Alter charts the discussions in the ten meetings on last year in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House when the Obama administration settled on a new strategy. Three things spring to mind when reading the passages. First, that the maintenance of civilian control over the military is not automatic; it is a constant struggle, particularly in a media-lacked environment. There is a lesson for David Cameron here, as the MoD will be asked to make serious cuts in defence programmes and senior officers will be tempted to use the media to win favours. Apparently Liam Fox has told the Service chiefs to keep schtum – a wise move.
The second thing is how thorough a review of policy the US president undertook. I hope that the Conservative-Liberal government does the same – takes time, consider all the options and delivers a strategy that is genuine theirs. Finally, and perhaps most depressingly, the passages in the book show that even when the brightest people, with the best information spend time on an issue, what they decide can quickly come undone. I was particularly struck by this passage:
'When he spoke to [General Stanley] McChrystal by teleconference, Obama couldn’t have been clearer in his instructions. “Do not occupy what you cannot transfer,” the president ordered. In a later call he said it again: “Do not occupy what you cannot transfer.” He didn’t want the United States moving into a section of the country unless it was to prepare for transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans. The troops should dig wells and pass out seeds and all the other development ideas they had talked about for months, but if he learned that U.S. soldiers had been camped in a town without any timetable for transfer of authority he wasn’t going to be happy.'
But nine months after the conversation, it is hard to see the kind of hand-over that the US president had in mind. The operation in Marjah was supposed to be the first blow in a campaign to oust the Taliban from Kandahar province. But visiting Marjah and the Nad Ali district recently, General McChrystal seems to have done exactly what his Commander-in-Chief, according to Alter, did not want. In the words of a visiting reporter, the visit drove “home the hard fact that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.”