How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan
By PETER BAKER NYTimes
WASHINGTON — On the afternoon he held the eighth meeting of his Afghanistan review, President Obama arrived in the White House Situation Room ruminating about war. He had come from Arlington National Cemetery, where he had wandered among the chalky white tombstones of those who had fallen in the rugged mountains of Central Asia.
How much their sacrifice weighed on him that Veterans Day last month, he did not say. But his advisers say he was haunted by the human toll as he wrestled with what to do about the eight-year-old war. Just a month earlier, he had mentioned to them his visits to wounded soldiers at the Army hospital in Washington. “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years,” he said then.
The economic cost was troubling him as well after he received a private budget memo estimating that an expanded presence would cost $1 trillion over 10 years, roughly the same as his health care plan. Now as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.
“I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.
When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war. By moving the bell curve to the left, Mr. Obama decided to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight.
The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”
Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents.
This account of how the president reached his decision is based on dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama’s 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants wherever possible.
Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue — nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone — that he joked, “I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.” He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. Even David Axelrod, arguably his closest adviser, did not know where Mr. Obama would come out until just before Thanksgiving.
With the result uncertain, the outsize personalities on his team vied for his favor, sometimes sharply disagreeing as they made their arguments. The White House suspected the military of leaking details of the review to put pressure on the president. The military and the State Department suspected the White House of leaking to undercut the case for more troops. The president erupted at the leaks with an anger advisers had rarely seen, but he did little to shut down the public clash within his own government.
“The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.”
The decision represents a complicated evolution in Mr. Obama’s thinking. He began the process clearly skeptical of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops, but the more he learned about the consequences of failure, and the more he narrowed the mission, the more he gravitated toward a robust if temporary buildup, guided in particular by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Yet even now, he appears ambivalent about what some call “Obama’s war.” Just two weeks before General McChrystal warned of failure at the end of August, Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity.” When he announced his new strategy last week, those words were nowhere to be found. Instead, while recommitting to the war on Al Qaeda, he made clear that the larger struggle for Afghanistan had to be balanced against the cost in blood and treasure and brought to an end.
Aides, though, said the arduous review gave Mr. Obama comfort that he had found the best course he could. “The process was exhaustive, but any time you get the president of the United States to devote 25 hours, anytime you get that kind of commitment, you know it was serious business,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser. “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”
Taking Control of a War
Mr. Obama ran for president supportive of the so-called good war in Afghanistan, but he talked about it primarily as a way of attacking Republicans for diverting resources to Iraq, which he described as a war of choice. Only after taking office, as casualties mounted and the Taliban gained momentum, did Mr. Obama really begin to confront what to do in Afghanistan.
Even before completing a review of the war, he ordered the military to send 21,000 more troops there, bringing the force to 68,000. But tension between the White House and the military soon emerged when General Jones, a retired Marine four-star general, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer and was surprised to hear officers already talking about more troops. He made it clear that no more troops were in the offing.
With the approach of Afghanistan’s presidential election in August, Mr. Obama’s two new envoys — Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative to the region, and Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired commander of troops in Afghanistan now serving as ambassador — warned of trouble, including the possibility of angry Afghans marching on the American Embassy or outright civil war.
“There are 10 ways this can turn out,” one administration official said, summing up the envoys’ presentation, “and 9 of them are messy.”
The worst did not happen, but widespread fraud tainted the election and shocked some in the White House as they realized that their partner in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, was hopelessly compromised in terms of public credibility.
At the same time, the Taliban kept making gains. The Central Intelligence Agency drew up detailed maps in August charting the steady progression of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, maps that would later be used extensively during the president’s review. General McChrystal submitted his own dire assessment of the situation, warning of “mission failure” without a fresh infusion of troops.
While General McChrystal did not submit a specific troop request at that point, the White House knew it was coming and set out to figure out what to do. General Jones organized a series of meetings that he envisioned lasting a few weeks. Before each one, he convened a rehearsal session to impose discipline — “get rid of the chaff,” one official put it — that included Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and other cabinet-level officials. Mr. Biden made a practice of writing a separate private memo to Mr. Obama before each meeting, outlining his thoughts.
