Gates v. Biden on Afghanistan: What the Media Coverage Doesn’t Tell You

Robert Gates’s Duty contains a more nuanced account of his discord with Joe Biden on Afghanistan policy than any coverage of the book that you have likely read, seen or heard.

The bottom line: Gates ultimately saw much less daylight between his positions and the Vice President’s than the media reports suggest; and Gates thought that his earlier impressions (the ones you have read about) were, in some respects, misplaced.

Indeed, Gates’s book is written like a memoir that takes the reader through the author’s moment-to-moment thoughts—and, when that narrative ends, it takes a step back offering a more complete and thoughtful assessment of individuals and events upon greater reflection. (Indeed, Gates uses explicit cues such as “on reflection” and “in retrospect.”)

Under pressure of having to report and discuss the book so soon after it’s (pre-)release, some commentators have made “confessions” to skimming Gates’s 600-plus pages before interviewing the Secretary or evaluating his book. Those pressures probably explain some of the limitations in existing accounts. And, admittedly, some of what Gates has said in interviews (NPR, CNN) does not help to correct the record.

There’s an irony in the effects of these accounts.

On the one hand, correcting the record may help bolster Biden, because it shows that the Vice President and Gates were not that far apart and that Gates had a greater respect for Biden’s views than otherwise imagined.

On the other hand, correcting the record may strengthen Gates’s actual criticisms of Biden. The more nuanced version is less vulnerable to accusations that Gates’s book involves settling scores or reflects partisan politics.

So what does Gates ultimately say about Biden (on Afghanistan policy) in his book? Gates softens his position considerably–both explicitly and implicitly.

1. Much of the book is preoccupied with a striking conflict between (a) Gates’s support for a major counterinsurgency surge (a modified version of General McChrystal’s 40,000 troops proposal) versus (b) Biden’s more modest troop increase for a “counterterrorism plus” strategy (what Woodward described in his book at the “hybrid option”). However, at the end of the day, Gates writes that “on reflection” he and Biden were not that far apart. Consider this important passage:

“On reflection, I believe that all [emphasis in original] of us at the senior-most level did not serve the president well in this process. Our ‘team of rivals’ let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations. I believe, for example, that my view of a geographically limited counterinsurgency, combined with aggressive counterterrorism and disruptive Special Forces attacks on Taliban leaders, emphasizing expansion and training of the Afghan forces, was actually pretty close to what Biden had in mind. The difference between his recommendation for increased troops and mine was the difference in total force between 83,000 to 85,000 troops and 98,000 troops. His number was far above what was required for counterterrorism, and mine was far too small for a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy.” (p. 384)

2. Through much of the book, Gates describes, as a source of his conflict with Biden, that the Vice President was encouraging the President to believe military leaders were attempting to box in the President on Afghan policy through leaks and press interviews. At the time, Gates vehemently disagreed with that perspective on the military. At the end of the book, however, Gates heavily qualifies his previous stance and recognizes “in retrospect” that the actions of senior military officers could easily be interpreted in accord with Biden’s concerns. (Indeed, Woodward’s book also largely supports Biden’s perspective.). Gates writes:

“The Pentagon and the military did not consciously intend to snatch the initiative and control of war policy from the president, but in retrospect, I can now see how easily it could have been perceived that way. The White House saw it as a calculated move. The leak of McChrystal’s assessement [which Gates writes was leaked by McChrystal’s staff] and subsequent public commentary by Mullen, Petraeus, and McChrystal only reinforced that view.” (p. 586)

In short, Gates’s book is a complex, multi-layered memoir that does not lend itself to a quick or selective reading. In particular, his views on Afghanistan policy — including relationships between the military, Vice President Biden, and the President — should be comprehended in that light.






About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.