Most of the fallout from Robert Gates's astonishingly frank and often bitter memoir has landed squarely on the stalwarts of the Obama administration, including the president himself, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, based on the excerpts released so far, the former Defense secretary appears to reserve his fiercest criticism for Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, even though it is fairly implicit.
In one devastating passage of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates writes that the optional war that Bush chose to launch in 2003 — the invasion of Iraq — seriously undermined the conduct of the necessary war in Afghanistan, the conclusion of which still bedevils U.S. foreign policy today:
President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan — especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty — were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq. Resources and senior-level attention were diverted from Afghanistan. U.S. goals in Afghanistan — a properly sized, competent Afghan national army and police, a working democracy with at least a minimally effective and less corrupt central government — were embarrassingly ambitious and historically naive compared with the meager human and financial resources committed to the task, at least before 2009.
In a single paragraph Gates effectively sums up and validates the chief criticisms of the Bush administration's conduct of the so-called war on terror: 1) that Iraq was a serious diversion from the ongoing stabilization of Afghanistan, where the actual culprits of 9/11 were hiding out; and 2) that the effort to destroy al-Qaida and round up Osama bin Laden and his leadership team was seriously underfunded and suffered from far too little attention, especially by the time the Taliban began to regroup in a major way in the mid-2000s.
Gates's assessment directly contradicts that of George W. Bush and leading officials of his administration, such as Gates's predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who have consistently denied that the campaign in Iraq was in any way a distraction from Afghanistan. Rumsfeld, who in one of his less-noted but most catastrophic decisions rejected international peacekeeping troops beyond Kabul in 2002, has never acknowledged his failures to complete the task in Afghanistan. On the contrary, even as the Taliban began regrouping in 2005-06, Rumsfeld was giving speeches extolling the transformation of Afghanistan under America's "modest footprint." In October of 2006, after my colleagues at Newsweek and I authored a feature story about the return of the Taliban called "The Rise of Jihadistan," Rumsfeld directed his aide, Matt Latimer, to issue a public rebuttal to it.
But some of Rumsfeld's own aides in the field, including Jim Dobbins — who today is Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — were saying at the time that Afghanistan was being neglected. Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Kabul who also led the Clinton administration's rebuilding efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Somalia, told me in an interview in 2006 that Afghanistan was the "most under-resourced nation-building effort in history." In its 2003 budget proposal, the administration included no civilian aid money for Afghanistan at all. Mitch Daniels, then Bush's budget director, later quietly slashed a congressional proposal for agricultural and educational assistance to Afghanistan from $150 million to $40 million. According to a study done later by the U.S. Institute of Peace, aid in the early years of the occupation amounted to just $67 a year per Afghan, far less than previous nation-building exercises such as Bosnia ($249) and East Timor ($256).
At the same time, worried U.S. military officials were beginning to realize that the Taliban's gradual resurgence could be traced to the abrupt diversion of so many resources to Iraq, including Predator aerial vehicles, in a critical period beginning in 2002. In February and March of 2002, the Arabic-speaking Fifth Special Forces Group — the teams that were mostly credited with toppling the Taliban in the swift war that began Oct. 7, 2001 and ended by December of that year — were largely pulled out to be redeployed in the Mideast. They were replaced by less experienced teams such as the Seventh Group, whose focus was Latin America.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me in an interview in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that none other than the U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, had complained to him about this diversion of attention and resources. "In February of 2002, I had a briefing at Central Command in Tampa," Graham said. "After the briefing, Franks took me aside and said he wanted to talk to me personally. He said in his opinion we had stopped fighting the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban and were getting ready to fight a yet-undeclared war in Iraq. He talked about things like the transfer of military personnel and equipment into Iraq."
In an interview that same year, before he became Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel blamed the Bush administration's "mad, wild dash into Iraq" on "the lack of any clear strategic critical thinking" about the causes of 9/11. "I think when history is written of this 10-year period, it will record the folly of great-power overreach." Hagel added: "We'll be living with the consequences for a long time."