JUST AS DELIVERING A SALUTE became second nature to me, repeated anytime I boarded Marine One or Air Force One or interacted with our troops, I slowly grew more comfortable—and efficient—in my role as commander in chief. The morning PDB became more concise as my team and I got better acquainted with a recurring cast of foreign policy characters, scenarios, conflicts, and threats. Connections that had once been opaque were now obvious to me. I could tell you off the top of my head which allied troops were where in Afghanistan and how reliable they were in a fight, which Iraqi ministers were ardent nationalists and which carried water for the Iranians. The stakes were too high, the problems too knotty, for any of this to ever feel entirely routine. Instead, I came to experience my responsibilities the way I imagine a bomb-disposal expert feels about clipping a wire or a tightrope walker feels as she steps off the platform, having learned to shed excess fear for the sake of focus—while trying not to get so relaxed that I made sloppy mistakes.

There was one task that I never allowed myself to get even remotely comfortable with. Every week or so, my assistant Katie Johnson set on my desk a folder containing condolence letters to the families of fallen service members for me to sign. I’d close the door to my office, open the folder, and pause over each letter, reading the name aloud like an incantation, trying to summon an image of the young man (female casualties were rare) and what his life had been like—where he’d grown up and gone to school, the birthday parties and summer swims that had made up his childhood, the sports teams he’d played on, the sweethearts he’d pined for. I’d think about his parents, and his wife and kids if he had them. I signed each letter slowly, careful not to smudge the heavy beige paper with my left-handed, sideways grip of the pen. If the signature didn’t look the way I wanted, I’d have the letter reprinted, knowing full well that nothing I did would ever be enough.

I wasn’t the only person to send such letters. Bob Gates also corresponded with the families of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, though we rarely if ever talked about it.

Gates and I had developed a strong working relationship. We met regularly in the Oval Office, and I found him to be practical, even-keeled, and refreshingly blunt, with the quiet confidence to both argue his case and occasionally change his mind. His skillful management of the Pentagon made me willing to overlook those times he tried to manage me as well, and he wasn’t afraid to take on Defense Department sacred cows, including efforts to rein in the defense budget. He could be prickly, especially with my younger White House staffers, and our differences in age, upbringing, experience, and political orientation made us something short of friends. But we recognized in each other a common work ethic and sense of duty—not only to the nation that had trusted us to keep it safe but to the troops whose courage we witnessed every day, and to the families they had left behind.

It helped that on most national security issues our judgments aligned. Entering the summer of 2009, for example, Gates and I shared a guarded optimism about developments in Iraq. Not that the conditions there were rosy. The Iraqi economy was in shambles—the war had destroyed much of the country’s basic infrastructure, while plunging world oil prices had sapped the national budget—and due to parliamentary gridlock, Iraq’s government had difficulty carrying out even the most basic tasks. During my brief visit there in April, I’d offered Prime Minister Maliki suggestions for how he might embrace needed administrative reforms and more effectively reach out to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish factions. He’d been polite but defensive (apparently he wasn’t a student of Madison’s “Federalist No. 10”): As far as he was concerned, Shiites in Iraq were the majority, his party’s coalition had won the most votes, Sunnis and Kurds were hindering progress with their unreasonable demands, and any notions of accommodating the interests or protecting the rights of Iraq’s minority populations were an inconvenience he assumed only as a result of U.S. pressure.

The conversation had been a useful reminder to me that elections alone don’t produce a functioning democracy; until Iraq found a way to strengthen its civic institutions and its leaders developed habits of compromise, the country would continue to struggle. Still, the fact that Maliki and his rivals were expressing hostility and mistrust through politics rather than through the barrel of a gun counted as progress. Even with U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraqi population centers, AQI-sponsored terrorist attacks had continued to decline, and our commanders reported a steady improvement in the performance of Iraqi security forces. Gates and I agreed that the United States would need to play a critical role in Iraq for years to come—advising key ministries, training its security forces, breaking deadlocks between factions, and helping finance the country’s reconstruction. But barring significant reversals, the end of America’s war in Iraq was finally in sight.

The same couldn’t be said about Afghanistan.

The additional troops I’d authorized in February had helped check Taliban gains in some areas and were working to secure the upcoming presidential election. But our forces had not reversed the country’s deepening cycle of violence and instability, and as a result of increased fighting over a wider swath of territory, U.S. casualties had spiked.

