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Monday, February 16, 2009


The Gamble - General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 -- Thomas E Ricks, 325 pages (394 pages with appendix, notes and index)

Along with COBRA II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (see #1), Thomas Ricks' previous book Fiasco provided a definitive analysis of the political and military planning of the Iraq War and the first two years of its execution. Both books came to the same inescapable conclusion that both the initial planning and execution of that plan were fatally flawed. After the publication of those books, the situation in Iraq worsened considerably, focusing public and political debate on the potential costs and benefits of what came to be called "the surge" strategy. Ricks' latest book The Gamble may prove to be not only the first but the definitive analysis of the surge phase of the Iraq War.

The book provides a well researched summary of the principles of counter-insurgency now most commonly associated with General David Petraeus and the evolution of that strategy from a successful but initially ignored "one-off" in a single territory of Iraq to a formal analytical project led by Patraeus in 2005 at Fort Leavenworth to finally the core of a new strategy for reducing violence within Iraq and providing sufficient stability for political processes within Iraq to institute a more lasting peace. In tracing the evolution of counter-insurgency techniques within the US military, Ricks reinforces concerns about the original thinking that led to the war. He also highlights what appear to be recurring problems of dysfunction and incoherence within the US military command structure that delayed recognition of the failure of the original tactics and interfered with adoption of better tactics. Most importantly, Ricks concludes with a sobering discussion of the continued disconnect between the expectations of American politicians and voters and the real state of the War in Iraq -- a war Ricks argues persuasively is nowhere NEAR a conclusion for Iraqis or Americans.

Counter-insurgency: In Theory and Practice

The Gamble does a great job summarizing the principles of counter-insurgency and tracing their use from one province early in the war to official US military strategy for the larger war. The narrative begins by using the events in Haditha in November of 2004 as a reflection of the larger state of the war and the troops fighting it. In Haditha, 24 Iraqis, mostly women and children, were killed by American troops in response to a roadside bomb that killed one American soldier. As Ricks states (page 5):

What happened that day in Haditha was the disturbing but logical culmination of the shortsighted and misguided approach the U.S. military took in invading and occupying Iraq from 2003 through 2006. Protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy, and treat the Iraqi civilians as the playing field on which the contest occurs.

A few pages later, the impact of that mentality on the day to day conduct of troops in combat was summarized using statistics from an Army Surgeon General report covering 1,767 soldiers serving in combat (page 7):

* one third of respondents okayed torture if they thought it would provide information on insurgents
* more than one third approved of torture if they thought it would save the life of a fellow soldier
* two thirds of Marines responding would not report a fellow soldier for mistreatment of civilians
* half of Army troops responding would not report a fellow soldier for mistreatment of civilians
* ten percent of respondents acknowledged personally mistreating non-combatants

Counter-insurgency tactics turn those traditional tactics on their head. As later summarized by David Kilcullen, one member of the brain trust formed by Petraeus, the nutshell principles of counter-insurgency amount to the following (page 140):

* secure the people where they sleep
* never leave home without an Iraqi
* look beyond the IED -- get the network that placed it
* give the people justice and honor
* get out and walk -- patrol on foot

In contrast to traditional military tactics, these seem somewhat revolutionary but in reading the book's summary of the effort to reorient the military around those tactics, the delay in recognizing their value and implementing them seems puzzling. It's not like the American military lacked prior examples (good and bad) from which to learn. The French experience in Algiers in the 1950s is mentioned in the book, but we also have forty years of nightly news reports on failed Israeli attempts to control territory with traditional tactics of draconian blockades, nighttime raids and overwhelming force as well.

Perhaps the most concise contrast between the initial war strategy and the improved version that replaced it involved the initial focus on Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and "commuting to the war" by getting in Humvees and driving to local communities to root out insurgents. Kilcullen and others documented huge drawbacks to this approach:

* more time spent in transit rather than protecting civilians
* soldiers appear in the open in groups in easily identified vehicles
* soldiers travel predictable routes in those vehicles at predictable times
* troops in vehicles are seen as faceless, transitory enemies rather than human partners

In other words, the "commuter war" produced no tangible ability to eliminate insurgents while magnifying the exposure of troops to their attacks.

The tactics formulated by Petraeus and his team kept more troops in the communities they were protecting, focused on establishing personal relationships with local leaders, reduced the vulnerability of civilians to insurgent retribution after cooperating with troops, and reduced casualties when troops were attacked by spreading them out. Of course, any American living near any major metropolitan area recognizes some of these tactics under a different name -- community policing. Counter-insurgency strategy is the military equivalent of encouraging police officers to live in the communities they protect, park their car outside at night for extra "presence", and walk the beat instead of driving around in Chevy Malibu cruisers isolated from the crack dealers and gang bangers they're supposed to be identifying and arresting.

