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September 23rd, 2010 11:14 AM

Book unearths divisions over Obama war plan

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's early attempts to seize control of a neglected Afghanistan war yielded a strategy that pleased almost no one and hasn't turned the tide of a conflict near its 10th year.

Just how contentious that plan has been, inside the Obama White House as well as outside, is captured in Bob Woodward's new book. The account exposes the roots of an Afghanistan exit plan driven more by politics than national security and shows the president worried about losing the support of the public and his party.

"I have two years with the public on this," Obama is quoted as saying at one point, referring to what the administration still considers a finite well of public patience.

Such private fears have been aired publicly. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the United States and its NATO partners must show clear progress by the end of this year or risk a collapse of public support.

The book, "Obama's Wars," reveals that Obama's aides were deeply divided over the war even as the president agreed to nearly triple troop levels in a gamble reminiscent of former President George W. Bush's Iraq war "surge."

"I want an exit strategy," Obama said at one meeting, as he and White House aides groused that the Pentagon brass was boxing him in.

He got one, at least on paper. Obama has said he will begin withdrawing forces in July 2011, an arbitrary date that many in the military see as artificial and perhaps premature.

Privately, Obama told Vice President Joe Biden to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, according to the book.

While Obama ultimately rejected the alternative plan, the book says, he set a withdrawal timetable because, "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."

Obama's top White House adviser on Afghanistan and his special envoy for the region are described as believing the surge and withdrawal strategy will not work.

Details from the book were first reported by The New York Times, which obtained a copy before its release Monday. The Washington Post also reported extensively on the book by its longtime reporter and editor. It shot to No. 2 on the Amazon best-seller list Wednesday.

Obama was among administration officials Woodward interviewed for the book. It contains previously classified information, including a secret six-page "terms sheet" that a frustrated Obama dictated himself as he tried to bring the generals to heel.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said divisions were inevitable.

"I think that the book portrays a thoughtful, vigorous policy process that led to a strategy to get the best chance of achieving our objectives and goals in Afghanistan," he said. "I can't imagine that any option that the president looked at would not have engendered some debate."

The presidential spokesman would not confirm or dispute the accuracy of any specific quotes in the book. But he denied that the troop withdrawal timeline was based on politics, saying Obama opposed a costly, open-ended war.

"The president wasn't making a political argument," Gibbs said. "The president was making an argument in our national interest."

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell had a copy Wednesday, but declined comment on the substance of the book.

"We are not going to start offering literary criticism," he said.

A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, said the strategy is working and will show larger results by the end of this year.

"Let's be humble and modest," Blotz said. "This is work in progress. We need some more time."

Obama announced his redrawn war plan in December, with a heavy emphasis on his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next summer.

The Obama plan's first major test was an early spring military offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province. It was supposed to build momentum for an even more crucial campaign in next-door Kandahar Province, birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.

Neither campaign has gone as planned. Security in the central Helmand River Valley remains iffy, and U.S. forces have had to remain in Helmand in larger numbers than once envisioned. Parts of the Kandahar campaign were put off for months amid signs that local Afghans did not welcome it. U.S. forces are now engaged in heavy fighting in districts surrounding Kandahar City.

U.S. casualties mounted through the year, as the administration and military leaders warned they would. 2010 is now the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The Obama administration plans a review of the strategy in December but no major "course correction," as senior officials have put it.

Even after the strategy was announced, however, sharp divisions persisted.

A year after the bruising debate last fall, the administration remains at odds over how to calibrate the U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He is seen variously as the linchpin or the Achilles' heel of U.S. chances for even modest success.

The Woodward book says U.S. intelligence found Karzai was manic-depressive and on drugs for it. In Kabul, Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar said that assertion is baseless and the president takes no medication.

Obama was deeply angered by insulting comments about senior administration officials by aides to then-war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal printed in a Rolling Stone profile in June. McChrystal was swiftly fired, but the remarks revealed ongoing frustration over what some front-line officers see as micromanaging by Washington.

The new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, has begun to give carefully upbeat assessments of the war. He and other officials have said that only now, with Obama's surge forces finally all in place, can results of the strategy be fully measured.

Obama doesn't talk about "winning," and neither does Petraeus. The general says success should be defined as achieving U.S. and NATO objectives.

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