WASHINGTON — A new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward describes Sen. Lindsey Graham as playing a central role in the formation and execution of President Barack Obama's war policy in Afghanistan through his close ties to Vice President Joe Biden, Gen. David Petraeus and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
The book by the former Watergate reporter, "Obama's Wars," contains vivid and previously undisclosed portrayals of Graham's closed-door conversations and confrontations with Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other key figures.
Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq who now holds the same post in Afghanistan, describes Graham as "a brilliant and skillful chess player" who the general admires for his ability to navigate the power channels of Washington.
Graham returned the favor Tuesday, predicting that Petraeus will go down in history as one of the greatest American generals.
"I'm just flattered (by Petraeus' praise) because I have such respect for him," Graham told McClatchy. "He is probably the most well-rounded person I have ever met. General Petraeus has a depth of knowledge about military geopolitical matters that's astounding, as far as I'm concerned."
Graham confirmed the book's portrayal of him and Petraeus as having frequent, ongoing contact, with the general providing detailed updates on U.S. military progress and setbacks in Iraq and now Afghanistan, and the senator advising him on political realities.
Graham said he and Petraeus once discussed whether the general, who some say harbors presidential ambitions, would consider a political career.
"He made a joke out of it," Graham recalled Tuesday. "He said he would just stick with being shot at — combat was maybe a better deal than doing what I was doing (as a senator)."
Graham, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, is the only member of Congress to have served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a colonel and military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve.
Biden, who chose Graham to travel to Afghanistan with him after Obama's election in November 2008, told Obama that the South Carolina Republican had "the best (political) instincts in the Senate" — and the president-elect readily agreed, according to the book.
Graham, who served in the Senate with Biden and Obama before the 2008 election, said he and Biden are close friends who maintain regular contact.
Their most recent long talk, Graham said, was at a private dinner between the two of them last month at Biden's Washington home after Graham's return from a 10-day active duty stint in Afghanistan.
Graham said he also has good "back-channel" relations with Emanuel, dating to their extensive 2008 negotiations over presidential debates when the senator represented GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and Emanuel advised Obama.
Graham said it's deeply satisfying to be in a position to provide counsel to Obama, Biden, Petraeus and others on vital national security matters.
"These issues are very important to me," he said. "It's something I think I have some talent for. I do understand politics. I put myself in other people's shoes. I don't routinely ask people to do things that are not within their realm of possibility. I listen very closely to what my colleagues are saying."
Woodward and Carl Bernstein won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974 over the Watergate scandal. Woodward, now an associate editor at the Post, has since written a dozen bestselling books on presidents, Supreme Court justices and other national leaders.
In one of the most dramatic moments in Woodward's new book, Graham went to the White House and met with Obama on Dec. 2, 2009, the day after the president announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The meeting's planned purpose was to discuss Obama's plans to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but it soon turned to Afghanistan.
Graham told Obama that his West Point address had been good, but he pressed the president on how firmly he was committed to starting to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011.
"Is it a goal, which I would share, or is it a withdrawal date no matter what?" Graham asked.
When Obama didn't immediately respond, Graham briefed him on how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had answered the senator's question on the same topic that morning at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Obama added his thoughts.
"Well, if you'd asked me that question, what I would say is, 'We're going to start leaving.' I have to say that. I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."
Graham urged Obama not to talk publicly about the political elements of his calculations, saying it would alienate Republicans.
Obama, though, stood firm.
"This is tough," he said. "I can't lose all the Democratic Party. And people at home don't want to hear we're going to be there for 10 years."
"You're right," Graham responded. "But the enemy is listening too."
In another dramatic encounter, Biden and Graham had a long dinner with Karzai in Kabul on Jan. 11, 2009, nine days before Obama's inauguration.
"Mr. President, the economy is on its knees," Graham told Karzai. "If we don't see progress on corruption, on better government, Republicans are not going to continue to vote for more troops, more money for Afghanistan."
After Biden criticized Afghan government officials for having built ornate homes near the presidential palace, Graham told Karzai that his older brother, Mahmoud Karzai, was widely viewed among Afghans as being on the take.
"Well, show me the file," Karzai responded.
"We will, one day," Graham responded.
In an interview Tuesday, Graham declined to explain why he'd given Karzai such a cryptic answer.
Graham also repeatedly refused to say why he or other U.S. government representatives haven't shared with Karzai information about his brother.
"I can't get into that," Graham said. "I can't talk about that."
U.S. officials said that the National Security Agency has been wiretapping Mahmoud Karzai as part of a corruption probe into his business dealings in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
Graham did say that he and Hamid Karzai had a more promising conversation in a meeting last month during Graham's military stint in Afghanistan.
Graham said that Petraeus, going back to his time as commander in Iraq, was originally skeptical of Graham visiting war zones both as a senator and as a military lawyer, but that the general had warmed up to the idea.
"He told me one time he was a little wary of how this senator-colonel thing would work out, but that he'd come to think it would be a good asset," Graham said.