A reflection on the promise and limits of American power in Afghanistan.
“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…” That is the oath every Boy Scout pledges at every meeting. It also seems to be the spirit with which Robert Gates, former Eagle Scout and currently president of the Boy Scouts Of America, approached the job of Secretary of Defense between 2006 and 2011 and wrote a memoir that shows the scout spirit’s nobility – as well as limitations in positions of leadership. Since that spirit combines individual responsibility with teamwork, the higher the position the more problematic is the spirit.
Statesmen’s memoirs serve as records of events and, most importantly, as sources of insights into them. Incidentally, they tell us about the author’s character. This book’s comments on the character of President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and lesser folk have drawn attention, but are of no enduring interest.
Although this book is not in the literary league of de Gaulle’s or Churchill’s memoirs, it is a cut above what we have come to expect from contemporary public figures. Passages that relate experiences or express ordinary human sentiments about them from the standpoint of normal Americans are frequent enough to carry the reader through the inevitably deadening accounts of bureaucratic interactions that form the book’s bulk.
The book shows Gates – who, after all, spent his life in government service – as a man who was not entirely at home in it. It begins with Gates describing his happiness as president of Texas A&M, and ends with his anticipation of and delight in leaving government. He really did see his time in office as a duty, and felt on his soul the painful weight imposed on the soldiers in whose chain of command he was.
To understand the man’s role in the events he describes, we must be clear on his understanding of “duty,” with regard to the job that he took on of “managing two wars.” For better or worse, Gates saw that duty as serving commanders-in-chief George W. Bush and Barack Obama in a hierarchical capacity. Although the job of Secretary Of Defense involved shaping policy, that policy flowed from the two presidents, enmeshed as they were in a mass of advisers, institutions, and political pressures. Although Gates relates numerous instances in which he felt like disrupting what he considered dysfunctional policies, activities, or attitudes in the great machine of which he was a part, or to resign, he never came close to actually doing it because….well, because that is not what a faithful Scout does in an organization. He grits his teeth and does his best to carry out responsibilities mostly defined by others.
Hence, reading this book about two wars by the man largely responsible for “managing” them for over five years, one is tempted to confuse U.S. policy in those wars with what this manager might have thought it should have been. But this is not a book by a de Gaulle or a Churchill who had the power and felt the responsibility to conceive and comment about war policy de novo. The book is merely an account of what US policies were, of how they were carried out, and of Gates’ role in their translation into detail as well as in their execution.
Robert Gates worked to make all of the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations work. Just what that means with regard to what he might have preferred had he been their sole or even their main author is irrelevant.
Consider for example the decision to allow open homosexuality in the armed forces. Whatever Gates’ feelings on the subject’s substance – which he never discusses – he acted toward the chiefs of the military services and the military families who opposed it, as well as toward members of congress who supported it and with those who opposed it, so as to implement President Obama’s decision in favor of homosexuality in the least disruptive way possible. To have subverted the President’s decision, or to have resigned in protest against it, would have been contrary to a certain conception of duty. As Cromwell said to Richard Rich in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, “Our job as administrators is to minimise the inconvenience which this is going to cause. That’s our only job, Rich, to minimise the inconvenience of things.” The problem here is confusion between king and country and right.
The same approach to duty and to management is evident in Gates’ treatment of the book’ main subject: the wars.
Gates’ 2006 letter of acceptance of Bush 43’s Job offer reads in part: “We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos and that protects our interests in, and hopes for, the region.” But “strategy” in the dictionary meaning of the term – a concrete plan for getting what we want (in military terms, a set of operations the success of which ensures victory over enemies) is not to be found in the book. That is because, in Washington, “strategy” means: “any set of wishes coupled with whatever activities are decided upon.”
Working within that modus operandi, and with wars the premises and course of which had been set long before he arrived, Secretary of Defense Gates spent his tenure swatting alligators rather than draining swamps. “We are where we are,” he would repeat. That is why the truly interesting part of this book is the contrast between Gates’ occasional wise observations about the nature of the wars and his role on teams that succeeded in putting off disasters – at best – or arguably aggravated them.