Afghan casualties were also on the rise, with more civilians caught in the cross fire, falling prey to suicide attacks and sophisticated roadside bombs planted by insurgents. Afghans increasingly complained about certain U.S. tactics—nighttime raids on homes suspected of harboring Taliban fighters, for example—that they viewed as dangerous or disruptive but that our commanders deemed necessary to carry out their missions. On the political front, President Karzai’s reelection strategy mainly consisted of buying off local power brokers, intimidating opponents, and shrewdly playing various ethnic factions against one another. Diplomatically, our high-level outreach to Pakistani officials appeared to have had no effect on their continued tolerance of Taliban safe havens inside their country. And all the while, a reconstituted al-Qaeda operating in the border areas with Pakistan still posed a major threat.

Given the lack of meaningful progress, we were all eager to see what our new ISAF commander, General Stanley McChrystal, had to say about the situation. At the end of August, having spent weeks in Afghanistan with a team of military and civilian advisors, McChrystal turned in the top-to-bottom assessment that Gates had asked for. A few days later, the Pentagon sent it to the White House.

Rather than provide clear answers, it set off a whole new round of troublesome questions.

MOST OF MCCHRYSTAL’S assessment detailed what we already knew: The situation in Afghanistan was bad and getting worse, with the Taliban emboldened, the Afghan army weak and demoralized, and Karzai, who prevailed in an election tainted by violence and fraud, still in charge of a government that was viewed by the Afghan people as corrupt and inept. What got everyone’s attention, though, was the report’s conclusion. To turn the situation around, McChrystal proposed a full-blown counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign: a military strategy meant to contain and marginalize insurgents not just by fighting them but by simultaneously working to increase stability for the country’s wider population—ideally quelling some of the fury that had driven insurgents to take up arms in the first place.

Not only was McChrystal proposing a more ambitious approach than what I’d envisioned when I’d adopted the Riedel report recommendations in the spring, he was also requesting at least forty thousand troops on top of those I’d already deployed—which would bring the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan close to one hundred thousand for the foreseeable future.

“So much for being the antiwar president,” Axe said.

It was tough not to feel as if I’d been subjected to a bait and switch—that the Pentagon’s acquiescence to my more modest initial increase of seventeen thousand troops and four thousand military trainers had been merely a temporary, tactical retreat on the path to getting more. Among members of my team, divisions over Afghanistan that had been evident back in February began to harden. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs, and David Petraeus all endorsed McChrystal’s COIN strategy in its entirety; anything less, they argued, was likely to fail and would signal a dangerous lack of American resolve to friends and foes alike. Hillary and Panetta quickly followed suit. Gates, who’d previously expressed concern over the wisdom of expanding our military footprint in a country famously resistant to foreign occupation, was more circumspect but told me he’d been persuaded by McChrystal that a smaller U.S. force wouldn’t work, and that if we coordinated closely with the Afghan security forces to protect local populations and better trained our soldiers to respect Afghan culture, we could avoid the problems that had plagued the Soviets in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Joe and a sizable number of NSC staffers viewed McChrystal’s proposal as just the latest attempt by an unrestrained military to drag the country deeper into a futile, wildly expensive nation-building exercise, when we could and should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism (CT) efforts against al-Qaeda.

After reading McChrystal’s sixty-six-page assessment, I shared Joe’s skepticism. As far as I could tell, there was no clear exit strategy; under McChrystal’s plan, it would take five to six years just to get U.S. troop numbers back down to what they were now. The costs were staggering—at least $1 billion for every thousand additional troops deployed. Our men and women in uniform, some on their fourth or fifth tours after close to a decade of war, would face an even greater toll. And given the resilience of the Taliban and the dysfunction of Karzai’s government, there was no guarantee of success. In their written endorsement of the plan, Gates and the generals acknowledged that no amount of U.S. military power could stabilize Afghanistan “as long as pervasive corruption and preying upon the people continue to characterize governance” inside the country. I saw no possibility of that condition being met anytime soon.

