Inside Obama's secret wars

Imagine the crisis if Lashkar-e-taiba, the jehadi terror group created by the ISI, had claimed to have a nuclear weapon when it carried out the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai.

“They don’t have to be truly successful to become powerful. They just have to convince the world that the Pakistanis lost one of the crown jewels,” is what an Indian official told David Sanger, the New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent.

After all, in early 2009, the US officials had intercepted conversations among Pakistani Taliban leadership which “strongly suggested they may have obtained nuclear materials, or a nuclear device.” Obama secretly despatched senior US officials to Pakistan but they hit the predictable stonewall: reluctant Pakistani officials, reams of unanswered questions and missed signals. The crisis evaporated when Pakistanis finally surveyed their arsenal and confirmed to the US that nothing was missing.

On the quiet: US President Barack Obama secretly despatched senior US officials to Pakistan, but they hit the predictable stonewall: reluctant Pak officials, and reams of unanswered questions

It is such nuggets strewn all over Sanger’s latest book, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power” which make it a compelling read. If you are an avid follower of events in the subcontinent, the three chapters on Pakistan would seem like a recounting of the recent history that you know so well. Not everything though: most of us don’t know that after the Taliban nuclear bomb hoax, the Americans — Thomas D’Agostino, head of National Nuclear Security Administration and Robert Einhorn of the State Department — discreetly meet the Pakistani nuclear establishment — Lt General Kidwai and his staff at the Strategic Plans Division — every three months, unannounced and in cities where the two sides can slip in and out unnoticed.

Or the time when US intelligence officials “came up with the idea of flooding Pakistan with new digital cameras in hopes that bin Laden’s videographers were eager for an upgrade. Each digital camera, the labs said, contained a unique signature with signals that are identifiable and, with luck, traceable.” The idea didn’t work because these special cameras were sold only around Peshawar, where Osama was thought to be hiding.

The only certainty in the Pakistan-US relationship is crisis, encapsulated in what the US State Department calls the Ruggeiro Rule, named after a veteran diplomat: If anything looks like it is going well with Pakistan, just wait forty-five minutes.

But the book is not only about Pakistan. It covers every major world event in Obama’s presidency — from Iran to Af-Pak to the Arab Spring to China and North Korea. More importantly, Sanger’s extraordinary access to key players in the Obama administration provides scintillating details about internal deliberations on foreign policy and national security that in some cases took place only months ago, giving the book an engaging contemporariness.

Sanger’s extraordinary story about Obama’s decision to launch ‘Olympic Games’, a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — inserting Stuxnet, a malicious software programme into the computers at Iranian nuclear plants to halt production of weapons-grade uranium — has already garnered reams of coverage. For the first couple of years of the attacks, the Iranians didn’t even really know they were being attacked. They only knew that their centrifuges were failing. Olympic Games delayed the Iranian quest for a nuclear bomb by a few years thereby giving Obama administration time for the economic sanctions to take hold.

Wary after the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book suggests that instead of putting American boots on the ground, Obama is going to pursue a “light footprint” strategy based on cyberwarfare and unmanned drones. Where required, they may be augmented by the use of special forces, as demonstrated during the raid which killed Osama bin Laden.

But the strength of the book is also its weakness. Because of the easy access to officials, Sanger provides a non-sceptical view of the Obama administration’s processes. His depiction of events is also through the eyes of Obama’s team, particularly the National Security Adviser, Thomas Donilon. It gives credence to the accusations that Sanger is adding to the tough-guy narrative for Obama’s reelection this year.

These are however minor blemishes in an insightful book. If you consider the world events in the last three and a half years as a popular movie, reading “Confront and Conceal” is like watching a film on the making of the movie. This book is the closest you will get to accessing the raw footage lying in the producer’s vault. 

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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