The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
February 12, 2009
IntroductionJOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to welcome our members and guests, and to thank you for joining us.
Our speaker today is Tom Ricks. He is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Mr. Ricks will be discussing his latest book, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. This book takes up the story of America's involvement in Iraq and begins where he left off with his award-winning book Fiasco. We are delighted that he is with us this morning.
I have asked our senior military fellow, Jeff McCausland, to introduce Mr. Ricks. Jeff is a visiting professor of international law and diplomacy at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He also serves as a national security consultant to CBS Television and Radio. As a senior fellow, he leads the Carnegie Council's work in one of our three theme areas, ethics, war, and peace.
Jeff completed his active-duty service in the U.S. Army in 2002. Before retiring, he commanded a field artillery battalion stationed in Europe that was later deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operations Desert Shield and Storm in 1990 and 1991.
I will now turn the floor over to Jeff.
JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Thank you very much, Joanne. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a real pleasure for me, frankly, to introduce Tom Ricks this morning. I have had the great pleasure of knowing Tom, I think, from about the time he assumed his current responsibilities at The Washington Post in 2000, which was about the same time I took over as the dean at the United States Army War College, and we frequently had Tom up for various and sundry talks.
As you will see in the bio in the jacket of the book, I would describe Tom as "a soldier's journalist." This is a gentleman who has covered conflicts for the United States and for The Washington Post that have stretched from Somalia to Afghanistan, back to Bosnia, to Iraq, to Haiti, and all around the world.
In so doing, I can tell you that Tom has earned the respect and admiration of soldiers at all levels. In the book you will be looking at, I'm sure you will see the access he has gained, speaking to General Petraeus, General Odierno, and others. But I can tell you from my travels in Iraq and places like that, Tom has also often earned the respect and admiration of individual soldiers, noncommissioned officers, where he gets out to actually find out what, in fact, is actually going on, on the ground.
Without further ado—I don't want to hold this up—let me introduce Tom Ricks.
RemarksTHOMAS RICKS: Thank you all for coming out so early in the morning. I appreciate it.
I want to begin by asking, do we have any veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan here today? We have one. Any more?
Well, thank you for your service, Dr. McCausland.
One of the first arguments I make in this book is that the natural father of the surge was not General David Petraeus, as many people assume, but General Raymond Odierno. I'm going to tell you, this was a shock to me, as I report in the book, because General Odierno, to be candid about it, is one of the villains of my previous book, Fiasco. To be equally candid, he is one of the heroes of this book, The Gamble. That was a surprise to me.
I remember sitting one day in Baghdad and saying to General Odierno, "How do I get from the Odierno of Fiasco to the Odierno I see now?"
Typical of Raymond Odierno, he said, "Tom, your problem, not mine."
My answer to that, as I pondered it, was that three things happened to Raymond Odierno that I think made him change.
First was the personal. His son was clipped by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, in Baghdad, as an officer in the military. It took his left arm off, hit the soldier next to him and killed him. I think that has a devastating effect on any parent, but especially one who is commanding in Iraq.
Second, interestingly, after his Fiasco tour commanding the 4th Infantry Division, General Odierno was the military assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is an odd title, but what it really is, is the Pentagon's ambassador, the uniformed military's ambassador, to the State Department. He really hangs his hat at State. He travels with the secretary of state.
I think this kind of broadened General Odierno and showed him levers of government and power and people outside the Pentagon—got him up out of that military foxhole.
Which was essential when he came to the third point, when he got to Iraq in late 2006 and said, "I'm being set up to lose the war on my watch." Raymond Odierno is a very determined person. He didn't want to lose the war on his watch. So he essentially reversed the orders he was given by General Casey, then the top commander in Iraq, and, by the time General Petraeus arrived, had written and completely reversed the set of orders.
The original set of orders, which I reprint in the appendix, says, "You're going to get the troops out of the cities. You're going to consolidate on big bases. You're going to protect the lines of communication and seal the borders of Iraq." Between the lines, that says, "Let these people have the civil war they seem to want to have."
By the time General Petraeus arrived in February—and I reprint these orders as well—General Odierno had rewritten his orders: "You will move from the big bases out in the cities and establish little outposts. You will drop transitioning to Iraqi authority, Iraqi security forces, army and police, as your top priority. Instead, I'm going to make my top priority protecting the Iraqi population."
In order to do that, to move out and protect the population, he needed more troops. That's the essence of the surge—the different tactics, the different strategic thinking, not the additional troops. Needing additional troops was a consequence of this different approach, which is really just classic counterinsurgency theory: Get out among the people; live among the people.
If you are living on a big base and doing a patrol once a day in a neighborhood, the other team is going to own the neighborhood 23 hours a day, and they will intimidate anybody who cooperates with you. If you move into that neighborhood, you are there 24/7. You can respond much more quickly. You begin to know the people, they begin to know you, and you begin to understand the situation. As one officer said, you begin to know what normal looks like. You even recognize a truck that is a strange truck, where people will tell you, "That truck with the tarp over there? That wasn't there. We don't know who that guy is." You start finding things out.
General Petraeus arrived. I would call him the adoptive father of the surge. He had worked hard on the counterinsurgency manual, kind of the rulebook they could give to soldiers and say, "This is how we are going to do it differently." He wholly endorsed the idea. He had been talking behind the scenes with Raymond Odierno about this new approach. At one point, General Casey had an officer call Petraeus and say, "Stop talking to Ray Odierno." This was before Petraeus went out to Iraq.