A Dysfunctional Chain of Command

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the evolution of the Iraq war strategy is how it mirrors the broken mechanics of management in Corporate America -- nearly to the T.

A revolving door model for assignments and promotion among officers created an ineffective, inconsistent, "punch your ticket and get out" mentality among senior leaders. It not only interfered with local operations by preventing relationships from being maintained with local Iraqis, it perversely rewarded failures and failed to correct flawed patterns of decision making and implementation. Sound familiar?

The work to combine a counter-insurgency based approach with a temporary increase in troop levels was essentially outsourced to strategists associated with the American Enterprise Institute -- the same think tank that concocted the original war strategy -- to get the ball moving in December 2006, when the answers were already available within the military. Petraeus had spent nearly all of 2006 formalizing an official Army counter-insurgency manual, yet senior brass apparently felt the need to bring in "experts" to help sell the Joint Chiefs and the President on abandoning a strategy that had failed miserably for a strategy already proven to be successful in part of Iraq. In at least one instance, the surge team used information on remaining troop strength publicly viewable on the Internet to nail down the final timing of additional brigades, much like a consultant looking at your watch to tell you what time it is. Sound familiar?

The command model between the field commanders, the military infrastructure, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President amounts to a bizarre "matrix" style organization chart that introduces conflicting direction, allows personality conflicts and personal alliances to dominate clear, accountable communication and decision making while still leaving critical tactical and strategic analysis gaps. Sound familiar?

In the case of the Iraq war, the chain of command

* was selectively ignored during the original invasion planning,
* was completely ignored at times during the CPA post-war era (Bremer disbanding the army)
* ignored the need to change strategies for three years into a disastrous war
* promoted generals (Fallon) into positions who actively thwarted adoption of the new surge plan

Here are two stunning paragraphs about the relationship between General Petraeus and his boss, Admiral William Fallon who was put in charge of Central Command in March of 2007: (page 234)

Petraeus generally was open during a series of interviews done for this book in 2007 and 2008, but the subject of his relationship with Fallon as one area where he not only grew closed-mouthed but testy. "Look, this isn't a soap opera," he snapped in January 2008, showing more anger than is his wont. "This is a a deadly serious endeavor and we talked about things in a deadly serious way, but not some great kind of emotion." He dismissed a rumor circulating at the time that Fallon had called him "chicken****." Among other things, he noted, he wouldn't stand for it. "It's bull****," he said, "If some ****ing guy told me that, I would walk out of the office. I'd say, 'Here, you got it, take over.'"

Fallon declined to be interviewed for this book. But in a previous interview with me in December 2007, he conceded that he might occasionally have stepped on subordinates' toes. "If you're trying to lead," he explained, "you're never going to have everyone wanting to do the same thing." Fallon never seemed to grasp that even though Petraeus was technically his subordinate, the general held all of the cards. As long as Petraeus, Odierno and Crocker held a united position, and Keane was in the background conveying their views to Cheney, they outweighed not just Fallon but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff as well. As one of Petraeus' aides put it, "If there's a beauty contest between the chiefs, Fallon, Casey, and I don't know who else -- well, Petraeus wins."


Political intrigue and a certain amount of back-biting are to be expected in any large organization but encountering this type of personality conflict and strategic disagreement at this point in the war constitutes a much larger problem within the military and its civilian superiors. At the time Fallon was put in charge of Central Command, thousands of Americans had died, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had died, the war was going NOWHERE, and the President had formally staked the future of the war on a "surge" strategy and identified David Petraeus as the point man, Yet, at the same time, Central Command leadership changed from John Abizaid, who favored troop reductions as a method to reduce the "irritant factor" to William Fallon, who also didn't agree with the surge strategy publicly promoted by the President as our new, best hope for a turnaround in a major war. More disconcerting is that Fallon lasted a year in his role and his departure in March 2008 had nothing to do with his interference with the surge strategy. Instead, he was chased out after ill-advised comments that depicted him as the sole thinker keeping President Bush from pursuing an invasion of Iran were published in Esquire magazine. (see #2)

The Real Consequences of The Surge

Ricks ends the book with a comprehensive analysis of the immediate and long term impacts of the surge. Categorizing the surge as a success or failure is impossible without first nailing down a definitive goal for the surge, which, of course, no one has done. If the original stated goals of the war from 2003 are used as the benchmark, the surge has in no way produced a robust democracy and a country free of insurgent terrorists capable of defending its borders. If the pared down goal of creating a period of calm in which Iraqi political factions could come together and stabilize the economic and political balance between local, provincial and national government layers is used as the benchmark, the surge still comes up short of the mark. If the goal is reduced to a significant reduction in Iraqi deaths, American deaths and a brake on some of the factors that encourage participation in the insurgency, the surge has been an unqualified success.

