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Gambling In Iraq With No Payout

Max Zimbert |
April 3, 2009 | 10:07 a.m. PDT


It falls to Tom Ricks to save the surge from its politicized interpretations in his book The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.

Ricks traces the origins of "the surge" back to November 2005 when a squad of Marines killed 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha, a city about 150 miles west of Bagdad. American military planners continually refused to confront the destabilizing sectarian violence preferring, instead, to patrol and retreat to protected fortresses outside the cities. The Haditha killings were the logical result of that strategy.

The gamble- the surge- was the culmination of several soldiers changing Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began more than six years ago, into a counterinsurgency. The military effectively became the glue of Iraqi society, and violence against Americans and Iraqi civilians fell off.

"Surge" became the most discussed word until last year--when 'recession' supplanted it. With everybody's minds on the global economy, the lessons of the surge risk joining Lehman Brothers in the ash heap of history.

Conventional wisdom holds the surge as the strategy crafted by Gen. David Petraeus in which 21,500 troops would join the approximately 132,000 troops then in Iraq to establish, in President Bush's words, a "...unified, democratic federal Iraq... [and] an ally in the War on Terror."

Tactically, the surge was a success. The troops arrived in Baghdad and violence began to subside. The military began to reconsider everything it thought it had known about Iraq. Petraeus's minimalist approach to securing Iraq became the majority opinion of the new military leadership of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Ricks at one points reflects on the paradigm shift and reflects upon the "thunder runs," when American tanks rushed to the center of Baghdad in 2003. Those days, Ricks writes, marked the end of everything the military had known since the old days of blitzkrieg and World War II.

Anyone who says the surge is a success must read The Gamble. The increase in American soldiers was one part, but it was only one variable in a uncontrollable equation that led to the dramatic drop in violence. The American military was successful, but Iraqis had to help themselves.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Sunni insurgency began switching sides in 2006. Insurgents who a few years before were killing Americans were now providing valuable intelligence, some of which was used to kill the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in June 2006. The Sunni tribes were threatened by extremists, and Sunni residents of Baghdad feared Shia death squads. Only when soldiers began to go among the people and away from the fortresses in the desert could they begin to mitigate the sectarian violence and an increasingly likely civil war.

There is still no political reconciliation among Iraqi elites. Ricks, who also blogs, noted the fragility earned by the surge could be unraveling. The central government has not brought Sunnis into the operation and those Sunnis are reverting back to older reactions. Furthermore, the country faces several upcoming elections, which, ironically, tend to have destabilizing effects.

The same minds that worry about upcoming Iraqi elections also predict a "war waiting in the wings...[between] the Kurds and Arabs." In fact, many Iraqi civic leaders regressed so much that one leading American colonel told Ricks the surge merely papered over the problems of Iraq without solving them.

Ricks brings a different takeaway from the Obama-Petraeus meeting during the presidential election last year.

Still a presidential candidate at the time, Obama landed in Iraq in late July of last year for a meeting with Crocker and Petraeus. Usually, these kinds of visits are more conversational. Breaking with tradition, Crocker and Petraeus presented a comprehensive power point, and the debate lasted hours.

While they are similar in physique, ambition, confidence and cerebral nature, their meeting was contentious, Ricks reports. Petraeus argued the military's adventure should not end for a long time; Obama said something along the lines of things are better and it's time to take resources elsewhere.

The next day, he was helicoptered to the center of the now-friendly Sunni provinces.

"He asked many questions," one sheikh told Ricks. "We asked him not to pull out of Iraq."

Obama announced a withdrawal plan on Feb. 27 that will see 142,000 troops leave Iraq by 2010, with a 50,000 "residual force" remaining until 2011. Insiders privy to the decision said it preserves enough force to deter violence after Iraqi elections.

"In other words," Ricks concludes chillingly, "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."


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