Still, some hard truths prevented me from rejecting McChrystal’s plan out of hand. The status quo was untenable. We couldn’t afford to let the Taliban return to power, and we needed more time to train more capable Afghan security forces and to root out al-Qaeda and its leadership. As confident as I felt in my own judgment, I couldn’t ignore the unanimous recommendation of experienced generals who’d managed to salvage some measure of stability in Iraq and were already in the thick of the fight in Afghanistan. I therefore asked Jim Jones and Tom Donilon to organize a series of NSC meetings where—away from congressional politics and media grousing—we could methodically work through the details of McChrystal’s proposal, see how they matched up with our previously articulated objectives, and settle on the best way forward.

As it turned out, the generals had other ideas. Just two days after I received the report, The Washington Post published an interview with David Petraeus in which he declared that any hope for success in Afghanistan would require substantially more troops and a “fully resourced, comprehensive” COIN strategy. About ten days later, fresh off our first discussion of McChrystal’s proposal in the Situation Room, Mike Mullen appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a previously scheduled hearing and made the same argument, dismissing any narrower strategy as insufficient to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda and keeping Afghanistan from becoming a future base for attacks against the homeland. A few days after that, on September 21, the Post published a synopsis of McChrystal’s report that had leaked to Bob Woodward, under the headline MCCHRYSTAL: MORE FORCES OR “MISSION FAILURE.” This was followed in short order by McChrystal giving an interview to 60 Minutes and delivering a speech in London, in both instances promoting the merits of his COIN strategy over other alternatives.

The reaction was predictable. Republican hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham seized on the generals’ media blitz, offering the familiar refrain that I should “listen to my commanders on the ground” and fulfill McChrystal’s request. News stories appeared daily, hyping the ever-growing rift between the White House and the Pentagon. Columnists accused me of “dithering” and questioned whether I had the intestinal fortitude to lead a nation during wartime. Rahm remarked that in all his years in Washington, he’d never seen such an orchestrated, public campaign by the Pentagon to box in a president. Biden was more succinct:

“It’s fucking outrageous.”

I agreed. It was hardly the first time that disagreements inside my team had spilled into the press. But it was the first instance during my presidency when I felt as if an entire agency under my charge was working its own agenda. I decided it was also going to be the last. Shortly after Mullen’s congressional testimony, I asked him and Gates to see me in the Oval Office.

“So,” I said after we’d taken our seats and I’d offered them coffee. “Did I not make myself clear about how I wanted time to evaluate McChrystal’s assessment? Or does your building just have a basic lack of respect for me?”

The two men shifted uncomfortably on the couch. As is usually the case when I’m angry, I didn’t raise my voice.

“From the day I was sworn in,” I continued, “I’ve gone out of my way to create an environment where everyone’s views are heard. And I think I’ve shown myself willing to make unpopular decisions when I thought it was necessary for our national security. Would you agree with that, Bob?”

“I would, Mr. President,” Gates said.

“So, when I set up a process that’s going to decide whether I send tens of thousands more troops into a deadly war zone at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, and I see my top military leaders short-circuiting that process to argue their position in public, I have to wonder. Is it because they figure they know better and don’t want to be bothered answering my questions? Is it because I’m young and didn’t serve in the military? Is it because they don’t like my politics…?”

I paused, letting the question linger. Mullen cleared his throat.

“I think I speak for all your flag officers, Mr. President,” he said, “when I say we have the highest respect for you and the office.”

I nodded. “Well, Mike, I’ll take your word on that. And I give you my word that I’ll make my decision about Stan’s proposal based on the Pentagon’s advice and what I believe best serves the interests of this country. But until I do,” I said, leaning in for emphasis, “I’d sure like to stop having my military advisors telling me what I have to do on the front page of the morning paper. Is that fair?”

He agreed that it was. We moved on to other matters.

LOOKING BACK, I’m inclined to believe Gates when he said there was no coordinated plan by Mullen, Petraeus, or McChrystal to force my hand (although he’d later admit to hearing from a reliable source that someone on McChrystal’s staff had leaked the general’s report to Woodward). I know that all three men were motivated by a sincere conviction in the rightness of their position, and that they considered it to be part of their code as military officers to provide their honest assessment in public testimony or press statements without regard to political consequences. Gates was quick to remind me that Mullen’s outspokenness had aggravated President Bush as well, and he was right to point out that senior officials in the White House were often just as guilty of trying to work the press behind the scenes.

