An Interview with Bob Woodward

By Fred Schultz

An associate editor and 39-year veteran reporter at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and has written or co-written 11 number one non-fiction best-sellers. He sat down recently with Proceedings Managing Editor Fred Schultz to discuss his latest book, Obama's Wars

Naval Institute: You dedicate the new book “To those who serve.” How would you say this book helps the men and women of the military? What did you really set out to do?

Woodward: To explain what really happens, what the policy is, and the unsettled nature of what’s going on in the Obama administration: 30,000 troops, a withdrawal date that’s vague, what it means. What you find in the details is that the President underscores privately in secret meetings that he wants out of Afghanistan, regularly saying things like “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan. There cannot be any wiggle room.”

Naval Institute: How would telling that story benefit the troops?

Woodward: Because it’s the truth.

Naval Institute: It seems to be demoralizing.

Woodward: Can we stand to know the truth? The answer is yes. That’s what we operate on in our democracy. When you shed light and open up how decisions like this are made and what the status is, then you get a public debate and a sharpening, often, of the goals and decisions by the commander-in-chief. Maybe that will happen, maybe it will not, but there’s no way somebody in my business wants to conceal the nature of the doubt, the uncertainty, and the unsettled nature of this.

Naval Institute: That comes through loud and clear in the book. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear that he thinks primary attention should be focused on the wars at hand in Iraq and Afghanistan, more so in Afghanistan now. You write that many Pentagon officials thought that the current wars were “a passing distraction.”

Woodward: I wrote that because this is what Gates found when he came on as Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration. A lot of the generals and admirals and the Pentagon bureaucracy were focusing on future wars, getting the best ships, the latest tanks, and new jets instead of worrying about the wars that were going on. He was horrified to discover this and had to personally go to Congress to get $25 billion for the MRAP. That is the mine-resistant vehicle to protect the troops. It was shocking to him.

Naval Institute: What we see coming across our desks is that it seems just as much attention as ever is being paid to fighting wars of the future. Has the direction really changed?

Woodward: Well, this is not a naval war, as you well know. So in the Navy, there’s a lot of focus on the future. But in the Army and Marine Corps, out of necessity, attention is being paid to the current wars.

Naval Institute: What are the potential flashpoints in civil-military relations in light of Secretary Gates, Admiral [Mike] Mullen, and General [David] Petraeus pushing a surge-only option in Afghanistan when President Obama asked for three?

Woodward: It’s pretty astonishing. If you read those pages, you see that the President was insisting on options. Admiral Mullen said, “We’re giving you what we think is the best option.” It was General [Douglas] Lute, the three-star in the White House who oversees the war for the National Security Council, who pointed out that the Secretary of Defense is the final window into the world of choice for a President. Gates himself wouldn’t give the President another option, so the President designed his own.

Naval Institute: It seems that one of the key characters in the book is Colonel Derek Harvey from the Defense Intelligence Agency, who told General Petraeus that intelligence-gathering and sharing in Afghanistan was like “the blind leading the blind.” If that’s still the case, how can we expect to make any progress?

Woodward: It’s getting better. Harvey has his intelligence center of excellence set up at CENTCOM, and they’ve devoted hundreds of people to it.

Naval Institute: And lots of money, too.

Woodward: Yes, and lots of money. The idea of this center is to imitate the work of a homicide detective:  get into the villages and the tribal areas of Afghanistan and really understand who has the power, what the relationships are, who is working with the insurgent Taliban, who will join us.  In other words, they do village by village, tribe by tribe analysis, because that’s where the war is being fought.

Naval Institute: In the words of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Pakistan is continuing to “double deal.” What’s become of the retribution plan for Pakistan, especially after its implication in the 2008 attacks on Mumbai?

Woodward: It’s still in place. I recount in detail how General [Jim] Jones and CIA Director [Leon] Panetta went to Pakistan last spring and warned that if there’s an attack and it is postmarked Pakistan, there will be a political reality, and something will have to be done. The secret retribution plan is aimed at 150 terrorist sites, which would be attacked or bombed. Obviously, such a decision would be up to the President, but what Jones and Panetta were saying was that a terrorist attack would be such a trauma in the United States, because we haven’t had one since 9/11. Some act of political necessity would dictate a response, likely a serious military one.

Naval Institute: You quote an FBI official as saying that the Mumbai attacks “changed everything” because of the ease the terrorists had in executing them. We have an article in the October issue of Proceedings on how little has been done in this country to counter the threat of a small-boat attack on the United States. How much should this be keeping military leaders up at night?

