Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar.
Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I thought: the president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out." Well let's see. Should Obama have trusted David Petraeus? I can't really say. Hamid Karzai is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly mentally unstable. As to whether he believed in his own strategy (the "surge" of extra troops), by then there were plenty of reasons to doubt that it would work. The war wasn't his—it had been going on for over seven years before he even took office. And "it's all about getting out"? Well wasn't that the whole point? The reason the administration undertook the "surge" in the first place was to create the conditions where we could get out.
Another thing Gates writes is, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission," and that that is a problem for the troops in the field. I'm sure it can be, to a degree, and morale can be undermined if you think the president doesn't believe you're going to succeed. I would also imagine that if you were a soldier in Iraq in 2005 or so and you saw George Bush on TV all the time talking about how great everything was going, you'd think your Commander in Chief was an idiot, and that might not be so good for morale either. But the real point is that in neither case was the president's confidence going to make much of a difference. The problem was never the president's disposition, or the particular decisions made in one year or one month. It was launching the war in the first place.
Let's look at Iraq. Bush was nothing if not confident, and after about 4,500 American deaths and an expenditure of two trillion dollars, things finally quieted down enough for us to get out. Success! And two years after we left, the country is devolving into another civil war, or if you prefer, the latest inflammation of a civil war that never ended. We sure as hell aren't going to re-invade to deal with it, not just because the American people would never stand for it, but because it wouldn't make anything better there if we did. No sane person can look at the situation today and believe that it all could have been averted if the Americans had made some different decisions along the way.
As for Afghanistan, the predictions back in 2001 that the country was impossible to pacify, the war would inevitably become a quagmire, and we'd end up washing our hands of the place and leaving it to its own miserable existence just like the Russians and British before us, well they're looking pretty prescient about now.
So what's going to happen when we leave? I'm hardly an expert in internal Afghan politics, but from this vantage point it sure looks like there'll be a government in Kabul that isn't capable of holding the country together, and there will quickly be a violent struggle for power whose outcome is hard to predict. In other words, pretty much exactly what would have happened if twelve years ago we had said, "We kicked out the Taliban, so we've extracted what revenge we can on this particular spot on the earth for September 11. Now we're going to install a provisional government and get the hell out."
That isn't to say there weren't plenty of mistakes along the way and things that could have been done better by both the Bush and Obama administrations. And the question of our moral responsibility to Afghanistan's future is one we're going to have to grapple with—though if Iraq is any indication, our response to future death and misery there is likely to be, "Wow, that's unfortunate. Now put on American Idol." The awful reality is that the Afghanistan war, like the Iraq war, was doomed from the start, and no amount of enthusiasm from President Obama was going to change that.