Clashes With Pentagon Shaped 'Obama's Wars'
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Barack Obama ran for president on a promise to focus on the war in Afghanistan and initiated a policy review as soon as he took office, then another a few months later. He's due to receive yet another, later this week.
Over almost two years in office, the president's escalated U.S. troop levels twice, fired two commanders and extended the timeline for U.S. combat operations to 2014, a process documented by veteran journalist Bob Woodward in his most recent book. "Obama's Wars" describes White House and military officials determined to get it right amid mutual distrust and sometimes mutual incomprehension.
If you've read the book, has your opinion of the president changed? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Before we begin, a major player in the discussion, Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is reported in critical condition following heart surgery at a hospital in Washington. We wish him well.
Bob Woodward joins us in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back.
Mr. BOB WOODWARD (Associate Editor, Washington Post; Author, "Obama's Wars"): Thank you.
CONAN: And also with, commentator Ted Koppel, with us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always a pleasure.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Among the changes since the book's publication, Bob Woodward, we've seen many thousands of war logs from the battlefield and most recently many thousands of State Department cables from WikiLeaks. Has anything you've seen on Afghanistan and Pakistan surprised you?
Mr. WOODWARD: Not really. What is in the book describes the difficulty in the operations, particularly, the relationship with Karzai, which these cables only show, again, the difficulty and what an ornery companion and partner he is, and somebody that - you know, the White House hasn't quite figured out what to do with him.
He's democratically elected. There's - they don't want to go down the Vietnam road of trying to change the leader, so they have to deal with him. But as the book reports, he's somebody who's a diagnosed manic-depressive, and they talk about him being on his meds, off his meds.
CONAN: And speaking of ornery partners, our allies in Pakistan, who again, we see from these documents, are on the one hand, well, American allies, on the other hand, supporting the Taliban.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, and interestingly enough, two days after Obama was elected in 2008, they gave him the secrets briefing, and they outlined exactly this problem; that the Pakistanis, particularly their intelligence agencies, were hedging, playing both sides in a very dramatic way, and instead of getting better is probably worse now.
KOPPEL: I wanted to ask you, Bob, and incidentally I enjoyed the book very much.
Mr. WOODWARD: Thank you.
KOPPEL: But there was one question that I had that just...
Mr. WOODWARD: Here it comes.
KOPPEL: ...sort of leaped out. No, no, no. No, it has absolutely nothing to do with your reporting skills. The - I mean, you had so much inside information. You had documents on some of the most classified meetings. Nowhere, at no point, did I ever hear anybody talking about what the president had spoken about during the campaign, and that is the war in Iraq, he maintained, was a war of choice. The war in Afghanistan, however, was a war of necessity. Did nobody ever bring that up?
Mr. WOODWARD: Oh, well, certainly. They start - in fact, I think it is the third day of the Obama presidency, they have their first NSC meeting on Afghanistan, and they lay out there that the president had said he would add resources to that war. And they start the train running, which led to the first edition of what amounted to 20,000 troops at the beginning of last year. This is before the 30,000 that were added in the fall.
KOPPEL: But the extraordinary thing, Bob, let me just jump in with the second half of the question.
Mr. WOODWARD: Sure.
KOPPEL: You've got that remarkable quote from the president, who at one point, says: I'm not going to lost the Democratic Party over Afghanistan.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes.
KOPPEL: And it appears, it appears that nobody at that point said: Whoa, hold on a second, Mr. President. Which are we more worried about, losing the Democratic Party or losing this essential war of necessity, as you have described it?
Mr. WOODWARD: Interestingly enough, he made that comment about I can't lose the whole Democratic Party on this, to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in private. And he was telling a Republican, look, I have to go along, I have to do some things, and in this case it was set that July 2001 deadline for beginning some sort of withdrawal.
Mr. WOODWARD: 2011, I'm sorry. And that the Republicans and lots of people, lots of people in the military do not like that date. The idea of setting some sort of timetable on a war is anathema to them.
CONAN: Yet he not only - he since seemed to have backed away. He's saying that may start, depending on the situation on the ground, the process of U.S. withdrawal, but that's not likely to be completed until 2014.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, I know. We're kind of in the world of exit strategy bubbles, like a housing bubble. One date gets floated. It doesn't seem to go down so well. So then they move it to 2014.