It's hard to emphasize how much opposition there was inside the U.S. military to this whole new approach. General Odierno at the time was the only officer in the chain of command who supported the surge. His boss, General Casey, opposed it. Their boss, General Abizaid, opposed it. Their boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, opposed it. Odierno and Petraeus basically conducted their own insurgency to bring this off.
It wasn't easy. The second argument of the book is that the spring of 2007 was the hardest part of the war, at least so far. For several months, American KIA (killed-in-action) numbers went up every month, with no sign of success—70 KIA in February 2007, 71 in March, 96 in April, 120 in May. My last interview with Petraeus was in October. I said to him, "When you look back on the spring of 2007, what comes to mind?" He said two words: "Horrific nightmare."
This was the hardest step, moving off the big bases into the neighborhoods. Troops had to fight their way to these outposts. One unit encountered 58 bombs just moving into an outpost. The enemy knew they were coming—because you kind of knew what buildings were likely to be occupied and to become the outpost—the enemy knew they were coming and fought them the whole way.
In one unit I write about, they are trying to move into the neighborhood and they get into a firefight, shooting back and down on to the street. The soldiers look up and they see two Iraqi kids, paralyzed by fear, standing in the middle of the street. The platoon sergeant from this platoon that is moving in runs over, grabs the kids under both arms, and rolls into a corner to protect them. One soldier said later, "That's what won the firefight, not whether we killed the enemy. The people saw us trying to protect the people, and that was the beginning of the neighborhood beginning to trust us."
Remember, at this point, four years into the war, the Americans had made so many promises that had not come true that you couldn't tell the Iraqis anything anymore. You had to show them. Words didn't count for anything. It had to be actions—the actions of protecting the people, of sticking around.
Another one of General Odierno's dicta that really worked well was when he told his officers, "Don't be too ambitious. Show tactical patience"—a really undervalued virtue in the U.S. military—"don't take any land you can't hold," because that would amount to a false promise. If you are going to move into a neighborhood and pull back out, all you do is surface allies and then leave them exposed to the enemy.
We had been doing that for four years in Iraq. We had lost a generation of potential allies, and we lost many of the best and brightest, the people who would be most likely to lead Iraq in the direction we wanted. We were left, really, by the spring of 2007, with the men of the gun. All the natural allies of the ambitions that America had were either dead or gone. The whole middle class, basically, moved out of that country.
It was very tough. That's the one part I want to read from my book, the section called "The Hardest Step," about that movement:
"Moving American soldiers from big, isolated bases and into new posts of 35 men to around 100, located in vacant schoolhouses, factories, and apartment buildings in Baghdad's neighborhoods was the hardest step. Essentially, U.S. forces were sallying out to launch a counteroffensive to retake Baghdad. The first days were surprisingly violent, with an average of almost 180 attacks a day on U.S. forces.
"'That was the Battle of Baghdad,' Petraeus said, looking back 18 months later, in my last interview with him. 'It was just very, very difficult, very, very hard.'
"During February 2007, Baghdad suffered an average of more than one car-bomb attack a day. Between late January and late February, at least eight U.S. helicopters were shot down. In March, the second surge unit, the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, began operations in western Baghdad. One skeptical soldier from the Big Red One told a reporter he didn't expect the new approach to work."
By the way, this pessimism was really widespread among soldiers, and even in Petraeus's headquarters. The majority opinion was that this was not going to work, even around Petraeus.
"'It's getting worse and worse,' the soldier said. 'They don't even respect us anymore. They spit at us. They throw rocks. It wasn't like that before.'
"In some Shiite neighborhoods, units were greeted by stacked loudspeakers blaring the chants of the Jaish al Mahdi, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. In Sunni neighborhoods that had been ethnically cleansed"—and that was most of Baghdad—"patrolling soldiers often found piles of executed bodies and vacant houses with blood smeared on the walls.
"This is how the operations officer for a battalion operating in southwest Baghdad recalled that time to a researcher from the Center for Army Lessons Learned:
"'When we first moved into the AO'—area of operations—'it was house-to-house clearing and fighting most of the way. It took months before we could drive more than halfway north through the mulhullas'—the neighborhoods—'without hitting multiple IEDs and taking fire.'
"The first task for the soldiers was simply to survive. 'Our first two weeks were tough,' Lieutenant Jacob Carlisle, a platoon leader, said. 'We had to clear every day and we got hit every day.' Indeed, in June, he would be shot in the thigh and hit by shrapnel in the face and arm.
"When Baker Company, a unit in the 2nd Infantry Division, moved into the Doura neighborhood in southern Baghdad, it was greeted with 'constant enemy small-arms fire, IED, RPG, and grenade attacks, often surprisingly coordinated,' recalled Lieutenant Tom Gross, a platoon leader. Baker began by spending three nights using shovels, screwdrivers, and tire irons to remove 18 'deep-buried' bombs in its area."
Deep-buried bombs are bombs that are big enough to blow armored vehicles into the air.
"They began with almost no information from the people of the area, who had felt abused by Iraqi police operating in the area. Indeed, Baker later would ban the most abusive of the police, the militia-infested National Police, from entering its neighborhood.
