The Magazine

Obama's Minions Are Ingrates

The Bush administration did leave a plan for Afghanistan.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On October 18, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows and, in the process of answering questions about Barack Obama's strategy on Afghanistan, accused the Bush administration of failing to ask the most basic questions about that country and our war there.

The president is asking the questions that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side, and the strategic side. What is the impact on the region? What can the Afghan government do or not do? Where are we on the police training? Who would be better doing the police training? Could that be something the Europeans do? Should we take the military side? Those are the questions that have not been asked. And before you commit troops  .  .  .  before you make that decision, there's a set of questions that have to have answers that have never been asked. And it's clear after eight years of war, that's basically starting from the beginning, and those questions never got asked.

Then, after former vice president Dick Cheney used a speech on October 22 to accuse the Obama administration of "dithering" on Afghanistan, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded by claiming that the Bush administration did not care about U.S. troops.

"What Vice President Cheney calls 'dithering,' President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," said Gibbs. "I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously." Gibbs went on, calling Cheney's comments "curious" and claiming that a request for troops from General David McKiernan during the final year of the Bush administration "sat on desks in this White House, including the vice president's, for more than eight months."

So there are two separate and very serious charges that Obama White House officials are making about their predecessors. First, that the Bush administration had no real Afghanistan policy and failed for eight years to ask the important questions about the war there. And second, that the Bush administration ignored requests from commanders on the ground to increase troops in Afghanistan.

Bush administration officials were furious.

"The idea that we just sat on our f--ing asses--it's really a slander," says one senior Bush administration official. "It's just not credible that we didn't take this seriously."

In fact, the Bush administration did ask those questions. From mid-September to mid-November 2008, a National Security Council team, under the direction of General Doug Lute, conducted an exhaustive review of Afghanistan policy. The interagency group included high-ranking officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the office of the director of national intelligence, the office of the vice president, the Pentagon, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its objective was to assess U.S. -policy on Afghanistan, integrating a simultaneous military review being conducted by CENTCOM, so as to present President Bush with a series of recommendations on how best to turn around the deteriorating situation there. The Lute group met often--sometimes twice daily--in a secure conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (The group used the room so frequently that other national security working groups that had been meeting there were required to find other space including, occasionally, the White House Situation Room.)

The Lute review asked many questions and provided exhaustive answers not only to President Bush, but also to the Obama transition team before the inauguration. "General Jones was briefed on the results of the Lute review, and that review answered many of the questions that Rahm Emanuel says were never asked," says Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. Jones and Hadley discussed the review, and Lute gave Jones a detailed PowerPoint presentation on his findings. Among the recommendations: a civilian surge of diplomats and other non-military personnel to the country, expedited training for the Afghan National Army, a strong emphasis on governance and credible elections, and, most important, a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy.

Jones asked Hadley not to release the results of the Lute review so that his boss would have more flexibility when it came time to provide direction for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Bush officials reasoned that Obama was more likely to heed their advice if he could simply adopt their recommendations without having to acknowledge that they came from the Bush White House. So Hadley agreed.