WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.
In a new memoir, Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Gates says that by 2011, Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.
At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Gates said, Obama opened with a blast of frustration over his Afghan policy — expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
“As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Gates writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”
“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the first book describing those years written from inside the Cabinet. Gates offers more than 600 pages of detailed history of his personal wars with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy and, in particular, Obama’s White House staff over the 4 1/2 years he sought to salvage victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “controlling nature” of the Obama White House and the national security staff “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” Gates writes.
Under Obama, the national security staff was “filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics and political operatives” with little experience in managing large organizations. The national security staff became “increasingly operational,” which resulted in “micromanagement of military matters — a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.”
A former CIA director who served eight presidents in all, Gates is most critical of what he views as the inappropriate growth in size and power of the National Security Council staff.
Gates describes his running policy battles within Obama’s inner circle, among them Vice President Joe Biden; Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser; and Douglas E. Lute, the Army lieutenant general who managed Afghan policy issues at the time.
Gates calls Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment.
“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates writes.
He discloses that he almost quit after a dispute-filled meeting with these advisers over Afghan policy in September 2009.