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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
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Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: Anyone who read Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks's superb, bestselling account of the Iraq War through 2005, and has followed the war since has likely noticed that many of the heroes of that devastating book, the officers and analysts who seemed to understand what was going wrong in the war when the rest of the political and military leadership didn't, have since been put in charge, starting with General David Petraeus, the cerebral officer who took command in Iraq and led what became known as "the surge." Ricks, the senior Pentagon correspondent at the Washington Post, has stayed on the story, and he returns with his second book on the war, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. As good (and influential) as Fiasco was, The Gamble may be even better, telling the remarkable story of how a few people inside and outside the Pentagon pushed the new strategy through against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military top brass, and then, even more remarkably, how soldiers put the difficult plan into action on the ground and managed to sharply reduce the chaotic violence in Iraq. But the story doesn't end there, and Ricks's bracing conclusion--that the American military, like it or not, will still have a necessary role in Iraq for years to come--makes it likely that this may not be the last book we have from him on the subject. --Tom Nissley

Questions for Thomas E. Ricks

We exchanged emails with Tom Ricks for a few weeks before the publication of The Gamble, a time which saw, among other things, the inauguration of Barack Obama and regional elections in Iraq. You can read the full exchange on the Amazon books blog, Here are some highlights: The Gamble is the history of what has become known as "the surge." What do you think the public understands about the surge, and how does that compare with what you've seen from up close?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think there are two big misunderstandings about the surge. The first is that the surge "worked." Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed--the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.

The second misunderstanding is just how difficult the surge was. People back here seem to think that 30,000 troops were added and everything calmed down. In fact, the first six months of the surge, from January through early July 2007, were the toughest months of the war. When troops moved out of their big bases and into little outposts across Baghdad, they got hammered by bombs and rockets. It took some time before being among the people began to lead to improved security, and during that time, a lot of top American officials in Iraq weren't sure the new approach was working. General Petraeus says in the book that he looks back on that time as a "horrific nightmare." Let's start with that second point. Because The Gamble is in many ways the story of a remarkable success: a minority of officers and analysts who pushed through a new plan for the war against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military leadership, and then, even more impressively, soldiers who put the plan into action on the ground and managed to stem a great deal of the violence in Iraq within a matter of months.

The new counterinsurgency approach to the war was one you had argued for in Fiasco, but in the most violent days of early 2007, how did you think it was going to turn out?

Ricks: I was very skeptical back in early 2007 about the surge. I think there were two reasons for this.

First, there was little evidence that the U.S. military was going to be able to operate differently, and more effectively. After all, they had been fighting there for longer than we fought in World War II, and the only thing we had to show for it was that in 2006, Iraq was going straight to hell.

Also, I didn't get out to Iraq in 2007 until May, on the first trip I did for this book. It was only then, five months into the surge, when I got on the ground there, that I sensed how different the American leadership was from earlier on. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the U.S. military, was talking about counterinsurgency, and making protecting the Iraqi population their top priority. That was a huge change from earlier on in the war, when different units seemed pretty much to do their own thing--one outfit would be drinking tea with the sheikhs, another was banging heads.

The new candor and understanding in the Americans was striking. One that May 2007 trip, I went into Green Zone and got from David Kilcullen a really thorough and insightful briefing into the state of play in the streets of Baghdad. That was a big change from earlier on, when officials inside the Zone had no idea what was happening out there. I remember also one general, David Fastabend, an advisor to Petraeus, beginning a conversation then by saying, "We have done some stupid shit" in Iraq. There clearly was a new gang in town. And many of the people who had been put in charge, Gen. Petraeus first among them, were well known to readers of Fiasco as advocates for counterinsurgency. But one who wasn't turns out to be one of the crucial figures in your story: Gen. Ray Odierno, who early in the war was one of the ones banging heads. By the time 2007 rolls around, he's Petraeus's top commander in Iraq and he's a changed leader. What happened to him?

