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Is It a Great Victory?

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Matthew Cavanaugh/epa/Corbis
General David Petraeus, right, and General Raymond Odierno testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington, D.C., May 22, 2008. In September 2008, General Odierno succeeded General Petraeus as the top American commander in Iraq, and General Petraeus became head of Central Command.
Three years ago, Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco,1 provided a searing indictment of the US military and the grave errors it had committed in the initial stages of the Iraq war. As The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent, he documented, in unrelenting detail, the military’s use of overly aggressive tactics and the alienating effect they had on the local population. By engaging in indiscriminate sweeps, mass roundups, and the routine abuse of detainees, Ricks argued, the US Army had a major part in provoking the insurgency that ended up costing thousands of American lives and causing the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis. Fiasco was cited by both supporters and critics of the war as dramatic evidence of the need for a change in strategy.

In his new book, The Gamble, the picture that Ricks presents of the military could not be more different. As part of the 2007 troop surge, he writes, the Army adopted a wholly different approach to the war, one focused not on capturing or killing the enemy but on protecting the local population. Showing new respect for the Iraqi people, US soldiers gradually succeeded in gaining their trust—and help—in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists. The Gamble offers many testimonials to this from the troops themselves. “I’ve built real relationships and care about these people,” a soldier is quoted as saying. “And they care about me…. I’ve taught myself Arabic and can converse pretty well.” Thanks in large part to the new emphasis on cultivating Iraqi support, Ricks maintains, the military was able to sharply reduce the violence in Iraq and pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

The contrast between the military leaders of Fiasco and of The Gamble is personified by Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno. In the earlier book, the six-foot-five, 245-pound general with a gruff manner and shaved head was one of the villains. Under his command, the 4th Infantry Division, operating in the Sunni Triangle in the months after the 2003 invasion, specialized in the type of harsh, heavy-handed tactics that, according to Ricks, earned the Army such odium. “Of all the major conventional combat units operating in Iraq in 2003,” Ricks wrote, “the one that most consistently raised eyebrows was Gen. Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division.” Ricks even implicated Odierno in the Abu Ghraib scandal, asserting that his mass detentions of military-age males helped create overcrowding at the prison and some of the resulting lapses in supervision.

In The Gamble, by contrast, Odierno is the hero. On becoming the second highest American commander in Iraq in December 2006, Ricks writes, Odierno, now in charge of the day-to-day war effort, adopted a new, more respectful attitude toward the Iraqis. And, working closely with General David Petraeus, who became the commanding general in January 2007, Odierno made sure the forces under his command became similarly disposed. In Ricks’s view, Odierno is the true father of the surge and as such Iraq’s “unlikely savior,” and Ricks laments that he “hasn’t gotten the public recognition he deserves,” especially for his “ability to adjust effectively in wartime.” As to why Odierno underwent so dramatic a change, Ricks offers several theories, including the broadening effects of a tour he spent in Washington working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff between late 2004 and 2006 and the sobering effects of the severe wounds that his son, a lieutenant, suffered in Iraq in 2004. In the end, though, Ricks admits to being baffled by Odierno’s metamorphosis.

Ricks’s own transformation seems no less perplexing. Fiasco upset many people in the military and in Washington. The Gamble, by contrast, will upset very few. It is, in effect, a love letter to the US Army—a tribute to its ability to overcome earlier misdeeds and in the process provide Iraqis a chance for a better future.

To a degree, such praise seems warranted. The military leadership did make an about-face in Iraq, and in many ways the surge achieved remarkable results, reducing the levels of violence in Iraq to a degree many observers (myself included) thought impossible. Yet as Ricks himself makes clear, the surge was only partly successful. While highly effective from a military standpoint, it failed to bring about the political changes sought by the Bush administration, such as ethnic reconciliation and a strengthening of the central government. Ricks also notes widespread fears that, once US forces leave Iraq, Iraqi commanders could relapse to their earlier brutal ways. With many of Iraq’s underlying problems still unresolved, Ricks writes, the war may well be no more than half over, and the United States will likely have to keep a sizable force there through at least 2015. In the end, he declares, the best grade the surge “can be given is a solid incomplete.”