But I also think that the episode illustrated just how accustomed the military had become to getting whatever it wanted during the Bush years, and the degree to which basic policy decisions—about war and peace, but also about America’s budget priorities, diplomatic goals, and the possible trade-offs between security and other values—had been steadily farmed out to the Pentagon and the CIA. It was easy to see the factors behind this: the impulse after 9/11 to do whatever it took to stop the terrorists and the reluctance of the White House to ask any tough questions that might get in the way; a military forced to clean up the mess that resulted from the decision to invade Iraq; a public that rightly saw the military as more competent and trustworthy than the civilians who were supposed to make policy; a Congress that was chiefly interested in avoiding responsibility for hard foreign policy problems; and a press corps that could be overly deferential to anyone with stars on their shoulders.

Men like Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal, and Gates—all of them proven leaders with a singular focus on the hugely difficult tasks before them—had simply filled a vacuum. America had been lucky to have those men in the positions they were in, and when it came to the later phases of the Iraq War, they’d mostly made the right calls. But as I’d told Petraeus that first time we met in Iraq, right before I was elected, it was the job of the president to think broadly, not narrowly, and to weigh the costs and benefits of military action against everything else that went into making the country strong.

As much as any specific differences over strategy or tactics, such fundamental issues—the civilian control of policy making, the respective roles of the president and his military advisors in our constitutional system, and the considerations each brought to bear in deciding about war—became the subtext of the Afghan debate. And it was on these issues that the differences between me and Gates became more obvious. As one of Washington’s savviest operators, Gates understood as well as anybody congressional pressure, public opinion, and budgetary constraints. But for him, these were obstacles to navigate around, not legitimate factors that should inform our decisions. Throughout the Afghan debate, he was quick to ascribe any objections Rahm or Biden might raise—about the difficulty in rounding up the votes in Congress for the $30 to $40 billion a year in additional spending that McChrystal’s plan might require, or the weariness that the nation might feel after close to a decade of war—as mere “politics.”

To other people, though never directly to me, Gates would sometimes question my commitment to the war and the strategy I’d adopted back in March, no doubt attributing it to “politics” as well. It was hard for him to see that what he dismissed as politics was democracy as it was supposed to work—that our mission had to be defined not only by the need to defeat an enemy but by the need to make sure the country wasn’t bled dry in the process; that questions about spending hundreds of billions on missiles and forward operating bases rather than schools or healthcare for kids weren’t tangential to national security but central to it; that the sense of duty he felt so keenly toward the troops already deployed, his genuine, admirable desire that they be given every chance to succeed, might be matched by the passion and patriotism of those interested in limiting the number of young Americans placed in harm’s way.

MAYBE IT WASN’T Gates’s job to think about those things, but it was mine. And so, from mid-September till mid-November, I presided over a series of nine two-to-three-hour meetings in the Sit Room to evaluate McChrystal’s plan. The sheer length of the deliberations became a story in Washington, and though my talk with Gates and Mullen had put a stop to on-the-record editorializing from the top generals, leaks, anonymous quotes, and speculation continued to appear regularly in the press. I did my best to block out the noise, aided by the knowledge that many of my loudest critics were the same commentators and so-called experts who had actively promoted or been swept up in the rush to invade Iraq.

Indeed, one of the chief arguments for adopting McChrystal’s plan was its similarities to the COIN strategy Petraeus had used during the U.S. surge in Iraq. As a general matter, Petraeus’s emphasis on training local forces, improving local governance, and protecting local populations—rather than seizing territory and piling up insurgent body counts—made sense. But Afghanistan in 2009 wasn’t Iraq in 2006. The two countries represented different circumstances demanding different solutions. With each Sit Room session, it became clearer that the expansive view of COIN that McChrystal imagined for Afghanistan not only went beyond what was needed to destroy al-Qaeda—it went beyond what was likely achievable within my term of office, if it was achievable at all.

