Back when publishers still released books about Iraq, Thomas Ricks wrote a pair of them that were forward-thinking for the time but now look powerfully prescient. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 (2006) was a damning an indictment of the Bush / Cheney / Rumsfeld crew’s excited rush to war and then seeming boredom with the details of actually managing it. It wasn’t the first book to lay out that case, but given the depth of Ricks’s reporting and his lack of ideological cant (which hampered a number of other books on the Iraq fisaco), it was one of the most definitive and difficult to dispute.
It was Fiasco’s less-celebrated 2009 companion volume, however, that truly stands out today.
By that time, America seemed tired of even contemplating the Iraq War, much less debating it. Establishment Democrats and even staunchly anti-Bush lefties tended to cower before the media juggernaut of Gen. David Petraeus and his 2007 troop surge. Ricks’s aptly titled The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008 (original review here) told the story of the surge and the last great battles of the American part of the Iraq War.
Something of a last-minute hail mary from an administration desperate to stem the bloody tidal wave of sectarian butchery that was consuming, Petraeus’s surge was essentially classic counterinsurgency warfare implemented years after it should have been. Petraeus didn’t invent it, but he was smart and forceful enough to shame the Pentagon and White House into adopting it.
Indeed, Petraeus and his tenacious second-in-command Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno brought in unconventional ideas (including the arming of Sunni militias to help fight insurgents), pushed their troops into using new and frequently more dangerous tactics, and were eventually credited with keeping the fragile Iraqi government from complete collapse. That ended up being the takeaway for most people followed reporting on the war: Petraeus’s surge worked.
There’s a big however here, though. Ricks’s book agrees with part of that assessment. In the latter part of The Gamble, he lays out important conditions for what needed to follow. His prediction that a large number of American troops would need to stay in Iraq for years to come (Odierno thought 30,000 would still have to be on the ground by 2015) didn’t come to pass. But Ricks’s belief that the surge would be ultimately a pointless delaying action if the Iraqi government didn’t start to function with an at least moderate level of efficiency of fairness.
According to Ricks, “At the end of the surge, the fundamental political problems facing Iraq were the same ones as when it began.”
Between the time Ricks wrote that line and the recent catastrophic routing of Iraqi soldiers by al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the civilian government in Baghdad had done little but foster more of the sectarian internecine warfare that the surge had tried to tamp down. Everything from purging the army and bureaucracies of competent people who happened to be of the wrong sect to ministerial death squads convinced many of the country’s Sunni minority that they had no representation in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s majority Shiite government.
The ISIS’ current onslaught, in which a few thousand (at most) Sunni fighters—better-trained, armed, and organized than any the US faced—soundly defeated Iraqi army units many times their number, looks to be in part the reaping of a crop sown in the aftermath of the pointless American invasion and its frighteningly amateurish occupation.
Ricks ended The Gamble with a haunting line: “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened.”
For years, especially after the American troop drawdown, it seemed as though Iraq would muddle along in a chaotic but eventually stabilizing way familiar to many Middle Eastern countries with oil wealth. Although the bombings continued, it was possible to believe that the conflict was in fact done. What the recent events have proven is that Ricks was right: the 11-year-old Iraq War is far from over.
// Notes from the Road
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