Obama's wars

by Bob Woodward

Paper Book, 2010




New York ; London : Simon & Schuster, 2010


Woodward shows Obama making the critical decisions on the Afghanistan War, the secret war in Pakistan and the worldwide fight against terrorism.

Media reviews

Woodward’s method is to pile detail upon detail, noting the height and weight of almost everyone who walks into the Oval Office, but he avoids analysis or commentary. This approach can be infuriating – Christopher Hitchens famously described Woodward as “stenographer to the stars” – as can the author’s practice of reconstructing conversations he cannot have heard and even describing what his protagonists are thinking. “Any attribution of thoughts, conclusions or feelings to a person was obtained directly from that person, from notes or from a colleague whom the person told,” he says in a less-than-reassuring note to readers.

User reviews

LibraryThing member iftyzaidi
Afghanistan has now become America's longest ever war, and for the most part it has been a war that has been outside the public consciousness, under-resourced and allowed to straggle along with no real thought process about what, precisely, victory there would look like, let alone how to achieve it. In 2009 the Obama administration conducted a 'strategic review' of the war, its aims and objectives, how they were to be achieved, and most importantly, how it was to end. After his 4 books on the Bush presidency's conduct of foreign policy, this is Bob Woodward's first book on the new administration and how it conducted its strategic review and came to the decisions that it did.

Bob Woodward's books have become increasingly important fly-on-the-wall looks accounts of what happens in the White House. He has unparalleled access to the various key personalities. And while one cannot quite call them definitive accounts, since undoubtedly more relevant details will come to light in the future and historians will have the benefit of hindsight, they do give an important sense of how the business of war policy-making has and is being conducted. One gets a sense of the different personalities, their priorities, their viewpoints and they way the clash and compromise with each other.

Broadly speaking two options seem to have emerged in the review with regards to Afghanistan. The first is to limited increase troop commitments in an attempt to degrade the Taliban's fighting capability enough that it creates a window in which the Afghan government's capabilities to govern and handle security are strengthened sufficiently for the US to eventually withdraw its soldiers. The second is to start withdrawing troops and rely on drone strikes, special operations and CIA covert missions to keep disrupting any attempts by Al-Qaeda to regroup and plan and execute operations against the US homeland. The danger with the first option is that it is much costlier in lives and money, can end up being an open-ended commitment and relies on extensive cooperation from both the Afghan government and Pakistan - neither of whom have been entirely reliable in the past. The danger with the second option is that it leaves Afghanistan in a state of civil war which may see the Afghan govt. collapse, may make the environment less conducive to intelligence gathering which is needed for the covert operations and again relies on cooperation from Pakistan.

The end result is a limited version of the first option, with a cap on troops and a definitive timeline so that the administration is not drawn into an open-ended commitment a la Vietnam.

One particular idea that strongly emerges is that Pakistan forms a more important strand of an Afpak strategy than Afghanistan. It is a nuclear-armed state, is where remnants of Al-qaeda have holed up, has its own Taliban insurgency (the TTP - Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and its military continues to shelter various Taliban factions (the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network) while at the same time providing essential bases, transport routes and some intelligence cooperation with the USA. The reason for this double game is because the Pakistani military is focused on its traditional rivalry with India and looks to a friendly government in Afghanistan to provide "strategic depth" in case of a war. The Pakistani generals feel that maintaining links with the Taliban will allow them to have influence over any Taliban govt that may emerge in Afghanistan following a US withdrawal (possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy).

With the downfall of the Military dictator Musharraf in 2007/08 the Americans had placed their hopes in a shift in policy in a newly elected democratic government. Unfortunately the assassination of the leader of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto during an election rally, meant the rise to power of her more incompetent and more corrupt husband, Asif Zardari. The new civilian government has been unable to take control of defence and foreign policy which the generals still control from behind the façade of a democratic government. The suspicions of a double game still remain, despite some improvements in cooperation. The major question which the Obama administration has still not been able to solve, is how to handle Pakistan.
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LibraryThing member yeremenko
Here is your Bob Woodward 'Obama's Wars' generator: (If you want to write your own book follow Bob's formula:

