The Washington Post

Sep 30, 2010

For his latest book, Post associate editor Bob Woodward spent 18 months documenting the Obama administration's struggle to agree on a strategy for the Afghanistan War.

Woodward was online to take your questions about the book, Afghanistan, the internal debates at the White House and more.

Full Coverage: Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars"

Video: Bob Woodward discusses 'Obama's Wars


Bob Woodward book details Obama's Afghan war exit plan

How do you decide that a particular newsworthy revelation (either from a paper trail or an interview) should be kept for the book, which might be months away from publication, rather than be the subject of a news report? Is there an understanding with sources that their tip off won't be reported until the book is released?

The idea is to present a comprehensive picture of the road President Obama walked over the last 18 months. In the course of reporting, I did get McChrystal's assessment --- this was a year ago, and we published it in the Post because it was newsworthy at the time. I try to keep in touch with the editors at the Washington Post so we, together, can assess whether something should go in the paper immediately. Of course, that requires getting a source's approval, as was the case with the source on the McChrystal report.

How important a role did Robert Gates play in forcing an increase in troop numbers? Would there have been a different outcome if someone else had been Defense Secretary?

Secretary of Defense Gates obviously plays a key role. And President Obama used a Gates memo and a comment Gates made at one of the strategy reviews to devise his own personal strategy, namely the addition of 30,000 more troops with the beginning of some kind of withdrawal in July 2011. Significantly, Gates is heading for the exit and clearly wants to leave. He initially agreed to stay for one year because he was a hold-over from the Bush administration. Obama got a second year out of him, but as the book reports, the president would have liked Gates to stay for the whole term - another two years.

How does a new president, with no military and scant foreign policy experience, successfully fight for control of a military against military leaders who are used to getting their own way with presidents and are highly skilled bureaucratic infighters?

As General Petraeus told Obama last year, the military is not self-employed. And in fact, everyone in the chain of command understands the president as commander in chief is the boss. At the same time, the reporting for this book conclusively shows that the military worked day and night to try to get 40,000 more troops and a more expansive protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy.  There's a legitimate debate whether the military won this contest.

Having read The Washington Post articles that were adapted from your book, "Obama Wars," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's absence is a glaring question mark.

Sec. Clinton certainly took part in these Afghanistan policy review meetings and her general position at the time was reported to be consistent with Sec. Gates, and in opposition to Vice President Biden who opposed the Afghanistan escalation.

Why is Sec. Clinton seemingly omitted from "Obama Wars?"

Secretary Clinton is very much present in the book and is a strong supporter of the military. If you read what she said at the strategy review sessions, at times she sounds more hawkish than Secretary of Defense Gates or the uniformed military leaders.

Who really leaked the report from General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 that recommended a troop increase? Was it done to force a bigger compromise on part of the WH? What impact did it have on President Obama?

Of course, I cannot answer that. Protecting sources is a long tradition in journalism and at the Washington Post. The public surfacing of the 66-page McChrystal report allowed the public to see what was happening and what the stakes were. People in the White House later told me that the public discussion of the report helped everyone understand what McChrystal was really saying, namely, more troops or we fail. Transparency worked.

Gen. McChrystal was said to have had a very strong relationship with Hamid Karzai. What impact has McChrystal's departure had on the overall relationship between the U.S. and Karzai? Has Gen. Petraeus been able to maintain a similar trust?

General Petraeus has been able to establish a working relationship with President Karzai. But as the book points out, Karzai -- according to intelligence reports -- is a manic depressive and he's not always taking his medication. He is an erratic and unreliable partner much of the time. And the debate continues in the Obama administration to this day: how do we find the leverage to get more help from Karzai?

It seems that Barack Obama gets one dreary visitor after the next in "Obama Wars" that just get his spirits down. I was curious if you can recall anybody that came to White House that Barack Obama actually got happier from his or her visit? Maybe some from his non-political life as such one of his half-sisters, a friend from Hyde Park, Chicago or his days from Punahou School?

That's an excellent question. When you spend 18 months trying to understand Obamaland, you realize how truly difficult it is to be president. In these times of economic stress, great uncertainty in the world, the threat of terrorism and two wars, historians may look back and realize it's too much for one person.

Dear Mr. Woodward,

Do you think the lack of enthusiasm amongst the American public had an impact on the decision not to grant the military the number of troops they were asking for?

President Obama is acutely aware of declining public support, and at one early meeting speculates that he has about two years to get the war straightened out and on a steady, clear course. General Petraeus, the current commander in Afghanistan, believes that if he shows some kind of measurable progress in the war, he will get more time on the clock to continue with his mission.

