x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Baghdad hold 'em

Books Thomas Ricks's highly-praised new book on the US troop surge in Iraq is a masterful piece of reporting. But, Spencer Ackerman writes, it still overlooks crucial parts of the story.

Iraqis observe a US soldier as he patrols the Baghdad suburb of Sadiyah last June.
Iraqis observe a US soldier as he patrols the Baghdad suburb of Sadiyah last June.

Thomas Ricks's highly-praised new book on the US troop surge in Iraq is a masterful piece of reporting. But, Spencer Ackerman writes, it still overlooks crucial parts of the story.
The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 Thomas E Ricks Allen Lane Dh130 The Gamble, an account of the US troop surge in Iraq from the veteran Washington Post defence correspondent Thomas Ricks, doesn't need any more praise. It's a thoughtful, detailed narrative of arguably the most controversial and audacious American military operation in the post-Vietnam era. Ricks contradicts some existing accounts - Bob Woodward's book about the surge, The War Within, portrays the operation as originating conceptually in Washington, whereas Ricks portrays it as the brainchild of Gen Raymond Odierno, now the commander of US forces in Iraq. But The Gamble will probably prevail as the definitive history of how US commanders in Baghdad conceived and implemented their strategic departure from the war's first four years. Ricks provides a degree of intellectual rigour and exhaustive reporting that is missing from the existing narratives of the surge - and his achievement in this respect has already been justly and widely heralded.

Ricks's bottom line is that, in the verdict of near-term history, "the best grade the surge can be given is a solid incomplete", because the political reconciliation that was supposed to emerge in its wake has not materialised. Neither hostile nor hagiographic, he portrays Gen David Petraeus, the commander during the surge, and his extensive brains trust as committed and complex individuals who step ably into a vacuum created by the miscalculations of the Bush administration.

Yet even with Ricks's deep reporting, several mysteries remain about the surge's main characters and its overall purpose. Still other mysteries persist as a consequence of his intense focus on the US military: most notably, for a book about Iraq, The Gamble reveals remarkably little about Iraqis. One of the most significant of these lingering puzzles is that Odierno remains an enigma. In Ricks's first volume chronicling the Iraq war, Fiasco, Odierno stands out as one of the chief villains. As commander of the 4th Infantry Division during 2003 and 2004, Odierno was known for brutish tactics, particularly his reliance on extensive detention of military-aged males, many of whom were abused in custody. "Odierno, he hammered everyone," a retired Army general lamented to Ricks. Fiasco documented the ways in which the US military did not understand the war it was fighting, and Odierno emerged as an archetype of the general who didn't get it - often counterpoised against Petraeus, who did.

In The Gamble, Ricks writes as if he's over-correcting his old portrayal of Odierno. By 2006, Odierno is the corps commander in Iraq, deputy to the commanding general, seasoned from years as plans director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and wise to the mistakes of the his previous tour. His concept for the course of the war, once it's clear in December 2006 that he'll receive five new combat brigades to prosecute it, is to provide for the protection of the population that he once viewed with a hunter's eye. In his interviews with Ricks, Odierno comes across as the link in the chain between Petraeus' occasionally sky-high big-picture concepts and the division and brigade commanders who need practical guidance on their implementation. But how did the Odierno of Fiasco become the Odierno of The Gamble?

Ricks can't answer that question. Odierno apparently talked a great deal about how he conceptualised and implemented the surge, but "brushed aside" questions about the evolution in his thinking. As a result, Ricks does little but invite speculation. The wounding of Odierno's son, an army lieutenant who lost an arm in Iraq, is a leading contender to explain his motivations for rethinking some of the war's assumptions. Yet it seems at least as likely that a son's maiming would have caused Odierno to believe, as one of his battalion commanders did, that the trouble with the war was that it wasn't being waged with sufficient brutality.

Another possible explanation is that Odierno doesn't believe he has, in fact, changed. A profile last year by the American television show 60 Minutes' featured an apparently irritated Odierno contending that the portrayals of him as a conventionally-minded commander were inaccurate. Fiasco, of course, supplied the most prominent such portrayal. Yet Odierno does not wish to explore the issue, and Ricks does not wish to revise his assessment. The question remains unsettled.

An even odder omission is that of any sustained portrayal of Iraqis.There are anecdotal figures, to be sure. One wonderful scene features an insurgent commander who confesses a love of the movie Titanic and submits to heated, Socratic interrogations in which the foundations for his resistance are challenged by a fellow Iraqi. But there's not one fleshed out Iraqi character in The Gamble. It's true that the book is mainly about the US military's experience, but Iraqis remain a conspicuous absence - especially since the military during the surge prided itself on its efforts to see Iraq through Iraqi eyes. Considering how masterful the rest of Ricks's account is, his failure to draw solid portraits of the Iraqis that the US dealt with - from Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, to military commanders, to troublesome Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr - calls into question how much understanding the US actually had. Al Maliki is particularly inscrutable. At the beginning of Ricks's account of the surge, he comes across as obstinate and sectarian, but by March 2008 he's ordering troops into Basra to fight al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Ricks interestingly describes that move as a military failure - the Iranians negotiated a ceasefire after al Maliki's uncoordinated push into the city - but a political success, in the sense that the Shiite prime minister was taking on a cleric to whom, in part, he owed his job.

