Biden’s Basic Question in a 2009 White House Meeting Exposed the Folly of the Afghanistan War

“If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?”

President Barack Obama, center, makes a statement as Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus listen in the White House Rose Garden on June 23, 2010, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the afternoon of October 9, 2009, President Barack Obama met with his top generals, Cabinet officials, and his vice president to hash out strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Earlier that morning, Obama learned he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The war in Afghanistan was now eight years old, and Obama had campaigned on the idea that the Bush administration’s effort there had been headed in the wrong direction.

Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, along with much of the military brass, were pushing for a troop increase of 40,000 to 85,000 in Afghanistan. Doing so would allow for a counterinsurgency strategy, they claimed, and would give the Americans time to recruit and train a larger Afghan national army and police force. The pivotal meeting is captured in Bob Woodward’s 2010 book “Obama’s Wars.”

Advocates for an expanded war found their most nettlesome opponent in Joe Biden.

“As I hear what you’re saying, as I read your report, you’re saying that we have about a year,” Biden said to McChrystal. “And that our success relies upon having a reliable, a strong partner in governance to make this work?”

McChrystal said yes, that was the case. Biden turned to Karl Eikenberry, a former general who was now ambassador to Afghanistan. “In your estimation, can we, can that be achieved in the next year?”

Eikenberry told Biden no, it was not possible, because there was no strong, reliable partner in Afghanistan. Eikenberry followed with a pessimistic 10-minute assessment of the situation and pinpointed another logical failure that would manifest itself more than a decade later. “We talk about clear, hold and build, but we actually must include transfer into this,” Eikenberry said, adding that to eventually withdraw, the transfer was key.

Eikenberry said he “would challenge [the] assumption” that the U.S. and the Afghan government were even aligned. “Right now we’re dealing with an extraordinarily corrupt government,” he said.

Petraeus, when he spoke, acknowledged what had become obvious. “I understand the government is a criminal syndicate,” he said. “But we need to help achieve and improve security and, as noted, regain the initiative and turn some recent tactical gains into operational momentum,” Petraeus said, adding that he “strongly agreed” with McChrystal’s pitch for a larger force.

Biden cut in: “If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?” he asked.

Biden was getting at something fundamental: Did anybody believe what the generals were proposing was actually possible? Biden’s questions were largely ignored by the war planners, but the conversation held in that meeting makes clear that the answer was readily available by 2009: It was not possible and would collapse quickly once U.S. support was withdrawn. Instead of following Biden’s lead, the Obama administration allowed the carnage to drag on fruitlessly for another 12 years.

Woodward’s next lines are the most telling: “No one recorded an answer in their notes. Biden was swinging hard at McChrystal, [Defense Secretary Bob] Gates and Petraeus.”

Biden pressed on. “What’s the best-guess estimate for getting things headed in the right direction? If a year from now there is no demonstrable progress in governance, what do we do?”

Again, no answer.

Again, Biden asked: “If the government doesn’t improve and if you get the troops, in a year, what would be the impact?”

Finally, Eikenberry responded. “The past five years are not heartening,” he said, “but there are pockets of progress. We can build on those.” In the next six to 12 months, he added, “We shouldn’t expect significant breakthroughs.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, said that the dilemma was whether to focus on adding troops or better governance. “But not putting troops in guarantees we won’t achieve what we’re after and guarantees no psychological momentum. Preventing collapse requires more troops, but that doesn’t guarantee progress.” She added, “The only way to get governance changes is to add troops, but there’s still no guarantee that it will work.”

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, chimed in with a reality that was largely kept from the U.S. public. “Our presence is the corrupting force,” Holbrooke said. Woodward then paraphrased his explanation: “All the contractors for development projects pay the Taliban for protection and use of roads, so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, higher traffic on roads, and more troops, the Taliban would make more money.”

He added that the numbers were all fake, noting that he had sent staff to investigate the claims being made by contractors that they had trained a massive number of Afghan police. About 80 percent of the force was illiterate, he said, drug addiction was common, and that was for the police officers who actually existed. Many, he said, were “ghosts” who got paychecks but never showed up.

He said that with a 25 percent attrition rate, McChrystal’s projections for the growth of Afghan forces was mathematically impossible. “It’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it,” Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke’s argument is largely paraphrased by Woodward because, known as somebody willing to speak uncomfortable truths in high-level meetings, he was somebody the other officials had simply begun to ignore. Wrote Woodward: “Several note takers had learned to do the same thing when Holbrooke embarked on his discourse. They set down their pens and relaxed their tired fingers. The big personality had lost its sheen. He was not connecting with Obama.”

Biden’s summation, said Woodward, returned to the theme that the project was doomed due to the failure to have built a real Afghan government. Obama thanked his advisers for getting him closer to a decision. On December 1, he announced publicly he’d be surging 40,000 new troops into Afghanistan, while preparing for an exit. The surge came, but it was left to Biden to finally lead the way out.

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