Tom Ricks on the Gamble in Iraq
Tom Ricks's Fiasco quickly became, almost from the day of its publication, the defining account of the first part of the war in Iraq, with its story of a U.S. military and administration unprepared for, and slow to recognize, the insurgency that followed the American invasion. Today, his second book on the war comes out, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, and it seems to me likely that it will define the second part of the war as much as Fiasco did the first. That part has already gotten its name--"the surge"--in the media, and aspects of it have been covered in Bob Woodward's The War Within, Linda Robinson's Tell Me How This Ends, and Bing West's The Strongest Tribe, but The Gamble combines on-the-ground reporting in Iraq with inside-the-Pentagon access and a perspective on the larger prospects for the war to tell a riveting story that manages to be both uplifting and sobering at the same time. It's already gotten flat-out raves from the New York Times and L.A. Times, as I quoted in Old Media Monday this morning, and we made it our Spotlight editors' pick on our Best of February page.
As attention in the U.S. has turned away from Iraq, the surge has been either ignored or taken for granted by many. But The Gamble shows both how unlikely the surge was (almost no one in either the military or political leadership--on either side of the political spectrum--supported the idea at first), and how difficult it was to achieve on the ground (counterinsurgency is day-in, day-out work requiring patience, savvy, and constant exposure in hostile territory). The book will obviously be of interest to anyone interested in current events and the military, but it's also an excellent management study as well. The book it reminded me of most strongly, in fact, was Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes, his book last fall on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone. Both tell complicated stories of patient but massively ambitious on-the-ground work that emphasizes what counterinsurgency strategy calls "protecting the population" and requires a great deal of what my social-worker wife calls "cultural competence." For all the successes of the surge, though, Ricks argues that the basic conditions of the country are unchanged and, as he puts it, while it "worked" militarily, it has failed so far politically.
The Washington Post, Ricks's longtime employers, have an extensive feature based on the book up this week, including excerpts, an excellent online discussion, videos, and archival documents (which are included in the book too). Ricks is blogging daily now at The Best Defense, and, as he explains below, he has stepped back from his front-line reporting at the Post to become a special military correspondent and taken a position as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He has a note on how he came to write the new book up at the Daily Beast, and tonight, you can watch him on the Daily Show. And you can see our earlier Q&As for the hardcover and paperback editions of Fiasco
The Q&A below was conducted via email through much of January and February, while, among other things, a new Commander in Chief was sworn in and regional elections took place in Iraq.
Tom Ricks: I think there are two big misunderstandings about the surge. The first is that the surge "worked." Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed--the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.
The second misunderstanding is just how difficult the surge was. People back here seem to think that 30,000 troops were added and everything calmed down. In fact, the first six months of the surge, from January through early July 2007, were the toughest months of the war. When troops moved out of their big bases and into little outposts across Baghdad, they got hammered by bombs and rockets. It took some time before being among the people began to lead to improved security, and during that time, a lot of top American officials in Iraq weren't sure the new approach was working. General Petraeus says in the book that he looks back on that time as a "horrific nightmare."
Amazon.com: Let's start with that second point. Because The Gamble is in many ways the story of a remarkable success: a minority of officers and analysts who pushed through a new plan for the war against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military leadership, and then, even more impressively, soldiers who put the plan into action on the ground and managed to stem a great deal of the violence in Iraq within a matter of months.
The new counterinsurgency approach to the war was one you had argued for in Fiasco, but in the most violent days of early 2007, how did you think it was going to turn out?
Ricks: I was very skeptical back in early 2007 about the surge. I think there were two reasons for this.
First, there was little evidence that the U.S. military was going to be able to operate differently, and more effectively. After all, they had been fighting there for longer than we fought in World War II, and the only thing we had to show for it was that in 2006, Iraq was going straight to hell.
Also, I didn't get out to Iraq in 2007 until May, on the first trip I did for this book. It was only then, five months into the surge, when I got on the ground there, that I sensed how different the American leadership was from earlier on. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the U.S. military, was talking about counterinsurgency, and making protecting the Iraqi population their top priority. That was a huge change from earlier on in the war, when different units seemed pretty much to do their own thing--one outfit would be drinking tea with the sheikhs, another was banging heads.
The new candor and understanding in the Americans was striking. One that May 2007 trip, I went into Green Zone and got from David Kilcullen a really thorough and insightful briefing into the state of play in the streets of Baghdad. That was a big change from earlier on, when officials inside the Zone had no idea what was happening out there. I remember also one general, David Fastabend, an advisor to Petraeus, beginning a conversation then by saying, "We have done some stupid shit" in Iraq. There clearly was a new gang in town.