John Brennan reemphasized that unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban was too deeply woven into the fabric of Afghan society to be eradicated—and that despite their sympathies toward al-Qaeda, they showed no signs of plotting attacks outside Afghanistan against the United States or its allies. Our ambassador in Kabul, former general Karl Eikenberry, doubted that the Karzai government could be reformed and feared that a large troop infusion and further “Americanization” of the war would take all pressure off Karzai to get his act together. McChrystal’s lengthy timetable for both installing troops and pulling them out looked less like an Iraq-style surge than a long-term occupation, leading Biden to ask why—with al-Qaeda in Pakistan and almost entirely targeted with drone strikes—we should commit one hundred thousand troops to rebuilding the country next door.

In front of me, at least, McChrystal and the other generals dutifully responded to each of these concerns—in some cases persuasively, in others not so much. Despite their patience and good manners, they had trouble hiding their frustration at having their professional judgments challenged, especially by those who’d never put on a uniform. (McChrystal’s eyes narrowed when, on more than one occasion, Biden started explaining to him what was necessary to carry out successful counterterrorism operations.) Tensions between White House staffers and the Pentagon got worse, with NSC staff feeling stonewalled when it came to getting information in a timely fashion and Gates quietly fuming over what he considered to be the NSC’s constant micromanagement. The bad blood even spilled over into relationships within departments. Joint Chiefs vice chairman James “Hoss” Cartwright and Lieutenant General Douglas Lute—an NSC deputy and “war czar” during the final two years of the Bush administration whom I’d asked to stay on—would both see their stock drop inside the Pentagon the minute they agreed to help Biden flesh out a less troop-intensive, more CT-oriented alternative to McChrystal’s plan. Hillary, meanwhile, considered Eikenberry’s end runs around official State Department channels as verging on insubordination and wanted him replaced.

It’s fair to say, then, that by the third or fourth go-round of PowerPoint slides, battlefield maps, and balky video feeds, along with the ever-present fluorescent lighting, bad coffee, and stale air, everyone was sick of Afghanistan, sick of meetings, and sick of one another. As for me—well, I felt the weight of the office more than at any other time since I’d been sworn in. I tried not to let it show, keeping my expressions neutral as I asked questions, took notes, and occasionally doodled on the margins of the pad the staff had set out before me (abstract patterns, mostly, sometimes people’s faces or beach scenes—a seagull flying over a palm tree and ocean waves). But every so often my frustrations would flare, especially whenever I heard anyone respond to a tough question by falling back on the argument that we needed to send more troops in order to show “resolve.”

What does that mean exactly? I’d ask, sometimes too sharply. That we keep doubling down on bad decisions we’ve already made? Does anyone think that spinning our wheels in Afghanistan for another ten years will impress our allies and strike fear in our enemies? It reminded me, I’d later tell Denis, of the nursery rhyme about an old lady who swallowed a spider to catch a fly.

“She ends up swallowing a horse,” I said.

“And she’s dead, of course,” Denis said.

Sometimes, after one of these marathon sessions, I’d wander back to the small pool house near the Oval to have a cigarette and soak in the silence, feeling the knots in my back, shoulders, neck—signs of sitting too much, but also of my state of mind. If only the decision on Afghanistan was a matter of resolve, I thought—just will and steel and fire. That had been true for Lincoln as he tried to save the Union, and for FDR after Pearl Harbor, with America and the world facing a mortal threat from expansionist powers. In such circumstances, you harnessed all you had to mount a total war. But in the here and now, the threats we faced—deadly but stateless terrorist networks; otherwise feeble rogue nations out to get weapons of mass destruction—were real but not existential, and so resolve without foresight was worse than useless. It led us to fight the wrong wars and careen down rabbit holes. It made us administrators of inhospitable terrain and bred more enemies than we killed. Because of our unmatched power, America had choices about what and when and how to fight. To claim otherwise, to insist that our safety and our standing in the world required us to do all that we could for as long as we could in every single instance, was an abdication of moral responsibility, the certainty it offered a comforting lie.

AROUND SIX in the morning on October 9, 2009, the White House operator jolted me from sleep to say that Robert Gibbs was on the line. Calls that early from my staff were rare, and my heart froze. Was it a terrorist attack? A natural disaster?

“You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” Gibbs said.

“What do you mean?”

“They just announced it a few minutes ago.”

“For what?”

Gibbs tactfully ignored the question. Favs would be waiting outside the Oval to work with me on whatever statement I wanted to make, he said. After I hung up, Michelle asked what the call was about.

“I’m getting the Nobel Peace Prize.”