It would be helpful to know why al Maliki actually challenged al Sadr - or, at the least, why US officials think he did. Much of what will happen in 2009, a year that has just seen the first of three elections in Iraq, depends on understanding al Maliki. His party has won power in the southern provinces by running on a platform of strong central government and what might be called "law and order". Is he doing so because he views himself as transitional figure, presiding over the shift from an Iraq of chaos to an Iraq of stability? Or is he doing so because he happens to be the man at the top of the pile, and all of his positions redound to his personal benefit?

Indeed, let's be charitable to the surge for a moment. Ricks has been more aggressive in recent interviews, calling the surge a "failure" for not advancing reconciliation. But is there any relationship between the security improvements brought by the surge, Sadr's September 2007 decision to order a six-month Mahdi Army ceasefire and al Maliki's willingness to go after al Sadr in Basra? Could it be that al Maliki's "assertiveness" in Basra derived, at least in part, from the "breathing room" that George Bush promised the surge would provide for Iraqi politics? It seems odd to raise the episode and not grapple further with its implications for the broader project that the book chronicles.

The more one considers this lacuna in Ricks's account, the more starkly the limits of his narrative and its predictions come on display. We do not learn from The Gamble what the Iraqis - or any Iraqi factions - think of the surge. At the beginning of the book, Ricks prints an account of how an Iraqi witness to the 2005 Marine massacre in Haditha viewed the horror. An analogous Iraqi viewpoint might have complemented his description of an initiative known as "gated communities", in which Petraeus's subordinates built huge blast walls to separate Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad from Shiite ones. Petraeus meant the barriers to reduce sectarian violence, but Sunni residents of the Adhimiya neighbourhood protested loudly that the US was ghettoising Baghdad. Al Maliki publicly sided with the protesters, but the walls kept going up. Similarly, Odierno recognised that fighting in the "belts" around Baghdad was key to reducing violence inside the city (slyly, Ricks compares him to Saddam Hussein, who adopted a similar strategy). This peri-urban fighting was fierce and sustained, even if it helped protect the population from the insurgency. How did the Iraqis view this predicament?

The most important barometer of Iraqi opinion toward the war to date is the Status of Forces Agreement. In November 2007, following on the initial security gains of the surge, the Bush administration pressed the Iraqis into signing a broad security agreement mandating a US troop presence for years to come. But during the course of those negotiations, the US found itself under sustained pressure to include a timetable for withdrawing US forces from the country, along with a hard deadline for departure - precisely the opposite of what the Bush administration had intended. By the summer, with the US having boxed itself into completing the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, Bush had no choice but to capitulate to a firm deadline for ending the war, an outcome he had said for years would yield catastrophe.

None of this is covered in The Gamble, and it's a significant oversight. Should we view the SOFA as an indication of political progress in the wake of the surge, however ironic? After all, Iraqi factions throughout the al Maliki government and the parliament did come together for a common purpose - never mind that it was to kick the US out. Or should we view the SOFA as an indication that no matter how much the surge might have contributed to reducing the level of violence in Iraq, Iraqis have not forgotten that the violence was the result of an unnecessary US occupation? One of Petraeus' strategists, Lt Col Suzanne Nielsen, tells Ricks that she still considers it "kind of unforgivable" how the war was undertaken in 2003. The narrative might have benefited from a greater sense of whether the Iraqis - whom Petraeus's strategy recognised were the lynchpin to any prospect of stabilisation - agree.

It's possible that Ricks's blindness to the SOFA reflects that of his sources. During the month when the SOFA was signed, Odierno tells him, "I would like to see a... force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000" in 2014 or 2015 - years after the SOFA mandates the US must leave. A discomfort with the prospect of US forces leaving Iraq permeates the quotes from Odierno's deputies. "The American military is trying to persuade the American people that this is going to take a long time," Odierno aide Maj James Powell says. Emma Sky, a British liberal who improbably serves as Odierno's political adviser - and who took the job, she says, to see if the US could "exit with some dignity" - tells Ricks: "We have to buy time in the US to complete the mission." There is no recognition evident in their quotes that it is the Iraqis, not the Americans, who ultimately decide when the mission is completed.

Last week, though, President Obama recognised precisely that. His speech at Camp Lejeune spelling out how he intends to end the war explicitly promised to honour the SOFA's restrictions, a point backed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a conference call with reporters. He devoted four paragraphs of the speech to speaking "directly to the people of Iraq", assuring them that he has "no claim on your territory or your resources".

It's understandable for those who have given so much to the Iraq war to want its conclusion to be steady and gradual. But it also risks violating a principle of counterinsurgency: you can't want something more than the host nation does. The Gamble is masterful when it comes to explaining the US military in Iraq. In three elegant pages, Ricks explains how the concept of "rapid decisive operations", a piece of Rumsfeld-era Pentagon bigthink, effectively forced commanders to misunderstand the war. But when it comes to the Iraq that the Iraqis themselves recognise, Ricks - and possibly his sources, who will remain in military command for some time - appears not to have learned some of the surge's lessons.

Spencer Ackerman is a senior reporter at The Washington Independent.