Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: 'The Gamble': How One Man Saved America's Ass In Iraq

Now that President Obama has sent General Stanley McChrystal packing, all eyes are on General David Petraeus, who will be expected to work the same magic in Afghanistan that he did as the architect of the Surge strategy in Iraq. Herewith a review of the seminal book on Petraeus and the Surge. It was originally published in March 2009.

"The Stampede," Frederick Remington's iconic Wild West painting, is an apt metaphor for the Surge, the dramatically successful shift in strategy and tactics implemented in Iraq in 2007 under the direction of Army General David Petraeus.

The cowboy in the painting is riding for dear life as his herd panics in a breaking thunderstorm. His pony is wild eyed with fear as the sky blackens and a bolt of lightning strikes the prairie. One misstep and the cowboy and his mount go down, sure to be crushed by the stampeding cattle.

As it turns out, Petraeus well understood the similarities between "The Stampede" and the Surge. Whether he saw himself as the cowboy isn't revealed by Thomas Ricks in The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, but he may well have since he included a copy of the painting in the briefing book that he would give to members of Congress and other visitors to his office in Baghdad's Green Zone.

* * * * *
The Gamble is a fitting bookend to Ricks' Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

This devastating 2006 bestseller revealed that the U.S. was on the verge of losing a war based on false assumptions, too little planning and not nearly enough troops, had scant international support, and was riddled by confusion at the bottom and plenty of hubris at the top. The result was not the quick and happy "Mission Accomplished" ending that the Bush White House relentlessly pushed, but an occupation that gave birth to an insurgency that was taking American lives by the dozens and Iraqi lives by the thousands each month.

I certainly could not have predicted that the next book by Ricks, the fine former Washington Post military correspondent, would be an account of how the U.S. was able to step back from the precipice because of a radically different strategy -- the fourth or fifth of the then four-year-old war -- and corresponding adjustment in tactics because of a single general and his ability to convince the military's best and brightest, as well as the president himself, that business as usual would inevitably lead to defeat.

The Surge strategy was simple if enormously difficult to put into action because it ran against the hidebound Army and Marine cultures: Let the Iraqis lead, isolate extremists, create space for political progress, diversify political and economic efforts, and take both a local and a regional approach.

Highlights of The Gamble and Ricks' thoughts on each:

* If Petraeus is the hero of the Surge, then former Army General Jack Keane (photo, below left) is the unsung hero. Deeply concerned about the downward spiral that the war had taken, Keane "would set out to redesign its strategy, an unprecedented move for a retired officer . . . and worked behind the scenes" with Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno, who through Keane's efforts would become the top commanders in Iraq.

There were many experts familiar with the tenets of counterinsurgency, but Petraeus figured out how to get the Army to heed that knowledge. "His vision of how to change the war would become a restatement of classic counterinsurgency theory, which holds that the people are the objective, so the task is to figure out how to 'win' them."

By pushing hard for national elections in 2005, the U.S. "inadvertently herded Iraqis toward sectarian identification." The minority Sunnis boycotted the vote and this problem was compounded by the lack of a political infrastructure, as well as the false hopes of U.S. commanders who "became overly optimistic . . . [and] began formulating plans for major drawdowns in 2006."

Instead, 2006 because the crucial year in the war with the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and the onset of a full-blown civil war. "It would be the year that American policy ground to a halt, the Bush administration finally [but secretly] conceded that it was on the path to defeat, the American civilian and military leadership was jettisoned, and a new set of commanders -- Petraeus and Odierno -- installed to execute a radically different strategy."

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was inept. Recalled one insider: "The president would say 'Get this done,' and leave the room, and then Rumsfeld would start squabbling with Condi [Rice]" over the reconstruction teams "that were at the heart of the strategy of rebuilding the economy of Iraq . . . His thought on Rumsfeld at that point was, "Well, you fucking idiot, that's your ticket out of Iraq."

* The personality of Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, "was the strongest asset he would bring to the Pentagon . . . Where Rumsfeld was blustery, Gates was quiet, even stealthy," but behind his slight smile "lurked a very sharp set of teeth" that soon resulted in the ouster of the Army secretary and surgeon general over the Walter Reed scandal and later the Air Force secretary and chief of staff over the mishandling of nuclear weapons.

* The tactics that the Surge would employ were being used by Marine Colonel Sean MacFarland (photo, below left) who pretty much acted on his own in Ramadi, an Al Qaeda hotbed. "Even as the senior Marine intelligence officer pronounced the province lost, Ramadi in 2006 would become the link between the first successful large-scale U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq."

* Well away from the cameras, Petraeus assembled an eclectic brain trust that included three key non-Americas: Palestine-born Sadi Othman, who was the general's personal liaison with the Iraqi government; Emma Sky, a British human-rights expert who was his political adviser, and David Kilcullen, an Australian Army enlisted man who proved to be adept at helping fine tune the Surge.

* Things would get much worse during the course of 2007 before they got better in 2008. U.S. deaths initially increased as Iraqi deaths decreased. "Essentially, by moving out into the population, the military had interposed itself between the attackers and the people."

* In the run-up to crucial hearings before Congress in September 2007, an aide to Petraeus correctly ascertained that it was the Democrats and not the general who were in a bind. "Before the hearings, the dominant political question had been how to get out of Iraq. After them, the question would become how to find the least damaging way to stay in Iraq" because of the general's dogged defense of the Surge.

* Even after the Surge was showing signs of working, the leaders of the American military establishment showed "a tendency to avoid risks, and to prefer following established ways of doing business rather than take difficult but necessary steps to become more effective." Two successive chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept putting roadblocks in the way of Petraeus.

* Iraq was the first extended campaign fought under a 1986 law that reorganized the military command structure, making the head of the U.S. Central Command a key player. The Navy was the most tradition-bound service and most resistant to change, and when Admiral William Fallon became CENTCOM commander as the surge got under way he was an obstacle to Petraeus and Odierno and eventually had to be forced out.

In the end, Ricks notes that Congress turned out to be the toughest battle that Petraeus fought, and once that battle was won and U.S. casualties dropped, Americans more or less tuned out the war.

Ricks grades the Surge as "a solid incomplete" because the Iraqi government has, of course, not taken advantage of the reduction in violence to create a breathing space that would enable politicians "to find a way forward."

Ricks addresses this huge question only obliquely: How long should the U.S. wait for the Iraqis to get their act together before it withdraws all of its troops? That in my view is not answerable because as Fiasco, The Gamble and a host of other books and commentaries reveal, the Iraqis will never get their act together in a society where sect and tribe are more important than nation.

Under the Obama administration's current plan, most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by August 2010 and all of the rest a year later, but it is possible if not probable that what has passed for stability as a result of the Surge will devolve into the resumption of a form of civil war when the last American boot is airborne.

As former Secretary of State Colin Powell famously remarked about Iraq, "We broke it, now we own it."

How true. The U.S. did eventually take seriously that ownership in the form of Petraeus's Surge, which included an extraordinarily successful effort to rein in the Sunni insurgency and persuade it do the U.S. military's bidding. This, of course, enraged Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government, which says about all that you need to know concerning Iraq's post-U.S. future.


tom ricks said...

Tom Ricks

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