But what we are forgetting, and it's easy to forget, in the thousands of words in these top secret meetings and private meetings that the president has, he makes it very clear he wants out of this war. He does not like this war.
And in the secret orders he issued, which are published in an appendix at the back of the book, he says that in July 2011, in other words now six month, when they begin the reduction of force, the president will consider, quote, "a shift from combat operations to an advise and assist mission."
Now, that would be a very dramatic, if all of a sudden you say you're going to end combat operations, and we're going to just have an advise and assist mission like we kind of have in Iraq now. That was the intent a year ago. I think that's off the table. I think he's not considering doing that next year.
CONAN: And was that his decision, or was he boxed into that decision by recalcitrants from the Pentagon, his commanders?
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, there was a lot of pressure from him - on him - in all of this, but it was his decision. He dictated these orders. General Petraeus, as I report in the book, was astounded, saying the president never dictates six pages of orders. They get somebody on the staff to do that. But this was Obama himself realizing how important the details were.
CONAN: We want to hear...
KOPPEL: Is this...?
CONAN: Go ahead, Ted, I'm sorry.
KOPPEL: I'm sorry, Neal. No, I was just going to ask both of you, actually, whether you think that there is a huge political element in the changing of the date? I mean, effectively what's happened here is if the president had allowed that date of summer of 2011 to remain as the time at which some kind of significant withdrawal of U.S. forces was going to take place or at least begin, then not having it happen would have become a major bone of contention in the 2012 election.
The fact that the date has now been shifted to two years after the election more or less takes it off the table, doesn't it?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, I think that's exactly right, and what they will do six months from now is - has been hinted at and actually said in public, there's certain areas where they can thin out U.S. forces and transfer lead security responsibility to the Afghan security forces, in other words the Afghan army or the police.
But this is the game that's being played, and it is a kind of game. And at the same time, it's deadly serious. My reading on this, in spending almost two years in Obamaland and the national security field - the president, he looks at this as a part of a larger project, and the larger project is to shift all of this money and attention and military force to get away from that and return to the domestic policies which he wants, that he has very, very strict ideas on.
And so he wants to end this war. At the same time, remember a year ago, he adopted the strategy that's now in place. And people think, well, they're doing a review now, which they are. But this is a homework assignment on the president's decision, and it's very unlikely that the president's going to come out and say, oh, I get an F, or I get a C. He's going to say well, as General Petraeus or as Secretary of Defense Gates said, we've made some progress, more than he expected.
CONAN: We'll take your calls in just a couple of minutes. We want to hear from you. If you've read "Obama's Wars," has it changed your opinion of the president? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. But Bob Woodward, effectively because of the president's decisions, the war was not an issue in the midterm elections either. It was - the president and much of the Republican Party was agreed. There's some dissent within the Democratic Party but not between Republicans and Democrats, for the most part.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, that's quite true. And of course, by deciding to send 30,000 more troops and to postpone this review that's going on this month until after the election, I don't think many, if any, votes were decided on this in the midterms.
CONAN: And yet this was - the wars were a critical factor in the rise of Barack Obama four years ago.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. When I interviewed him for the book, we went into that subject because of his opposition to the Iraq war when he said the Iraq war will be - and remember, he made that speech before the war began in October 2002, and he said it will be a war of undetermined cost, undetermined length and undetermined consequence.
And I just asked, I said: Well, isn't that the way any war is? And he became quite animated and said that's exactly right and laid out his theory of war, which is it's a chaos that he has to impose order on.
To a certain extent, he looks at war as something, and he made this very clear, as the manifestation of human folly. It's something nutty that people do, and he wants to get the United States out of it.
CONAN: Bob Woodward, "Obama's Wars," one of the books we missed this past year on this program, your opportunity to talk with him about how your opinion of the president has changed if you've read the book, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ted Koppel is also with us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us on Wednesday. Among other topics, we'll look at the political highlights of the year, and we need your nominees. Send us the best zingers, gaffes and other memorable moments from politics 2010. Email us, email@example.com. Please put highlights in the subject line.
Right now, we're talking about U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. Bob Woodward documented the internal divisions that played out in the president's first two strategy reviews in his book, "Obama's Wars." We expect the next assessment as early as Wednesday. Also with us, Ted Koppel, commentator for NPR News.
If you've read "Obama's Wars," has your opinion of the president changed? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe's(ph) on the line calling from Atlanta.