Why the surge failed to achieve its broader political aims is one of two key questions that remain outstanding about that policy choice. The other is what exactly caused the drop in violence. Was it the Sunni Awakening, the turn begun in 2006 by tribal leaders and former insurgents away from al-Qaeda and toward a tactical alliance with the United States? Was it the cease-fire declared by the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army in August 2007? Was it the ebbing of the vicious sectarian fighting that had engulfed Baghdad in 2006 and that some say had played itself out by the start of the surge? Or was it the new counterinsurgency tactics that were adopted by the military and carried out in 2007 and 2008 by the expanded force in Iraq? It’s impossible to say for sure which factors were paramount, but as the United States struggles to contain the growing violence in Afghanistan and to apply there a version of what it sees as the surge’s successes in Iraq, untangling these strands seems of pressing importance.

Thomas Ricks offers many interesting reflections that bear on these questions. In the end, however, they go largely unanswered. This failure, I think, reflects some major shortcomings in the way Ricks has chosen to write about the surge—shortcomings that, in turn, reflect broader problems in the coverage of the war.

1.

Fiasco was an old-fashioned exposé, serving up revelatory facts with equal doses of zeal and outrage. The Gamble, by contrast, is more retrospective, seeking to tell the story of the origins and execution of the surge. It borrows heavily from the novelistic techniques that are much in vogue among journalists today: Ricks seeks to invest his tale with great drama, performed by a cast of colorful, larger-than-life characters. Whatever narrative value this approach has, it ultimately gets in the way of Ricks’s analysis and distorts the bigger picture.

The hero of the book’s opening section is Jack Keane, a retired general and former vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Big Jack Keane,” Ricks writes, “could easily be mistaken for an old-style member of the New York City Police Department.” But “underneath that old-school appearance, Keane is crackerjack smart, and extremely articulate, often in a concise, blunt way. Most importantly, and unusually, he is an independent and clear thinker.”

In 2006, Ricks writes, Keane “would grow so deeply concerned by the direction of the Iraq war that he would set out to redesign its strategy, an unprecedented move for a retired officer.” In the first three years of the war, the military, he felt, treated Iraqi civilians as “the playing field” on which the contest occured. From his two tours in Vietnam, Ricks writes, Keane believed strongly in the principles of counter-insurgency, which hold that “you must protect the people and separate them from the insurgency, and to do so you had to live among the population. And doing that required a lot of troops.”

“Protect the people” becomes the driving idea behind Keane’s campaign to change US policy, and the central theme of Ricks’s narrative. In pushing for it, Ricks writes, Keane

effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [displacing General Peter Pace], stepping in to redirect US strategy in a war, to coordinate the thinking of the White House and the Pentagon, and even to pick the commanders who would lead the change in the fight.

In that campaign, Ricks writes, he would get help from another outsized figure, Eliot Cohen. A professor of strategy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Cohen had been in and out of government for years and was an associate of such neoconservatives as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—credentials that would seem to make him a member-in-good-standing of the Washington establishment. In Ricks’s account, however, he becomes an idiosyncratic nonconformist. The “perpetually bow-tied” Cohen, he writes,

is an unusual figure in Washington, influential in several circles, with an extraordinary range of contacts inside the government, from the White House to the Congress to the military and intelligence establishments, a network created mainly because those institutions send many of the best young people to him to study strategy. He makes that study both intense and concrete, suggesting thousands of pages in readings, from Sun Tzu to Winston Churchill, but also leading his students on walks of battlefields, from Gettysburg to Italy to the Middle East, to mull campaign strategies.

In June 2006, Ricks writes, Cohen, along with Michael Vickers, Fred Kagan, and Robert Kaplan, all like-minded supporters of the war who had become critical of its execution, met with President Bush at Camp David to impress on him the need for a new approach. The meeting didn’t sway Bush, but, according to Ricks, it set in motion a behind-the-scenes effort to change the course of the war. That effort began to take hold after the midterm elections in November, when strong gains by the Democrats led Bush to dismiss Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

In early December, in what Ricks sees as another milestone, the American Enterprise Institute convened a three-day meeting of analysts and military planners to propose a new plan. “One Weekend at AEI Changes the War,” a subhead dramatically declares. On December 11, Cohen, together with Keane and several others, again met with Bush, and this time, Ricks reports, the professor was determined to be “clearer and more emphatic” than he’d been the previous June, stressing the need for a new strategy, a change in commanders, and more troops.

General Ray Odierno was doing the same from Baghdad. Taking over as the number two commander in Iraq, he became dissatisfied with the strategy being pursued by General George Casey, then the commanding officer, which called for training the Iraqi army so that it could take over responsibility for security and let the Americans go home. Even as the violence on Baghdad’s streets soared, the Americans had mostly retreated to heavily fortified Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). A protégé of Keane’s, Odierno agreed with him about the need to get soldiers off their bases and onto the streets; together the two men waged what Ricks calls a “guerrilla campaign” to make that happen. The chain of command is normally sacrosanct, Ricks observes, but Odierno, “making one of the most audacious moves of the entire war,” bypassed two levels of command above him “to talk to officials at the White House and aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” In doing so, Ricks asserts, Odierno “was laying his career on the line.”