Amazon.com: And many of the people who had been put in charge, Gen. Petraeus first among them, were well known to readers of Fiasco as advocates for counterinsurgency. But one who wasn't turns out to be one of the crucial figures in your story: Gen. Ray Odierno, who early in the war was one of the ones banging heads. By the time 2007 rolls around, he's Petraeus's top commander in Iraq and he's a changed leader. What happened to him?
Ricks: The change in General Odierno is one I wrestled with throughout the reporting of this book. He seemed so different, so in sync with Petraeus on the counterinsurgency plan. And he was of almost no help in figuring it out. "General Odierno, you strike me as so changed from the guy I wrote about in Fiasco. I can't figure out how that happened." "Hey Tom: Your problem, not mine."
I think two major things happened to him between 2004, the end of his first tour in Iraq, and the end of 2006, when he came back for his second tour. First, his son was badly wounded in Baghdad, losing an arm to an RPG. Second, when he came back to Baghdad, he saw that the place was falling apart, and that the war could be lost on his watch. That has a way of concentrating the mind.
What he did then was kind of astonishing: He went around his bosses and basically cooked up the surge. He was the only officer in the chain of command who was for it. (Petraeus also was for it, but he hadn't yet arrived in Iraq.) I think he showed genuine moral courage in what he did. It was a huge risk, going against all his bosses. As I say in the book, he was the natural father of the surge, and Petraeus was the adoptive father. I have no problem saying that General Odierno is one of the heroes of this book.
Amazon.com: One of the most striking signs of his change is his political and cultural adviser, Emma Sky, a British development expert who you describe as "fiercely anti-war" and, at the outset at least, as deeply skeptical of the U.S. Army. They make a couple so odd a Hollywood casting agent would be embarrassed to propose it.
Ricks: Emma is a hoot. And yes, it is hugely to Odierno's credit that he saw the need to have this small, foreign, pacificistic outsider as one of his key advisors. He once told me that he would never again go to war without having someone like that to counsel him.
Amazon.com: There's one other central figure in the turn toward the surge that I wanted to ask you about. You said above that Odierno was the natural father of the surge and Petraeus was its adoptive parent. In the book you also say that retired general Jack Keane was its "spiritual godfather." He plays a big role in Bob Woodward's account in The War Within as well, but I think he's even more central to yours. Was there any precedent for what he did, as a retired general who, as you put it, became the de facto Chair of the Joint Chiefs?
Ricks: No, I don't think there is any precedent at all. This guy, a retiree living in northern Virginia, essentially decided to change the course of the war in Iraq--and amazingly, he did.
Amazon.com: While we're talking about the surge, there's one basic thing to clarify: despite the name, as you say, "the surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them." What did the new counterinsurgency tactics translate into on the ground, and why do you think they worked to the extent they did?
Ricks: This is a hugely important question, so I want to take some time on it.
There were two key aspect to the different use of troops. First, they had a new top priority: protect Iraqis. (Until February 2007, the top priority of U.S. forces in Iraq was to transition to Iraqi control.) Second, to do that, they had to move out into the population. Before this point, they were doing a lot of patrols from big bases, usually in Humvees. They would be in a neighborhood maybe one hour a day, and the other 23 hours of the day belonged to the insurgents. Now, they were living in the neighborhoods, and constantly going out on short foot patrols. They got a lot more familiar with the people, often visiting every single family, and conducting a census. In military terms, they were mapping the sea in which the insurgent swam. Familiarity made them far more effective, and also constrained the movements of insurgents.
For all that, there are other important factors in why Iraq changed, and they shouldn't be forgotten. First, by the time the U.S. military moved into the streets of Baghdad, the city was largely ethnically cleansed. Second, in the spring of 2007, in a huge policy shift, General Petraeus began putting the Sunni insurgency on the payroll--essentially paying them not to attack us. This split them off from al Qaeda in Iraq, and isolated the terrorist extremists.
Once the Sunni insurgency was seen to be on our side, even temporarily, the Shiite fighters under Moqtadr al Sadr went to ground. Otherwise, Uncle Sam would have been training all his firepower on them.
The problem is that all these arrangements are temporary, and could easily unravel. For example, the Sunni insurgents made a separate peace with the United States. They never have given up their objection to Shiite control of Iraq and of the Iraqi army. So what we may have done is simply delay that fight--and armed both sides in the meantime.
Amazon.com: And so we get back to the first part of your first answer. As impressive and necessary as the surge may have been, where has it brought us? Have the unreconciled sides merely marshaled their forces for a later conflict? When the Sadrists so suddenly went to ground, what moment do you think they were waiting for? Has their hand been strengthened or weakened in the meantime?
Ricks: I think the message of my book Fiasco was that Iraq 2006 was worse than you think, while the message of The Gamble is that Iraq 2009 isn't as good as you think.