I think that the analogy between Cancer and terrorism is a good one because it's apparent that the terrorism inspired by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan first spread to the Iraq War, returned to Afghanistan through new methods and techniques (IEDs and suicide bombers, etc.) and then spread to Pakistan in the form of talibanization. And now there talk of a new hot spot in Yemen and Somilia.

In your talks and interviews with the military, the intelligence community, Congress and the White House, was there any unity in thought about what would happen if the U.S. and NATO disengaged from Afghanistan and left it and Pakistan's frontier provinces to the likes of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba?

At this point, it's clear the United States is not just going to pull out of Afghanistan. The question is how - under the current strategy - the momentum can shift, because the Taliban insurgency apparently still has the upper hand.

Mr. Woodward,

Putting yourself in the shoes of government officials, what is the single best reason to talk to you, and the single worst reason?

Please be candid!


The best reason is that my approach is neutral inquiry, not partisan or ideological. The sources know this is the most serious contemporary account that will come out about the deliberations and the struggle over Afghanistan during Obama's four-year term. I try to give everyone their say. I don't think there's a downside for somebody who is willing to have an unvarnished version of events appear in a book.

Mr. Woodward: At this point, does anyone have a clear sense in the White House of what victory in Afghanistan would look like? In Iraq, at least, we could define victory as the overthrow of Saddam, whereas in Afghanistan, it's much more murky. Certainly we won't destroy the Taliban root and branch. Thank you.

President Obama avoids the use of words like victory and winning in public. I think intellectually he understands, as he's said a number of times, he'd been dealt a bad hand in this war. And I would not be surprised at some point down the road to hear the old Vietnam term surface : 'Peace with honor'.

Dear Mr. Woodward, Does President Obama seriously believe the "reassurances" from Pakistani generals that their nukes are in "safe hands"? Given the horrific consequences of a nuclear attack (which the President seems to appreciate well), do you personally believe that maintaining status quo on Pakistan's nuclear status is the right thing to do given the state of that country and where it is headed?

As President Obama said, "The cancer is in Pakistan". It is a fragile civilian government with serious economic problems. Pakistan is now dealing with a catastrophic flood. As a number of advisers and intelligence experts told the president, Pakistan may be the most dangerous country in the world. Obama and his national security team are trying to find a way to leverage or coerce the Pakistanis to be more cooperative in the war on the al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Two days after Obama was elected president in 2008, the intelligence experts told him Pakistan is "living a lie". The country fights some terrorists and supports others.

If Robert Gates, Rahm Emanuel and James Jones leave the White House, will the Afghan war effort be expanded or come to a conclusion, in your opinion?

The eventual departure of these key players just underscores how unsettled the war effort now is. It will be very important to see what kind of people with what kind of experience come into these critical posts.

I know you are aware that some columnists (including Broder) have suggested that Clinton and Biden should switch jobs for the second term (hope, hope) - what do you think? Are you aware of any WH reaction to this suggestion? Any chance either of them would be interested in the other's job?

As we have learned, anything can happen in American politics. I report that some of Hillary Clinton's advisers have speculated on this possibility, but it will depend on the political conditions for Obama in early 2012.

Does President Obama have an exit strategy for Afghanistan, and contingency plans if initial goals are not met?

There is no fixed date that I know of, but it becomes crystal clear that President Obama wants out of Afghanistan and he repeatedly told his advisers the plan had to focus on how to turn over the war to the Afghan security force and get out. "There can be no wiggle room," he said at one point.

What is your opinion on the issues he raises and the manner in which he raises them? Thanks for the chat and for all your fine work.

Eliot Cohen tries to enter the heads of some of the people around the world and speculate on how they might look at the book. At least one of them, I thought, was very good - this was the case where he wonders what the father of a lance corporal in Afghanistan might think about all the jockeying and uncertainty in Washington.

Since you have started to cover the different presidencies, how has the office changed over time? How important is your opinion, is the President in guiding decisions made by his staff?

Going back to Nixon, it is evident that the power of the presidency is growing and growing. For example, Obama discovered he's not commander in chief of the economy, but many people expect him to be. I focused on his role as commander in chief because he has almost total authority on making these decisions. If in theory he wanted to send the entire U.S. military to Afghanistan, or withdraw all the forces as soon as possible, he could do so.  I also found that he is acutely aware of this authority and responsibility.

Thanks for all your questions! I wish I had more time.

In This Chat
Bob Woodward
Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward is the author or co-author of 15 national non-fiction bestsellers, including "All the President's Men." His latest book, "Obama's Wars," was published Monday by Simon & Schuster.

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