Ricks: The change in General Odierno is one I wrestled with throughout the reporting of this book. He seemed so different, so in sync with Petraeus on the counterinsurgency plan. And he was of almost no help in figuring it out. "General Odierno, you strike me as so changed from the guy I wrote about in Fiasco. I can't figure out how that happened." "Hey Tom: Your problem, not mine."

I think two major things happened to him between 2004, the end of his first tour in Iraq, and the end of 2006, when he came back for his second tour. First, his son was badly wounded in Baghdad, losing an arm to an RPG. Second, when he came back to Baghdad, he saw that the place was falling apart, and that the war could be lost on his watch. That has a way of concentrating the mind.

What he did then was kind of astonishing: He went around his bosses and basically cooked up the surge. He was the only officer in the chain of command who was for it. (Petraeus also was for it, but he hadn't yet arrived in Iraq.) I think he showed genuine moral courage in what he did. It was a huge risk, going against all his bosses. As I say in the book, he was the natural father of the surge, and Petraeus was the adoptive father. I have no problem saying that General Odierno is one of the heroes of this book. While we're talking about the surge, there's one basic thing to clarify: despite the name, as you say, "the surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them." What did the new counterinsurgency tactics translate into on the ground, and why do you think they worked to the extent they did?

Ricks: This is a hugely important question, so I want to take some time on it.

There were two key aspect to the different use of troops. First, they had a new top priority: protect Iraqis. (Until February 2007, the top priority of U.S. forces in Iraq was to transition to Iraqi control.) Second, to do that, they had to move out into the population. Before this point, they were doing a lot of patrols from big bases, usually in Humvees. They would be in a neighborhood maybe one hour a day, and the other 23 hours of the day belonged to the insurgents. Now, they were living in the neighborhoods, and constantly going out on short foot patrols. They got a lot more familiar with the people, often visiting every single family, and conducting a census. In military terms, they were mapping the sea in which the insurgent swam. Familiarity made them far more effective, and also constrained the movements of insurgents.

For all that, there are other important factors in why Iraq changed, and they shouldn't be forgotten. First, by the time the U.S. military moved into the streets of Baghdad, the city was largely ethnically cleansed. Second, in the spring of 2007, in a huge policy shift, General Petraeus began putting the Sunni insurgency on the payroll--essentially paying them not to attack us. This split them off from al Qaeda in Iraq, and isolated the terrorist extremists.

Once the Sunni insurgency was seen to be on our side, even temporarily, the Shiite fighters under Moqtadr al Sadr went to ground. Otherwise, Uncle Sam would have been training all his firepower on them.

The problem is that all these arrangements are temporary, and could easily unravel. For example, the Sunni insurgents made a separate peace with the United States. They never have given up their objection to Shiite control of Iraq and of the Iraqi army. So what we may have done is simply delay that fight--and armed both sides in the meantime.

Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks?s #1 New York Times bestseller, transformed the political dialogue on the war in Iraq?The Gamble is the next news breaking installment

Thomas E. Ricks uses hundreds of hours of exclusive interviews with top officers in Iraq and extraordinary on-the-ground reportage to document the inside story of the Iraq War since late 2005 as only he can, examining the events that took place as the military was forced to reckon with itself, the surge was launched, and a very different war began.

Since early 2007 a new military order has directed American strategy. Some top U.S. officials now in Iraq actually opposed the 2003 invasion, and almost all are severely critical of how the war was fought from then through 2006. At the core of the story is General David Petraeus, a military intellectual who has gathered around him an unprecedented number of officers with both combat experience and Ph.D.s. Underscoring his new and unorthodox approach, three of his key advisers are quirky foreigners?an Australian infantryman-turned- anthropologist, an antimilitary British woman who is an expert in the Middle East, and a Mennonite-educated Palestinian pacifist.

The Gamble offers news breaking information, revealing behind-the-scenes disagreements between top commanders. We learn that almost every single officer in the chain of command fought the surge. Many of Petraeus?s closest advisers went to Iraq extremely pessimistic, doubting that the surge would have any effect, and his own boss was so skeptical that he dispatched an admiral to Baghdad in the summer of 2007 to come up with a strategy to replace Petraeus?s. That same boss later flew to Iraq to try to talk Petraeus out of his planned congressional testimony. The Gamble examines the congressional hearings through the eyes of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and their views of the questions posed by the 2008 presidential candidates.

