WASHINGTON: In the fall of 2009, as US President Barack Obama conducted a long, divisive review of whether to pour more US troops into Afghanistan, an influential group of advisers were quietly pushing a hawkish line.
The advisers didn’t work for Obama’s White House, however. They were veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration and they peppered Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, with messages urging a robust counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan and a tougher US stance toward Pakistan, according to emails released by the State Department late on Tuesday.
The emails reveal how, even as Obama ran a highly formalised Afghan policy review of near-endless meetings and position papers, Hillary Clinton was receptive to outsiders’ sometimes off-the-cuff views delivered through back-channels.
How much they influenced Clinton, who was also getting plenty of advice on Afghanistan and Pakistan from officials at her State Department, remains unclear. But Clinton eventually threw her support behind a troop “surge” and there is some evidence the external advisers formed part of her thinking.
Some had more national security expertise than others, but all appeared to have Clinton’s ear – and her private email address.
In one missive on Oct. 11, 2009, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a confidant of the Clintons, warned against repeating in Afghanistan the’incrementalism’ of gradual troop increases during the Vietnam War.
“Hopefully, we can be more decisive: lean harder on the Pakistanis, provide more troops to (Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley) McChrystal … and raise the heat on al Qaeda,” Clark wrote.
Others in the Clintons’ orbit weighed in with similar advice, including former national security adviser Sandy Berger, Clinton pollster Mark Penn and a consigliore to both Bill and Hillary, Sidney Blumenthal.
On Oct. 3, Berger emailed Clinton with a provocative proposal: the United States should take targetted measures against military officials in Pakistan, nominally a US ally, who support al Qaeda.
“Assuming we have adequate intelligence, we can go after bank accounts, travel and other reachable assets of individual Pakistani officers, raising the stakes for those supporting the militants without creating an inordinate backlash,” he wrote.
“Thanks, Sandy. This is very helpful,” Clinton replied. Through a spokesman, Berger declined comment on Wednesday.
There’s no evidence Berger’s idea gained traction. But on a trip to Pakistan later that month, Clinton came close to accusing Pakistan of sheltering terrorists, publicly voicing a US suspicion normally whispered in private.
“I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are, and couldn’t get to them if they really wanted to,” she told Pakistani journalists.
The email exchanges took place during a wrenching Obama White House debate over sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Obama, elected on a promise to end US ground wars, had already deployed 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and was weighing the military’s request for tens of thousands more.
Critics charged Obama with dithering as the debate dragged on for months, pitting the US military and its allies against White House advisers who favored a narrower mission that would target al Qaeda and ignore the Afghan Taliban.
Penn, the pollster, wrote to Clinton to denounce the latter course as “dangerous morally and politically.”
“Obama maintained throughout the campaign and the start of his presidency that this (Afghan war) is the one to fight and backing down here makes him and the administration vulnerable to losing moderate support and seeming weak and indecisive,” Penn wrote.
“A single terrorist incident would be blamed on the administration) for failing to do the job right,” he added.
Penn may have been reacting to a front-page New York Times article that morning quoting those who favored the narrowed mission. That camp was led by Vice President Joe Biden.
Neither Penn nor Clark could be reached for comment.
Clinton, in her book, “Hard Choices,” says she laid out her thinking in a Nov. 23 White House Situation Room meeting, supporting a proposed troop increase but arguing against “an open-ended commitment.”
Obama announced On Dec. 1 he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan – temporarily – to pursue a broader counter-insurgency strategy.
About 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan today.
The 2009 troop increase may have prevented even worse instability in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban were resurgent and Washington’s focus had been distracted by the Iraq war. But it failed to pacify the Taliban, who continue to launch deadly attacks as the international presence wanes and Afghanistan’s political leaders feud.