I admit, my expectation of this book was somewhat unfair. Led by the title, I assumed a story about drone warfare and the death of Osama-bin-Laden. But the book was published in 2010, and bin-Laden was killed in 2011. So that was not a terribly realistic expectation. Instead, Woodward focuses on the behind-closed-doors negotiations regarding the number of troops that should be deployed to Afghanistan. There was considerable conflict between the military and Obama’s staffers on this issue.
The Pentagon was enthusiastic about a counterinsurgency strategy, which, they argued had been proved to work in Iraq. This involved deploying a large number of troops who would work among the general population, bolstering local antagonism towards the Taliban. The military (among others General David Petraeus) argued that, at the moment, the soldiers were sequestered in safe bases away from the problems of the Afghani people. Instead, they should be seen to be on the Afghans’ side – learning their language, customs, and gathering sympathy and intelligence on the ground. Deploying a large number of troops would convince the locals that the Americans are serious about their war and will not desert them.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, pointed out that there was no guarantee that this strategy, successful in Iraq, would work in Afghanistan. Especially with the Pakistanis stirring up the Taliban across the border. It would be foolish to invest lives and money in the area. The Taliban could simply attack American soldiers in Afghanistan and then retreat back to Pakistan, where they could not be harmed. Biden pushed for a far lighter touch – drones targeting terrorists directly in their bases, instead of large numbers of American soldiers on the ground.
This book explores the paradox of an anti-war government using killer drones to target its enemies. In an attempt to save American lives, gambles are taken with civilian lives elsewhere.
This is my second book of Woodward’s. The first, The Fear, read like a thriller novel. Obama’s Wars has a much slower pace (nothing really happens apart from a great deal of meetings at desks). Yet I did find it a fascinating read. Politics in this book is an art of compromise. Suited gentlemen who have never seen war decide about the fates of thousands of people in a meeting. To Obama’s credit, he took a lot of time in taking his decision, and he insisted on discussing it with a variety of advisors again and again. I’m not sure he necessarily always made the right calls, but at least he thought about what he was doing. After reading this book, I am even more concerned about Trump being one of the world’s most important decision-makers…