For Petraeus, prevailing in Iraq means extending the war. Thomas E. Ricks concludes that the war is likely to last another five to ten years?and that that outcome is a best case scenario. His stunning conclusion, stated in the last line of the book, is that ?the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened.?

Customer Reviews:

  • The Iraq War, Round 2
    A great follow up to his previous book on the Iraq war, Fiasco, Ricks shows how American troops, led by Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, did a complete 180o turn in terms of strategy and brought a relative amount of security to the country. Ricks also added something that I thought was lacking from his previous book: short, biographical info on key figures like Petraeus, Odierno and Keane. And, just like before, Ricks has a knack for illustrating the facts both on the ground and in the hallways of power. Strangely though, I found this book to be far more lacking in in-depth details and reflections than Fiasco, especially in part 3. Although he makes up for it in the epilogue, I felt that Ricks could have said more than he did on the surge's consequences before the epilogue. He probably was hampered by the fact that he had little time to finish the book before publishing it (1-3 months by my guess) and because we still aren't sure what the lasting consequences of the surge are. Having said that, Ricks once again shows that he is the authority on what has been going on, both good and bad, in Iraq. ...more info
  • Excellent
    Excellent follow on to his book "FISACO" and the continuing story of the strategic blunder and humantarian tragedy of Bush-Cheney's invasion of Iraq. General Petraeus is highlighted with his counterinsurgency strategy. The "Surge" cannot be considered the end story and the future is unknown, but it has bought some time but at a terrible sacrifice. ...more info
  • Sunshine and clouds
    All generals are not created equal. In fact, the differences are vast. This makes me wonder about the apparent randomness of the selection process. This book puts Petraeus on top of the list, Tommy Franks at the bottom. Fair enouogh. Petraeus' star was not always bright, however, witness his not-so-impressive first tour in Iraq. Maybe the historic hero is Jack Keane? After all, he burned bridges with Joint Chiefs when he took the case for the Surge directly to the White House. I think this proves he has the courage of his convictions.

    As I read The Gamble I realize how little the USA knows institutionally about going to war. God help us if we have to go to war again without the power of our overwhelming wealth. Money has bought us time few nations can afford....more info
  • Thoughtful, multi-level analysis
    "The Gamble", Thomas Ricks's new book about the war in Iraq from 2006-2008, is terrific in its attention to the many aspects of this chapter of the war. The surge and David Petraeus are central to its theme and Ricks manages to tell his story with an unbiased view that few others have. The narrative is smooth but crackling and can be well-understood in layman's terms.

    The author spends some time on the failures of the Bush adminstration and its generals to carve a successful first few years after the 2003 invasion. Not surprisingly, President Bush plays a reduced role here as this is a book that is much more about the new wave of generals and their thinking outside the box than it is about the "old guard". Besides General Petraeus, General Raymond Odierno, once thought of as heavy-handed in his approach to the war, is figuratively resuscitated and becomes one of the "good" guys.

    The overall curve of "The Gamble" describes the willingness of the American military to get out among the Iraqi people, learn about them more and sometimes make deals with those who killed American soldiers. Why this wasn't done in the early stages of the war remains not so much a mystery but a lost opportunity. Strategies are discussed at length, but Ricks's keen eye lets him take us to the politics of the situation....Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki and his government, the U.S. Congress, public opinion both in America and Iraq and, of course, the politics among the generals, themselves. That comprehensive presentation is the best part of the book.

    Ricks underscores the fact that putting the right people in the right positions at the right time is critical to success. But he also points out that he is not optimistic about a total withdrawal from Iraq. We will be in Iraq for years, he suggests, if not decades. "The Gamble" is a sobering look at the past two years of a war that is inconclusive as we begin our seventh year there....more info
  • Thought-changing book
    Title: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
    Author: Thomas E. Ricks
    Rating: ****1/2
    Tags: iraq, war, counterinsurgency, david petreaus, ray odierno, military, non-fiction

    The Gamble is one of those rare books that has entirely changed what I know and what I think about a topic. It is about the change in U.S. military strategy in Iraq in 2007, what is usually called "the surge". I have been opposed to the war in Iraq, and was opposed to the surge, but I now know that I didn't know what it meant.