For (insert important government post) (insert name of Obama adviser) recommended (Name of person next five pages will be about) who had (insert resume of person). (Person's name) looks like (athlete body type) but (pick one: looks younger,older) than his (insert age) He had met Obama previously (incident of there meeting) but he found Obama hard to read since he betrayed little emotion. Bush on the other hand always showed his emotions. (Person we are writing about) thought the best idea for Afghanistan was:(2-5 page summary of their position). When I spoke (continue t go first person when discussing the president you talked to him in the Oval office, You are part of the story you are Bob Woodward!) with President Obama he said very little but (insert your own speculation)
(Transition phase)
(Important person)'s phone rang it was (another important person) (Pick one: "We have to talk about:", "The Best way to:" "the worst thing about:" "Does Hilary know about:") (next important person:)

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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Legendary Washington reporter Bob Woodward’s latest behind-the-curtain look at the modern presidency focuses on Barack Obama’s approach to the continuing war in Afghanistan during his first eighteen months in office. “Obama’s Wars” is in many ways an extension of Woodward’s four books chronicling the wartime footing of the George W. Bush administration. During those books, Woodward’s skepticism grew to the point of incredulity at what he viewed as dysfunctional decision-making in the White House.

In this volume, Woodward finds presidential leadership that meets many of his criticisms of the previous administration. Here is a president who is engaged with the larger issues of the conflict, who pushes on the intelligence community for a broader picture, and who badgers the military for multiple options. Here is a president who asks questions and wants clear answers before making decisions, instead of just relying on his gut instincts. Ironically, it is questionable whether this type of president is empowered to make the decisions that Woodward openly wished his predecessor had made.

In many ways, this is a story of a new president, growing into the position, dealing with more established leaders who are often given to protecting their turf at all costs. In particular, this leads to several challenges in Obama’s relationships with key military leaders, who came to power in a system that encouraged deference to civilian authority while trying to circumvent that authority by offering a narrow range of solutions that merely highlighted the choice preferred by the top brass.

Subtly, Woodward paints a picture of an administration slowly coalescing, despite some personality conflicts and other challenges. Although a minor player in this book, it is clear that then Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel is highly involved, but less helpful than Obama probably wished at the outset. Also, there is a clear personality difference between the new president and the retained Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, though there also appears to be a professional approach to navigating those difficulties. On the other hand, the president’s relationships with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem strong and highly functional from the beginning.

The main story is the attempt of Obama to set a clear path toward withdrawing significant numbers of troops from Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2011. In the meantime, the president is willing to increase – surge – troop levels temporarily in the pursuit of improved security. The negotiations around this, and the complex assessment of what will likely happen before, during, and after given the uncertain quality of the governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, form the narrative. As always, Woodward has access to lots of background information to detail these secret meetings, including information from top secret memoranda and reports.

In the end, this book paints a grim picture of a president – and a country – between a rock and a hard place, with few good options and lots of potential consequences that are detrimental to national security. Despite this, and despite the institutional and personality conflicts that are hinted at in the title – “Obama’s Wars” – Woodward seems generally optimistic about the current leadership doing the best job they can despite their limitations. He simply worries that everyone, from the president to his generals, the diplomats, the intelligence agents, and others, might be in a situation they cannot affect in any noticeably positive way.
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LibraryThing member robrod1
As always, Bob Woodward writes a compelling book detailing the critical decisions a War President must make. It seems that President Obama, had to whip the military machine to have his orders followed. As Commander and Chief, he should not have had this problem, but after having led George Bush around my his nose, the military was in the habit of having its way. President Obama soon solved that issue, but not without a great deal of frustation.

Fighting a war with an incompetent Afghanistan president as a partner, and another unreliable and two-timing partner in the form of Pakistan, Obama's job as Commander and Chief was made much more difficult. Add Iraq to the recipe and the President had his hands full.

Bob Woodward's portrayal of Karzai and the other actors in this arena was mesmerizing and frustating at the same time. Karzai's inadequacies as a leader, and Pakistans refusal to take a side in the war on terrorism is a serious problem. Currently, they help us when we force them to, but at the same time, Pakistan supports and uses terroist's as a form of diplomacy. Presently, President Obama cannot change their course, but he has consisently warned Pakistan, that if a terrorist organization strikes the U.S,. and any part of it is traced to Pakistan, all bets our off, and Obama will not be able to protect, nor want to protect Pakistan from the groundswell of American retribution.