"Despite being attacked constantly, Baker Company, with roughly 125 men, began conducting patrols around the clock." This is a 24/7 presence. "It tried to be precise in the use of force. 'Shooting the right guy teaches the enemy and the population that evil has consequences,' the company commander said. 'The corollary is that a poor shot, one that hits an innocent person or leads to collateral damage, is worse than not shooting at all.'"
This is a very changed U.S. military. I really have a lot of admiration for the people who led that change, General Petraeus most notably, telling the entire institution, "This is how we're going to do it." For four years when I had been in Iraq, each division fought its own war, often with different rules of engagement, different approaches, different attitudes. In the spring of 2007, for the first time, everybody in the U.S. military got on the same page. They all understood it: protect the people. Even if they didn't know counterinsurgency doctrine, they were taught that the impulse that that platoon sergeant had to pick up those kids and protect them was the right way to go.
Another unnoticed change that I write about in this is that in the spring of 2007, for the first time, the people commanding the war in Iraq, Petraeus and Odierno, were combat veterans of that war. That made a huge difference to the brigade and battalion commanders below them. For the first time, you had people who actually had fought in the streets, who knew the smell of the streets. I think that really helped them bring together a cohesion of the effort that we hadn't seen until then.
But it was so tough. One of the sections of the book that I like especially is called "The Battle of Tarmiyah," the northernmost post of the 1st Cavalry Division, north of Baghdad. In this little outpost there were 38 American troops. One day they were attacked. They held the outpost, but it was like the Battle in Zulu, if you remember that old Michael Caine movie. Of the 38 soldiers, by the end of the day, 31 were either dead or wounded. But they held the outpost. There was a lot of tough fighting for these guys.
But it was as much about talking as about fighting. Another one of my favorite sections of the book is called "The Insurgents Who Loved Titanic." This is a young officer, another captain. Sam Cook is his name. An interesting guy. His father was a professor of religion in Northern Ireland, but he wound up in the U.S. military, commanding a unit in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Cook hears about a local insurgent who boasts of having planted 200 bombs against American forces since being radicalized by the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal. Cook seeks this guy out and invites him to come talk to him. The guy likes a challenge. He shows up and says, "Okay, I'll talk. But why aren't you arresting me?"
Cook says, "Because under the rules of hospitality, you are my guest. Now, if I see you on the street, I might shoot you, but here you're my guest."
They begin to talk. They talk for several weeks, on and off. During the course of this, Cook finds out that the insurgent is circulating a photograph of Cook, probably for a hit job, saying, "This is a guy we want to kill." Meanwhile, Cook has his bodyguards come into the room and kind of just wander around and pay attention so they can learn this insurgent's face in case they need to hit him and kill him. So it's a little bit like a Mexican standoff or a Mafia meeting. But they are talking.
One day, the insurgent is explaining to Cook why he hates America so much. "America is the devil," he says. "Nothing good can come out of America."
"Nothing good?" says Cook. "What about the movie Titanic?"
Cook knows his culture. He knows that all Iraqis have watched the movie Titanic. He has heard the ringtones on the cell phones, the theme from Titanic, the most popular theme.
The insurgent nods and says, "Yes, I have watched it seven times. I cry at the ending every time when Leonardo DiCaprio slips into the water."
This is the beginning of the turning point. They continued talking for several more weeks, at the end of which the insurgent brings his network in. Four years earlier, a young, smart captain would have found out who the insurgent was, bagged him, and sent him down to Abu Ghraib or just killed him outright. Instead, he talks to him and brings in the network.
What does that mean? The insurgent says, "You know that sniper rifle we have? That was given to us by an Iraqi major.
"You know why you were never able to find me? Because when you came into our part of the city, the Iraqi police called us.
"You know, when you searched my house, why you never found me? Because I would go in a hole. We had a trap door on top of it and we had trained a cow to sit on top of the hole. The Americans are too nice to push animals around."
He said, "By the way"—and this conversation happened again and again across Iraq—"you want to go down to the mechanics' shops and make a list of all the cars there in the morning, because that's where the car bombs get built. You want to go to the hospital and inventory the oxygen tanks, because those are some of the things we use for roadside bombs."
This conversation happened again and again across Iraq. A lot of talking happened in 2007.
Now, it also helped that General Petraeus decided on his own to put the Iraqi insurgency on the payroll. This was probably the most stunning moment of any interview I did with him. I did a series of interviews, hundreds of hours of interviews, with Petraeus, Odierno, and other commanders over two years, on the agreement that nothing would be published until January of this year.
I said to Petraeus one day, "You know, George Bush doesn't strike me as someone who would really dig signing up the evildoers. How did you sell him on it? How did you call him up and say, 'By the way, Mr. President, I'm going to go to the Sunni insurgents and offer to basically pay them off, to the tune of $20 million a month'?"
Petraeus said, "I didn't ask."
I said, "Wait a second. This is probably the biggest policy decision in the war in the last two years. You didn't ask?"
He said, "No. It was within my existing authorities."
Well, you want audacity in a general; you got it. Why is that audacious? Because if it went bad, he would be blamed for it; it would be pinned on him.
But it worked. That's a major reason the surge worked. Once you had the Sunni insurgency on the payroll, they stopped fighting. They stopped fighting because Petraeus knew—he had polls done of detainees. "Why did you become an insurgent?" Not Islamic extremism. Forty percent of those surveyed inside the prisons did not attend mosque regularly. "Why did you sign up for the insurgency?" "The pay was good. I wanted to buy a new DVD player."