The first meeting with the president took place on Sept. 13, a Sunday, and was not disclosed to the public that day. For hours, Mr. Obama and his top advisers pored through intelligence reports.
Unsatisfied, the president posed a series of questions: Does America need to defeat the Taliban to defeat Al Qaeda? Can a counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan given the problems with its government? If the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, would nuclear-armed Pakistan be next?
The deep skepticism he expressed at that opening session was reinforced by Mr. Biden, who rushed back overnight from a California trip to participate. Just as he had done in the spring, Mr. Biden expressed opposition to an expansive strategy requiring a big troop influx. Instead, he put an alternative on the table — rather than focus on nation building and population protection, do more to disrupt the Taliban, improve the quality of the training of Afghan forces and expand reconciliation efforts to peel off some Taliban fighters.
Mr. Biden quickly became the most outspoken critic of the expected McChrystal troop request, arguing that Pakistan was the bigger priority, since that is where Al Qaeda is mainly based. “He was the bull in the china shop,” said one admiring administration official.
But others were nodding their heads at some of what he was saying, too, including General Jones and Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.
A Review Becomes News
The quiet review burst into public view when General McChrystal’s secret report was leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post a week after the first meeting. The general’s grim assessment jolted Washington and lent urgency to the question of what to do to avoid defeat in Afghanistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander, secretly flew to an American air base in Germany for a four-hour meeting with General McChrystal on Sept. 25. He handed them his troop request on paper — there were no electronic versions and barely 20 copies in all.
The request outlined three options for different missions: sending 80,000 more troops to conduct a robust counterinsurgency campaign throughout the country; 40,000 troops to reinforce the southern and eastern areas where the Taliban are strongest; or 10,000 to 15,000 troops mainly to train Afghan forces.
General Petraeus took one copy, while Admiral Mullen took two back to Washington and dropped one off at Mr. Gates’s home next to his in a small military compound in Washington. But no one sent the document to the White House, intending to process it through the Pentagon review first.
Mr. Obama was focused on another report. At 10 p.m. on Sept. 29, he called over from the White House residence to the West Wing to ask for a copy of the first Afghanistan strategy he approved in March. A deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, brought him a copy to reread overnight. When his national security team met the next day, Mr. Obama complained that elements of that plan had never been enacted.
The group went over the McChrystal assessment and drilled in on what the core goal should be. Mr. Biden asked tough questions about whether there was any intelligence showing that the Taliban posed a threat to American territory. But Mr. Obama also firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. “I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan,” he told his advisers.
Tension with the military had been simmering since the leak of the McChrystal report, which some in the White House took as an attempt to box in the president. The friction intensified on Oct. 1 when the general was asked after a speech in London whether a narrower mission, like the one Mr. Biden proposed, would succeed. “The short answer is no,” he said.
White House officials were furious, and Mr. Gates publicly scolded the general, saying advice to the president should remain confidential. The furor rattled General McChrystal, who, unlike General Petraeus, was not a savvy Washington operator. And it stunned others in the military, who were at first “bewildered by how over the top the reaction was from the White House,” as one military official put it.
It also proved to be what one review participant called a “head-snapping” moment of revelation for the military. The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch.
The episode underscored the uneasy relationship between the military and a new president who, aides said, was determined not to be as deferential as he believed his predecessor, George W. Bush, was for years in Iraq. And the military needed to adjust to a less experienced but more skeptical commander in chief. “We’d been chugging along for eight years under an administration that had become very adept at managing war in a certain way,” said another military official.
Moreover, Mr. Obama had read “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War. The book had become a must read in the West Wing after Mr. Emanuel had dinner over the summer at the house of another deputy national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and wandered into his library to ask what he should be reading.
Among the conclusions that Mr. Donilon and the White House team drew from the book was that both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory — clearly driving the Obama advisers to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Pakistan Question
While public attention focused on Afghanistan, some of the most intensive discussion focused on the country where Mr. Obama could send no troops — Pakistan. Pushed in particular by Mrs. Clinton, the president’s team explored the links between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Mr. Obama told aides that it did not matter how many troops were sent to Afghanistan if Pakistan remained a haven.
