Inside the Anglo-Saxon war machine

Bob Woodward’s invaluable account of the political machinations behind the Afghan conflict echoes my own experiences inside the British government, says Matt Cavanagh
November 17, 2010
Barack Obama with his defence secretary Robert Gates, who has been a vital bridge between the White House and the military

Obama’s Wars By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, £20)

Obama’s Wars, the veteran US reporter Bob Woodward’s book on the Afghan conflict, has many flaws. It is overlong, repetitious, and lacks structure, leading some critics to dismiss it as a “notebook dump.” It is insular, mentioning the Afghans only in passing, and Britain and other allies hardly at all. It lacks any feel for the conflict itself, and Woodward has been mocked for writing about an overnight stay in a vast US base as if it was the front line. Yet it is also an invaluable guide to the political processes behind modern warfare.

Part of the problem is the book’s title. For this is a book not about war, but about the workings of the national security machinery: the mix of politicians, political advisers, security officials, generals and admirals who take decisions about war in a modern democracy. Woodward has talked to most of them, and they have been remarkably open with him, even indiscreet. The book’s real value, however, lies not in the indiscretions or particular revelations, but in the laborious and painstaking way that it charts the decision-making process through the course of 2009, as the president, his advisers and the senior military agonise about the way ahead.

Here, the book’s lack of structure is a virtue. The absence of an overarching “narrative” allows the cast to put their case in as unfiltered a manner as a reader is likely to find. As with any insider account, Woodward overemphasises those who give him the most time or the best quotes. But while some critics have perceived a bias towards the White House, and others a bias towards the military, I found it hard to discern either. If anything, Woodward is overly credulous of every powerful player he encounters—but it is this that allows them the chance to put their case.

The result is a gruelling but fascinating read for anyone who is interested in how such decisions are made, not just in America but more widely. And it would be a shame if the book’s insularity put British readers off. This is a book about the British experience too, for essentially the same internal debate played out here over the same period, with the same camps in the same positions—and the same result.

Of course, there are differences. In the British debate, a great deal of time and effort went into working out what the Americans were thinking, and it is all too clear from Woodward’s book that the reverse was not true. It would be unfair to blame this entirely on American insularity. However important our decisions were to us in Britain, they mattered far less in strategic terms, as a glance at the numbers shows. Obama sent 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan early in 2009, and spent the second half of the year debating whether to send another 40,000, while Gordon Brown and his generals were arguing over 1,000: one per cent of the international force.

The shape and tone of the debates in Washington and Whitehall also reflected the differing personal styles of the two leaders: Obama relaxed and confident, comfortable in group discussion; Brown preferring one-to-one conversations, closed and brooding to those outside his circle. He was not helped by his last two defence secretaries, who simply echoed the military, whereas Robert Gates, their American counterpart, at least tried to play the role of bridging the military and political camps. On the other hand, Brown’s foreign secretary, David Miliband—unlike his counterpart Hillary Clinton—was a potential ally, sharing his leader’s scepticism of military escalation. Unfortunately the two men were so far apart in all other matters that this was less helpful than it might have been.

There was no British equivalent to Vice-President Joe Biden, who is teased in the book for his grandstanding and verbosity, but who the record will show asking the right questions, acting as a useful support and foil to his president. There was also no British equivalent to the generals on Obama’s team. Brown’s advisers (of whom I was one) proposed appointing one, but this was blocked by the military and the civil service. This was something I reflected on as I read Woodward’s accounts of General Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, squaring up to his fellow generals in the National Security Council or reprimanding them for their media outings; of the low-key but effective General Lute, the “war czar” in the West Wing basement, marking the Pentagon’s homework; and of Colin Powell coming in for a friendly chat with Obama in the midst of the crisis. “You don’t have to put up with this,” said Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “These guys work for you. Because they’re unanimous in their advice doesn’t make it right.”

Another difference is that, in the American debate, the sceptics continually raised the issue of cost, asking whether it could be justified relative to competing claims on the straitened public finances. In the British debate, cost was hardly mentioned. Brown and his advisers were concerned that if they raised it, this would leak, and would be seen as vindicating the campaign by the Conservatives and the right-wing media to imply that Brown was withholding funding from the military in Afghanistan—and therefore was personally responsible for individual military deaths.

There is some irony in the fact that, at a time when the principal right-wing critique of Brown was that he was recklessly spending money the country did not have, these same critics took the opposite stance when faced with an area in which spending was indeed increasing steeply to questionable effect. The more serious point is that what should have been a legitimate consideration in internal debate was, in effect, silenced.