JOE (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. I think my reading of the book just confirmed my belief in Barack Obama. I think what he's shown, what people would consider maybe changing his promises is really a required change in strategy given the great fluidity of war.
I think that in Iraq, what's been proven is that you don't just lead an army to war, you lead a nation to war. And our nation has very clearly soured on the idea of going to war in Afghanistan when we were 100 percent behind it after 9/11.
Obama had to take that into account if he doesn't want to destroy himself. That's what I think. Even though I'm a supporter of him, I don't have a problem with him still having Guantanamo open. I do have a problem with him relenting on bringing prosecutions in New York like he should have, but I'm not at all troubled by some of the changes he's manifested. And I'll take your comments and criticisms off.
CONAN: OK, Joe, thanks very much for the call.
Mr. WOODWARD: I mean, that's a fair reading of this. Lots of people have read it and said, well, it shows a strong, forceful leader. In fact, the White House publicly, after the book came out a couple of months ago, said it showed this.
Others have read it and said there is hesitation, there is an unsettled nature of Obama's relationships with the military and with people in the White House who are not his political advisors.
I thought of calling the book "The Divided Man" because it shows Obama split down the middle on this. But if - my goal here is not only to describe the war but to describe him. And who is Barack Obama? And if you read through the book or looked at it, it totally forecasts the compromise on taxes.
He is going to take a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B, do it his own way and come up with a decision. In our political system and particularly on the issues of national security, there is an expectation that the president is going to be more leaderly, more forceful.
And in this case, you may note ever since he announced the 30,000 additional troops last year, he never uses the word victory. He never uses the word win. Recently when he went to Afghanistan, he told the troops: We're going to succeed.
Well, they're kind of in a kick-butt mentality. They want to go out and kill and win. And there is a realistic restraint he puts on his own rhetoric, but I think again, it communicates particularly to the troops a bit of an uncertain trumpet.
CONAN: He talks about a strategy that will leave the country in a stronger position than it was when we started. And, of course, he really writes the now-familiar line: There will be no surrender ceremonies in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But these are not exactly, as you say, ringing rhetoric.
Mr. WOODWARD: And I asked him, I said: You can't lose a war on your watch as president. He quickly said: Oh, no, I don't think of it that way, about winning and losing and, as you said, about succeeding.
Well, and you go into the secret orders and the nature of the debate here and you see him telling the military: We can't defeat the Taliban. They finally realized that the Taliban in Afghanistan is so large and going to be a part of the political fabric. So they say: OK, let's degrade it, and let's disrupt them.
Well, people are out on the battlefield, where they are shooting at you, look at it, you know, what do I do, just degrade that guy, shoot him in the foot?
CONAN: Yeah, and he goes back to the era of Vietnam: We should attrite the enemy.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, and I mean, it's not even that. It's degrade and disrupt. Well, from a Washington policy strategic point of view, maybe that makes sense. You talk to soldiers out there, and that's not the language they use.
CONAN: Let's get David(ph) on the line...
KOPPEL: Neal - oh, I'm sorry, go ahead.
CONAN: We'll get David on the line from Grand Rapids, and then we'll go back to Ted. I apologize, Ted. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVID (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
DAVID: Yeah, I was just wondering if Bob Woodward could elaborate a bit on the firing of General Stanley McChrystal last June. When I read the book, his account seemed a little bit sketchy and kind of hurried as to what actually transpired. He had mentioned a couple meetings I think in April and May of this year, which he had a strike one and strike two against him.
And it just seems to me there's always some sort of backstory, which wasn't elaborated upon in his book or elsewhere.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, there is the backstory of the fall, when General McChrystal gave a speech in London indicating that he essentially had decided that we had to have a counterinsurgency strategy that was fully resourced before the president had decided that issue.
Not only General McChrystal but General Petraeus and others, including Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had kind of piled on well, this is the way we should do it. And the White House went ballistic and said, now wait a minute, this is the president's decision, the commander in chief's decision, and they felt they were being boxed in or really kind of cornered by the uniformed military.
CONAN: And not just by that. There was a document, which you broke, in which General McChrystal says if we don't get essentially the troop levels I've asked for, we're going to lose as soon as this year.
