“No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only halfway through it.”—Thomas Ricks, The Gamble
Those who read Thomas Rick’s lacerating 2006 take on the first phase of the Iraq War debacle, Fiasco (given what he uncovered, the title was shockingly not hyperbole), might be surprised by his thought-provoking follow-up and what it reveals about the war’s second act. The weighted phrase that seemed to choke the nation’s news outlets a couple years back, “the surge,” takes on an entirely new meaning once you have taken in Rick’s dramatic, Bob Woodward-esque, behind-the-scenes narrative of how it was actually thought up and then implemented on the ground. The story of how that all came about is, like just about everything else associated with the Iraq War and the Bush White House, a bloody comedy of errors and incompetence. But what makes the tale of this phase of the war different is the fact that, despite all the odds, the long-shot gamble taken by a desperate president who’d gotten in over his head by relying on the wrong people to fight his half-thought-out crusade, may have actually worked.
Ricks starts his story with an incident that was arguably, except for the Abu Ghraib incident, the lowest point of the war for the Americans: evidence of an apparently indiscriminate massacre of two dozen civilians by Marines at Haditha in the Euphrates Valley during November 2005. In addition to the iniquity of the killings themselves and the craven attempt at a cover-up that followed, the event provides Ricks with a signal anecdote to illustrate how absolutely incorrectly the United States was fighting the war. The top-down mandate for the Americans could be summed up by the euphemistic phrase “force protection;” in short, protect yourself and to hell with anything and anybody else.
Because of this attitude, the Marines in the Haditha had ended up (in the words of counterinsurgency expert Kalev Sepp, quoted by Ricks) just “chasing the insurgents around the Euphrates Valley while leaving the population unguarded and exposed to insurgent terrorism and violence.” Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a Vietnam veteran who looked into the incident, was troubled by the remarks of senior Marine officers, to whom he believed “Iraqi civilian lives were not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths were just the cost of doing business.” If the Pentagon chain of command had simply reviewed their own history of conflicts like Vietnam, which some strategists believe was doomed by an over-emphasis on force-protection and ultimately irrelevant metrics (like numbers of Vietcong dead) instead of honestly trying to protect and win over the South Vietnamese populace.
But in true blinkered Rumsfeldian fashion, during the first couple years of the Iraq War, all those who brought up such questions to the military high command were not listened to, but attacked. When defense expert Andrew Krepinevich published an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine calling on the U.S. to pursue an Iraq strategy “built around the principles of counterinsurgency warfare” in which instead of “focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people.” Not long after Krepinevich was summoned to the Pentagon, where instead of being asked for his advice, Rumsfeld aide Lawrence Di Rita told Krepinevich he had no idea what he was talking about. When another assistant to Rumsfeld at the meeting asked Krepinevich if he’d like to go to Iraq and view the situation on the ground, Krepinevich agreed, only to have Di Rita joke that “Krepinevich should be flown there and abandoned on the road into Baghdad from its airport, perhaps the most dangerous six miles then in the world.”
Given that this was the kind of attitude displayed towards any who advocated new strategic approaches in Iraq—or, one could argue, any strategy, since it would be hard to term the ad-hoc and often contradictory tactics pursued by the Green Zone leadership at that time a strategy—it’s no shock that by the time Haditha happened in late 2005, the overall mood about the Iraq War (both here and there, military and civilian) was gloomy at best. While Ricks lays out this point very clearly, particularly as a way of setting the stage for the handover to new leadership that would follow, he doesn’t do as good a job recreating the scene on the domestic front, where the antiwar opposition felt strongly justified in pushing for the withdrawal of all American troops, since they (quite rightly) had no reason to believe that any good could come of their continued presence in a land that seemed to offer nothing but heartbreak and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Just as the war looked likely to do nothing but devolve into a continuously horrendous litany of sectarian violence and mass civilian deaths, the Army’s updated counterinsurgency manual was being written at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas by a cabal of sharp-minded military intellectuals, headed up by the man who would soon become public face of Bush’s new approach to the war: Gen. David Petraeus. Among the new approaches to counterinsurgency warfare that the manual highlighted—though, as Ricks points out time and again, these were not really “new” tactics, just old ones that a technology- and bureaucracy-blinded Pentagon had chosen to ignore—were several ideas that would prove crucial to the tactical push that would be called “the surge.”
Amazingly, most of these ideas seem little more than common-sense ideas. The manual recommended thinking twice before launching raids, since “an operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It also advises that the current U.S. strategy of holing up in huge bases and only issuing out on limited missions was next to useless: “If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents.” Although these ideas were already percolating around the military establishment, by fall 2006, nothing much had changed on the ground in Iraq—it would take a gathering of civilian neo-cons in Washington, D.C. to actually point the way forward.
Over a weekend in early December 2006, a veritable who’s-who of neo-cons like Fred Kagan, Richard Perle, and William Kristol (the same blue-suited bunch that still shows up on Fox News to this day to decry Democratic wussiness in the “war on terror”) gathered at their movement’s Batcave, the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., to brainstorm about what could be done to win the war that they had cavalierly pushed for, only to see go horribly awry. While in public, these same desk-bound warriors tended to echo the pro-war party line that things in Iraq were steadily improving and that anybody who said otherwise or advocated for withdrawal were nothing better than traitorous defeatists, inside the meeting they seemed willing to deal in the occasional truth.
Kagan—one of the few neo-con hawks who actually has a deep understanding of military matters—told Ricks that “we were disappointed with the quality of the debate over the military aspects of the war,” and so wanted to figure out a plan to head off what even these cheerleading Bush-backers could see was eventual disaster. “Baghdad is burning, Iraq is about to explode, and we are moving toward a primitive civil war. This is about to head off the cliff. So, the mandate was: Stop the bleeding in Baghdad.”
