On Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, as President Obama was crafting his final Afghan war strategy, Vice President Biden fired off six handwritten memos by secure fax from Nantucket island in Massachusetts, where the Biden family traditionally gathered to celebrate the November holiday.
As Biden had for months, he was keeping the pressure on, urging Obama to avoid a dramatic escalation of the war.
The president, still engaged in intense discussions at the White House, told Biden by secure phone: There's no good option.
It would not be that bad if Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan fell, Biden said.
No, Obama replied. The downside was too great. Obama said he was going with 30,000 more troops, a significant escalation but less than the 40,000 that the military kept advocating.
Biden faxed another memo to the president. "It's not the number, it's the strategy."
This was a moment of decision for the first-year president, and Biden was in a rented house in Nantucket, away from the nonstop discussions in Washington.
Finally, Obama told Biden: "I want to have a meeting Sunday." The president would call the national security team to the Oval Office and give members the six-page, single-spaced "terms sheet" he had dictated that precisely listed his new orders.
"Mr. President," Biden said, "I want to meet you before you go in."
"No," Obama replied.
"I'll meet you in the residence."
"No, no, we're fine."
Nonetheless, Biden left Nantucket early on Sunday, flew to Washington and waited for Obama on the portico that connects the residence and the Oval Office. He was taking a chance. The president at times got mad at him when he pushed too hard.
When Obama came down from the residence and saw Biden, he started laughing.
"What you're about to do is a presidential order," Biden advised. It was not a continuation of the debate anymore. "This is not what you think. This is an order." If he didn't stick to those orders, there was no exit. Without them - and this was Biden's main argument - "we're locked into Vietnam."
It might not work. "You may get to the point where you've got to make a really tough goddamned decision, man."
"I'm not signing on to a failure," Obama said. "If what I proposed is not working, I'm not going to be like these other presidents and stick to it based upon my ego or my politics - my political security."
At the White House that weekend, deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the National Security Council coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, were sharing their frustrations. No matter what questions the president or anyone asked the military leaders, they pushed for more troops with an expanded mission. The president had to design his own option: a 30,000-troop surge and a drawdown to begin in July 2011.
"How many of these guys," Lute said, "are going to be here to see the effects by July of 2011?"
They ticked through the military chain of command. None was the answer, not even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had said he planned to stay for only the first year of the administration.
"The bottom line is," Lute said, "you're left with the president standing here, owning this thing."
"My God," Donilon said, "what are we getting this guy into?"
When Obama met with an inner circle of National Security Council staffers later that Saturday, the president sounded like he was still tentative about the 30,000-troop strategy. "This is the way I'm leaning," he said, adding sharply, "but the door is not closed. I got [foreign policy speechwriter Ben] Rhodes writing two speeches. And I want to hear from you guys one last time."
Army Col. John Tien, an Iraq combat veteran and former Rhodes Scholar serving on the NSC, was junior in rank, so he spoke first. The U.S. military has thousands of active-duty colonels and it was unusual for one to be able to advise the commander in chief directly, particularly just before a defining decision.
"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?"
The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.
Lute could see that Obama had reached a fork in the road and was pausing.
"Mr. President," he said, "you don't have to do this. I know you know this, but let's just review the bidding here. How do we think things are going to look in July of '11?"
Lute told Obama that he saw four main risks in the Afghan war. First, there was Pakistan, the heart of many of the problems because of Taliban and al-Qaeda havens there. Second, governance and corruption in Afghanistan - huge problems with no practical fix readily available. Third, the Afghan National Security Forces - army and police - probably could not be fixed even with a decade-long effort costing tens of billions of dollars. Fourth, international support from the 41 U.S. allies in Afghanistan was in peril.
"When you look at these [risks] discretely," Lute continued, "you might be left with the impression we can manage this risk. But I would offer you another model. Look at them as a set, and then you begin to move, in my mind, from a calculated risk to a gamble."
Lute did not have to add that gambling was no way to make policy. "I can't tell you that the prospect here for success is very high," he said. "And if you add those risks up and ask me where I think we'll be in July 2011, sort of your big decision point, I'm telling you I think that we're not going to be a whole lot different than we are today."
Lute drove his point home. "We want to get from here to there, but, my God . . . how in hell are we going to do this?"
"Yeah," the president said graciously, indicating that he did not disagree. "Thanks for being candid. It can't be easy for you to come in here and tell me that. Basically, we're going to have to execute our heart out to make this work."
"This is what I'm going to announce," Obama said at the Sunday meeting that Biden had left Nantucket to attend.