“That’s wonderful, honey,” she said, then rolled over to get a little more shut-eye.

An hour and a half later, Malia and Sasha stopped by the dining room as I was having breakfast. “Great news, Daddy,” Malia said, hitching her backpack over her shoulders. “You won the Nobel Prize…and it’s Bo’s birthday!”

“Plus, it’s gonna be a three-day weekend!” Sasha added, doing a little fist pump. They both kissed me on the cheek before heading out the door for school.

In the Rose Garden, I told the assembled press corps that less than a year into my presidency, I didn’t feel that I deserved to be in the company of those transformative figures who’d been honored in the past. Instead, I saw the prize as a call to action, a means for the Nobel committee to give momentum to causes for which American leadership was vital: reducing the threats of nuclear weapons and climate change; shrinking economic inequality; upholding human rights; and bridging the racial, ethnic, and religious divides that so often fed conflict. I said I thought the award should be shared with others around the world who labored, often without recognition, for justice, peace, and human dignity.

Walking back into the Oval, I asked Katie to hold the congratulatory calls that were starting to come in and took a few minutes to consider the widening gap between the expectations and the realities of my presidency. Six days earlier, three hundred Afghan militants had overrun a small U.S. military outpost in the Hindu Kush, killing eight of our soldiers and wounding twenty-seven more. October would become the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years earlier. And rather than ushering in a new era of peace, I was facing the prospect of committing more soldiers to war.

LATE THAT MONTH, Attorney General Eric Holder and I took a midnight flight to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, to witness the return to U.S. soil of the remains of fifteen U.S. soldiers and three drug enforcement agents who’d been killed in back-to-back incidents in Afghanistan—a deadly helicopter crash and two roadside bombings in Kandahar Province. A president’s attendance at these “dignified transfers,” as they were called, was rare, but I thought it important, now more than ever, to be present. Since the Gulf War, the Defense Department had barred media coverage of the homecomings of service members’ caskets, but with the help of Bob Gates, I’d reversed this policy earlier in the year—leaving the decision to individual families. Having at least some of these transfers publicly documented, I felt, gave our country a clearer means to reckon with the costs of war, the pain of each loss. And on this night, at the end of a devastating month in Afghanistan, with the future of the war under debate, one of the families had elected to have the moment recorded.

There was a constant hush throughout the four or five hours I was on the base. In the small, plain chapel, where Holder and I joined the families who had gathered. Inside the cargo bay of the C-17 aircraft that held the eighteen flag-draped transfer cases, where an army chaplain’s solemn prayer echoed against the metallic walls. On the tarmac, where we stood at attention and watched six pallbearers dressed in army fatigues, white gloves, and black berets carry the heavy cases one by one to the rows of waiting vehicles, the world silent except for the howl of wind and the cadence of steps.

On the flight back, with sunrise still a few hours away, the only words I could remember from the entire visit were those of one soldier’s mother: “Don’t leave those boys who are still over there hanging.” She looked exhausted, her face hollowed by grief. I promised I wouldn’t, not knowing whether that meant sending more soldiers to finish the mission for which her son had made the ultimate sacrifice, or winding down a muddled and lengthy conflict that would cut short the lives of other people’s children. It was left for me to decide.

A week later, another disaster struck our military, this time closer to home. On November 5, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist named Nidal Hasan walked into a building at the Fort Hood army base in Killeen, Texas, pulled out a semiautomatic pistol he’d purchased at a local gun store, and opened fire, killing thirteen people and wounding scores of others before being shot and apprehended by base police officers. Once again, I flew to comfort grieving families, then spoke at an outdoor memorial service. As a trumpet played taps, its plaintive melody punctuated by muffled sobs in the audience, my eyes traveled the memorials to the fallen soldiers: a framed photograph, a pair of empty combat boots, a helmet set atop a rifle.

I thought about what John Brennan and FBI director Robert Mueller had told me in briefings on the shooting: Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim with a troubling record of erratic behavior, appeared to have been radicalized over the internet. In particular, he’d been inspired by—and repeatedly sent emails to—a charismatic Yemeni American cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, who had a broad international following and was believed to be the leading figure in al-Qaeda’s increasingly active branch in Yemen. According to Mueller and Brennan, there were early indications that the Defense Department, the FBI, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force had all been alerted in one way or another to Hasan’s possible drift toward radicalism, but that interagency information-sharing systems had failed to connect the dots in a way that might have headed off the tragedy.

