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Obama's Afghan war has 'echoes of Vietnam'

U.S. President Barack Obama looks at Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a news conference at the White House in Washington, May 12, 2010.

JIM YOUNG/Jim Young/Reuters

George W. Bush fought America's wars with gut decisions, Barack Obama is a far-more cerebral commander-in-chief, says Bob Woodward, the veteran journalist who had a behind-the-scenes look at both presidents in action.

"'I'm a gut player,' Bush told me," Mr. Woodward recalled. Mr. Obama is the exact opposite, a "vigorously intellectual" President.

The conflicts described in Obama's Wars - Mr. Woodward's latest fly-on-the-wall account of presidential decision-making - aren't the clash of civilizations, the existential struggle pitting modern civil democracies against radical Islam or 21st-century high-tech warfare against jihadists with exploding donkeys and a willingness to fly jetliners into buildings.

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Rather, Mr. Obama seems to be at war, or at least at odds, with a recalcitrant Pentagon, a gaggle of senior officers who fight presidential demands for real options and willfully try to outflank him with self-serving public statements.

Mr. Obama denounced the Iraq war as Mr. Bush's greatest mistake and promised Americans to fight the right, but too-long-neglected, war: the one in Afghanistan. But he comes across in the book as oddly uninterested in how the battle is going. He rarely speaks to the on-the-ground commander, according to the book (although he eventually fired General Stanley McChrystal for disparaging his political masters.)

Mr. Woodward's revealing account of an embattled White House depicts a president who knows well what he doesn't want. He doesn't want to engage in long-term national building, to spend a trillion on war in Afghanistan or to stay for 10 years. But Mr. Obama seems far less able to set out the war's objectives.

The only hard target is that the President says he wants to leave the Oval Office - presumably in 2016 after a second term - with fewer U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan than when he arrived. There's no mention of democracy, or women's rights, or an economy not based on opium.

Mr. Woodward, 67, is old enough to remember the agonies of Vietnam, when a failure at war wrecked two successive presidencies and mission creep led to escalation without victory and not-so-secret wars in neighbouring countries.

"The echoes of Vietnam are everywhere," he said. The issues in Afghanistan and the half-hidden war over the border in Pakistan "aren't new, they are just in a different part of the world."

Mr. Obama has now staked his presidency on the war in Afghanistan; escalating U.S. troop levels to match the 110,000 peak the Soviets deployed during their decade-long failed effort to subdue a country with a fierce history of sending superpowers packing.

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He has widened the war to Pakistan, with hundreds of air strikes by missile-firing drones aimed at decapitating al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. The war has become a two-front conflict; with a classic hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency in Afghanistan while just across a remote and mostly unmarked border, a high-stakes struggle of targeted assassinations.

At one point in Mr. Woodward's book, Leon Panetta, the CIA chief and champion of the drone war in Pakistan warns: "'We can't do this without some boots on the ground.'" It doesn't matter if they are Pakistani boots or American ones but the jihadists' safe havens will remain otherwise.

Among the revelations in Obama's Wars is the news that the President has authorized a secret CIA-funded, 3,000-warrior mercenary force. These, mostly-Afghan, counterterrorism pursuit teams apparently operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, another echo of America's ill-fated history with funding militias in Cuba, Central America and Southeast Asia.

Mr. Obama knows that Pakistan - with a nuclear arsenal, a shaky government and a deep-seated fear of India allied with Afghanistan - is the heart of the fight. But, as the book, makes plain, there is no strategy for winning. There is not even a definition of what winning would look like in Afghanistan, let alone Pakistan.

"Obama wants to impose some clarity on the chaos," Mr. Woodward suggests.

Perhaps, but clarity in the fog of war is hard to find.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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