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Why is Obama repeating Bush's Iraq Afghanistan?

With the Iraq war spinning out of control in mid-2005, retired Marine General James L. Jones spoke with his old friend Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jones, who is now Barack Obama's national security advisor, had been sounded out for the Joint Chiefs job but demurred. One reason: He felt that civilian leaders in Washington were warping the military planning process. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," Jones warned Pace, according to Bob Woodward's book State of Denial. Jones's warning squared with other reports at the time that U.S. commanders in Iraq felt pressure to keep troop levels low. Faced with a growing Democratic onslaught, the Bush White House was all too determined to pretend that the war was under control.

Four years later, Jones visited U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. As it happened, Jones was joined on his trip by Woodward, who reported in The Washington Post on July 1 that Jones had warned the commanders against requesting more manpower in the wake of President Obama's approval earlier this year of 21,000 more troops. According to Woodward, Jones cautioned that Obama would have a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"--or WTF (as in, "What the fuck?")--moment were he to get such a request anytime soon. Jones was even more explicit in an interview with the McClatchy news service. When Obama originally increased troop levels, Jones said, military leaders had agreed that "there would be a year from the time the decision was made before they would ever come back and ask for any more."

Although other officials quickly disavowed Jones's remarks, it was clear that Jones had committed much the same sin that drove his disgust toward the Bushies. "There is pressure being brought to bear on generals," says a congressional aide who closely tracks Afghanistan policy. And, with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan reportedly gearing up to request tens of thousands more troops this fall, it was an early sign that the Obama administration could fall prey to some of the politically driven mistakes that helped turn the Iraq war into a fiasco. Indeed, that's why recent commentary warning that Afghanistan could be to Obama what Vietnam was to Lyndon B. Johnson--a foreign quagmire that smothers a Democratic president's ambitious social agenda--may miss the point. The real danger for Barack Obama is not that he will follow in the footsteps of LBJ. It is that he will repeat the errors of George W. Bush.

Until early 2007, Bush foolishly tried to limit America's presence in Iraq. His initial approach was defined by the experience of Army General Eric Shinseki, who was publicly rebuked by senior Bush officials after testifying that several hundred thousand men would be necessary to stabilize the country. (Bush ultimately invaded with about 130,000 troops.) In the months that followed the invasion, press leaks indicated that commanders who knew that their forces were overextended were reticent about asking Washington for more boots on the ground. Generals were pressured, usually by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to find ways to bring home American forces as quickly as possible.

The administration also exaggerated progress in Iraq, both raising expectations and dashing its credibility. Standing up Iraqi security forces was presented as the path to an American exit well before those forces were anywhere near ready to shoulder the burden. And Bush allowed the Iraq war to become a self-justifying engagement, in which saving American "face" and denying Islamist insurgents a victory became a core rationale for the war effort. Although Bush ultimately reversed course on the most important of these factors when he finally ordered his audacious January 2007 troop surge, his slow recognition of these mistakes probably prolonged and worsened the war.

People involved in Afghanistan policy fret that a similar dynamic could be evolving in the Obama administration. The bluntest among them is Anthony Cordesman, a former aide to John McCain now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who advised the recent strategy review conducted by General Stanley McChrystal, the new Afghanistan commander installed by Obama earlier this year. "What frightens me most," Cordesman said at a late-August panel at the Brookings Institution, "is that there is very sharp pressure on General McChrystal and on Ambassador Eikenberry from the White House and the National Security Council not to ask for specific additions in resources when they come back in September or October."

Cordesman and others have evidence to back up their case. One data point is a mysterious meeting Defense Secretary Robert Gates held with McChrystal in Belgium last month. The trip was oddly secretive--unannounced beforehand and with no reporters in tow. But two sources with ties to the McChrystal team say that Gates specifically told the general, then midway through the 60-day policy review that he completed last week, not to include any troop requests as part of the review. Perhaps not coincidentally, the meeting--which also included Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, CENTCOM chief David Petraeus, and Pentagon undersecretary for policy Michele Flournoy--came just a few days after The Washington Post reported that McChrystal was likely to ask for many more troops. Sure enough, last week, McChrystal delivered a review calling for an enhanced focus on counterinsurgency, faster training of Afghan forces, and new tactical objectives--but no specific requests of troops or money.