If there was one thing that Uncle Sam has—or at least had back then—it was cash. "Fine. We'll pay you not to do it." Not a bad deal.
The other thing that you saw in that time among the Americans, besides the willingness to talk, was a willingness to really listen. There was a humility in the American effort, an understanding that we didn't have all the answers and the American way was not the only way. This was really brought in with the people that Odierno and Petraeus brought in to advise them. I write about this in the book. Three of the most striking were all foreigners.
One was David Kilcullen, an Australian infantryman turned anthropologist, who is sort of the Crocodile Dundee of counterinsurgency. Petraeus named him his counterinsurgency adviser. Kilcullen went around in the spring of 2007 and talked to commanders about how you do this, in very blunt terms, which I won't quote here.
The second was Sadi Othman, a Brazilian-born Palestinian-American who on 9/11 was a taxi driver in New York City and was really stunned by what he saw. Petraeus met him early in the war in Iraq, during Petraeus's first tour. He became close to Petraeus. In this, Petraeus's third tour, his commanding tour, Sadi Othman became Petraeus's ambassador to the Iraqi government.
Sadi is an interesting character—6'7", the first person ever to dunk a basketball in Jordanian university competition; also educated in an American Mennonite college and a pacifist. When I asked him how he could advise the American war machine, he said, "Because I want peace to come here."
The third person was probably even more radical, Emma Sky, a tiny, birdlike woman who became Odierno's counterinsurgency adviser and political adviser. As it happened, Odierno offered her the job just after she had spent the weekend reading Fiasco. When he offered it to her, she said, "I'll accept on one condition. The first time I see you commit a war crime, I'm personally reporting you to the tribunal in The Hague." Odierno chuckled and said, "Sure."
What Emma didn't know at the time was that Americans don't subscribe to the War Crimes Tribunal.
But it showed also Odierno's changed nature, his willingness to think, "I need somebody like this"—basically, an anti-military, anti-American, pacifistic British woman, who is an expert on the Middle East, to sit at my side and to talk to me.
For example, in one of Odierno's command meetings one day—they had morning updates with a briefing, where they had slides and so on—one officer shows a video of an Apache attack helicopter blowing up some insurgents who were planting a bomb. The officers all love it. They say, "This is great. Let's release this to the media."
Emma Sky looks at them and says, "This is American jihadi video. You're killing people here. Let's not revel in it. I know it's necessary for what you are doing, but let's not revel in it." And then she walked out of the room almost in tears.
Half an hour later, the sergeant-major finds her, gives her a hug, and says, "Ma'am, you're right."
That's an American military that is willing to listen. The tragedy here is that it took four years. By the time we started doing the right thing, operating effectively in Iraq—the equivalent period in World War II—World War II was over. It took four years to begin adapting and adjusting. Why that happened I don't know. It actually is probably going to be one of the subjects of my next book, which is going to be a stand-back look at the American military over the last 50 years.
To conclude, did the surge work? No, it did not. Why do I say that? The surge tactically, militarily; it improved security. But the stated purpose of the surge, as stated by the president and the secretary of defense, was to create a breathing space in which a political breakthrough could occur. At the end of the surge, none—not one—of the basic political questions facing Iraq had been resolved:
- Most notably, oil revenue and how it's going to be shared.
- Secondly, power relationships between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.
- Is this country going to be a centrally controlled government or a loose confederation? Not determined.
- The role of the Kurds in relation to the rest of the country—specifically, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Unresolved.
- Who holds power in the Shiite community? Unresolved.
- Relations between Iran and America, and how those affect an Iraqi government torn between the two? Not resolved.
So what the surge did was get a solid incomplete. It kicked the can down the road. That's not that satisfying to Americans, but sometimes kicking the can down the road, while not satisfying, is the best outcome. It sure beats the alternative of civil war, possible genocide, and possibly spilling over the borders and becoming a regional war.
I suspect, by the way, this is what our policy is going to be with Pakistan over the next several years: Kick the can down the road. Hope this thing holds together. Hope you wind up with a new generation emerging that provides some stability.
Where are we now? It is now Obama's war. I suspect Obama's war is going to last longer than Bush's war, which was five years and ten months. We may now be only at the midpoint of this war. The war is not over. That's the other great misunderstanding, I think, in this country. The war changes; it morphs. It was an invasion, an occupation, an insurgency, a civil war, a surge, a counteroffensive. But it has not ended. It's morphing constantly.
One of the hardest things as a reporter is to recognize this change, to see the new war. Of course, Clausewitz also says that's the sole, foremost, supreme task of the commander—to recognize the nature of the conflict in which you are engaged. It's really hard. You can't wear blinders, you can't operate on assumptions, and you can't think just because you understood it six months ago, you understand it now. It constantly changes.
I think it will change even more this year. I think the first year of Obama's war will be tougher than the last year of Bush's year. First, we have three rounds of elections in Iraq this year, and elections in Iraq are destabilizing. Everybody says, "What about the provincial elections the other day?" My response is, "Yeah, remember those great purple-finger elections two years ago? Remember the civil war that started six months later?"
Elections can solidify sectarian differences, can bring to the fore winners and losers. That's not a good thing in a country where the losers are still armed and willing to take on people.