Obama had summoned Gates, Mullen and Petraeus to the Oval Office. National security adviser James L. Jones and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel joined them.
The president handed out copies of the terms sheet that specifically laid out his strategy for adding 30,000 troops and then starting to draw them down in July 2011. Some at the meeting seemed surprised to find the president had outlined his exact decisions in writing.
Obama allowed time for everyone to read it.
This was a redefined mission, the president said, with a narrower focus on clearing violent areas, holding them, building them up and then transferring responsibility to the Afghan government, army and police. "It can't be an open-ended nation-building, unrealistic nation-building endeavor," he said. "It's not a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy, but obviously has many elements of a counterinsurgency strategy."
Turning to Petraeus, who had championed protect-the-population counterinsurgency, the president said, "Don't clear and hold what you cannot transfer. Don't overextend us."
Obama then said to everyone, "I need you to tell me now whether you can accept this. And if you can't, tell me right now. If you can, then I expect your wholehearted support. And that includes what you say in public, to Congress and internally to your own organizations."
He then shifted to Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had tried to block real consideration of any option other than 40,000 troops for counterinsurgency.
"When you go up and testify," the president told him, "you have an obligation to say what you think. I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you do not agree with me, say so now."
There was a pause.
"Say so now," Obama repeated.
"I fully support, sir," Mullen said. "Internal deliberations have been internal. . . . Testimony will fully support what you've said here, Mr. President. You need not worry about this." He then complimented the decision: "This does give us a shot at turning things around."
In fact, the military was getting almost everything it had wanted. Petraeus later told others that if, at the beginning of the Afghan strategy review, he had been told that Obama would agree to send 30,000 and that these were the conditions, he would have taken it on the spot. Practically speaking, the 30,000 was a way for Obama to save face and demonstrate that he was not just kowtowing to the military.
"We support you," Petraeus said. "We're all now committed to this. We'll do everything possible to get the troops on the ground as rapidly as possible and to enable, ultimately, the transfer to begin in July 2011."
Petraeus had privately concluded that the terms sheet was not just to get clarity, but to show that the president was in control. When he later learned that Obama had dictated the orders, he couldn't believe it. "There's not a president in history that's dictated five single-spaced pages in his life. That's what the staff gets paid to do."
Next, Obama called on Emanuel, who privately had referred to the war as "political flypaper" - you get stuck to it and you can't get unstuck.
The chief of staff said he was worried about the cost. He had recently worked hard just to find a few hundred million dollars for an important program. "This could cost $30 billion" a year more, Emanuel said, making it clear that he was unhappy with the outcome. "Now we've got a decision, and we've got to go forward."
Gates then said, "This came out about where I thought was right. . . . I'm sure Congress will support us."
Biden said, "As I see it, this is not a negotiation. . . . I view this as an order from the commander in chief." This was a mission change, the vice president said. "If this is not perceived as a change in mission, we cannot justify why we spent months working on this."
He continued, "We can't lose sight of Pakistan and stability there. The way I understand this, Afghanistan is a means to accomplish our top mission, which is to kill al-Qaeda and secure Pakistan's nukes. We must be making progress separately against al-Qaeda and separately in Pakistan."
Divisions still lingered within the president's own team. The review had been a real roller coaster, thought Jones, the national security adviser. "It was raw," he said later. "There were some raw emotions out there."
Petraeus thought that time could be added to the clock as long as the United States showed progress in Afghanistan. "You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war," he said privately. "I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."
At subsequent monthly NSC briefings about Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president learned that his new strategy was not going as planned.
During an April 16 session, McChrystal said the Afghan army and police weren't ready to hold territory that the United States had cleared. This was bogging down the model of clear, hold, build and transfer that was central for the drawdown to begin in July 2011.
Obama asked about a recent operation in Marja, part of Helmand province. Coalition troops had been holding that territory since an offensive in February. "Are we on timeline?"
Yes, sir, he was told.
Where would you put us on the clear, hold, build and transfer model in the places south of Marja?
We're holding, he was assured. Our forces are fixed there.
What about the 25,000 U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan? the president asked. They had been there for years. Where are they on the clear, hold, build and transfer model?
They are still holding, sir.
Any of them close to transferring?
Not a single one, sir.
The model had become: clear, hold, hold, hold, hold and hold.
A month later, after the May monthly review, the president indicated to several close aides that the latest briefing - focusing on the tribal dynamics in Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban - had had a clarifying effect on him.
"What makes us think," he asked, "given that description of the problem, that we're going to design a solution to this?"
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