In pursuing this story, Ricks has a problem. In Bob Woodward’s book The War Within, published in 2008,2 the principal figure pushing for the surge is not Odierno, Keane, or Cohen but Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser. Soon after the midterm elections, Woodward writes, Hadley and several NSC staff members took the lead in convincing Bush to send more troops to Iraq. Administering an extraordinary knuckle-rap to his Washington Post colleague, Ricks writes that Woodward’s “thorough but White House-centric” book

reports that the president was settling on a surge by November 2006. There is little on the public record to support that assertion. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that Bush’s meeting with outside experts early in December had a strong effect on his thinking.

What we have here, in essence, are warring narratives from two well-known reporters based on information from the officials to whom they were granted special access—Hadley and the White House staff in Woodward’s case and Odierno, Keane, Cohen, and the military in Ricks’s (though Keane figures in Woodward’s account as well). This conflict over who deserves the most credit for the surge seems a classic case of inside-the-Beltway journalism; it may take years to resolve the competing claims.

2.

In the second half of The Gamble, the story shifts to Iraq and to General David Petraeus, and Ricks, in describing him, is even more complimentary than he is of General Odierno. Like many journalists who have spent time with Petraeus, Ricks writes with awe of his intelligence, his drive, and his determination—“the cornerstone of his personality and a characteristic that seems to strike everyone he meets.” Petraeus, Ricks states, is “an unusual figure in the Army,” an intellectual who is friendly with journalists and politicians and who alone among Army generals “had posted an unquestionably successful tour as a division commander in Iraq during the invasion and the first year of the war.” (Ricks barely mentions Petraeus’s second tour, in which he directed, with only limited success, the US program to train Iraq’s security forces.)

Convinced that the Army had forgotten how to fight the type of insurgency it faced in Iraq, Petraeus, on becoming the commander at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2005, commissioned the writing of a new counterinsurgency field manual. Drafted by a team steeped in the history of such conflicts as Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam, the manual, Ricks writes, prescribed “a radical shift for the US military,” away from the traditional focus on capturing and killing the enemy to one of recognizing that “the people are the prize.” After Petraeus took over as the commander in Iraq, in January 2007, the manual became the cornerstone of his strategy. With the first of 30,000 new troops beginning to arrive, the general sought to deploy his forces “in a radically different way, moving them off the big bases and into small outposts among the population.”

To help carry out the plan, Petraeus assembled a team that draws more superlatives from Ricks. “It was one of the most selective clubs in the world,” he writes, “dominated by military officers who possessed doctorates from top-flight universities as well as combat experience in Iraq.” Ricks is further impressed by the presence in it of so many “dissidents, skeptics, and outsiders, some of them foreigners.” Ricks plays up the quirky characteristics of these foreigners. They include David Kilcullen, a “sandy-haired, apple-cheeked” former Australian army officer with a “Crocodile Dundee accent” who enjoyed “semimythical status” as the man Petraeus had asked to be his counterinsurgency adviser.

Under the direction of Petraeus and Odierno, US forces began setting up joint security stations in the neighborhoods of Baghdad, using them to conduct regular patrols during the day and targeted raids at night. Recognizing how disillusioned Iraqis had become with the Americans, the new commanders sought to win them back by treating them with new respect—establishing eye contact, “heeding the values and ways of tribes and their leaders,” making the procedures for checkpoints and convoys less antagonistic. As this strategy took hold, Ricks maintains, it began producing results in hundreds of ways, from more precise intelligence to quicker reaction times to the improved performance of Iraqi troops. The erection of cement barriers in many neighborhoods of Baghdad, meanwhile, helped keep warring Sunni and Shiite factions apart.

As they returned to Baghdad’s streets, the Americans at first met strong resistance, and casualty levels soared to record levels. In July 2007, however, the US death toll began to decline. Civilian deaths declined, too, and by September, when Petraeus and Crocker testified before Congress, they were able to claim considerable progress in restoring a sense of calm to Baghdad and the rest of the country. Ricks describes the hearings entirely from Petraeus’s perspective: “Hey, we won!” he quotes Colonel Steve Boylan, Petraeus’s communications adviser, as exclaiming to himself after the hearings were over.