The second problem is that the troop withdrawals are going to become harder and harder. Why? Because you do the easy ones first. You take troops out of the more secure areas or where you trust Iraqi troops to be reliable and commanders to be reliable. Odierno says in the book that the harder withdrawal will come at the end of this year, just as the Iraqis are holding general elections—the risky withdrawals, where we really don't think the neighborhood is secure or we really don't trust the local Iraqi commanders. In late 2009, early 2010, Odierno says, is when this gets really tough. I think that's where you might see a confrontation between him and the new president.
Third, the fewer American troops you have on the ground, the more likely Iraqi commanders will revert to the old ways of Saddam. This does not come from me; this comes from everybody who has advised them, American military advisers. When they got into conversations with these guys, it was very clear that these guys were playing the American tune while the Americans were around to buy them fuel and weapons and pay their salaries, but once the Americans were gone, the old ways would apply.
This really came home to me when an adviser told me about a situation in which an Iraqi police commander wanted to basically cleanse a Kurdish village, and so he used his connections to an Iraqi Army general to call in an American Apache gun strike on the village. The Americans flew in and said, "We don't see any threat here," and didn't fire. That's going to be a little bit harder when you don't have boots and eyes on the ground, when you don't have advisers telling you what's going on, and you could wind up being the tool of Iraqis pursuing feuds and their own agenda.
Bottom line: I think we are in Iraq a long time. This is not an opinion just from me. Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 American troops in Iraq in the year 2015, which would be somewhere in the middle of Obama's second term if he has one. I think Odierno is likely to be right, and so my bottom line is, I think that Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.
Thank you very much.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. That was terrific.
I have a question to ask you, if I may. In the last line of the book, you say that events that Iraq will be remembered for have not yet taken place. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
THOMAS RICKS: Sure. That's actually correct. The last line of the book is, "The events for which the Iraq War will be remembered have not yet happened."
This actually is not a thought that originated with me. It was said to me by Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He said it to me first in January 2008. I thought it was really interesting and I wrote it down. Then, in my last interview with him in October, I said, "Ambassador Crocker, do you remember you said that?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Do you still believe it?"
He said, "Yes, absolutely." And he explained more about it.
I said, "Okay, that's good, because I'm making it the last line of the book," to which he responded, "You're thinking of writing a trilogy here." I said, "Yes."
He said, "What's the word for a five-book set?"
I don't understand why people didn't listen more to him. Crocker has tried to lay out some warnings. He would be a great guest to have here, if he will come and talk. I doubt it. He's going to hide out in the mountains of eastern Washington. He is retiring.
Crocker talked a lot about the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, by which he meant a relatively unstable government with a lot of violence occurring, subject to the malign influence of its neighbors, and, most notably, having armed groups—Hezbollah or Muqtada al-Sadr's militia—both inside the government and outside the government, and the government not enjoying a monopoly on the use of force, the use of violence. That was Crocker's prediction for where this winds up—kind of a best-case scenario.
I think he really is correct. What he was saying is we don't understand how the Iraq War will be remembered until we really see the ending of it, and the ending is going to be a surprise.
The other point I think he was making—and this is one that I think we all need to remember—is that Americans, people and government, have consistently been overly optimistic about Iraq. This is not just a sin of George Bush. It has been a sin of the U.S. military establishment and, I think, the American public and the media.
Remember, the original American plan for Iraq was to be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003. Here we are, many, many years later, and we still have about 155,000. So all this talk about getting out of Iraq—Obama's campaign promise—it's not going to happen. First of all, the talk of all combat troops out of Iraq—I don't understand that phrase. There are no noncombat troops. There is no pacifist wing of the U.S. military.
What the American people heard when Obama said "all combat troops" was "American troops are not going to be dying after 16 months." That's not going to happen. American troops are going to be in Iraq; they are going to be dying—I hope and believe, in smaller numbers. But I do think that Obama is going to have a hard time with that. What he will end up saying, I think, is that we need to be there in smaller numbers for stability, which is something that the American military, I think, will agree with him on.
Questions and AnswersJOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Tom, thanks for a fascinating talk, as always. I read Fiasco and I'm reading The Gamble. As a journalist, I'm always struck by your incredible sources in the military, which I think go beyond what anyone else has.
When you talk about the insurgency or the Iraqi views of things, it's often reflected through the military interviews you have. I know that in terms of the American coverage in general, there has been a huge reliance on U.S. sources, and the Iraqis themselves often get short shrift. I would like to hear your thoughts. First of all, did you get to talk to any Iraqis? Do you think you are getting a filtering, in general, if you do rely heavily on military people there? How might that affect your own perceptions of what took place there?
THOMAS RICKS: Absolutely. I cover the U.S. 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, unfortunately published the week of the Hurricane Katrina mess. Night Draws Near is the best book, especially the second half of it, on the early days of the occupation.
I basically left Iraqis to my colleagues. I cover the military. Those are the people I talk to. So it is very much a view of the Iraq War through the eyes of the U.S. military.
QUESTION: You are so insightful about what has been happening in Iraq. Can you use your experience in Iraq to comment on the enlarged war in Afghanistan and the role of the U.S. military in the region?
THOMAS RICKS: Sure. As it happens, I lived in Afghanistan as a kid, from 1969 to 1971, and was a member of the Afghan Ski Patrol, Junior Grade.