Many of the intelligence reports ordered by the White House during the review dealt with Pakistan’s stability and whether its military and intelligence services were now committed to the fight or secretly still supporting Taliban factions. According to two officials, there was a detailed study of the potential vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, posing questions about potential insider threats and control of the warheads if the Pakistani government fell.
Mr. Obama and his advisers also considered options for stepping up the pursuit of extremists in Pakistan’s inhospitable border areas. The president eventually approved a C.I.A. request to expand the areas where remotely piloted aircraft could strike, and other covert action. The trick would be getting Pakistani consent, which still has not been granted.
On Oct. 9, Mr. Obama and his team reviewed General McChrystal’s troop proposals for the first time. Some in the White House were surprised by the numbers, assuming there would be a middle ground between 10,000 and 40,000.
“Why wasn’t there a 25 number?” one senior administration official asked in an interview. He then answered his own question: “It would have been too tempting.”
Mr. Gates and others talked about the limits of the American ability to actually defeat the Taliban; they were an indigenous force in Afghan society, part of the political fabric. This was a view shared by others around the table, including Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., who argued that the Taliban could not be defeated as such and so the goal should be to drive wedges between those who could be reconciled with the Afghan government and those who could not be.
With Mr. Biden leading the skeptics, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen increasingly aligned behind a more robust force. Mrs. Clinton wanted to make sure she was a formidable player in the process. “She was determined that her briefing books would be just as thick and just as meticulous as those of the Pentagon,” said one senior adviser. She asked hard questions about Afghan troop training, unafraid of wading into Pentagon territory.
After a meeting where the Pentagon made a presentation with impressive color-coded maps, Mrs. Clinton returned to the State Department and told her aides, “We need maps,” as one recalled. She was overseas during the next meeting on Oct. 14, when aides used her new maps to show civilian efforts but she participated with headphones on from her government plane flying back from Russia.
Mr. Gates was a seasoned hand at such reviews, having served eight presidents and cycled in and out of the Situation Room since the days when it was served by a battery of fax machines. Like Mrs. Clinton, he was sympathetic to General McChrystal’s request, having resolved his initial concern that a buildup would fuel resentment the way the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did in the 1980s.
But Mr. Gates’s low-wattage exterior masks a wily inside player, and he knew enough to keep his counsel early in the process to let it play out more first. “When to speak is important to him; when to signal is important to him,” said a senior Defense Department official.
On Oct. 22, the National Security Council produced what one official called a “consensus memo,” much of which originated out of the defense secretary’s office, concluding that the United States should focus on diminishing the Taliban insurgency but not destroying it; building up certain critical ministries; and transferring authority to Afghan security forces.
There was no consensus yet on troop numbers, however, so Mr. Obama called a smaller group of advisers together on Oct. 26 to finally press Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton made it clear that she was comfortable with General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops or something close to it; Mr. Gates also favored a big force.
Mr. Obama was leery. He had received a memo the day before from the Office of Management and Budget projecting that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020, an adviser said. The president seemed in sticker shock, watching his domestic agenda vanishing in front of him. “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests,” he said.
Still, for the first time, he made it clear that he was ready to send more troops if a strategy could be found to ensure that it was not an endless war. He indicated that the Taliban had to be beaten back. “What do we need to break their momentum?” he asked.
Four days later, at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 30, he emphasized the need for speed. “Why can’t I get the troops in faster?” he asked. If they were going to do this, he concluded, it only made sense to do this quickly, to have impact and keep the war from dragging on forever. “This is America’s war,” he said. “But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment.”
Bridging the Differences
Now that he had a sense of where Mr. Obama was heading, Mr. Gates began shaping a plan that would bridge the differences. He developed a 30,000-troop option that would give General McChrystal the bulk of his request, reasoning that NATO could make up most of the difference.
“If people are having trouble swallowing 40, let’s see if we can make this smaller and easier to swallow and still give the commander what he needs,” a senior Defense Department official said, summarizing the secretary’s thinking.
The plan, called Option 2A, was presented to the president on Nov. 11. Mr. Obama complained that the bell curve would take 18 months to get all the troops in place.
He turned to General Petraeus and asked him how long it took to get the so-called surge troops he commanded in Iraq in 2007. That was six months.
