Gates says Obama lost faith in Afghan moves

Memoir details president’s doubts on Petraeus, Karzai

Robert M. Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served two years under President Obama.
Jason Reed/Reuters/file 2011
Robert M. Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served two years under President Obama.

WASHINGTON — President Obama eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.

In a new memoir, Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Gates says that by 2011, Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.

At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Gates said, Obama opened with a blast of frustration over his Afghan policy — expressing doubts about General David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.


“As I sat there, I thought: 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,” Gates wrote. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

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“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the first book describing those years written from inside the Cabinet. Gates offers more than 600 pages of detailed history of his personal wars with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and, in particular, Obama’s White House staff over the 4½ years he sought to salvage victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The controlling nature of the Obama White House and the national security staff “took
micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” Gates wrote.

Under Obama, the national security staff was “filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics, and political operatives” with little experience in managing large organizations. The national security staff became increasingly operational, which resulted in “micromanagement of military matters — a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.”

A former CIA director who served for eight presidents, Gates is most critical of what he views as the inappropriate growth in size and power of the National Security Council staff.


Gates describes his running policy battles with those in Obama’s inner circle, among them Vice President Joe Biden; Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser; and Douglas E. Lute, the Army lieutenant general who managed Afghan policy issues.

Gates calls Biden a man of integrity, but questions the vice president’s judgment.

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote.

He discloses that he almost quit after a dispute-filled meeting with these advisers over Afghan policy in September 2009.

“I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war,” he recalls. “I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure, though no one knew it.”


Gates is a bipartisan critic of the two presidents he served as defense secretary, George W. Bush and Obama.

He holds the Bush administration responsible for misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he credits Bush for ordering a troop surge in Iraq that contributed to averting collapse of the mission.

And he notes that only he and Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, pressed forcefully to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with little result.

Gates did not spare himself from criticism, going beyond the typical political autobiography designed to sell as a kiss-and-tell narrative or to burnish a questionable legacy.

He describes how he came to feel “an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility” for the troops he ordered into combat, which left him misty-eyed when discussing their sacrifices — and perhaps clouded his judgment when coldhearted national security interests were at stake.

In opposing military action in Libya, for example, he told participants in a White House meeting that the United States should end its current wars before sending US men and women in uniform off to start a new one. He was overruled.

He initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was believed to be hiding.

Gates wrote that Obama’s approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that bin Laden was there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”

He has especially high praise for Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But stinging assessments were aimed at Capitol Hill. In private, members of Congress could be calm, thoughtful, and insightful.

“But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf,” he added.

And he is no less critical of the institution he managed. The military services were too focused on protecting their own budgets and future missions, and he describes how he had to break traditional procurement chains to rush armored vehicles to troops to protect them from improvised explosives, additional helicopters to evacuate the wounded, and more drones for surveillance.