I love Afghanistan. I would be just as happy to never go back to Iraq in my life again. Afghanistan I would go to on vacation. It's a beautiful country, and even after 25 years of war, the people are still lovely people.
My father is from rural Wyoming, the mountains of western Wyoming. The Afghans kind of reminded me of him and the people he grew up with. They are basically Clint Eastwood with a turban on.
I think the Obama people have the right take on it so far. I noticed in his speech in Munich the other day at the Wehrkunde Conference that Ambassador Holbrooke referred to the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, which is the right approach. It's really the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India problem.
It's very difficult to deal with, but the first step toward wisdom is dealing with it regionally. As a friend of mine, Andrew Exum, who does the great blog Abu Muqawama, says, "It's hard to fight a war in Afghanistan when the enemy decides to fight it in Pakistan."
The war in Pakistan has been kind of scary lately. There was video on Al Jazeera recently of Pakistani tanks running away from the Taliban. That tells you this is not just scrappy insurgent fighters carrying AK-47s. Tanks don't run away from AK-47s. They run away from rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank rockets, and roadside mines. So something there was scaring the Pakistani military. Also the Taliban know what they are fighting for, and it's not clear to me that the Pakistani military do or even agree on what they are fighting for.
So the Pakistani military strikes me as kind of the center of gravity in this war, both the problem and the solution. But to make them the solution is a long-term effort. I suspect what U.S. policy will be with the Pakistani-Afghan war, which I think is the correct way to refer to it, will be to try to keep a lid on events, to try to help Pakistan hold together. The nightmare is a Pakistan that breaks up, is taken over in part or whole by Islamic extremists, and you wind up with the mujahideen with nukes—which, remember, is al Qaeda's dream and our nightmare.
QUESTION: In your discussions with military folks and nonmilitary folks in Iraq, is there a sense of where people are trying to get to in terms of a regional parallel? Does anyone say, maybe in five years or ten years, Iraq can look like Tunisia—a military-backed regime, not brutal, pretty dictatorial, but we can live with that—or Turkey? Are there any regional parallels that people are aiming for?
THOMAS RICKS: That's a good question. I didn't hear explicit comparisons, but I heard a lot of implicit comparisons. One of the things that Petraeus and Odierno did was to really ratchet down American goals. This wasn't really publicly said, but they talked about it a lot, especially in the spring of 2007. They threw entirely overboard the grandiose Bush vision of a shining democracy that would become a beacon of change for the whole Middle East. They really lowered the goals to a more or less stable country that is more or less democratic, maybe, in some fashion, that respects at least some human rights, and probably isn't going to be an ally of the United States—is probably going to be closer to Iran than it is to the United States.
I think they were very comfortable with that. That was kind of the best-case outcome, the worst-case outcomes being a wholly owned subsidiary of Tehran or a broken-up country of warlords and factions and feuds or a regional war.
I think you will see the same thing in Afghanistan, by the way. I think under Petraeus you are going to see much less emphasis on the Kabul government, more emphasis on talking to regional powers inside the country, to tribes, and doing the classic British thing of playing off the tribes against the Islamic extremists—which, by the way, is the theme of one of my favorite Kipling short stories, "The Head of the District."
QUESTION: You mentioned World War II. I think the goal there was victory, total victory. We were fighting against a uniformed military in both Japan and Germany. There were very few impediments put on the American military at that time. We are having a lot of political and other impediments put on the military in Iraq or other places where we might be fighting. We have had also several revolutions in military affairs in terms of how you fight a war. The people who have been fighting the Iraq War have gone through a great deal of training. To what extent has that training either helped or perhaps impeded them in effective action in Iraq, until very recently?
THOMAS RICKS: I think I disagree with the premise of the first part of your question. I don't see a lot of impediments to U.S. forces. Commanders have really been able to pretty much do what they have wanted to do. A lot of what they did was the wrong thing. A lot of what American commanders did, especially in the use of force, was counterproductive.
One of the most striking things to me was the Haditha incident, which I begin by discussing in this book. I didn't find until after I finished the book that when the Marines killed 24 civilians at Haditha in late 2005, it was not reported up the chain of command because it was not considered a significant act—a SIGACTS report, as they are called. It didn't get up the chain of command. It was seen as a normal daily event.
The second thing is, "revolution in military affairs" is usually a technological term. I think what you have seen in Iraq with the U.S. military is a counterrevolution in military affairs—much less emphasis on technology, much more emphasis on the soft skills of cultural understanding, tactical patience, of not acting, of listening more than talking even, of simply observing and trying to understand what you see before you, which, as George Orwell said, is the hardest task of all, to understand what you are seeing.
It's really striking to me. The U.S. military spent $10 billion on a counter-IED program to stop bombs. Bombs stopped, not because of any technology, but because American troops moved into neighborhoods and started talking to people. Even if the people were afraid to talk to you, because they knew American troops were in the neighborhood, they found other ways. Some soldiers talked about going out on patrol at dawn and seeing orange circles sprayed on the side of the road. People didn't want to tell you there was a bomb there, because they didn't want to be seen talking to you, but they would spray circles where the bombs had been placed overnight.
A can of spray paint, 99 cents. A counter-IED program, $10 billion. Spray paint was more effective.