The surge has brought us to an uncertain place. No one knows if there will be full-blown civil war in Iraq. Indeed, no one even knows the real strength of the Sadrists at this point. Or whether the Baghdad government indeed will keep its promises to bring into the fold the former Sunni insurgents who have been on the American payroll for the last 18 months. In fact, none, not one, of the major political questions that faced Iraq before the surge have been resolved--and the purpose of the surge, we were told, was to create the space to solve them.
My real worry is that all those tensions still exist, but all sides in Iraq are militarily stronger than they were a couple of years ago, because we have trained and armed a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, but also helped organize the Sunni insurgents now known as the "Sons of Iraq."
Amazon.com: You write, "Many Americans seem to think that the Iraq war is close to wrapped up, or at least our part in it. When I hear that, I worry." You argue that we will likely have to keep substantial forces in Iraq for possibly decades to come, in a situation likely to be far more volatile than our long-term presence in Korea and Japan has been. Do you think the U.S. has the capacity (however you measure it) to support such a long-term commitment, especially if Afghanistan might require the same?
Ricks: The U.S. military can keep 35,000 troops in Iraq for years pretty much without breaking a sweat. Instead, I think the problem is more political. There probably will be very little support for the tough position in which President Obama will find himself. That is, as the situation deteriorates in Iraq, Republicans will smack him, claiming (wrongly) that everything was going well when Bush's presidency ended. Meanwhile, a lot of Obama's supporters still (wrongly) expect him simply to get the U.S. out of Iraq. That isn't going to happen either.
So, in a year or so, I could see Obama facing a lousy set of choices in Iraq and being denounced by both his own supporters and congressional Republicans--and wondering how he ever got cornered into defending keeping 35,000 troops in Iraq for many years to come. As I say in the book, I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than he changes it.
Amazon.com: We're having this discussion the week of Obama's inauguration, by the way. What do you think the relationship between Obama and Petraeus will be like? Bush came to lean a great deal on Petraeus's authority--it felt like he had finally found his General Grant. In some ways Obama and Petraeus seem like very similar people: cerebral, even scholarly (in positions where that's not always valued), fanatical about fitness, even-tempered. They have a few encounters in The Gamble--how do you think they will work together now that Petraeus is in charge of CentCom (including both Iraq and Afghanistan) and Obama is his Commander in Chief, facing the sort of scenario you've just described?
Ricks: I think this will be fascinating to watch. You are right--Obama and Petraeus are such similar men, so I was surprised that their encounter in Baghdad in July '08, which I describe in the book, was so chilly.
I think they will come to respect each other. I sure hope they do. But Obama has just thrown another big ego into the mix--Richard Holbrooke, who is a special presidential envoy for sorting out the Afghan-Pakistan war. Watching the ambassador and the general work together could be like a re-make of those old Godzilla vs. Mothra movies.
Amazon.com: But to put it bluntly, is anybody watching at this point? You have a section late in The Gamble titled "America Tunes Out the War," and my anecdotal experience in talking about the surge and Iraq with people now is that a certain eye-glazing sets in, even when I say, "No, it's a great story." When Fiasco came out, the Iraq War was topic A, but now all eyes are on the economy, or even, recently, on Gaza. How important do you think it is for public attention to remain on the war, or can it become, as you say, "just part of the national wallpaper"?
Ricks: America has a unique capacity to tune out the world. I'm not sure it helps us. For example, we turned out Afghanistan from the late '80 until Sept. 11, 2001. As Ambassador Crocker once said, just because you leave the movie in the middle doesn't mean the movie is over.
Iraq isn't going to go away. The war changes but it hasn't ended.
Amazon.com: And what about you? Iraq has been your story--will you keep reporting from there? Or, like General Petraeus, are you going to be spending more time in Afghanistan (where you spent some of your youth and on which you've been reporting this week on your blog)?
Ricks: As for me, I'm moving on, as Hank Snow would say. I need to get my head out of this war for awhile. I feel like I've been thinking about only Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. So my next book is likely to step back and look at bigger sweep of history, from World War II to the present. I've hung my hat at a small, very cool new think tank called the Center for a New American Security, where I really enjoy my colleagues. And to keep my hand in, I've started blogging for foreignpolicy.com, under the title "The Best Defense."
Amazon.com: We could probably keep trading emails all year, but would you want to add a comment to the Q&A on the Iraq elections that just happened?
Ricks: I’m gonna wait a few weeks before I try to sort out the Iraqi provincial elections. When I was in Baghdad in November, an American official preparing for this period said that the key wouldn’t be the runup to the elections or the vote itself, but the month or two afterward, when winners and losers became clear. The two key questions, he said, were whether those who lost power would give it up and those who gained power would be able to execute it well.