The book really was a fantastic read, and it kept me interested throughout. If I learned one thing from this book, it is I would never want the job of President of the United States. Thank God we have President Obama.
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LibraryThing member norinrad10
What can i say about this one, its a Woodward book. Exhaustingly researched, its about as sobering a read as you can get. This one goes inside the decision and planning process of the Afghanistan war. The amount of dissension and infighting that goes on will probably not shock you, but the lack of clear knowledge will depress you. Obama comes off looking more presidential then I normally credit him for. As always Woodward doesn't pick sides, just tries to tell the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member SigmundFraud
a big bore. good snooze material.
LibraryThing member SteveRambach
Woodward's book was interesting in it shows the thought process of conducting a war. The book starts out interesting- ends well but the painful middle was full of White House indecision. Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower made a speech in the late 1950 about the "industrial-military complex." It is alive and well in Woodward's book. It shows the power of David Petraius, Admiral Mullen, and Bob Gates.… (more)
LibraryThing member publiusdb
I just finished "Obama's Wars" by Bob Woodward. I don't know that I feel ready to review a book by Woodward, but I do have some thoughts after reading it.

First of all, the book seems more about the bureaucratic push and shove between the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense about how to deal with Afghanistan. The Obama Administration had come into office with promises to draw down in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. The question was to what degree: how many troops? How long would they need to be there? And what exactly would be the mission?

The process to determine those answers was meticulous and thorough. That said, Woodward does not tell the story in a light that is favorable to the military. The military--McCrystal, Petraeus, Mullen, and others--appears to constantly push civilian leadership's efforts to limit the mission in Afghanistan, seeking more troops, an expanded mission, a longer mission. Petraeus wanted to implement a surge similar to "the Surge" that saved Iraq, and McCrystal conducted in an in-depth review on how to make Afghanistan secure, but couldn't control his mouth or his staff.

Vice President Biden has no problem giving his opinion. No shocker, I suppose. He would start out with "Let me take two minutes..." then go on for over twenty-five minutes. At one point, he even cornered President Obama on the portico to the White House just before the President announced his decision to insert 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, just to give one more opinion. Yeah. He's just that sure of himself.

President Obama himself appears extremely careful and thorough in his decision-making, carefully seeking the opinions of all parties, including his counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further, his carefully crafted orders were meticulous and detailed.
Within the Obama White House, relationships and personality are more than important--they're crucial. Individuals close to the President, especially from the campaign, were better at getting their ideas moved forward. No surprise there, I suppose; it's not who you know, but who knows you.

Pakistan is the real villain in the conflict, not the Taliban alone, even if Woodward does not necessarily intend to point the finger. With Osama's death at the hands of Seal Team Six last week, not far from a Pakistani military installation, it seems clear that we have trusted Pakistan too much.

If slightly biased towards the Administration and heavily focused on how the decision to send the 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was made, perhaps to the neglect of other aspects of the war, Woodward's book is detailed, appears well researched, and is an interesting look into how the Obama Administration has conducted the war in Afghanistan.
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LibraryThing member gopfolk
Just can’t get enough of Woodward lately…
This is another homerun from Woodward and one that will open your eyes regardless of your political leanings. As a conservative I felt that the book detailed two important things: #1 Obama is failing to remove us from the wars that he so clearly did not like. And #2 He is listening to his military commanders.
The direction that the book seemed to take was more of a look at the war and the military commanders rather than the chief decision maker. But as you get into the book farther you see where the VP and the President come into the fold. I find that Woodward has an easy way of writing that allows one to get into the book without worrying about the hidden meanings.
Please read this book -- it is good!
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LibraryThing member jmcclain19
Actually should be called "Obama's Meetings". And altough the book has "Wars" in the title, it's more skewed toward the wars within his own administration, and wars between his chosen advisors and the Military Generals, but this book is all about Afghanistan/Pakistan and the various meetings upon meetings talking about how to fix that war.
One of the more disturbing elements of the book, is given the importance of the CIA in today's multi front war, Obama refuses to meet with the CIA director during his transition despite Michael Hayden's repeated attempts, and Hayden finds out about his firing on television, rather than in person from Obama. Another is how Obama's team worries so much about a potential 2012 Presidential run from Gen. David Petraeus that they work to freeze him out and keep key decisions from him so he can't be seen as taking credit. Came away from this book a little more worried about the direction of my country, and at the advice the Commander in Chief gets from his advisors.
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LibraryThing member DeaconBernie
Even a Republican can find some empathy for the President. He seeks counsel from his advisors, they are reluctant to say anything less than full support, and then they go about leaking what they don't like. One could get quite angry with the Military as presented in this book. On the other hand, what can one say about advisors that don't advise? I've placed a lot of trust in Mr Woodward in reading this book. I hope I don't later regret that trust.… (more)
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