Mr. WOODWARD: That's right, we're going to have mission failure. And of course, that was a real shock to the White House. And so, McChrystal's already got two strikes against him and then there's the Rolling Stone article, which if you go back and read, has a lot of McChrystal aides and a lot of nasty talk but really not - it really was not high on the Richter Scale, as I look at it.
But there was a feeling in the White House that they had to show Obama was in charge. And McChrystal realized he'd overstepped the line and I think was -quickly was telling people I've compromised the mission. He called Vice President Biden and said I've compromised the mission. And so in a sense, he almost fired himself.
CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.
DAVID: Thank you. Could I just say one more quick comment?
DAVID: It also seems like McChrystal's central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death was kind of passed over a bit in your book. He was apparently one of the favorites of Chief Mullen. But looking at it quite a bit myself, and you had some stuff going on, like in May 15, 2008, an executive session hearing of the Senate after Senator Webb did an investigation, so-called, of his role. And that was pretty much seemed to be passed over by the Washington establishment, kind of they did a pro forma hearings at various times but really didn't dig into that very much. And I just wondered if you could comment...
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, they didn't. And, of course, McChrystal was in the chain of command, and I think he apologized for what he did in this. But he was not the hands-on person making that decision. But that whole thing is a sad chapter in Army history.
CONAN: Ted, I apologize. Go ahead.
KOPPEL: No, that's quite all right. There are a couple of rather major issues that we haven't gotten to yet. The one, obviously, is WikiLeaks. I know, Neal, you asked Bob a question about it in the very beginning.
But one of the things that came out in WikiLeaks that was also in Bob's book and that, strangely enough, has gotten little or no traction in the minds of the American public, is the degree to which this really is a war about Pakistan.
And when you talk, Bob, as you did about the president saying, you know, this isn't a war you can win or you can lose - oh yeah, you can lose it. If in fact, as apparently as the stuff of the White House's nightmares, nuclear material falls into the hands of al-Qaida or the Taliban or any of the Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, I would consider that to be a lost war.
Mr. WOODWARD: I think that's right, Ted. And one of the issues here, and at one of these meetings, President Obama himself says the poison is in Pakistan. The problem is in Pakistan because that's where the Pakistani intelligence service has given sanctuary to al-Qaida and its leadership but also the Taliban leadership.
And so you have the absurdity. And Ted, you go back, and you remember this from Vietnam - of sanctuaries across the border where the people we are fighting can go train, have R and R weekend or whatever, get new equipment and then come across the border to kill American soldiers.
So if you really look at this and go up to 30,000 feet or higher, you'll kind of say, now, wait a minute, there's virtually no al-Qaida in Afghanistan, but we have a hundred thousand troops there. Al-Qaida is in Pakistan. We don't have troops there, though. I report that we have a secret 3,000-person army that the CIA runs of Afghans, and that they do cross-border operations into Pakistan. And the CIA is doing other things, but there really is a misfocus in this war if you look at the problem.
KOPPEL: And I think, you know, the misfocus is almost inevitable because the president really cannot come out and say, you know something, this is very much about Pakistan and its nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis are paranoid to begin with. If he came out and said that, they would probably have to deny us what little assistance they're giving us in this war to begin with.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, it is. The nuclear weapons kind of background noise, but I think a more immediate problem and real problem is al-Qaida and the efforts of al-Qaida. And as the president told me, he said we can absorb another terrorist attack, and lots of Republicans and conservatives when the book came out jumped on him and said how can he say that. Well, he's being realistic because he lives in an absolute sea of warnings about the next terrorist attack.
And at some point, they're going to get through - underwear bomber, Times Square bomber, printer tone bomb. Something is going to go off. You can't stop all of these things, and one of the - couple of the intel people - intelligence people I talked to recently said they - it's getting worse now, and they expect something in the next couple of months, quite frankly.
CONAN: In the next couple of months?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. Another effort like, you know, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, but at some point, you know, the intelligence is good and the protective measures are good. But, look, each time one of these things doesn't work, we wind up spending hundreds of millions of dollars increasing security. I'm surprised after the underwear bomber we didn't get to a point where people had to take off their underwear before they went on a plane.
CONAN: Well, have you gone through the new patdown?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, I have, and it - it's close. There's no question.
