The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
By Thomas E. Ricks
(Penguin Press, 394 pp., $27.95)
FROM CENTRALITY TO banality: perhaps no other event in modern American history has gone from being contentious to being forgotten as quickly as the war in Iraq. Remember the war? It consumed a trillion American dollars, devoured a hundred thousand Iraqi lives, squandered a country’s reputation, and destroyed an American presidency. Given the retreat of the American press—the first American withdrawal from Iraq, you might say—one could almost be excused, in the spring of 2009, for forgetting that 140,000 American troops are still fighting and dying there.
That an undertaking as momentous and as costly as America’s war in Iraq could vanish so quickly from the forefront of the national consciousness does not speak well of the United States in the early twenty-first century: not for its seriousness and not for its sense of responsibility. The American people, we are told, appear to be exhausted by the war in Iraq. But exhausted by what, exactly? Certainly not from fighting it. The fighting is done by kids from the towns between the coasts, not by any of the big shots who really matter. And they are not exhausted by paying for it, either: another generation will do that. No, when Americans say that they are tired of the war in Iraq, what they really mean is that they are tired of watching it on television, or of reading about it on the Internet. As entertainment, as Topic A, the agony has become a bore. “A car bomb exploded today in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing 53 and wounding 112.” Click.
The irony of America’s big tune-out lies in its timing. It has taken place during what has been the most dramatic phase of the six-year-long conflict—more precisely, during the reversal of the war’s fortunes. It is this reversal, this unexpected turnaround to the possibility of something less than a disastrous outcome, that has allowed so many Americans guiltlessly to forget about it. In the summer of 2006, remember, the war in Iraq was spiraling toward defeat, and the Middle East seemed to be headed toward a regional war. Two summers later, however, conditions on the ground were so normal, relatively speaking, that the citizens of the invading nation could feel secure enough to avert their gaze.
The two years between those summers are what really matter. America’s military—exhausted, bled-out, half-broken—gathered itself and launched a great counteroffensive that arrested the slide and regained the initiative. The launching of that campaign, known as the surge, is the story of Thomas Ricks’s important book. As Ricks makes clear, it is still too soon to know whether the surge will be as decisive in the long term as it has been in the short term. The war is not yet over; and the prospect of its conclusion will almost certainly provoke some violence by the various suicidal spoilers.
But the fact that the outcome of the war in Iraq is still up for grabs is perhaps the greatest irony of the surge’s success. By stopping the slide toward cataclysm, the surge all but ensured an even longer American commitment to the people of Iraq. And, we might as well add, to the people of Afghanistan. America, take note: we are still in the middle of two terrible and complicated wars, and we are likely to be fighting them for many years to come, even if we lose.
THESE DAYS IT IS difficult to recall just how bad Iraq was in the nightmare year of 2006. The place had become a dystopian dream, a kind of laboratory of failure and inhumanity. Every morning, a hundred new corpses would appear in the streets, in garbage dumps, along the banks of the Tigris, many of them frozen in their final moments: hands bound, heads bagged, burned with acid, drilled with holes. The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was galloping ahead, spurred on by the relentless suicide attacks on Shiite civilians and by the government-backed death squads that were pouring into the Sunni neighborhoods after sunset each day. Millions of ordinary Iraqis were streaming from their homes to the country’s borders, and to camps set up inside freshly cleansed neighborhoods that were now protected by sectarian gunmen.
There was no government to speak of in the summer of 2006. There was only anarchy and dread. In Baghdad, fifty people were being kidnapped every day, often by the police. Increasingly, the kidnappers’ targets were children, fewer and fewer of whom were being allowed by their parents to venture outside. Once snatched, the victims were typically offered for sale to one of the many kidnapping gangs—or to the video-makers in Al Qaeda. There were places—the horse-racing track in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ameriya, for instance—where the dark auctions would unfold.
Standing amid the anarchy, I sometimes forgot that the violence in Iraq was not in fact random. It had specific purposes and specific causes. The violence in Iraq was never just a hysteria of ancient hatreds, unfocused and irrational, any more than it had been in Sarajevo. The violence in Iraq was planned to achieve particular ends, social and religious and political ends. Nothing seemed inevitable, except perhaps the country’s eventual unraveling.
The horrifying state into which Iraq had fallen by the middle of 2006 was the product of certain policies, American and Iraqi. The lunatic wing of the Sunni insurgency—Al Qaeda and its like-minded soldiers—was bent on starting a full-scale sectarian war, believing it to offer their only hope of victory. To this end, the group unleashed waves of suicide attacks on Shiite civilians, hoping to provoke a backlash and a wider conflict. Increasingly, Al Qaeda took control of the Sunni insurgency, pushing out the more nationalist-minded groups, and portraying itself as the guardian of the country’s embattled Sunni minority. Indeed, Al Qaeda was increasingly taking over all of Sunni society.