During the first few months of the surge, Iraqi deaths declined but American troop losses actually went up as a more active presence attracted more attacks. However, the increased presence of American troops at the local level reduced the ability of insurgents to move about, driving up the amount of communication between insurgent groups, allowing that communication to be intercepted with new intelligence programs which allowed more of the insurgent network structure to be identified then eliminated. The down side of the reduction in Iraqi casualties is that part of the reason for the downturn was that much of the ethnic cleansing had already been completed by the time the surge began. Entire Sunni neighborhoods were systematically purged as Shi'ite militias operating between 2004 and 2006 gradually tightened the noose around Sunni neighborhoods, killing entire families or simply driving many to flee the country. Over two million Iraqis left the country in the first years of the war. Ricks makes a crucial point that as surge forces are redeployed out of Iraq, the first forces to be removed will likely be from the more "successful" areas of the country, potentially delaying recognition of the real damage to come from removing American troops from less stable areas. When millions of Iraqi Sunnis run out of money abroad and attempt to return to their homes, more sectarian violence is virtually guaranteed.

The counter-insurgency tactics adopted during the surge have also led many insurgent groups and militias to cooperate with American troops once they began seeing a continued presence in their communities. Prior to the surge, American forces would clear a town of insurgents and al Queda forces then leave it, allowing insurgents to immediately return and kill those who cooperated with Americans, drastically reducing cooperation the next time around. The counter-insurgency approach also gave more latitude to local American commanders to deal with insurgent groups and militias to gain cooperation and share local policing duties. Ricks notes many success stories in which former insurgents have been converted into well-disciplined, highly effective forces. Sounds great, right?

Maybe not. The nature of those deals and the long term loyalty of those forces to a unified, national force have raised serious questions in the minds of virtually everyone within the US military as well as the Iraqis. Ricks' book has attracted media attention in part due to his analysis of formal programs established by local American commanders to pay former insurgents and militia members for their services in local forces. Interrogations of militia and al Qaeda members found very few had any religious or philosophical motivation for their participation. Sheer survival for their families was the driving factor. American commanders came to the conclusion that paying Iraqis $300 per month to work for local security teams beats having them work for the opposition and planning roadside bombs. These programs were instituted without any direct approval from senior civil or military American command and without consultation with the Iraqi national government.

The problem with the payments is that they cannot ensure continued cooperation after the payments stop and / or Americans leave the local scene. American commanders are in fact worried that local militia members may be simply taking the cash, taking the training and improved weapons and preparing for the time when Americans leave, at which point prior sectarian battles will immediately return with a higher degree of lethality. Leaders in the Shi'ite dominated national government are deathly afraid these deals at the local level with Sunnis or tribes hostile to the national government are strengthening forces which will attack the national government once American force levels dwindle to the point the national government must stand on its own. In other words, the payments may be producing a false calm before a much more intense civil war once American forces back out.

It Ain't Over

As Ricks wraps up The Gamble, he summarizes the political deadlock between Republicans and Democrats over the original surge strategy and subsequent discussions of troop levels and withdrawal timelines. The net analysis is that virtually no authorities on the subject from any political persuasion believe American troops can be precipitously removed from Iraq in two or three years. In fact, many experts foresee a presence of 30,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq for ten to twenty years. The current deployment of 130,000 troops is costing America nearly $343 million per day or $10.3 billion per month or $123 billion per year. So far, over $597 billion has been spent. (#3) A continued presence of 30,000 might cost $28 billion per year. That could mean another $280 billion to $560 billion under the best of scenarios.

And not a single person on the planet can describe a plan to bring the Iraqis together to solve the real problems of the country while we burn another $280 to $560 billion and sentence another generation of our military to getting shot at in the desert.


#1) http://watchingtheherd.blogspot.com/2006/05/book-review-cobra-ii.html

#2) http://www.esquire.com/features/fox-fallon

#3) http://www.nationalpriorities.org/costofwar_home