Ricks takes due note of the various theories about why the violence went down. On the cease-fire by Moqtada al-Sadr, Ricks offers a single sentence devoid of analysis. He’s more expansive on the Sunni Awakening, recounting in detail how the tribes in Anbar province, enraged by al-Qaeda’s growing brutality, began in September 2006 to turn against the group, and how the Americans quickly took advantage. “Whenever a tribe flipped and joined the Awakening,” says a colonel who helped oversee the initial turnaround, “all the attacks on coalition forces in that area would stop, and all the caches of ammunition would come up out of the ground.”

The regularity of this pattern has led some observers—including many US officers—to conclude that the Sunni revolt was the main cause of the improvement in Iraq. They include David Kil- cullen, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency adviser. In his new book, The Accidental Guerrilla, Kilcullen writes that “the tribal revolt was arguably the most significant change in the Iraqi operating environment in several years.”3 Its impact, he argues, ran counter to what had been anticipated under the surge: instead of security improving as a result of changes imposed from the top down by US commanders, it occurred from the bottom up, with the US scrambling to respond.

In The Gamble, however, it is the troop surge and the new counterinsurgency tactics associated with it that are at the center of Ricks’s narrative, and that accordingly get the most attention. Ricks repeatedly expresses his admiration for the new solicitude of US forces, and he quotes many officers attesting to this. “We had read the COIN [counterinsurgency] manual while at the IZ [International Zone, or Green Zone], and now it really began to come to life in our minds,” a lieutenant tells him. “You must get to know the people. It’s only been recently that people started waving to us and treating us like people. It took us treating them like that first.” A platoon leader recalls how impressed the locals were when, after one of his patrols was ambushed and an Iraqi girl was hit, his platoon sergeant picked her up and rushed her to medical care. He tells Ricks that “an informant reported the incident as a large turning point towards winning the people of our neighborhood.”

It’s striking to see the extent to which Ricks, in assessing the work of the US military, relies on the views of the US military. We see the performance of the Iraqi army, the attitudes of Iraqi tribal leaders, and the views of Iraqi citizens almost exclusively through the eyes of US generals, colonels, and captains, or of civilians working with them. In the rare instances where we’re offered a quote from an Iraqi, it’s usually taken from articles in The Washington Post or some other paper.

The absence of Iraqi voices seems especially serious in light of the emphasis Ricks places on the military’s new policy of protecting the people. Since, according to him, a central goal of the surge was to improve the military’s image in the eyes of everyday Iraqis, it would certainly be useful to hear what those Iraqis themselves thought of that approach—to learn, for instance, whether the locals who saw that platoon sergeant pick up the wounded girl actually regarded that as a turning point. When I visited Iraq last year, it seemed clear that, while the US military had made significant changes in its treatment of Iraqis, many Iraqis were far less sanguine about the American presence than Ricks suggests. While relieved that the US forces had curtailed their earlier aggressiveness, they continued to see them as an occupying force—one that had committed grave abuses in the past and that was still very capable of doing so.4

Last September, 60 Minutes aired a feature on Ray Odierno, and though it was highly flattering, correspondent Lesley Stahl noted that, while walking around with the general in Iraq, the people she met “expressed little gratitude for the Americans, and lots of resentment.” When she asked a shopkeeper if he liked the US Army, he said through a translator, “Yes and no. We like them because they help people. They have put a lot of efforts in here. And the reason why I don’t like them is because they do raids on houses.” Odierno quickly interrupted. “But is it much less now than it was before, the number of raids?” “Yes, indeed,” said the shopkeeper. “It’s very, very less, sir.” “But he doesn’t forget,” Stahl remarked.

Even with a US commander looming, this shopkeeper was willing to air his grievances about the Americans. Yet no such sentiments appear in The Gamble. And I could not find a single reference in the book to US forces killing or injuring Iraqi civilians or engaging in abusive acts of any kind. Violence, when it does appear, tends to get cloaked in euphemisms—a common practice in US books about the war. For instance, Ricks writes that brigade commanders “had far more aerial surveillance assets available and under their control” than in previous years and could request “strike aircraft as needed.” This is a very oblique way of referring to the increase in air strikes during the surge. According to Iraq Body Count, a Web site that tracks civilian deaths in Iraq:

While the USA has used a variety of means in its surge strategy, military force has remained central, with the predictable outcome of new civilian lives lost. Airstrikes—the most frequent mode of US military attack involving civilian victims—have continued with regularity throughout the surge, killing 252 civilians in 2006 [and] then—in the surge years—943 in 2007 and 365 in 2008 [by the end of November].