CONAN: We're talking with Bob Woodward about his new - most recent book, "Obama's Wars." Also with us is Ted Koppel, NPR commentator. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email that we have from Michael(ph). I see the book showing the blindness of Barack Obama taking lies from the intelligence community and taking the best of the worst lies. He should have immediately started a withdrawal which would have saved him the election of 2010.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, I'd - I mean, that's one reading of you - this is neutral inquiry. Ted Koppel in one of his recent pieces - in Outlook, Ted, you talked about the untidy Eden of journalism of what ABC News used to be 20 or 30 years ago. The Washington Post I would argue still is, but we are in the business of neutral inquiry in the end. And people will read the book that way, and then somebody else will say Obama did the right thing.
CONAN: Speaking of which...
KOPPEL: I think...
CONAN: I'm sorry. Ted, (unintelligible).
KOPPEL: No, no, no. I was just going to say...
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KOPPEL: ...this might be an appropriate time to remind people that Bob is also a deputy managing editor of The Washington Post. And let me ask it since no one in the audience has yet.
Bob, what is the difference between the kind of reporting that you will do over the course of two years then revealing all kinds of secret information, albeit from the horse's mouth, and the kind of mass release that we have had in recent months from WikiLeaks?
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, first of all, there's - it's a very important question. There's the question of standing. You see all these State Department cables written by a political officer or an ambassador. They rarely get to the White House. They rarely impact the decision-making, and they are part of it. They're part of the information chain, but the real business in this administration takes place in the White House. It's very White House-centric, and you have to get into that world, and that world includes a lot of intelligence cables, which are not in the WikiLeaks. They include lots of NSC meetings, private conversations and so forth.
And I think on the issue of what's Obama doing - he's the president. He's the commander in chief - this takes you much closer. But when you work on something like this, you have to be - you really are humbled because you don't know what you don't know. But I found in this WikiLeaks stuff that I've looked at it is -they're basically footnotes, sometimes incredibly interesting, very well, you know, heavy documentation of things, but it doesn't tell you what and why and how the president made his decisions about this war, the war on terror or this secret war in Pakistan.
CONAN: Some say there's a...
KOPPEL: Well, enough news in all of that, though, that your major competition, The New York Times, I think probably had, what, 10 or 11 front-page stories in a row all extracted from the WikiLeaks. There was a lot of really good material in there.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. But did it - I mean, cite for me one thing that Neal was asking callers, people listening, did it change your mind about Obama? And cite one thing from the WikiLeaks that changed your mind about how the government runs or how the Obama administration is doing its job, I find it - I found it incredibly informative but not - it didn't have that standing where this is the memo the president got. What this appendix in my book has what his secret orders were, exactly what he said.
CONAN: President Obama gets his next strategy review on Afghanistan later this week. Today, we're talking about the tensions and debate that led to the previous two reviews and what they might tell us about the president's decisions going forward. More with Bob Woodward and Ted Koppel in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: Right now, Bob Woodward is with us, also commentator Ted Koppel. In Bob Woodward's most recent book, "Obama's Wars," he describes ending an interview with the president saying he has one more question and refers the president to this passage from historian Rick Atkinson.
For war was not just a military campaign but also a parable. There were lessons of camaraderie and duty and inscrutable fate, and then there was the saddest lesson to be learned again and again. That war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.
President Obama directed Bob Woodward to read his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize.
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President BARACK OBAMA: So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another: that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such. So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths: that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
CONAN: And, Bob Woodward, I wonder if you thought that a fair response to Rick Atkinson's quote?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. I thought it was because he stood there. He was trying to get me out of the Oval Office, and I handed this to him and he read it. And he said I'm sympathetic with this view and pointed me to his Nobel Prize speech, which you quite wisely have played there. And you see he sees the yin and the yang. There's this side. There's that side. There's the paradox. But the part that he feels strongly about is that war is never glorious, and that it is part an expression, manifestation of human folly, and his policy is driving toward that.
At the same time, that's an ideal. And in the real world of military relations between this White House and the military which have such a strong position. General Petraeus, Barbara Walters was saying the most fascinating personality of the year. Probably, if you conducted a poll, he has higher approval ratings than anyone in the country other than Oprah.
And so that puts the - that gives them great leverage with Obama and the White House, so he has to deal with the reality of that, has to deal with the reality that he can't have open dissent if - where you had the generals resigning and saying the president isn't strong enough. He's not backing us. That would be a disaster for any president, particularly one like Obama coming from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, somebody so young, not - who himself did not serve in the military.
