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The Globe and Mail

Obama pragmatic about Afghan exit, Woodward's book reveals

U.S. President Barack Obama announces the replacement of General Stanley McChrystal as top war commander in Afghanistan with General David Petraeus, second from right, in June.

Jason Reed/Reuters

Barack Obama's Afghan war-fighting strategy is simple: avoid the ignominy of failure and defeat even it means settling for an exit strategy far short of success.

"I'm not doing 10 years," Mr. Obama says, adding: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

In Bob Woodward's upcoming book on Mr. Obama, the President who rode to power vowing change and promising a quick exit out of Iraq - the war he opposed - emerges as a pragmatic leader, deeply conscious of the domestic political risks of getting sucked into a bloody faraway war and deeply suspicious of the generals and their open-ended demands for massive escalations of troops.

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"I can't let this be a war without end," the President tells aides, "and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."

A deeply divided administration, with senior officials taking potshots at each other and generals ducking demands for clear exit strategies, is revealed in the leaked copies of Obama's Wars, the latest inside-Washington book by Mr. Woodward, the consummate Washington insider and investigative journalist.

The book caused even more than the usual Woodward brouhaha because The New York Times scooped the rest of the media, publishing the juiciest bits a week before the official publication date and forcing The Washington Post - where Mr. Woodward made his name during Watergate and still works as an associate editor - to hurriedly play catch-up on its own story.

Feuding and foul-mouthed senior officials are nothing new. And the Obama administration has plenty of them. Vice-President Joe Biden regards Richard Holbrooke, the architect of peace in Bosnia and the President's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan as "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met."

General David Petraeus, then heading Central Command with overall responsibility for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is reported to have told his staff that the White House was ''fucking with the wrong guy" by rejecting his view that tens of thousands more U.S. troops were needed in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, widely regarded in Washington as a corrupt, ineffective leader who fixed his own re-election and whose frosty relationship with Mr. Obama remains a major obstacle to defeating the raging Taliban insurgency, is depicted as heavily medicated manic depressive.

Predictably, official Kabul erupted in outraged denial. "This is a baseless, inflammatory comment that has its roots in a defaming propaganda campaign against President Karzai's personal integrity, leadership and his stances on matters of Afghan national interests," Afghan government spokesman Waheed Omar said. "The President is safe and sound. I can confirm that he takes no medication."

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Still, nearly two years after he moved into the Oval Office, there are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, triple the number when he won the White House and the clock is ticking down to Mr. Obama's promised July, 2011, first drawdown of troops.

This year has been Afghanistan's bloodiest, for civilians, for Afghan troops, and for foreign troops who now number more than the peak of Soviet Moscow's ill-fated, decade-long effort to subjugate the central Asian nation that proudly claims to have beaten every superpower since Alexander the Great.

Although the entire book has yet to be released, there is no hint that Mr. Obama has any lofty goals for Afghanistan - such as democracy or the emancipation of women or an end to a narco-economy. Rather, the President demands "a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan."

It's not clear whether such a strategy exists.

Gen. Petraeus, who commanded the "surge" that saved Iraq from collapse and was tapped by Mr. Obama to save Afghanistan after the previous U.S. combat commander was exposed savaging the President and his advisers as incompetents, believes a very, very, long war is needed.

"This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives," Gen. Petraeus says in the book. He may regard that as loyally speaking truth to power, but it's not the message the man in the White House wants to hear.

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Mr. Obama, the political pragmatist, has a far-different benchmark. He vows to leave his successor - no indication whether he is thinking four years or eight years - with fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan than when he took office. That's about 30,000.

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