In the first two years of the war, the country’s Shiite leadership had held its fire in the face of the Sunni onslaught. Then came the elections in December 2005, which brought to power the country’s first Shiite-dominated government. The gloves came off. Iraq’s new leaders, Nuri Al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz Hakim, were determined to crush the Sunni insurgency at any cost. Police and paramilitary units, now dominated by Shiite gunmen who moonlighted as militiamen, were turned loose in the Sunni neighborhoods, where they began, in late 2005, to carry out large-scale massacres of military-aged men. By early 2006, a civil war was well under way.
In the face of all this, the Americans, most crucially, decided to back away. From the summer of 2004 onward, the objective of the American strategy, which was formulated by General John Abizaid and General George Casey, was less the defeat of the Sunni insurgency than the training and equipping of the Iraqis to fight it for them. “As they stand up, we’ll stand down,” President Bush was fond of saying. By the middle of 2006, American soldiers were congregating, or more precisely isolating themselves, on large bases, with Burger Kings and Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops, only occasionally venturing into Iraq. Meanwhile the Iraqi security forces had grown in quantity if not in quality, and were taking over larger and larger pieces of the war. It was difficult, in the summer of 2006, to drive around Baghdad and find any American soldiers at all.
The trouble was that the strategy of Iraqification was manifestly failing, but the Bush administration, driven by domestic unhappiness and its own bullheadedness, kept pushing it anyway. Violence was not decreasing; it was increasing. American units were standing down before Iraqi units were ready (or willing) to fight for the Iraqi state. And Iraq’s leaders were only too happy to have the Americans stand aside so that their gunmen could do the dirty work. “We know where these people live,” Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the Shiite vice-presidents, told me at the time, referring to the Sunni insurgents. “The Americans don’t.” The result, by the summer of 2006, was a nearly total collapse into chaos.
FROM THE START of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a relatively small group of American officers were convinced that the American military was prosecuting the war in a counter-productive way, and that, with a better approach, the war might still be won. At the beginning of the war, the American military had forgotten the experience of Vietnam (why don’t the lessons of counter-insurgency warfare, or low-intensity warfare, or asymmetrical warfare, ever stick?) and was training for something resembling World War II. The generals never expected to fight a guerrilla insurgency in Iraq; and once it began, they concentrated almost entirely on killing and capturing insurgents. In practice, this typically meant surrounding Sunni villages and kicking down the doors of anyone suspected of fighting the Americans, whether they were or not. The result was that the American strategy in the early years in Iraq succeeded not in reducing the number of insurgents but, by alienating Iraqi civilians, in producing new recruits.
Even in the early years, there were a number of American officers who rejected the kill-and-capture policy and went their own way. For them—General David Petraeus, Colonel H.R. McMaster, and others—the center of gravity in Iraq was not the insurgency but the Iraqis themselves. Protect them at all costs, nurture them, help them—above all, get out there in the streets with them—and the insurgents would wither away. And that meant, somewhat counterintuitively, taking higher casualties.
Petraeus had done this in Mosul in 2003 and McMaster in Tal Afar in 2005, both to great effect. Even by late 2006, Petraeus and a small group of like-minded thinkers—most of whom were out of the military—believed that if they did everything right, they might be able to turn the Iraqi venture around. The remarkable thing—and the great drama of Ricks’s thoroughly reported book—is that this small group of American insurgents actually succeeded in overthrowing the Army’s leadership and executing an about-face in American strategy—and doing so in the nick of time, before the war in Iraq was lost. To read The Gamble is to be struck by just how close we came to losing. Petraeus and his colleagues gathered all the extra troops they could muster and gave the war one last shot, even though many of the same colleagues were not at all sure that their plan would work. “All in,” Petraeus said many times. One of his aides used the poker metaphor a little differently: “We were dealt a really shitty hand.”
For all of the dramatic developments in Iraq, perhaps the greatest drama was taking place in Washington. Petraeus and company were stepping forward with a last-gasp plan just as domestic political support for Bush was beginning to collapse. If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is the mother of radicalism. Bush—defying the generals, the Democrats, much of his own party, and a good chunk of the American people—decided to throw deep. Today, in the spring of 2009, it no longer really matters whether Bush was brilliant or stupid, a man who listened to reason or an idiot savant struck, Forrest Gump-like, by a fleeting insight. Whatever one’s view of the war, it is impossible to deny that in the eleventh hour Bush was right. The gamble has worked, at least so far.