Some close observers of war policy weren't surprised that Gates wanted to postpone a new troop request. There are signs that Gates is skeptical of a major U.S. escalation in the country. As a member of the Iraq Study Group in 2006, Gates supported that panel's conclusion that U.S. combat troops should be withdrawn by early 2008. And, in December, he said he didn't foresee the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan growing as large as the 160,000-man peak it hit in Iraq. Gates has also fretted about a U.S. footprint that grows so large and intrusive that it becomes counterproductive, creating the appearance of an occupation that could breed resentment among the Afghan people. "He has been mindful . . . that there could be a [troop-level] tipping point here," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in early August. (Gates hedged this view at a press conference last Thursday, saying that his concern was "mitigated" by the prospect of a more civilian-friendly U.S. presence under McChrystal.)

Others in Washington have tut-tutted talk of big spending increases for Afghanistan. This summer, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry cabled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for an additional $2.5 billion in next year's budget for things like roads, schools, and agricultural development--in all, around $1 billion beyond what the Obama White House had envisioned. But, when The Washington Post reported on the cable's existence, Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew suggested that Eikenberry's request would be pared back, and an anonymous Senate aide added that it had been "premature."

The leak of Eikenberry's cable was just one indication that a tense back-and-forth is playing out between Washington and Kabul--as well as within a divided Obama administration, where officials like Vice President Joe Biden are promoting a lighter footprint--over how many dollars and troops Afghanistan mandates. In late December, Mullen publicly said that "it's not a matter of if, but when" Obama would dispatch another 20,000 to 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. But, in his early briefings, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs bristled at such talk, saying he was "leery" of such reports. But, in what seems almost like a passive-aggressive contest of wills played out through the media, that hasn't stopped military officials from floating more troop figures. In mid-August, CBS News, citing a "senior adviser" to McChrystal's review, reported that the general would suggest between 15,000 and 45,000 more troops. This week, McClatchy quoted an unnamed senior military official who said that Obama feels that McChrystal and Petraeus are "pressuring him" to send more troops. "There are games being played," says the congressional aide who works on Afghanistan policy. "The message is: Don't ask us for something that would be awkward. Which is Rumsfeld 101."

It's not just troop level decisions that could lead Obama into Bush's pre-surge failings. Another dangerous temptation will be to underestimate how hard it will be to train local security forces. By June 2005, Bush was promising that, as Iraqi forces stood up, U.S. forces would stand down. But the Iraq war raged for nearly three more years before the Iraqis made a significant contribution to the country's security. Today, the Obama team is just as eager to make a swift handoff to local Afghan forces. "Above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war," Gates said in January.

This is certainly true. But overly bullish talk about training can mislead the public about what victory will require. In his March 27 address to the nation about Afghanistan, Obama said he would accelerate training to create an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 by 2011. That sounds impressive, but Obama gave short shrift to how inadequate that figure is. His special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, has called the latter number "not sufficient" for that time frame. And an April U.S. intelligence estimate found that the Afghan army will need to grow to 325,000 men to be effective. Given the illiteracy and corruption currently hobbling the Afghan army, that target could be many years and tens of billions of dollars away. (In Iraq, after all, nearly six years of occupation and $700 billion have only recently produced a national army of 250,000 men.)

Then there is the overriding question of just what the U.S. mission in Afghanistan really is. In Iraq, the Bushies offered vague talk of driving out Al Qaeda and setting up a stable government that could defend its own borders. Obama's March address about the Afghanistan war was even cloudier, with a rhetorical emphasis on rooting out Al Qaeda--but also a call for a civilian surge to "advance security, opportunity and justice" for the Afghan people. (Bushian references to freedom and democracy have largely been retired, however.) Asked at a recent press event to describe success in Afghanistan, meanwhile, Holbrooke found a clear answer elusive. "We'll know it when we see it," he said.

But, if the definition of success isn't clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become "the central front in the war on terror" and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don't publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House's Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. "The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s," Riedel said. "[T]he stakes are enormous."

Finally, Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there--including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity"--a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. "The president has boxed himself in," says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. "The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we're in a war."

Ultimately, it was only when Bush was honest with himself and the nation about Iraq--admitting that conditions were dire and ordering his politically poisonous troop surge--that he was able to avoid defeat there. Obama is already facing a strong temptation to limit America's costs in Afghanistan. But, if Obama's commitment to stabilizing that country is as serious as it sounds, he should be as mindful of GWB as he is of LBJ. Otherwise, he risks a war that leads to a resounding WTF.