Full extent of how his thinking has evolved -- with increasingly narrowed objectives -- will be apparent at NATO summit.
It was just one brief exchange about Afghanistan with an aide late in 2009, but it suggests how President Obama's thinking about what he once called "a war of necessity" began to radically change less than a year after he took up residency in the White House.
Not long before, after a contentious debate within a war cabinet that was riddled with leaks, Obama had reluctantly decided to order a surge of more than 30,000 troops. The aide told the president that he believed military leaders had agreed to the tight schedule to begin withdrawing those troops just 18 months later only because they thought they could persuade an inexperienced president to grant more time if they demanded it.
"Well," Obama responded, "I'm not going to give them more time."
'As little wiring as possible'
A year later, when the president and a half-dozen White House aides began to plan for the withdrawal, the generals were cut out entirely. There was no debate, and there were no leaks. And when Obama joins the leaders of other NATO nations in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, the full extent of how his thinking on Afghanistan has changed will be apparent. He will announce what he has already told the leaders in private: All combat operations led by U.S. forces will cease in summer 2013, when the United States and other NATO forces will move to a "support role."
Obama concluded in his first year in office that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy, and that the far greater threat was an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. So Obama narrowed the goals, and narrowed them again, until he could make the case that the United States had achieved limited objectives in a war that was, in any traditional sense, unwinnable.
"Just think how big a reversal of approach this was in just two years," said one official involved in the debates. "We started with what everyone thought was a pragmatic vision but, at its core, was a plan for changing the way Afghanistan is wired. We ended up thinking about how to do as little wiring as possible."
The lessons Obama has learned in Afghanistan have been crucial to shaping his presidency. Out of the experience emerged Obama's "light footprint" strategy, in which the U.S. strikes from a distance but does not engage in years-long occupations. That shaped the president's thinking about how to deal with the challenges that followed --Libya, Syria and a nuclear Iran.
Three discoveries influenced change
Obama's top national security aides described the evolution of the president's views as a result of three discoveries.
He began to question why Americans were dying to prop up a leader, President Hamid Karzai, who was volatile, unreliable and willing to manipulate the ballot box. Faced with a fiscal crisis that Obama knew would require deep limits on Pentagon spending, he was also shocked, they said, by what the war's cost would be if the generals' counterinsurgency plan were left on autopilot -- $1 trillion over 10 years. And the more he delved into what it would take to truly change Afghan society, the more he concluded that the task was so overwhelming that it would make little difference whether a large force remained for two, five or 10 more years.
Ultimately, he agreed to double the size of the U.S. force while training the Afghan armed forces, but the U.S. drawdown would begin in just 18 months. "I think he hated the idea from the beginning," one of his advisers said. "The military was 'all in,' as they say, and Obama wasn't."
By early 2011, Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit -- but there would be no debates. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came up with a plan: End the surge by September 2012. The goals now focus largely on finishing off Al-Qaida and keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons from going astray. Left unclear is how the United States will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country.