QUESTION: You thanked Jeff for his service. I want to thank you for your service. I read Fiasco. I haven't read your new book yet. I look forward to that. But I was so excited about it, because you performed a service for America, and I think for the world, by telling us truths and telling us the reality in an unbiased and truthful way that we were not getting from our media—and I still don't think we get from our media—certainly not from the government. People, as a result, were poorly informed. I thank you very much for the service you provided then and that you continue to provide. I personally am very grateful to you.
THOMAS RICKS: Let me respond to that for a second, because it's something I have been thinking about. People always talk about military families. In my case, it's my family. I'll tell you, it's much harder to be the spouse and the family member of somebody who is in Iraq than to be in Iraq. My hat really goes off to the family members.
I was talking to some officers about this the other day. I don't know anybody who has been covering Iraq the whole time and has been based in Baghdad who is not divorced at this point. The toll on the personal lives of soldiers and other people who are out there has been enormous.
My gratitude is really to the soldiers who have been out there, for several rotations, but also to the American system. I think the system enabled us to kind of right ourselves, to regain equilibrium. It took time, but I think the American system did come back into balance after the post-9/11 panic. It's because of the wisdom of the founding fathers, and especially the Bill of Rights, that I think helped us recover our balance.
QUESTION: Actually, it's funny you say that. I met Mr. Filkins, from The New York Times, recently and I asked him, "From your experience in Iraq, how did it affect you?" I was thinking of posttraumatic—because he really was in a number of harrowing experiences.
THOMAS RICKS: His coverage of Second Fallujah, the fall of 2004 is astonishingly good coverage.
QUESTIONER: Yes. I said, "How has it changed you?" He said, "Well, I got a divorce." I could understand why.
But what I'm interested in knowing—I don't know if you are able to respond to this or not, because I know you cover the military—are you able to discern what the response is on the part of Iraq and the Iraqis to the change of our government and to the election of Obama in this country?
THOMAS RICKS: I was actually in Baghdad on Election Day. It was funny. The American military was just sort of—it was a calm day, actually. The one thing I noticed was more black troops than usual sitting and watching CNN, and a sense of resiliency among a lot of commanders that "We're sort of comfortable with where we're at. We're comfortable that we can persuade a new president."
Remember, the change in Iraq, the transition to Obama in Iraq, began in January 2007. Basically, the Bush Administration said, "Man, we're losing." To all the people who had been criticizing them, "Fine. You got it, General Petraeus. You got it, General Odierno." They tossed the war to the dissidents, even the dissidents inside the military establishment. Petraeus and Odierno were not and are still not real popular figures with a lot of top commanders in the military. They are not persuaded. They kind of see these guys as a flash in the pan—"they got lucky."
One of the Post drivers in Iraq is a former MiG pilot. It makes him a good driver. I was once on the airport road back when the airport road was really dangerous, and he realized that we were coming up on a roadblock that was not official, a white van parked across the road. I was actually on my satellite phone to Robin Wright, as a matter of fact, one of my Post colleagues, and I said something like, "Wow!" She said, "What's going on?" I said, "Omar just did a U-turn at 60 miles an hour." We took off into, actually, the Jihad neighborhood. That's the name of the neighborhood in southwest Baghdad.
I think of Omar because I turned to him on Election Day and I said, "Do you know what Barack Obama's middle name is?"
He said, "No."
I said, "Hussein."
He looked at me like, "Are you crazy?"
I said, "Yes, it's Hussein."
It is amazing to me. Who would have thought five years ago that the leader of Iraq would not be named Hussein and the leader of America would be?
So I think Iraqis were surprised, and they are still figuring it out.
QUESTION: I would like to ask you about your assessment of the role of the military in American society as a whole, given what you know about military attitudes and what has happened. You described a military that has a great deal of scope for action, largely outside civilian control. I wonder if, in your view, this has any long-term implications for the role of the military with respect to civilian authority.
The second question I have is, the military in Iraq, as I understand it, has taken on a lot of civilian activities. There is not a large cohort of civilians doing civilian work—building and developing the government and so forth—and much of this has been taken over by the military. Would you tell us what the attitude of the military is about this? That is to say, has the military largely accepted this as a normal role for themselves or is this something they would be willing to give up or are anxious to give up to civilian people?
THOMAS RICKS: I'm a big fan of civilian control of the military. I think it actually contributes to military effectiveness. Strong evidence of this to me is the Iraq War itself. For several years, President Bush operated on the false analogy of the Vietnam War: He was going to leave the war to the generals, which is, first of all, bad strategic thinking, and second of all, reflects an ignorance of Clausewitz. War is an essentially political act and must be directed for political ends by political leaders.
This is also the flaw we have had in our command structure in Iraq. We have always had a bifurcated command structure there, with no one person in charge—again, a violation of Clausewitz, but also a violation of David Galula's great book on counterinsurgency. You must have one person in charge of your overall national effort, and that person should be a civilian, because ultimately the questions are political, not military.
The outcomes have to be political, not military. If all you are doing is seeking military outcomes, you are always operating below the strategic level. You have to judge yourself politically.
I wrote about this in Fiasco. The Marines were upset, when there were a lot of firefights, about Ramadi in 2004, because they said, "The media keeps on writing about all the Marines who got killed and how the insurgents are here, but we won the battle."
My response was, "Yes, but the insurgency, a month after being declared dead in Anbar," which they were in the spring of 2004, "is able to mount an offensive for the provincial capital. They've won." It's a political outcome.