In 2006, U.S. forces in Iraq were in the middle of a war between Sunni and Shia, while the Kurds were building Kurdistan. As U.S. policy aimed at a united, democratic Iraq, the Iraqis were killing and maiming Americans. The American people were wanting out. It all looked like a defeat for America. Gates focused on that: The objective of strategy now had to be to avoid the appearance of American defeat. “I knew for sure…A defeat of the US military and an Iraqi descent into a vicious civil war that likely would engage other countries in the region would be disastrous…” Whatever happened in Iraq would have to be subordinated to that. The armed forces wanted more troops, mostly to secure Baghdad, and then to separate the Sunni and Shia. Gates championed the “surge” of these troops, and paying the very Sunni forces that had been shooting at Americans. Without abandoning the stated goals, the real ones became just to damp down the violence and thus to make things look good.
So, when the chief of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon advocated openly withdrawing Americans from the conflict between irreconcilable Iraqis while shifting the mission to training them, Gates thought that Fallon’s recommendations were “very dangerous…for our strategy in Iraq.” He did so even while agreeing with Fallon’s assessment of Iraq, and that “our presence in Iraq was a big part of the security problem there and created additional antagonism for us in the region.” But while Gates recognized that reconciliation between Iraqi factions was not happening, and that the locals were all about their own particular concerns, he thought that “we could help them deal with issues.” Meanwhile President Bush, for his part, “would continue to speak of ‘winning.’” But Gates was “satisfied that our chances of failure and humiliating defeat had been vastly reduced.”
He stressed that our long term goal was avoiding “even the appearance of American failure or defeat in Iraq.” What would have to be done to achieve that was of secondary importance. What actually happened to Iraq itself, even less. So, with bloody American help and contrary to American professions, Iraq divided de facto into a Kurdish republic with its own army, flag, and language, a Shia part in control of Baghdad, and a Sunni rump in the western desert. While few who cared to look dispassionately at Iraq ever doubted this outcome, it took until 2013 for it to become obvious to the average newspaper reader. From that perspective, the “strategy” succeeded.
Gates’ actions with regard to the Afghan war are at even greater variance with his understanding of it than with regard to Iraq, but for basically the same reason – being part of a dysfunctional team.
The heart of that variance is Gates’ acceptance of the proposition that U.S. operations in Afghanistan were under-resourced between 2002 and 2007 – Gates in fact presided over the tripling of US forces in that country – and his repeated observations to the effect that the very presence of large numbers of Americans in that historically bellicose and xenophobic place is a major source of trouble. So, while Gates worked to increase that presence and clashed personally with officials who were seeking to limit it, he was making a heartfelt and experience-based case for restraint. What can explain this?
Gates tells us that he had “told President Bush in my job interview in November 2006 that I thought our goals in Afghanistan were too expansive…In my January  meeting with Obama I told him that we should have ”no grandiose aspirations“ in Afghanistan.” He explains: “ The idea of creating a strong, democratic (as we would define it) more or less honest and effective central government in Afghanistan, to change the culture, to build the economy and transform agriculture, was a fantasy.” He scoffed at “nation building.”
And yet, “I was torn between my historical perspective, which screamed for caution, and what my commanders insisted was needed for accomplishing the mission they had been given by the President and by me.” In practice, that mission was defined as “counterinsurgency,” meaning large doses of nation-building shielded by military force. Clear-and-hold-and-build – just like in Viet Nam over a half-century ago. Gates strained to reconcile the contrary indications by limiting the time and geographical space in which the increased resources to “counterinsurgency” were to be applied, including herds of civilian experts who would pour billions into projects that the Afghans may or may not have wanted while fueling corruption and discontent. But what really convinced him to get on the team was an essay by Fred Kagan in The Weekly Standard, in which Kagan stressed that U.S. programs, benign and beneficent, would make friends of Afghans whom the brutality of the Soviet occupation had turned into enemies.
And so Gates did his best to get as much of America into Afghanistan as he could, worried always that to do less would be to undercut his generals as well as the president whom he had persuaded to go along with the generals, and above all that failure to do more would make it more likely that America would appear to have been defeated.
By far the most moving parts of this memoir are about his contacts with and sentiments toward the rank and file of America’s military forces. The book expresses Gates’ anguish for every death, every wound, every discomfort endured by the troops – sentiments that may well be a legacy of having taken seriously his youthful responsibilities as a patrol leader in the Scouts and as a lieutenant in the Air Force. There is no doubt of these sentiments’ depth, sincerity, and even nobility.
They become tragic however, because Gates knows that the natural purpose of war, the only justification for it, is as an instrument for establishing a better peace. He knows as well that the U.S. body politic did not shape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a view to establishing peace. Gates had the intellectual and moral capacity, as well as the standing, to put the question “What is to be America’s peace?” on America’s agenda. He did not do it.