As Sanger's story reveals, the president opposed his own policy of sending in more troops to stabilize Afghanistan from the moment he approved it after months and months of messy internal wrangling. So why did he do it? The answer is that that Obama was leaving Iraq and could not afford to look weak in Afghanistan at the same time or he would come under political attack from the right. Getting out faster might also alienate the military to the point that public discord would damage the president. Although White House-military relations were strained from the beginning of his administration, Obama's team worked hard to keep a lid on tensions. So they swallowed their doubts about the military judgments they were getting about a conflict they were increasingly sure was unwinnable.
The result was a strategy straight out of the Wizard of Oz: As the scarecrow informed Dorothy when she reached a fork in the Yellow Brick Road, "Of course, some people do go both ways." The United States would increase its troops but only as a prelude to getting them out. Sanger's reporting suggests that this was not a confused policy, but rather an intellectually dishonest one. Obama's plan from the beginning was to cover his tracks to the exits with the Afghan "surge."
"I think he hated the idea from the beginning," Sanger quotes one of the president's advisors as saying about his boss. "[T]he military was ‘all in,' as they say, and Obama wasn't."
Within just over a year of the announcement of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. "This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks," according to Sanger. In other words, the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It's hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a "tough-guy" leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell around the moves against villains like Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, or Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The process is troubling, but in the final analysis, Obama's biggest error was in not trusting his judgment earlier. His White House team -- from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon -- were Afghan skeptics from Day 1. And frankly, they were right about the situation even while many in the Pentagon were calling for much deeper involvement. Perhaps the president felt he had no choice, defending himself with those 30,000 troops not so much against AfPak enemies as against political opponents on the right. Perhaps he was right that this approach produced the swiftest, least acrimonious exit.
Still, the whole thing leaves a bad taste. In handling the matter as he did, the president has now assured that when the post-conflict mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows uglier still, he will own those results. He may have protected himself against attacks from the right for a brief while, but the judgment of history may prove harsh.