The most damning revelations from what has become one of the most talked-about nonfiction books of the year have already done the rounds on television channels and newspapers. So why should you read Obama’s Wars, by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post correspondent Bob Woodward?
The book takes an in-depth look US President Barack Obama’s biggest quagmire — Afghanistan — and how a strategy for the US involvement and deployment of troops in the country evolved. But more so than Afghanistan, what keeps popping up in the book is Pakistan (right from page 3).
While Woodward’s book may have caused headaches for those tasked with issuing denials of claims made in the book, there is good news for the plethora of analysts and experts that have inhabited the discourse on Pakistan — they will still have assignments for the foreseeable future. If one thing is evident from Obama’s Wars, it is that no one in the current US administration seems to have a handle on what Pakistan is thinking, the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), rogue elements vs alleged ISI-backed terror groups and the current government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari. It is this conundrum, so to speak, that weighs heavily on President Obama as he tries to make a decision on the way forward in Afghanistan. At one point Obama, confused by the statements being made about our fair state says, “What am I to believe?”
At every policy discussion, the debate invariably descends into, ‘What are we doing about Pakistan?’
Bob Woodward’s ability to focus on one specific area and time frame of the young presidency and its workings, without delving into the details of Obama’s historic election and ‘iconic’ status, and the relationships he has formed, make Obama’s Wars a compelling read for people interested in the region.
However, in a year where there has been some explosive reportage (coverage of the WikiLeaks reports, the Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal that led to his resignation or any of Jeremy Scahill’s reports about Blackwater/Xe for The Nation), Woodward’s book often comes across as somewhat stale, even gossipy and petty. His level of access — that takes the reader into the hallways of the White House, on presidential flights and in a top-secret meeting with security officials — is worth reading the book for but once you strip away the quotes and the confidential elements, there is very little substance.
Obama’s Wars captures the issues within the political set-up of the administration, and the divide between the military and the White House. The infighting among officials in the White House, the State Department (Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke comes off quite badly), and the intelligence agencies and in the military may be entertaining for a layman reader but sobering when one realises the impact of the disagreements on policy issues. Ultimately, Woodward reminds one that confusion continues to reign supreme when it comes to ‘AfPak’.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2010.
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