Woodward: The vulnerabilities, if you were to list them, would go on and on. This is one of them. In the Mumbai attacks, ten people, not trained commandos but trained terrorists, were able to hold a city of many millions virtually hostage for two days and kill 175 people. The FBI official says they looked closely at those attacks and the sophisticated nature of the communications that made it impossible for them to be tracked or intercepted. In this country, the FBI says we’ve got to worry. I agree with that article, which I have seen and thought was very good. Not enough has been done. All the ports are vulnerable.

Naval Institute: When you discuss Admiral Mullen’s consideration to remain as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in this administration, you say that he saw it as a chance to have the same impact on that position as Colin Powell did in the first Gulf War. How’s that turning out in your view?

Woodward: I report that in the White House he lost some altitude because he just locked in with the sole recommendation of 40,000 more troops for General [Stanley] McChrystal and wasn’t flexible. General Jones said to Mullen at one point, “Mike, if we asked you to guard two Quonset huts in Afghanistan, you would say 40,000 troops would be required.” Mullen kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

Naval Institute: Near the end of the book, speaking of General Jones, you write that if he had taken command in Afghanistan, he would have told President Obama that “you can’t win, you can’t do counter-insurgency. It’s a cancer in the plan.” Nonetheless, we appear to be continuing with a counterinsurgency strategy there. How can you win hearts and minds when many of the people you’re trying to win over hate Americans?

Woodward: Well, that’s another problem. The point General Jones was making referred to the safe havens in Pakistan as the cancer. Taliban insurgents go there, get trained, rearm, have some R&R, and then we see them in trucks loaded with weapons being waved through Pakistani checkpoints to go into Afghanistan to kill Americans. As CIA director Panetta said, “How can you fight a war and have safe havens across the border?” He says, “This is a crazy kind of war.” I think there is pretty much a growing agreement on that.

Naval Institute: We collectively scratched our heads when the story of General McChrystal in Rolling Stone broke. We’re just wondering what you think about why he and his aides said what they said. Didn’t they know what would happen?

Woodward: I don’t know enough about that. Because of the speech General McChrystal gave last fall, the whole military was under suspicion from the White House. I think once the Rolling Stone article came, President Obama saw it as an opportunity to act and fire somebody, to make it clear he’s the boss.

Naval Institute: Many have drawn an analogy between the war in Afghanistan and Vietnam. Beyond a dysfunctional government, an unpredictable enemy, and the length of the current war, how valid is this comparison in your view?

Woodward: There are similar elements, of course. A big one is the sanctuaries. In this war, it’s Pakistan. In Vietnam, it was Cambodia and Laos. There are many similarities. What Vice President [Joe] Biden advocated was fewer troops and more of a counter-terrorist approach, namely killing or capturing the terrorists instead of the counterinsurgency protect-the-people approach. A winning hearts and minds strategy like this would require too much of an escalation in force. So Biden most vividly made it clear to the President that if we don’t limit the mission, we’re locked into another Vietnam. In part, that’s why the President issued six pages of orders for Afghanistan.

Naval Institute: What surprised you most while you were assembling this book?

Woodward: How hard it is to be President. How hard it is to be the general in charge of the Afghan war. That the war has so many moving parts to it. That the military is not working together enough as a team. The final point I’d make to you is to ask the question, “What are we giving the people who serve?” My book is dedicated to the people who serve. They are our surrogates. They are over there so we can go about our civilian lives. I quite frequently asked this question to a lot of the Obama people, “What do we owe those people who served?” The unanimous answer is everything. I would argue we’re not doing a good job as a country of giving them everything they need and deserve. In my little corner of this, I’m very aggressive at trying to dig into exactly what happened. If there had been this kind of detailed reporting in the early phase of the Vietnam War, then people’s eyes might have been opened and some military and political questions might have been put on the table sooner.  It is in the spirit of trying to inform people transparency works. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes people cringe and say, “My god! Why that?” The answer is that in our democracy we need to know what’s going on. There’s a scene in the book where Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, says to President Obama, “This is our war,” meaning both Democrats and Republicans. The reality is that it’s our war, all citizens of the United States. I agree wholeheartedly with Secretary Gates when he said in a recent speech that there’s a disconnect between the people in this country and those who serve. We’ve lost sight of what we owe them and our responsibility to them at all levels, from the President down to the lowest level of those of us in the news media.


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