Our policy in Iraq only became effective when President Bush finally stopped being the cheerleader for the war and started being the war leader, which was December 2006, and he began exercising civilian control of the military. There is a meeting I discuss in the book in which General Jack Keane, Eliot Cohen, and several other people sat down with the president and said, "You need to stop judging your generals by whether they are, quote/unquote, good guys and start judging them on effectiveness."
Only then was accountability injected into the system. Very quickly, you get a change in policy, a change in military disposition, and changes in our ambassador, our Central Command's commander, our commander in Iraq, and six months later, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs—in fact, a wholesale removal of the people who had been in charge of policy for a long time.
On the ground in Iraq, the U.S. military, I think, still hasn't gotten the civilian thing right. This is an argument I was having for a long time with brigade commanders. The U.S. military narrative was, "We showed up, but the rest of the U.S. government didn't," to which I respond, "Colonel, are you willing to take orders from a State Department official?"
"Well, no," he says, "it's not in the chain of command."
I say, "Then don't complain. You want the rest of the U.S. government to show up on your terms and take orders from you, for you to be in charge. It ain't going to work until you are willing to take orders," as happened with some of the more effective programs in Vietnam, with U.S. civilian provincial administrators telling the U.S. military what to do. That would work if you had one civilian in overall control of the national effort, able to speak to the military chain of command and to the civilian effort.
I think maybe Ambassador Bremer ruined that. I think the Obama administration would choke on the notion of a presidential envoy to oversee the effort, because Bremer gave it such a bad name.
QUESTION: So the United States has ended up as the world's policeman in the Middle East, without a lot of other help. Are we able to handle both Iraq and Afghanistan? Do we have enough troops? Or are we going to end up like Johnson did in Vietnam?
THOMAS RICKS: We have enough troops if you are able to bring down the troop numbers in Iraq. But that's a big "if." As I said, we have consistently been overoptimistic.
In retrospect, American foreign policy in the Middle East, from the Suez crisis until 2003, looks much better than it did at the time. For 50 years, from Suez until the invasion of Iraq, Americans were able to be influential in the Middle East without having troops on the ground. Well, thanks a lot, George Bush. We are now stuck on the ground—and, I think, less influential.
I think the potential power of the United States was far greater than the realized power on the ground. Once you are on the ground, you are on their turf and you are playing by their rules in many ways.
Warren Buffett has a saying—and I speak as a former employee of The Washington Post and a holder of Berkshire Hathaway stock—Warren Buffett says that if you have been playing poker for half an hour and you don't know who the patsy at the table is, you're the patsy.
I think, once you are on the ground in the Middle East, frequently you are the patsy. We're the patsy. So I think it has been a losing hand.
QUESTION: Who is the major contributor, in money and munitions and everything, to the people who are opposing our troops? Who supplies all this? Is it one nation or several nations?
THOMAS RICKS: I think it's really one nation, and we should go after it. It's called the United States, for two reasons.
First, directly: When they surveyed the detainee population, they found that 10 percent of accused insurgents at the time of their arrest were members of the Iraqi police or the Iraqi Army. A lot of weapons have gone missing in Iraq.
But the far greater provider of munitions has been American policy. Iraq was basically a giant stockpile of small arms when we invaded. We didn't have enough troops to secure all those. There is one arms dump I was told about, just east of Tikrit a few miles. It's about four miles by four miles. That's almost the size of Washington, D.C. There's just bunker after bunker after bunker.
Why didn't we blow that up? I asked a Marine commander once, a colonel, a regimental commander, and he said, "Sir, they told us there might be WMD in those things." Nobody wanted to be the guy who blew up the weapons bunker and took out a city from the cloud of nerve gas drifting across. Bad intelligence comes back to bite you again and again and again.
So we didn't blow up the weapons dumps. We didn't plow them under. We didn't have enough troops to secure them. You could have signed up the Iraqi Army. Not all of it would have been—there would have been less leakage to having nobody there. But Ambassador Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army. So the weapons were basically there.
But finally, most of all, it was U.S. policy. There were so many weapons around, it didn't really matter, ultimately. What mattered was the motive, the impulse to use them against Americans. American policy gave a lot of people that impulse—de-Baathification, most notably, saying, "There's a whole class of people here who have no future in this country."
The second was—people tend to forget this—Ambassador Bremer's free-market policies. My favorite was the—I think it was a brick factory in Fallujah. It was government-owned and it was unproductive. Ambassador Bremer shut it down. What do you think the young unemployed brick makers of Fallujah did? They went to war.
Finally, don't underestimate the effect of Abu Ghraib and the general abusive nature of U.S. forces in a lot of places in Iraq in 2003-04—I don't blame the troops themselves; I blame the people who put them there untrained for the situation they faced—who became abusive and antagonized large parts of the population and stirred up the insurgency.
I think some insurgency, some resistance, was inevitable. But the analogy I would offer is the insurgency of 1920 that the British faced. It lasted six months and they put it down. I think we would have faced that had we had better policies, better commanders, a more agile response, a different secretary of defense. It might have been a much smaller thing.
For example, if you had a Pentagon that actually believed it was at war and rewarded battlefield success, in the spring of 2004, you might have said, "Hey, that Petraeus guy, he's been pretty effective up in Mosul. Let's put him in command." But it took another three years for that to sink in.
JOANNE MYERS: I just want to thank you for a very illuminating morning. Thank you so much.