THE SURGE WORKED for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being luck. In fact, the word “surge” is a misnomer. When the White House finally endorsed the new plan, the Pentagon could only come up with about thirty thousand additional troops. That is a significant number, but it is not at all huge. It represented an increase of less than 20 percent in the number of American soldiers already deployed there. So how, then, did the surge work?
The chief reason for the new strategy’s success was that all the American troops, not just the new ones, were deployed in a new and riskier way: directly into Iraqi neighborhoods, in small outposts. This put American soldiers among the Iraqis, who for years had been reluctant to cooperate with the Americans for fear of being killed by insurgents after the Americans went back to their bases. But this time the American soldiers were not pulling out. “You never give it up,” Colonel Sean MacFarland, one of the most exceptional field commanders of the war, told Ricks.
Moreover, Petraeus and his deputy, General Raymond Odierno, proceeded on the assumption that most of the violence was being caused by small groups of Sunnis and Shiites, and not by the mass of Iraqis themselves. In the chaos, the generals saw a distinct pattern to the violence. On Monday, Sunni suicide bombers would murder scores of Shiite civilians. On Tuesday, the Shiite death squads, some in uniform, some allied with the provocative young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, would pour into the Sunni neighborhoods to take their revenge. So if the cycle could be broken, if the suiciders could be stopped, then Iraq’s Shiite majority might rid itself of the Shiite militias and the death squads.
But to achieve this goal, Petraeus and Odierno reasoned, there would have to be a lot of fighting first. The Americans had to fight their way back into neighborhoods and towns in and around Baghdad, some of which they had not been to in years. This combat was bloody, indeed. The early months of the surge, in the spring of 2007, were, for the Americans, the deadliest of the war.
And along the way—indeed, before the surge even got under way—the Americans got an extraordinary break. The insurgency in Iraq had always been a many-headed beast, with no over-arching leadership. It included former Baathists, unemployed layabouts, and full-blown Islamist psychopaths. As the war dragged on, it was the murderous lunatics, most of them members of Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, who gained the upper hand. This was especially true in Anbar Province, the Wyoming-sized region that spans the Euphrates River west of Baghdad. Al Qaeda did not want merely to kill Americans; it harbored flamboyant visions of setting up a caliphate and provoking a full sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s gunmen killed anyone—the traditional Sunni tribal leaders, for instance—who did not share their extreme goals.
But then, in late 2006, came the Sunni backlash. In Arabic, it was called Al Sahwah, or the Awakening. In some ways it was predictable, in some ways not. Squeezed by Al Qaeda on one side and the Shiite death squads on the other, the sheiks turned to—surprise!—the Americans to save them. The Awakening had nearly gotten going several times in the past, but it had always been snuffed out by Al Qaeda gunmen, who killed any sheiks who stepped forward. This time, under the adroit leadership of Colonel MacFarland, the Americans got there first. Months before the surge in Baghdad began, MacFarland had launched his own surge in Anbar Province, pulling his troops off the big bases and putting them in the middle of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, which lay in ruins. The determination shown by MacFarland prompted a sheik, Sittar Abu Risha, to step forward and make a deal on behalf of his tribe. This was a dazzling development. And MacFarland was ready to protect the arrangement: he parked an M-1 tank in front of Abu Risha’s house.
“We’re staying until we win this fight,” MacFarland liked to say. And “more than anything else,” he told Ricks, “that persuaded the sheiks that we were here to stay.” And so the Awakening began. Soon MacFarland and other American officers were making the deals with sheiks across the Sunni heartland and into western Baghdad. This was possible in large part because Sunni Iraq is still a tribal society. Make a deal with the sheik—promise him security, hand him a bag of money—and he can plausibly deliver the rest of his tribe, even if, as was often the case, many members of that tribe had spent the past few years killing Americans.
Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Ricks shows that this question is somewhat irrelevant, because it transpired that the two reinforced each other. The surge brought the security that allowed the sheiks to come forward, and the Awakening rapidly took thousands of potential enemies out of the war. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the book—it is almost cinematically stirring—a small tribe near Ramadi called Albu Soda, which had refused to join the Awakening, came under attack by a group of Al Qaeda gunmen. With the battle underway, a group of savvy American officers led by Captain Travis Patriquin began talking to the sheiks on their cell phones to offer their help. The sheiks quickly accepted. Captain Patriquin told the sheiks that the Americans could not tell who was Al Qaeda and who were members of Albu Soda, and so, in the heat of the battle, the captain and the sheik made a deal. The tribesmen climbed up on rooftops and waved towels over their heads, signaling that they were friendly—and the Americans bombed everyone else. A deal with the tribe was made shortly thereafter. (And soon afterward Captain Patriquin was killed.)
