on our overall counterinsurgency strategy. The CIA has a tendency to strike deals with warlords who produce gunmen. Problem is, these warlords tend to be deeply corrupt, often complicit in the drug trade, and their conduct undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government and drives ordinary people into the arms of the Taliban.

I don’t doubt that that CIA’s paramilitaries are effective and well-paid, but their existence also serves to siphon away top-tier fighters from the Afghan Security Forces. Their operations are probably not well integrated with US military operations, either, since the CIA doesn’t report to the military chain of command. The CIA’s resort to its own paramilitaries may still be useful but it made a lot more sense back in the early days of the war, when there were few American forces in the country, than it does today when there are 100,000 U.S. troops (and 40,000 allies) in Afghanistan.



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