The eulogies ended. Taps began again. Across Fort Hood, I imagined soldiers busily preparing for deployments to Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether the greater threat might now actually lie elsewhere—not just in Yemen or Somalia but also in the specter of homegrown terrorism; in the febrile minds of men like Hasan and a borderless cyberworld, the power and reach of which we didn’t yet fully comprehend.

IN LATE NOVEMBER 2009, we held our ninth and final Afghan review session. For all the drama, the substantive differences between members of my team had by this point shrunk considerably. The generals conceded that eradicating the Taliban from Afghanistan was unrealistic. Joe and my NSC staff acknowledged that CT operations against al-Qaeda couldn’t work if the Taliban overran the country or inhibited our intelligence collection. We landed on a set of achievable objectives: reducing the level of Taliban activity so they didn’t threaten major population centers; pushing Karzai to reform a handful of key departments, like the Ministries of Defense and Finance, rather than trying to get him to revamp the entire government; accelerating the training of local forces that would eventually allow the Afghan people to secure their own country.

The team also agreed that meeting even these more modest objectives was going to require additional U.S. troops.

The only remaining dispute was how many and for how long. The generals continued to hold out for McChrystal’s original request of forty thousand, without providing a good explanation for why the more limited set of objectives we’d agreed to didn’t reduce by a single soldier the number of troops needed. The “CT Plus” option that Biden had worked up with Hoss Cartwright and Douglas Lute called for another twenty thousand troops to be devoted solely to CT operations and training—but it wasn’t clear why either of those functions needed anything close to that many extra U.S. personnel. In both cases, I worried that the numbers were still being driven by ideological and institutional concerns rather than by the objectives we’d set.

Ultimately it was Gates who came up with a workable resolution. In a private memo to me, he explained that McChrystal’s request anticipated the United States replacing the ten thousand Dutch and Canadian troops their governments had pledged to bring home. If I authorized three brigades, for a total of thirty thousand U.S. troops, it might be possible to use that commitment to leverage the other ten thousand from our allies. Gates also agreed that we treat any infusion of new troops more as a surge than an open-ended commitment, both by accelerating the pace of their arrival and by setting a timetable of eighteen months for them to start coming home.

For me, Gates’s acceptance of a timetable was particularly significant. In the past, he’d joined the Joint Chiefs and Petraeus in resisting the idea, claiming that timetables signaled to the enemy that they could wait us out. He was now persuaded that Karzai might never make hard decisions about his own government’s responsibilities absent the knowledge that we’d be bringing troops home sooner rather than later.

After talking it over with Joe, Rahm, and the NSC staff, I decided to adopt Gates’s proposal. There was a logic to it that went beyond simply splitting the difference between McChrystal’s plan and the option Biden had worked up. In the short term, it gave McChrystal the firepower he needed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, protect population centers, and train up Afghan forces. But it set clear limits to COIN and put us firmly on the path of a narrower CT approach two years out. Haggling remained over how firm to make the thirty-thousand-troop cap (the Pentagon had a habit of deploying the approved number and then coming back with requests for thousands of “enablers”—medics, intelligence officers, and the like—which, it insisted, shouldn’t count toward the total), and it took some time for Gates to sell the approach in his building. But a few days after Thanksgiving, I called an evening meeting in the Oval with Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus, as well as Rahm, Jim Jones, and Joe, where, in essence, I had everyone sign on the dotted line. NSC staffers had prepared a detailed memo outlining my order, and along with Rahm and Joe they’d persuaded me that having the Pentagon brass look me in the eye and commit to an agreement laid out on paper was the only way to avoid their publicly second-guessing my decision if the war went south.

It was an unusual and somewhat heavy-handed gesture, one that no doubt grated on Gates and the generals and that I regretted almost immediately. A fitting end, I thought, to a messy, difficult stretch for my administration. I could take some satisfaction, though, in the fact that the review had served its purpose. Gates acknowledged that without producing a perfect plan, the hours of debate had made for a better plan. It forced us to refine America’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan in a way that prevented mission creep. It established the utility of timetables for troop deployments in certain circumstances, something that had been long contested by the Washington national security establishment. Beyond putting an end to Pentagon freelancing for the duration of my presidency, it helped reaffirm the larger principle of civilian control over America’s national security policy making.