In Afghanistan, the killing of civilians in air strikes has turned much of the population against the international presence. Have those in Iraq had a similar effect? Since he has talked to few Iraqis, Ricks can’t say.

He is also handicapped in his ability to assess the broader impact of the surge. The Gamble is blunt about the failures to address Iraq’s political problems, including the division of oil revenues, the control of Kirkuk, and, most importantly, sectarian divisions between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. Relying heavily on his military sources, Ricks places the blame squarely on Iraq’s politicians. “We thought that once they weren’t being shot at, they could start being statesmanlike,” Colonel Bill Rapp, a top Petraeus adviser, tells him. “It turns out we have a bunch of guys who survived the Saddam years by being secretive and exclusive, instead of being open and inclusive.” Major General Guy Swan says that “with the security gains there is a window of opportunity…. Only they can do it. We have set the conditions for them. They have an opportunity to pursue their own destiny.”

The selfishness and sectarianism of Iraq’s governing class deserve strong emphasis. But the scornful comments Ricks records seem typical of the patronizing attitudes of an occupying power. None of the military officers he quotes shows the slightest awareness of the many ways in which the United States may have contributed to Iraq’s paralysis. The unchecked looting after the invasion, the misconceived disbanding of the Iraqi army, the disastrous de-Baathification policy, the liquidation or exile of much of Iraq’s middle class, and the gross corruption and incompetence that have characterized so much of the US reconstruction effort—such realities might help explain why Iraqi politicians have been unable to take advantage of the “window of opportunity” the surge provided, but it’s hard to find a trace of any such awareness in The Gamble.

Ricks’s analysis of the surge is further impaired by his investment in his central characters. Eager to build up Petraeus, Odierno, and company, he fails to consider the extent to which they may have contributed to the surge’s shortcomings. As Ricks concludes, the surge, while successful on the tactical level, faltered on the strategic one. Does this group bear any responsibility? While they were pushing for the surge, a parallel group of experts—the Iraq Study Group—was advocating a broader approach that would take into account the influence of the other countries in the region. In The War Within, Bob Woodward describes the frustrations that co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton felt as they sought to get Bush officials to think more strategically about the war. Baker felt especially distressed at the Bush administration’s adamant refusal to explore possible common interests with Iraq’s neighbors. “Nearly everyone else had told the study group that active diplomacy with Syria and Iran was vital to stabilizing Iraq and the Middle East,” Woodward writes.

The Iraq Study Group report remains the road not taken. In retrospect, of course, its recommendations that the US begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq seem premature. But had the broad diplomatic offensive it advocated been carried out alongside the surge, it might have helped get at Iraq’s political problems in a way the surge did not. Petraeus and Odierno seem to have paid little attention to these strategic aspects. But Ricks, wedded to his heroic narrative, seems unable to stand back and offer a balanced assessment of the feats and faults of his leading characters. In the end, it’s hard to square his soaring praise for the surge’s architects with his own pointed criticism of the surge itself.

In February, I attended a talk Ricks gave at the Carnegie Council in New York, and I asked him if his heavy reliance on military sources had affected his account. “Absolutely,” he said. “I cover the US military. I don’t cover Iraq as such. At The Washington Post, I have colleagues who do that much better than I ever could—Anthony Shadid, for example, who wrote the terrific book Night Draws Near.” The Gamble, Ricks went on, “is very much a view of the Iraq war through the eyes of the US military.”

The same seems true of much of the other reporting from Iraq. The stories written about that country and its people have too often been told through the eyes of Americans, and of the American military in particular. This has kept the American public from gaining a deeper understanding of the political realities of Iraq, and of the challenges we continue to face there. With the Obama administration turning its attention to Afghanistan, and with General Petraeus now the head of the US Central Command, the counterinsurgency approach is no doubt going to get another test. Perhaps Thomas Ricks will be turning his attention to Afghanistan as well. He is clearly a talented and thoughtful journalist; as a close student of the new US counterinsurgency manual, he will, I hope, take its recommendations to heart and spend more time among the people affected by war.

April 1, 2009

  1. 1

    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006). 

  2. 2

    The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006–2008 (Simon and Schuster). 

  3. 3

    The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford University Press, 2009), p 179. 

  4. 4

    See my article “[Embedded in Iraq](/articles/archives/2008/jul/17/embedded-in-iraq/),” The New York Review, July 17, 2008.