THE GAMBLE IS MOSTLY a book about American generals. The tale of the captain and the sheik notwithstanding, there is not a lot of the grit and grime of the streets in Ricks’s pages, and there are not a lot of Iraqis in the book either. But Ricks’s focus on the generals works well, because it allows him to capture the full scope of the drama that unfolded between 2006 and 2008. Still, sometimes The Gamble can be jarring when held up against Fiasco, Ricks’s earlier book on the Iraq war. In keeping with the polarized debate of the time, Fiasco delivered sweeping judgments about America’s officer corps, singling out a certain General Raymond Odierno as one of the villains. In 2003 and 2004, Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle, which earned a reputation for employing heavy-handed tactics and spurring the growth of the insurgency. In Fiasco, Odierno came off as something between a buffoon and a war criminal, all but wearing jack-boots as he turns his men loose across the Sunni Triangle.
In The Gamble, by contrast, Odierno is a hero. He is portrayed, very persuasively, as the principal intellectual force behind the surge inside the Pentagon, and once it was adopted he served as Petraeus’s deputy commander in 2006 and 2007. (He replaced Petraeus as the overall commander in Iraq last fall. ) So what happened to Odierno? Well, maybe he wasn’t all that dumb in the first place. Odierno’s men did indeed employ harsh tactics in 2003 and 2004, and those tactics did indeed backfire by alienating ordinary Iraqis. But I must report, from my own experience working in the Sunni Triangle in those awful days, that it was not at all clear that anything else would have worked. Iraq’s Sunnis had not been defeated by America’s invasion; quite the contrary. They were preparing to fight.
GIVEN THE ASTONISHING bloodletting of 2005 and 2006, Iraq in the spring of 2009 is a remarkably calm place. Rescuing Iraq from the abyss was an epic achievement, and we owe Petraeus, Odierno, MacFarland, and the others a huge debt for dreaming it up and pulling it off. (Petraeus spent four entire years in Iraq before leaving in the fall of 2008.) But if Iraq is calm, it is not stable. It is, in fact, very fragile. The tens of thousands of Sunni gunmen who came on the government payroll as part of the Awakening regularly threaten to rejoin Al Qaeda. The Shiite-led government, wary of these former insurgents, appears eager to provoke them. The failure of all three of Iraq’s major groups—Sunni, Shiite, Kurd—to reconcile in any meaningful way pushes ethnic and sectarian tensions constantly to the edge. Indeed, the Iraq that emerged from the war of 2003-2009 is an essentially shattered state: the Kurds seceding in every way but in name, the Sunnis inhabiting a dysfunctional strip along the Euphrates, the Shiites sitting astride a pro-Iranian authoritarian state.
This is not, in other words, something we can walk away from. That is Ricks’s powerful point. What Petraeus and the other generals have ensured, by staving off defeat, is a longer war. How long? I do not know, but surely a lot longer than the debate in Washington would have you believe. “While there was an exit strategy,” Ricks observes, “the exit was years away, in fact so far into the future that it is hard to discern.”
President Obama’s pronouncements on the war must therefore be read carefully. He has never said that America will leave Iraq by 2010. He has said only that American combat troops will leave. What is a combat troop? Well, you can bet it is not a military adviser, or a trainer, or a police mentor, or a special forces soldier, or a CIA paramilitary. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi state will need many years to cohere again. Until that day, it seems unlikely that American soldiers will not be there by the tens of thousands, whoever the American president is. For this reason, the president may be a little divided against himself. His rhetoric of winding-down may be politically welcome, but may not be the best way to ready the American people for what will likely be a very long commitment.
WHICH BRINGS US, finally, to Afghanistan. It is in Afghanistan, after all, that Obama has promised to re-engage and re-assert, and, as Bush did in Iraq, reverse the downward course of a war. The president has promised to dispatch an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, and defense secretary Robert Gates, the holdover from the Bush White House, has been busy defining downward what we might call victory.
What can be won in Afghanistan? Driving around the country, as I did recently, one is constantly overwhelmed by how little has been accomplished there. In December 2001, the country lay in ruins. Today, it is still pretty much the same place. Back then, the Taliban were scattered and broken; I remember walking through the caves of Tora Bora, just weeks after the Americans’ ill-fated attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and not feeling the least bit afraid. Today, Taliban fighters move freely across the countryside, and in some places they have set up a shadow government.
