Gate(crashing) memoirs

Duty is an angry and occasionally self-serving account of the four and a half years Robert Gates served as US defence secretary. But the book also offers important insights into the way Washington functions and how domestic politics seemed to almost always determine the Obama administration’s handling of national security issues.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi (Insight)

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Published: Wed 19 Mar 2014, 11:56 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:39 PM

The memoir covers the last two years of president George W. Bush’s tenure and the first years of the Obama presidency – from late 2006 to 2011. With his tenure framed by war, Gates describes the many fights behind the fateful decisions on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What really frustrated Gates were his political battles with Congress and the White House and the bureaucratic wars with the Pentagon and the military services? As he puts it, the military battlefields were in Iraq and Afghanistan but the political battlefields were in Washington.

He assumed charge when both the Iraq and Afghan wars were going badly. He attributed this to faulty assumptions, initial mistakes, ignorance of local conditions and short sightedness. Expected to salvage them, he found that to make his voice heard he had to engage in constant battles in Washington’s ‘combat zone’.

Gates’ account of Washington at war with itself helps to explain what is a puzzle for many outsiders: why the US, with its considerable hard and soft power, is unable to mobilise this to act strategically and consistently.

Gates candidly acknowledges the consequences of America’s conduct in the unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War. The “arrogance” with which the US behaved in the 1990s and beyond, caused widespread resentment. Briefly suspended after 9/11, international resentment was “rekindled and exacerbated” by president Bush’s “with us or against us” strategy when the war on terror was launched.

On Afghanistan, Gates became convinced that, from the beginning, the adversary had been underestimated and the US had failed to adjust strategy when the ground situation worsened. While the US was preoccupied in Iraq, the Taleban recovered and became a serious fighting force. In 2008, the Nato Secretary General told Gates, “Nato forces can ‘contain’ but not ‘prevail’ against the Taleban”.

The picture Gates presents of the chaotic debates that followed is of an administration divided against itself, White House mistrust of its military commanders and an intensely domestic political prism by which the Obama team addressed the issue.

Gates himself pressed for a narrower approach, with limited and realistic goals minus “grandiose aspirations”. He tells a familiar story about the rifts over troops levels as well as broader Afghan strategy. These, he says, were to continue till the end of his tenure and beyond.

What lay at the heart of America’s troubled Afghan strategy is summed up in this way. “The President doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his own. For him it’s all about getting out”.

Perhaps the most useful takeaways from the book are the lessons Gates draws at the end. One, that America almost always began wars “profoundly ignorant” about its adversaries and the situation on the ground. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the US was “oblivious to how little it knew.”

Two, no country is fully prepared for the next war. Neither was the US military, which thought after Vietnam it would never fight an insurgency again. Three, the use of military force should be a last resort not a first option to resolve problems. And finally, technology should not reduce war to an arcade video game; making war ‘safe and easy’ results in disaster.

These are important lessons for Washington to learn and live by.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US and the UK

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