CONAN: You have watched closely commanders-in-chief since Richard Nixon, I guess. In terms of style, Barack Obama seems distinct. How would you compare him?
Mr. WOODWARD: He's a law professor. He's - if you read some I was going to bring some parts of the book where he'll have these long meetings and then at the end he'll say I have six questions.
Mr. WOODWARD: And you read the questions and they're brilliant. He has identified the key issues. And then you go to the end of the book and plow through it and you realize, in many cases, they have failed to answer the key questions that the Obama that President Obama has posed. And this is what a law school seminar is like. Let's identify all of the issues. And the answers are so complex, we're never going to get there.
CONAN: Let's go next to Richard(ph), Richard on the line with us from Minneapolis.
RICHARD (ph): Yes. A good discussion, gentlemen. I'm - in snowy and cold in Minneapolis, I might...
CONAN: Yes, indeed.
RICHARD: I might add, indeed. And I read the book. I'm a retired Navy captain. And I voted for Obama and still support him. But having read the book, I was questioning why Obama didn't have more input from his own very experienced vice president, Joe Biden. And it seemed like throughout much of the book, I got the impression Joe Biden was really not very excited about doing anything more than maybe 10,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan. And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Richard. Thank you.
Mr. WOODWARD: OK. Actually, Vice President Biden plays a very significant role. And as the caller suggested I'm going to call you sir because I got out of the Navy as a lieutenant, Captain, that, you know, it was very much that Obama was going to compromise. Biden came in at the end, on the eve of this decision, a very dramatic scene, and said, if you give the military everything they want, the 40,000 and kind of unlimited counterinsurgency - fully resourced counterinsurgency, you're going to be locked into Vietnam. You're going to go down the escalation trail.
And Obama, and probably one of the most poignant things he says he said, if I'm wrong, if this is not doesn't turn out to be the right decision, I'm going to not let my ego or my politics decide where we go, and I will back off. Now, that's not for this review in December of 2010, that's for some at some point in the future. He told Vice President Biden, I'm not doing Vietnam.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Don(ph), Don with us from Fremont, California.
DON (Caller): Yes. Mr. Woodward, thank you very much for the great reporting in your book. I really enjoyed it. One point that I was kind of concerned about, though, was - what I perceived at least, as an enormous amount of pushback from the military. It seems like in the meetings Obama had to go over the same point again and again and again.
I was curious, from your perspective, what is the relationship between this president and the military and, well, I guess, for civilian leadership of the military in general? And I'd be glad to take your question off the air.
Mr. WOODWARD: An important question. It's unsettled. They haven't closed the deal. Secretary of Defense Gates, as I report in the book and has been reported a little bit, wants to leave. What's new is Obama said to him, I want you to stay the whole term, four years. And Gates resisted very strongly and felt the president was acting like a rug merchant, negotiating with him. So that is not settled with the uniform military.
It is not settled and it's one of the things that needs to be closed, needs to be figured out as we go through in this war. Maybe in this strategy review, the president will say something or release something or give a speech that will clarify because lots of people I've talked in the military say, we need clarification.
CONAN: Ted, did you want to come in?
KOPPEL: Sure. Just one thought I'd like to express on, of all people, quoting and quoting him in an approving fashion, Hamid Karzai. I think the poor man is actually right when he looks at U.S. foreign policy in his country and says, this is not about us. You guys are concerned about your own national interest. And will you stop telling me all the time that I need to do it because it's in the best interests of my country to do it.
As Bob pointed out much earlier in this conversation, we have 100,000 troops over there not because of the handful of Taliban who may still be left in Afghanistan. There are much, much bigger fish to fry. And the answer I would have given you if we hadn't gone to a break, Bob, before about what came out in WikiLeaks that I think really was of significant importance, and to your credit, you reported it also in your book. But in this particular instance, the direct concern of the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, who is not just concerned about the existence of Taliban and not just concerned about the presence of al-Qaida in that country, but is really worried about the fact that nuclear materials may fall into the hands of these people.
And then, what we're talking about is much, much bigger than anything that has really been publicly discussed yet. I don't quite understand why, after all the reporting that you've done and all the material that has come out in WikiLeaks, why it is that this issue of Pakistan and the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists has not somehow seized the American public's imagination?
CONAN: And Ted, I'm sure you meant to say, the handful of al-Qaida who still may reign in Afghanistan. But Bob would...
