Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Quagmire

Bob Woodward's name, in my mind, is synonymous with Nixon and Watergate. He is a chronicler of US government and US Presidents ever since his book, "All the President's Men", documented the Watergate affair. Since then, he has written about the Presidencies of Clinton, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr and most recent about President Obama. Of course President Obama's term in office is hardly over. Woodward's book, "Obama's Wars" is about the wars that the President has had to fight in 2008-2009. Specifically these wars refer to the left-over conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, it is about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book describes in detail the involvement of the many people around Obama, whose jobs were to figure out how to get the US out of the Afghanistan quagmire. The main players in the White House, besides Obama himself, includes the Secretary of State, Mrs Hiilary Clinton, VP Joe Biden and White House staffers such as Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod. The National Security Council (NSC) consisting of General James Jones, Admiral Mullen and their deputies formed another "division" in the war deliberations. The US Department of Defense is represented by the able and just retired Robert Gates, and his field commanders Generals McKiernan, McChrystal, and Petraeus formed a formidable 3rd division. On the opposing side, are President Hamid Kazai of Afghanistan, and President Zardari of Pakistan. The reasons for all these wars, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, remained largely a black box in the narrative.

Quite beyond these names are the accounts of the almost day-to-day issues that swirled around the conduct of the Afghanistan war during the years 2008-2009. Indeed the account rarely mentions the year, just the day and the month as events moved along. This is a fascinating study, if nothing else, into the workings of the US government White House at the very highest levels. Woodward writes it as it as he sees it - the various actors, their actions, concerns and fears, and the often swaying discussions on the Afghan war. The narrative draws out the often conflicting strategies of the military and the government towards a common objective. This "common objective" itself was deliberated over quite extensively, as described in the book.

Its a long and detailed narrative. One cannot help but feel what Woodward thought about certain people, such as Biden, whom he describes as being long-winded and and tended to be unfocused during the many strategy review meetings described in the book. General Petraeus was quoted as saying the "vice president tended to get lost in his own verbiage...". One gets the impression that Joe Biden wasn't a very lucid thinker. But he had been asked from the beginning by Obama to play the devil's advocate, be the "contrarian". This book is full of such personal observations, some of which may not be flattering at all. So if you want to know a bit more about what people thought about other people in this book, and the process by which Obama ordered a surge and set a timeframe for the eventual pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, this book would satisfy that curiosity.

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