DR MALEEHA LODHI
‘Duty’ is an angry and occasionally self-serving account of the four and a half years Robert Gates served as US defence secretary. But the book also offers important insights into the way Washington functions and how domestic politics almost always determined the Obama administration’s handling of national security issues.
The memoir covers the last two years of President George W Bush’s tenure and the first years of the Obama presidency – from late 2006 to 2011. With his tenure framed by war, Gates describes the many debates and fights behind the fateful decisions on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What really frustrated Gates were his political battles with Congress and the White House and the bureaucratic wars with the Pentagon and the military services. As he puts it, the military battlefields were in Iraq and Afghanistan but the political battlefields were in Washington.
He assumed charge when both the Iraq and Afghan wars were going badly. He attributed this to faulty assumptions, initial mistakes, ignorance of local conditions and short sightedness. Expected to salvage them, he found that to make his voice heard he had to engage in constant battles in Washington’s ‘combat zone’.
This infuriated him and urged him to often contemplate resigning. But he never brought himself around to do this while insisting he did not enjoy the position he held. This has earned him criticism from many reviewers. One of them wrote that if staying on was such a burden, Gates should have retired after serving out the remainder of Bush’s term, but he didn’t.
Legitimate criticism, but Gates’ account of Washington at war with itself helps to explain what is a puzzle for many outsiders: why the US, with its considerable hard and soft power, is unable to mobilise this to act strategically and consistently.
Gates candidly acknowledges the consequences of America’s conduct in the unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War. The “arrogance” with which the US behaved in the 1990s and beyond, caused widespread resentment. Briefly suspended after 9/11, international resentment was “rekindled and exacerbated” by President Bush’s “with us or against us” strategy when the war on terror was launched.
His account of Washington’s post Cold War relations with Russia also help to put the current Ukraine crisis in perspective. “When Russia was weak in the 1990s and beyond” Gates writes, “we did not take Russian interests seriously” and engaged in needless provocation. He calls the efforts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into Nato a “monumental provocation”, and Nato expansion a political rather than a carefully considered strategic act.
It is Gates’ treatment of relations with Pakistan that will interest readers here the most. The book deals rather superficially and cursorily with Pakistan, even though Gates claims that no administration in his career (of serving eight presidents) spent more time and energy “working the Pakistan issue” than Obama’s. He visited Pakistan just twice, because dealing with Pakistan’s military was left to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joints chiefs of staff committee.
He repeats the familiar mantra about Pakistan pursuing a “hedging strategy” in Afghanistan, ascribing this to “a lack of trust” in the US, “given our unwillingness to stay engaged in Afghanistan in the early 1990s”. He says despite several efforts the US was unable to shift Pakistan’s security calculus. He does not pause to consider the excessive and unrealistic demands Washington placed on Pakistan (page 205 provides a litany of requests) and the fact that no nation can be expected to subordinate its own interests to another country’s goals, which by Gates’ own account, were confused and kept shifting.
He blames sanctuaries in Pakistan for why America’s Afghan effort was going awry, but then argues that the war effort was significantly hampered by muddled and overly ambitious objectives as well as confusion in the military command structure, economic and civilian efforts and assessments about the war.
What lay at the heart of America’s troubled Afghan strategy is summed up in this way. “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 own. For him it’s all about getting out”.
Despite several unflattering depictions of Pakistan – “they were no ally at all” – he accepts US ham-handness, for example, over the Kerry-Lugar-Berman act. “Some idiot”, he writes, “attached language to the bill” stipulating conditions, which were a gratuitous provocation to Pakistan’s military. “In a flash all the actual and potential goodwill generated by the legislation was negated”.
Gate’s account of the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden does not reveal anything new. But he describes his own (and Vice President Joe Biden’s) opposition to an assault on the compound in Abbottabad on the grounds that such action, irrespective of success or failure, would provoke Pakistan to shut down the Nato supply route, deny access to its air space and take steps that would impact negatively on America’s war effort in Afghanistan.
The debate on this was influenced by the row over the arrest of Raymond Davis, who by Gates’ account, was found with his car “full of weapons, spy gear and pictures of Pakistani military installations”. Of the three options discussed for getting bin Laden, Gates supported a limited drone strike, rather than bombing or a special operations raid. But he was eventually persuaded to support the raid.
On Afghanistan, Gates became convinced that, from the beginning, the adversary had been underestimated and the US had failed to adjust strategy when the ground situation worsened. While the US was preoccupied in Iraq, the Taliban recovered and became a serious fighting force. In 2008, the Nato Secretary General told Gates,“Nato forces can ‘contain’ but not ‘prevail’ against the Taliban”.
It was a troubled war and incoherent strategy that Obama inherited. The picture Gates presents of the chaotic debates that followed is of an administration divided against itself, White House mistrust of its military commanders and an intensely domestic political prism by which the Obama team addressed the issue.
Gates himself was initially skeptical about a troop surge in Afghanistan, informed by the memory of the Soviet experience. He often voiced the concern that the size of the footprint and conduct could turn the US into “occupiers”. He subsequently changed his mind.
But he continued to press for a narrower approach, with limited and realistic goals minus “grandiose aspirations”. He tells a familiar story about the rifts over troops levels as well as broader Afghan strategy. These, he says, were to continue till the end of his tenure and beyond – as did mistrust between the military and a White House, intent on micromanaging national security policy.
Biden is cast as being “wrong on every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”. Richard Holbrooke’s appointment is seen as a mistake. President Obama too is critiqued for lack of passion about the war, but praised on other counts.
As for Congress, “up close” it was “ugly” with a “fair share of crackpots”. But it was its collective “incompetence” that frustrated Gates the most. The battles between the executive and Congress produced “paralytic polarization” constraining the administration from tackling problems.
Perhaps the most useful takeaways from the book are the lessons Gates draws at the end. One, that America almost always began wars “profoundly ignorant” about its adversaries and the situation on the ground. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the US was “oblivious to how little it knew.”
Two, no country is fully prepared for the next war. Neither was the US military, which thought after Vietnam it would never fight an insurgency again. Three, the use of military force should be a last resort not a first option to resolve problems. And finally, technology should not reduce war to an arcade video game; making war ‘safe and easy’ results in disaster. These are important lessons for Washington to learn and live by.
Robert M Gates, Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knof) 2014.
Courtesy The News International