Unlike many of these sort of play-acting war-games scenarios that policy wonks like to play, at this one there were actual active-duty soldiers, including a number who had served in Iraq under Col. H. R. McMaster of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. McMaster, you may recall, was the officer who—without any encouragement or support from his superiors—implemented the “clear, hold, and build” push in Tall Afar during 2005. A classic counterinsurgency tactic that required a delicate balance of cultural sensitivity, strategic flexibility, willingness to take more casualties early on as a way of diminishing them later, constant offensives to keep insurgents off-balance, and a die-hard focus on protecting civilians, McMaster’s plan would later become the blueprint for the U.S. in all of Iraq.
Also at the meeting was retired general Jack Keane, a hard-nosed guy who would afterward lead the drive to shake up a Pentagon that seemed content to blunder haplessly through several more pointless years of IED ambushes and sectarian massacres. The plans that were hatched over this weekend would quickly make their way to the White House and would form the nucleus of the following year’s “surge.” In a rare departure for his mostly invective-free narrative, Ricks terms the fact that it took a retired general and a mere think-tank to reverse course in a three-year-old failure of a war, a “stunning indictment of the American military’s top leadership.”
So it was that by 2007, as Ricks reports, change seemed to be blowing through the course of a war that was looking to be not just the longest in American history, but also one of its most ignominious. Things in Iraq had devolved to such a sad state of affairs that even a legendarily “stay the course” and hands-off president was forced to accede that things needed to change. As a result, Petraeus was brought in to command U.S. forces in Iraq, along with a new ambassador, Ryan Crocker. Not only would Crocker and Petraeus forge a tight working relationship absolutely the opposite of the “dysfunctional” one that between previous military and civilian leaders in the Green Zone, the two of them seemed to share a belief that (it has to be said) marked them as wise thinkers: “Neither Crocker nor Petraeus seemed to think that invading Iraq had been a wise choice.”
Although Ricks has a more tempered respect for Petraeus than many of his journalistic colleagues (he frequently points out the general’s brilliance but also notes his brittle and aloof nature, as well as a predilection towards hard arrogance), the author signals him and his second in command, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, out for praise time and again for their willingness to bring in diverse viewpoints. In a conflict that had previously been marked by doctrinaire lockstep and peevish irritation at any who opposed the Rumsfeld/Cheney party line, it’s refreshing to read how Petraeus and Odierno refused to simply spout an opposite theory but remained instinctually adaptive.
Shockingly for such powerful generals, both Petraeus and Odierno had as their top advisors not just other military personnel, but a trio of foreign civilians who couldn’t have seemed more out of place there if they had tried. Three of the most influential voices on the surge strategy that began to be implemented in 2007 were: David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who was evangelical on the subject of respecting Iraqi civilians and soldiers; Odierno’s right-hand woman, Emma Sky, a British expert on the Middle East with fiercely anti-war viewpoints who found herself gaining immense respect for the American military (much more meritocratic than the British); and Petraeus’s interpreter Sadi Othman, a Palestinian schooled in Jordan by pacifist Mennonites who had been driving a cab in New York on 9/11, after which he volunteered for civilian duty in the Middle East.
A great deal of The Gamble is given over to Ricks’ study of how the surge was implemented and also how it was influenced by these unconventional viewpoints. It’s a riveting story, particularly in his accounts of how the troops on the ground became more energized by the new strategy, which—though less strictly military in its application—was ultimately much more offensive then the earlier, reactive methods. As Iraqi civilians became more used to seeing U.S. soldiers on foot patrols in their neighborhoods, manning their numerous new smaller bases, and refocusing attention on civilian needs, the more the war becomes to seem an actual war with an objective instead of simply a losing campaign of attrition. The new methods create a bloody compromise, with U.S. casualties spiking even as Iraqi civilian deaths decline. Given how close the whole country appeared previously to be collapsing into Somalia-esque chaos, however, it’s a compromise the generals had to be willing to live with.
By the time Ricks brings his narrative to a close, he has solidly proved his point, namely that in the most basic reckoning, the surge can be said to have worked. Just as Petraeus and Odierno kept their ears open to what their polar opposites were advising them, Ricks doesn’t allow any antipathy toward a blatantly stupid war and its foolhardy instigators to blind him to this fact. (After all, one could argue, huge mess though the war was, somebody still needed to clean it up.)
Ricks is also very clear about the necessary corollary to the success of the surge, namely, what now? Frustratingly, he doesn’t leave much time in his book to build on this theme, which is almost its most fascinating element. Instead, the book ends on a number of dire predictions about how long the U.S. will keep a substantial number of troops in Iraq. Odierno himself (now top commander in Iraq, after Petraeus was plucked out to lead Central Command last year) told Ricks in a November 2008 interview that he thinks at least 30,000 U.S. troops would still be needed on the ground there in 2015, twelve years after the invasion.
Given that, Ricks seems almost chagrined to note, near the end of The Gamble that
... it is unclear in 2009 if [Petraeus] did much more than lengthen the war. In revising the U.S. approach to the Iraq War, Petraeus found tactical success—that is, improved security—but not the clear political breakthrough that would have meant unambiguous strategic success. At the end of the surge, the fundamental political problems facing Iraq were the same ones as when it began.
In other words, the surge may well have worked, but since the Iraqi civilian government seems now no closer to operating with even a modest level of efficiency and non-sectarian fairness, that success could end up being entirely beside the point.