Overall, the similarities between Britain and America’s leaders are more striking than the differences. Obama and Brown were both reluctant warriors. Afghanistan was a war they inherited, and at first underestimated—defining their position on it more by contrast to Iraq than on its merits. They realised soon enough that it was going badly. Casualties and costs were rising steadily, the progress on development since 2001 was stalling and being overtaken by corruption, and public support at home was ebbing away. They probed deeper into the detail: “getting into the weeds,” the military called it. But the two leaders felt they had no choice, unable to trust the military to get the detail right.

They also searched for better ways to explain the war: both made the same decision to sharpen the message by shifting the emphasis from nation-building to preventing the return of al Qaeda, only to see that raise as many questions as it answered. Couldn’t we achieve that in a different way with fewer troops and casualties, and less money? Indeed, if it’s all about al Qaeda, why are we in Afghanistan at all, rather than Pakistan, or even Somalia and Yemen?

By summer 2009, at the same time as Brown’s and Obama’s doubts and frustrations were growing and public concern was rising, they were coming under increasing pressure from the senior military to approve an escalation in troop numbers. For although the senior military had also begun to realise that things were not going well, their reaction was to press for greater resources and greater urgency. To them, defeat was unthinkable, even if the more thoughtful and intellectually honest of them weren’t sure if victory was achievable either. In both Washington and Whitehall they ensured that debates over troop numbers crowded out more important debates over military strategy, a political settlement, governance, corruption and aid effectiveness. They placed great store by generic concepts of decisiveness, leadership and “momentum”—more than the specifics of strategy—and they railed against what seemed to them to be indecision and delay from the politicians.

Both Obama and Brown felt that the case for escalation had not been made, and that unless other factors—in particular better governance, a real stand against corruption and a change in attitude from Pakistan—turned our way, more troops were unlikely to make a difference. The politicians objected to what seemed to them an arbitrary decision timetable imposed by the military: one which didn’t allow proper evaluation of the extra troops and new strategy put in place earlier in 2009. Above all, they questioned the military’s refusal to work up any serious alternatives to simply sending as many troops as they could find.

And so the debate dragged on, spilling out into the media, without either side really shifting from their initial positions. Brown and Obama’s doubts—about the wisdom of military escalation, the lack of serious alternatives, and the urgency of decision—were never allayed. But both ended up suppressing them and approving the larger part of what the military asked for, if not the blank cheque they wanted.

Brown’s conditions were a delay in the announcement so that his decision would be linked with Obama’s; a commitment to shifting from being “an occupying army” towards training and mentoring the Afghans; and a written undertaking from the Chiefs that any new troops would be fully equipped. Obama’s conditions were harder-edged and even more unwelcome to his Chiefs: a promise that this troop increase would be the last; a tighter definition of objectives; and, most controversially, a timetable for reducing troop levels and handing over to the Afghans, starting in July 2011.

In laying down these conditions, both leaders were struggling to balance conflicting messages to different audiences. Their generals were urging them to show resolve. Their political advisers were urging them to show a “light at the end of the tunnel” to the public at home. Their diplomats were urging them to show the Afghan people a mixture of the two. At the same time, both leaders were also struggling to balance their desire to assert civilian control with their reluctance to suffer a complete break with the military. None of this was easy.

Looking back now, a year on, how should we score their efforts? A creditable attempt to balance irreconcilable considerations? A compromise that ended up satisfying no one? Or, worse, an ignominious defeat at the hands of the military? Cynics observed that the messages had gone to the wrong audiences—the insurgency saw the light at the end of the tunnel, while to the public at home Afghanistan still felt like a war without end. But it is hard, in a modern media context, to see how this could have been avoided. Obama was perhaps more successful in presenting the internal battle with the military as at least a compromise rather than a defeat though, as Woodward puts it, while “the White House had its version, claiming that the president had dramatically asserted civilian control, the military version was that it had basically gotten what it wanted.”

Perceptions aside, the serious point is that both leaders felt boxed in by the military and ended up conceding more than they would have wanted. If this had happened only in Britain, we might have concluded that it showed nothing more than Brown’s political weakness in 2009. We could have speculated that the outcome might have been different if he had been politically stronger, or more confident or inclusive; if he had empowered the sceptical voices on his side, or co-opted some generals onto his team.