“What I’m looking for is a surge,” Mr. Obama said. “This has to be a surge.”
That represented a contrast from when Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, staunchly opposed President Bush’s buildup in Iraq. But unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama wanted from the start to speed up a withdrawal as well. The military was told to come up with a plan to send troops quickly and then begin bringing them home quickly.
And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.
“What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,” he scolded his advisers. “It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.”
His advisers sat in uncomfortable silence. That very afternoon, someone leaked word of a cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry from Kabul expressing reservations about a large buildup of forces as long as the Karzai government remained unreformed. At one of their meetings, General Petraeus had told Mr. Obama to think of elements of the Karzai government like “a crime syndicate.” Ambassador Eikenberry was suggesting, in effect, that America could not get in bed with the mob.
The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House. The National Security Council had told the ambassador to put his views in writing. But someone else then passed word of the cable to reporters in what some in the process took to be a calculated attempt to head off a big troop buildup.
The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was “a complete surprise,” said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.
A Presidential Order
By this point, the idea of some sort of time frame was taking on momentum. Mrs. Clinton talked to Mr. Karzai before the Afghan leader’s inauguration to a second term. She suggested that he use his speech to outline a schedule for taking over security of the country.
Mr. Karzai did just that, declaring that Afghan forces directed by Kabul would take charge of securing population centers in three years and the whole country in five. His pronouncement, orchestrated partly by Mrs. Clinton and diplomats in Kabul, provided a predicate for Mr. Obama to set out his own time frame.
The president gathered his team in the Situation Room at 8:15 p.m. on Nov. 23, the unusual nighttime hour adding to what one participant called a momentous wartime feeling. The room was strewn with coffee cups and soda cans, caffeine being the lubricant keeping the participants going.
Mr. Obama presented a revised version of Option 2A, this one titled “Max Leverage,” pushing 30,000 troops into Afghanistan by mid-2010 and beginning to pull them out by July 2011. Admiral Mullen came up with the date at the direction of Mr. Obama, despite some misgivings from the Pentagon about setting a time frame for a withdrawal. The date was two years from the arrival of the first reinforcements Mr. Obama sent shortly after taking office. Mr. Biden had written a memo before the meeting talking about the need for “proof of concept” — in other words, two years ought to be enough for extra troops to demonstrate whether a buildup would work.
The president went around the room asking for opinions. Mr. Biden again expressed skepticism, even at this late hour when the tide had turned against him in terms of the troop number. But he had succeeded in narrowing the scope of the mission to protect population centers and setting the date to begin withdrawal. Others around the table concurred with the plan. Mr. Obama spoke last, but still somewhat elliptically. Some advisers said they walked out into the night after 10 p.m., uncertain whether the president had actually endorsed the Max Leverage option or was just testing for reaction.
Two days later, Mr. Obama met with Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and a critic of the Afghan war. The president outlined his plans for the buildup without disclosing specific numbers. Ms. Pelosi was unenthusiastic and pointedly told the president that he could not rely on Democrats alone to pass financing for the war.
The White House had spent little time courting Congress to this point. Even though it would need Republican support, the White House had made no overtures to the party leaders.
But there was back-channel contact. Mr. Emanuel was talking with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who urged him to settle on a troop number “that began with 3” to win Republican support. “I said as long as the generals are O.K. and there is a meaningful number, you will be O.K.,” Mr. Graham recalled.
The day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Obama huddled with aides from 10:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. refining parameters for the plan and mapping out his announcement. He told his speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, that he wanted to directly rebut the comparison with Vietnam.
On the following Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office. He had made his decision. He would send 30,000 troops as quickly as possible, then begin the withdrawal in July 2011. In deference to Mr. Gates’s concerns, the pace and endpoint of the withdrawal would be determined by conditions at the time.
“I’m not asking you to change what you believe,” the president told his advisers. “But if you do not agree with me, say so now.” There was a pause and no one said anything.
“Tell me now,” he repeated.
Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement.
“Fully support, sir,” Admiral Mullen said.
“Ditto,” General Petraeus said.
Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said.
Two days later, Mr. Obama flew to West Point to give his speech. After three months of agonizing review, he seemed surprisingly serene. “He was,” said one adviser, “totally at peace.”