Still, the bottom line was that I’d be sending more young people to war.

We announced the planned troop deployment on December 1 at West Point, the oldest and most storied of America’s service academies. A Continental Army post during the Revolutionary War, a little over an hour north of New York City, it’s a beautiful place—a series of black-and-gray granite structures arranged like a small city high among green rolling hills, with a view over the broad and winding Hudson River. Before my speech, I visited with the West Point superintendent and glimpsed some of the buildings and grounds that had produced a who’s who of America’s most decorated military leaders: Grant and Lee, Patton and Eisenhower, MacArthur and Bradley, Westmoreland and Schwarzkopf.

It was impossible not to be humbled and moved by the tradition those men represented, the service and sacrifice that had helped forge a nation, defeat fascism, and halt the march of totalitarianism. Just as it was necessary to recall that Lee had led a Confederate Army intent on preserving slavery and Grant had overseen the slaughter of Indian tribes; that MacArthur had defied Truman’s orders in Korea to disastrous effect and Westmoreland had helped orchestrate an escalation in Vietnam that would scar a generation. Glory and tragedy, courage and stupidity—one set of truths didn’t negate the other. For war was contradiction, as was the history of America.

The large auditorium near the center of West Point’s campus was full by the time I arrived, and aside from VIPs like Gates, Hillary, and the Joint Chiefs, the audience was made up almost entirely of cadets. They were in uniform: gray tunics with black trim over white collars. The sizable number of Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and women in their ranks offered vivid testimony to the changes that had taken place since the school graduated its first class in 1805. As I entered the stage to a band playing the ceremonial ruffles and flourishes, the cadets stood in unison and applauded; and looking out at their faces—so earnest and full of the glow of youth, so certain of their destiny and eager to defend their country—I felt my heart swell with an almost paternal pride. I just prayed that I and the others who commanded them were worthy of their trust.

NINE DAYS LATER, I flew to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The image of those young cadets weighed on me. Rather than ignore the tension between getting a peace prize and expanding a war, I decided to make it the centerpiece of my acceptance address. With the help of Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, I wrote a first draft, drawing on the writings of thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Gandhi to organize my argument: that war is both terrible and sometimes necessary; that reconciling these seemingly contradictory ideas requires the community of nations to evolve higher standards for both the justification and the conduct of war; and that avoidance of war requires a just peace, founded on a common commitment to political freedom, a respect for human rights, and concrete strategies to expand economic opportunity around the world. I finished writing the speech in the dead of night aboard Air Force One as Michelle slept in our cabin, my weary eyes drawn away from the page every so often by the sight of a spectral moon over the Atlantic.

Like everything in Norway, the Nobel ceremony—held in a brightly lit auditorium seating a few hundred people—was sensibly austere: There was a lovely performance by the young jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, an introduction by the head of the Nobel committee, and then my address, all finished in around ninety minutes. The speech itself was well received, even by some conservative commentators who remarked on my willingness to remind European audiences of the sacrifices made by U.S. troops in underwriting decades of peace. That evening, the Nobel committee hosted a black-tie dinner in my honor, where I was seated next to the king of Norway, a gracious, elderly man who told me about sailing through his country’s fjords. My sister Maya, along with friends like Marty and Anita, had flown in to join us, and everyone looked very sophisticated as they sipped champagne and chewed on grilled elk and later danced to a surprisingly good swing orchestra.

What I remember most, though, was a scene that took place before dinner, at the hotel. Michelle and I had just finished getting dressed when Marvin knocked on the door and told us to look out our fourth-story window. Pulling back the shades, we saw that several thousand people had gathered in the early dusk, filling the narrow street below. Each person held aloft a single lit candle—the city’s traditional way to express its appreciation for that year’s peace prize winner. It was a magical sight, as if a pool of stars had descended from the sky; and as Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but think about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else. I saw an expression of the spirit of millions of people around the world: the U.S. soldier manning a post in Kandahar, the mother in Iran teaching her daughter to read, the Russian pro-democracy activist mustering his courage for an upcoming demonstration—all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that whatever the risks and hardships, they had a role to play.

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.

Try anyway.




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