Woodward’s book suggests otherwise: that while this would have evened up the debate and made Brown feel less isolated both internally and in the media, it probably wouldn’t have produced a different result. Obama, who was in a far stronger position, still felt he couldn’t afford a full-scale confrontation with the senior military. Maybe—unlike Brown—he could have won, but the cost would still have been too great.

Does this mean the military are too powerful? Certainly, in the current political and media climate, any leader (and in particular any Democrat or Labour leader) should pick their battles with them very carefully. Few besides Paddy Ashdown—who made the case this October in an article for the Times—would recommend that politicians wrest back control of running wars. Few generals besides Richard Dannatt are seriously arguing for handing it all over to the military. The new coalition government is right to reject both counsels and maintain the basic shape of Britain’s national security machinery—even if they are guilty of overselling what is fundamentally a tinkering and rebadging exercise.

If members of the coalition government do read Woodward’s book, they will realise that getting the right people in the room is at best a start. What is required is for those people to be focused on the task at hand rather than the advancement of their careers; to be team players rather than representatives of various constituencies; to take responsibility rather than score points; to be strategic rather than tactical; flexible rather than dogmatic; and to encourage frankness in those who work for them, rather than sitting on top of a reporting chain which wastes a lot of time telling them what it is thought they want to hear. Like the cast of Obama’s Wars, too many players in the British debate did not manage to do or be these things, either in 2009 or in the years before. This applies not just to the politicians, but to the bureaucrats, securocrats, and the senior military as well.


In the case of the senior military, there are signs that the crude narrative of recent years—military good, politicians bad—is finally being questioned, starting with independent analysts like Stephen Grey and Anthony King, and picked up since the election by the mainstream media. It would be a shame, however, if it turned too far the other way. Like the American military swaggering through the pages of Obama’s Wars, Britain’s top brass has its share of vain and headstrong characters (not unusual in public life, and hardly something politicians can complain about). But it is also clear from this book, and from my own experience, that the senior military are almost without exception genuinely wedded to the national interest, and genuinely supportive of civilian control of the military. It is true that they can’t always resist the temptation to open up a second front in the media. They know the odds are stacked in their favour: the public admire and trust them, and distrust ministers; journalists tend to lack the knowledge or energy to question their assumptions or motives, finding it easier to lionise them in contrast to base and shallow politicians. But high-profile generals like David Petraeus or our own Mike Jackson and David Richards manage for the most part to tread this line—and if they step over it, like Stanley McChrystal, they accept their fate. Those like the second world war US general Douglas MacArthur—whose self-delusion, belief in their own infallibility and contempt for democratic politics make them potentially dangerous—are mercifully rare.

I suspect also that the military have passed the peak of their power. Obama’s July 2011 decision-point is likely to test not just who is winning in Afghanistan, but who really won back in Washington in 2009: whether Obama succeeded in asserting civilian control, or whether Petraeus got what he wanted while Obama just got to save face. The gap between the politicians and military remains as wide as it was in 2009. Casualty figures among both international forces and Afghan civilians have continued to rise. Crucial operations in Helmand and Kandahar are proving slower and more difficult than planned, and the security situation in other parts of the country continues to deteriorate. The only metric which is on track is the growth of the Afghan army, but even here there are concerns about quality and retention; the police, meanwhile, are as bad as ever. Neither the Taliban nor President Karzai seem serious about reconciliation. Karzai’s government is mired in accusations of corruption, and the Pakistanis continue to play both sides—as they have done for decades.

There is still time, just about, for Petraeus to turn things round. But unless some of these metrics shift significantly over the coming months, the two camps of Obama’s Wars will square up against each other once again. The military will ask for more time to get it right, and Obama will try to hold them to the deal he thought he made a year ago. His overall position may now be weaker, but he will be strengthened by his experience last time around, and the military may find they are stretching the limits of public support.

Towards the end of the book, Woodward reports General Lute wondering if “Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn’t be done.” We must hope this was not the only or even the main reason: it cannot justify the 500 more combat deaths in those 18 months, and the $150bn added to the deficit. But either way, if come July Obama decides it is time for Plan B, the senior military—British as well as American—must accept that Plan A hasn’t succeeded. They must start working up, in good faith, the alternatives their political leaders ask for, and resist any temptation to encourage—even with their silence—the inevitable stream of chickenhawks and conspiracy theorists complaining that victory would have been assured if only the politicians hadn’t once again stabbed our brave boys in the back.