And then there is Pakistan, whose nightmarish qualities make its neighbor seem almost docile by comparison. Here, aided by elements of the Pakistani government itself, the Taliban have taken control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the vast area along the Afghan border, where they have allowed Al Qaeda to rebuild itself, and where they have developed a virtually untouchable base from which to mount attacks against American soldiers. What’s more, the Taliban have begun marching east as well. With the capture of Swat Valley and the establishment of their harsh rule there, which was astoundingly ratified by a deal with the Zardari government, the Taliban are now a mere hundred miles from the Pakistani capital. Recall also that Pakistan, with a population of 175 million people, has several dozen nuclear warheads. That is the stuff of very dark movies.
So what is to be done? The first thing that should be said is that pulling out could have catastrophic consequences. Most of the available evidence suggests that if the Taliban were to return to power, Al Qaeda would return with them. Forget, too, about the military defeat of the Taliban in either country. As any American general will tell you, you cannot kill and capture your way to victory in Afghanistan any more than you could in Iraq. (If you think you can, take a drive down any road outside the capital and count the rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks.)
One thing the Obama administration seems determined to do, and which seems plausible enough, is to make friends. In practice, this means flipping, protecting, and possibly even bribing individual Taliban commanders to come over to the other—that is, our—side. In the minds of American military commanders, this means, at least to some extent, duplicating the experience of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. American officers have already begun reaching out to Afghan tribal elders, and in Wardak Province they have begun trying to set up local militias that might help them in the fight against the Taliban.
The good news about the prospects of an Afghan Awakening is that there are probably a fair number of Taliban to be flipped. War in Pakistan and Afghanistan is not like war anywhere else in the world. Men fight, men change sides, men fight again. In fact, much of the initial success of the invasion in 2001 was owed to our turning and often bribing Taliban commanders, sometimes with astonishing results. In November 2001, when the war was little more than a month old, I stood at the outskirts of the city of Kunduz, where thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had been encircled, and watched as Taliban fighters drove out of the city in their Toyota Hi-Lux trucks to defect to the army of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban gunmen were literally embraced and kissed by the Northern Alliance fighters as they climbed out of their trucks. Some of the turncoats went into battle against the remaining Taliban the very next day.
Still, it is hardly as easy as all that. There are limits to how many of the Taliban might be amenable to this kind of co-optation. And where in Iraq the insurgents were part of a tribal society, in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan the old tribal networks have been decimated by years of war. In many places, the Taliban have largely supplanted them. It is important to understand that in many respects the Taliban phenomenon represents a social revolution: the turbaned fighter as Robin Hood. After thirty years of war, Pashtun society, on both sides of the border, is atomized and broken.
Since taking office, Obama and his advisers have set about lowering their sights for the region, to the point that the overriding objective appears to be to stop Al Qaeda from attacking Europe or the United States. It seems like a purely military approach, based only on the requirements of American security. But the deep question is to what extent the requirements of American security demand more than a purely military approach—to what extent a successful military strategy must rest on social transformation, on nation-building. Obama seems to have concluded that we must engage in flat-out nation-building on both sides of the border. The reason for this is simple enough: without creating strong and stable states in both countries, stopping Al Qaeda will likely be impossible. In this respect, we probably should not expect a dramatic revision of Bush’s strategic principles in Afghanistan. We may expect, rather, a more robust implementation of them. And the turnaround in Iraq provides an instructive example. It may have taken six years and $1 trillion, but in Iraq the Americans built a state. Iraqi police, soldiers, and security forces number about 600,000: a sure sign of a state. That is a mass—something that the insurgents could join.
In Afghanistan, there is nothing like this. After eight years of neglect, the Afghan state is a weak and pathetic thing. It is not for nothing that President Karzai’s nickname is “the mayor of Kabul.” At the city limits, his writ ends. Across the border, in FATA, there is almost nothing at all. To this end, the Obama administration plans massively to boost economic development aid in Pakistan, and it is planning on doing the same in Afghanistan. Most significantly, the new administration has promised to increase the size of the Afghan army from its current level of 90,000 to some yet-to-be-determined number—probably in the neighborhood of 240,000.
This is impressive, but the question today in Afghanistan and Pakistan is whether this is really enough. Only 21,000 additional American troops to rebuild Afghanistan? Again, Ricks's book is instructive. When American military officers launched the surge in Iraq, many of them were deeply skeptical about its chances for success. They tried it anyway, and it worked. And so in Afghanistan, too, we are going to try. But we must beware of facile analogies about surges and awakenings. It is a different world in South Asia. The war in Afghanistan is in its eighth year. Every day Pakistan lurches closer to collapse. Obama's proposals may be too late. Failure is always an option.
Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of The Forever War (Knopf). This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.