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. I mean, real quickly. It's a big deal. And when I asked Obama about this, the president said - they said, look, a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist going off in this country would be a game changer. And that's to put it mildly. So it is a big worry.
At the same time, I agree. I mean, quickly, Ted Koppel has a very strong point. From Karzai's point of view, there are 100,000 American troops, soldiers, airmen, Navy people, intel people and so forth, and they're shooting up that country. It is a very violent place.
If you look at the charts, the number of attacks, there are more than a hundred attacks a day. That is four an hour. That is not a Sunday picnic. And he's saying, here you're fighting the Taliban here and I'm trying to make a deal with them, where the real sanctuary is over in Pakistan.
And so from his point of view, I think he has probably a stronger case to make than he has been able to make because there is this U.S.-centric view of, well, what's he doing to help us and promote our interest and our aims? At the same time, he's very erratic. When I went last year to one of the meetings with him, I mean, he can - Ted, I'm sure, I mean, he is a charmer. There's no question about it - speaks perfect English. But then you talk to people who deal with him, where he goes - there's a story in the front page of the Washington Post this morning, where he is saying, you know, my enemies include the United States. And so...
Mr. WOODWARD: ...a hard guy to deal with.
CONAN: We're talking with Bob Woodward about his book, "Obama's Wars." Ted Koppel is also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And much of the book detailing the administration inevitably deals with personnel changes, certainly the dismissal of generals McKieran and later Stanley McChrystal, General Petraeus' eventual arrival in Afghanistan, a job that he might have once before.
What do you also make of the changes in the administration that have happened since the book came to print? And presumably, General Jones, who's left the Office of National Security Adviser.
Mr. WOODWARD: And his deputy, Tom Donilon, has moved up, somebody, as the book reports, who became indispensable to the president, somebody who has a lot of foreign policy experience.
CONAN: But not much in the field as you (unintelligible).
Mr. WOODWARD: But not much in the field. And, you know, there are people who say Tom Donilon is not a strategic thinker. I don't think that's true. I think he's very much a strategic thinker. He does put into the equation, as a national security adviser must, what is the domestic political end here. It shouldn't drive the decision, but it has to be a factor in the strategic calculus.
CONAN: Here's an email.
KOPPEL: Can I just...
Mr. WOODWARD: Yeah.
KOPPEL: ...jump in quickly and ask you, do you think perhaps there was a little too much political influence from the White House, on the Afghanistan decisions?
Mr. WOODWARD: To a certain extent...
KOPPEL: I'm talking about the Rahm, you know, like the Rahm Emanuel.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, but again, you - again, this is Obama dividing the baby, as he did in this case. And in a sense, no one was totally happy. The military got almost everything they asked for. But again, I go to these secret orders, which is - the proof is in those secret orders, when the president is telling the military, you can do this and that.
But then, he really gets going on the things they are not to do. And he says you go into an area of Afghanistan with American troops, clear, hold and build, which is the goal, but don't go there. Don't start that process unless you can see how to transfer responsibility to the Afghan national security force. Again, the theme: He wants to limit this. He wants to get out, but he is compromised.
CONAN: Any prospect, do you think, of a successful transfer of power by this new date, 2014?
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, you know, that's like saying, what's the weather going to be like in 2014. I mean, we just don't know. There are so many variables here. But it's a wonderful device people have. It reminds me, Ted, you'll remember this, of Nixon's secret plan to get out of the Vietnam War. It labeled it secret...
KOPPEL: Just before the election.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yeah, just before the - put a label, secret, on it or give a date way in the future and people think, oh, OK, well, that's where we're going and that's what's going to happen. As I recall, the last 10 years of American foreign policy and political ramifications in this country have been defined by one word: Surprise.
KOPPEL: Bob (Unintelligible)
CONAN: Bob Woodward, an associating editor at the Washington Post. His most recent book is "Obama's Wars." And we thank him for joining us here today in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time.
Mr. WOODWARD: Thank you.
CONAN: And Ted Koppel, I'm sure you'll say thank you even though I just cut you off.
KOPPEL: I will say thank you. I was just going to say put the label, secret, on it. It's going to be chapter two in Bob's next book.
CONAN: Tomorrow, why it's so hard to find a job when you're unemployed. We'll talk about the relentless cycle of long-term unemployment. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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