    The big lack was in not understanding what counterinsurgency means as a strategy. Its first goal is to protect the population, and then to isolate the insurgents and so starve them of support. This meant a huge change in the previous strategy, which was to capture and kill, not being concerned about civilian casualties, and to operate out of large bases not near the population. Counterinsurgency requires higher numbers of troops, because they have to live, patrol, and hold territory in the population centers.

    The whole book is fascinating, and well-written, in telling how the new strategy came to be adopted, by who, and what effects it had. It meant a change in military top brass as well as in strategy, and it is remarkable how much change was driven by people outside the normal chain of command. An Australian counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, wrote one of the leading documents, and a retired general, Jack Keane, saw how badly the war was going and pushed for change. But primarily the two responsible for having the new strategy adopted and implemented were David Petreaus and Raymond Odierno. Petreaus was in charge of a team that wrote the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, and then took over operational control of Iraq. Odierno was more in charge of the day-to-day operations that made the new strategy happen.

    The new strategy had its biggest successes in turning the Sunni tribesmen in Anwar away from Al Quaeda in Iraq. And all over, when protecting the population became the main goal, terrific things happened. The soldiers got to know the people they were protecting, understanding them better, which led to people sharing intelligence with them that made for greater success in defeating the insurgents. And over the course of several months, deaths began dropping dramatically.

    The book, thus far, is a rather thrilling adventure about what had failed by not caring about people turned into a success by caring about them. It is an uplifting story.

    However, in the final section of the book, Ricks brings it all back down to earth again. The surge worked, militarily. Deaths dropped dramatically. The military was irrevocably changed in its culture and approach. Yet military success did not breed political success in creating a more stable Iraq. Ricks finds it unlikely that Iraq will ever be the kind of secular integrated democracy that Bush so grandly envisioned yet failed to have any realistic plan for. Iraq may yet have more dictators in its history. Even worse, it is almost inevitable that some U.S. troops will be required for many years to have even a mildly acceptable Iraq, one that isn't a flash point in a regional war.

    I highly recommend this book for those who want to understand Iraq and U.S. relations with it.

    Publication Penguin Press HC, The (2009), Hardcover, 400 pages
    Publication date 2009
    ISBN 1594201978 / 9781594201974
    ...more info
  • Good read
    The Gamble is a good read. It has great insight into both the leadership of the war and the soldiers on the ground. I particularly enjoyed the political insights it provides about the long and winding road that led to the surge. I have to say Ricks is a master of bringing even the most complicated issues to life. I was never one to read much about military operations, but this book appealed to me because it helped me understand the current role of the United States in the Middle East, the generals' world view, the role of academics in shaping military policy, and the new sociopolitical map that defined how this war is being fought....more info
  • Good Current History
    In this sequel to the bestselling "Fiasco," Tom Ricks has produced a well reported book on the American campaign in Iraq from 2006 to 2008. In exhaustive interviews with American political leaders, Ricks pieces together the situation in 2006 and the steps required, often through back channels, for the United States to change its policy and strategy objectives for Iraq. The heroes of this story, men such as General David Petraeus and General Ray Odierno and retired General Jack Keane, analyst Fred Kagan and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, struggle against the tide of their respective institutional leaderships to develop a new though risky program for the conduct of U.S. military operation in 2007, later dubbed the "surge."

    Ricks has been criticized by some for having relatively few Iraqis in this book. I believe this criticism is unfair due to the fact that the thrust of the story is about American conduct in Iraq, not the Iraqis themselves.

    Ricks is an incredibly connected Pentagon reported. His account of the run up to and conduct of the surge is well worth the read. While this book does give off some indications of being hastily written, with grammatical and spelling errors in many sections of the book, it is nonetheless valuable as a first cut at current history.

    I highly recommend this book....more info