Bob Woodward's Inside Account Of 'Obama's Wars'

A year ago, President Obama was in the thick of a review of policy on Afghanistan. In the end, he ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and he set July 2011 as the point at which the U.S. presence would start to decline. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Bob Woodward about how the president arrived at that policy — the subject of Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A year ago, President Obama, his White House team and his administration were in the thick of a review of policy on Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. In the end, the president ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, with allowance for an additional 3,000 more if needed. And he set July 2011 as the point at which the U.S. presence would start to decline, and the handoff to Afghan forces would begin.

How that policy was arrived at, and how that review played out, is the subject of Bob Woodward's latest book, "Obama's Wars." And while Woodward acknowledges that there are competing versions of what took place, his version is that the military never gave President Obama what he asked for: a set of realistic options to choose from.

Bob Woodward joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. BOB WOODWARD (Author, "Obama's Wars"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that the Afghanistan policy that President Obama embraced is one that he may be responsible for but General Petraeus, General McChrystal, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen - that they effectively manipulated the policy review to the troop increase that they wanted?

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, they wanted 40,000 more troops and a much more open-ended strategy. What the president decided on was 30,000 troops and, as you pointed out, a beginning of the drawdown in July of next year. But when you go into the details of this, you realize that the military, even though the president said, I want more options; you told me we were going to consider three options, they never did that. And even Secretary of Defense Gates, when the president said, look, it's unacceptable what you've done here; Gates said, well, we owe you that option. And the president never got it.

SIEGEL: The not-so-sophisticated trick here is to say we have three choices. A is obviously too little. C is way out of bounds, it's impossible. So we think B looks like the more rational choice you can make?

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. That's exactly what happened. The options on the troop levels last year were 10,000, 40,000 and 85,000 - 85,000, they didn't have; 10,000 would be trainers to train the Afghan security force; and when you get into the secret documentation on this, the 40,000 was - there's a memo that General McChrystal sent in last year asking for 40,000. And he goes through all kinds of formulas about counterinsurgency, how many forces you need given what the population is. But in the end, he says: My professional military judgment is, we need 40,000 troops. And that is the nature of the argument.

It's kind of a - this is my conclusion, take it or leave it. And of course, Obama was not happy at all. And if you look at it as a matter of process, why can't the president get the choices that he wants? There are always choices, particularly in war.

SIEGEL: Here's what Leslie Gelb wrote in "The Daily Beast" about your book, and the way you describe the president's dilemma and his performance. Gelb writes: Obama didn't understand what he had to do, which was tell Defense Secretary Bob Gates to tell the generals either they meet the president's wishes, or they will be fired. Republican presidents do just that. And so, as Woodward describes, Obama had to write the strategy all by himself. Fair judgment of the president's performance?

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. And what's most interesting is that he - when defied by the Pentagon and the military, he did not come down harder on Gates. And Gates is where the rubber meets the road - between the civilians and the uniformed military. And it is argued by one of the generals in the book, and I think it's a telling point, that the secretary of Defense is the final window into the world of choice for a president.

A president, as commander in chief - he could send the whole military there tomorrow, or he could order them all back tomorrow. So when he's asking for choices and alternatives, he should get them. In this case, he did not. It's quite revealing about the political and - if you will -moral power of the uniformed military and the secretary of Defense at this time in America.

SIEGEL: A big change here was the administration seeing this as a matter of not just Afghanistan, but Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. You describe when the presidents of both Pakistan and Afghanistan were invited to the U.S. Zardari, the Pakistani president, tells Zilmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador, that Pakistani Taliban attacks inside his own country - the Pakistani president believes they are the work of the United States.

Mr. WOODWARD: Total reflection of Pakistani President Zardari's paranoia. It's absurd. There's no evidence. The Taliban is our enemy. They are running the insurgency in Afghanistan. They are running it out of Pakistan. That's where the leadership is, so the suggestion of this just tells you how difficult it is to deal not only with Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, but with Zardari, the president of Pakistan.

SIEGEL: Yeah. In this case, paranoia is not being used in a clinical sense. But for Karzai, you actually have a diagnosis.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. I report here Karzai is a diagnosed manic depressive. He's on medication, and goes off his medication sometimes. And if you have followed his behavior, it's erratic. And this problem of being on his meds and off his meds accounts for some of it.

SIEGEL: Here's, for me, the most disturbing aspect of your book, and I want to hear what you think of it. There's always a gap between the public discourse of policymakers, and the candid discussions that they have amongst themselves. You have measured that gap in many books about several White Houses. But here, we had a war that all concerned saw had been neglected to the point of near-failure. They all knew Pakistan was really the problem.

Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his much- vaunted relationship with head of the Pakistani military - turns out to be, he only lies half the time. You've described Karzai's deficiencies as an ally, whom we were counting on. The Afghan police were deserting in such high numbers, it eliminated all their new recruitments.

There was an enormous gap between this war as it was being described to the American public, and as these people knew it to be.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, this is frequently the story - not just during war but during lots of things. And what I've attempted to do is present unvarnished and - if you will - unspun exactly what happened, and how the central character in this is President Obama, how he deals with it. He has high intellect, as we know, and he gets the intelligence reports, the military reports, and he knows that it really is a dreary, dreary situation.

It got to the point in the spring, after a top-secret update to the president in the Situation Room at the White House, the president left the meeting and told his aides: What makes us think that given the description of the problem, that we're going to design a solution to this?

SIEGEL: Bob Woodward, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. WOODWARD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Bob Woodward's latest book is called "Obama's Wars."

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