By September 2012, when violent anti-American protests swept the Muslim world, claiming the lives of four members of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya and dozens of demonstrators, it became clear that we had gotten the broader Middle East badly wrong.
The American people are tired of war -- rightly so -- and they welcome talk of leaving the region. The president has marketed the U.S. exit from Afghanistan as a foreign-policy coup, one that will not only unburden America from the region's problems but also give the country the freedom it needs to pursue other, more pressing national security concerns.
This is an illusion. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the broader, ill-defined "war on terror," is a very good idea, provided it is done properly and without damage to U.S. interests or the region's stability. But we should not kid ourselves that the rhetoric of departure is anything more than rhetoric; the United States is taking home its troops and winding down diplomatic and economic engagement -- but leaving behind its Predators and Special Forces. We should not expect that the region will look more kindly on drone attacks and secret raids than it did on invasion and occupation.
Holbrooke and Nasr in Kabul, January 2010
Yet this is exactly the path that the White House has laid out. What follows is the story of how Barack Obama got it wrong.
THE ADMINISTRATION'S INITIAL reading of the crisis in Afghanistan was to blame it on the spectacular failure of President Hamid Karzai's government, paired with wrongheaded military strategy, inadequate troop numbers for defeating an insurgency, and the Taliban's ability to find a haven and military and material support in Pakistan. Of these, Karzai's failings and the need to straighten out the military strategy dominated the discussion. Above all, the Afghanistan conflict was seen in the context of Iraq. The Taliban were viewed as an insurgency similar to the one that the United States had just helped defeat in Iraq. And what had defeated the insurgency in Iraq was a military strategy known as COIN, a boots-on-the-ground-intensive counterinsurgency.
But deciding what exactly to do soon turned into the Obama administration's first AfPak disaster: the torturously long 2009 strategic review. To conduct it, the president sat with his national security team through 10 meetings -- 25 hours -- over three months, and there were many more meetings without the president. At SRAP, we managed the State Department's contribution to the paper deluge, working long hours preparing memos, white papers, maps, and tables. But still more was needed.
Early in the process, Holbrooke came back from a meeting at the White House. "You did a good job," he said. "The secretary [Clinton] was pleased with her material but wants her folders to be as big as [those of Defense Secretary Robert] Gates. She wants color maps, tables, and charts." Clinton, continued Holbrooke, "does not want Gates to dominate the conversation by waving his colorful maps and charts in front of everybody. No one reads this stuff, but they all look at the maps and color charts." Everyone in the office looked at him. "So who does read all this?" I asked, pointing to a huge folder on his desk. "I'll tell you who," he said. "The president reads them. He reads every folder."
The amount of time spent seemed absurd. Every time Holbrooke came back from the White House, he would say, "The president has more questions." Frustration was written all over Holbrooke's and Clinton's faces as the process dragged on. Obama was dithering. He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently.