The Gamble
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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 installmentThomas 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:

  • A Fascinating, Inside Look at the Military
    As someone who knows little about the internal workings of the American military, I am finding The Gamble fascinating for its in-depth discussions of how our soldiers think about the work they do. Like many, I was horrified by Abu Ghraib and Haditha, and I am glad to know that much of the American military was not only horrified but saw them (correctly, in my view) as counter-productive and dangerous. This book should give every American a reason to be grateful to those in the military who are trying valiantly and desperately to salvage what can be salvaged from a terrible situation....more info
  • Good work but why did he throw so much of his own bias into the book?
    This book is a great work on the surge and the magnificent job done by the US military in Iraq from late 2006 to late 2008 as this book came out. I admit I am not a fan of Rick's way of thinking on matters of foreign policy and especially I dont like his liberal bias. Why would one ruin a good book by showing his liberal bias? Mocking the president or vice president? why? Can't you just report what has happened without commentary of your own? There are dozens of this bias through out the book but I just want to point to two of them as examples and how he is wrong: 1- on pg 76, he claims the fall of Saigon in south Vietnam did not make the domino effect happen. Only to contradict himself a paragraph down the page saying "except for those in re-education camps in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam. So he admits to domino effect being taken place. 2- On page 102, he mocks Pres Bush in "hit a new low" statement he makes. Hit a new low in whose eyes? a liberal like Ricks or me and other Bush supporters? Of course, Bush was never high in the eyes of people like Mr. Ricks. Again, I am saying this is a good book and worth reading but the liberal bias in it is overbearing and makes the book appear as a work of a partisan hack. All those praise for Sen. Webb for what? How is he related to the surge and Iraq reporting? When he praises Bob Gates and scold Bush and Cheney for their disdain of the government, he is misguided. Bush and Cheney are not disdainful of the outstanding careerists like Secretary of Defense Gates but I assume they are disdainful of the reach of a big government. I think the author has his own priorities wrong in this book. It is one thing to hate Bush and another to insert bias in a work of journalistic nature.

    I'd urge you to read these books to get a better understanding of what has happened in Iraq since early 2007

    The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq

    Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New 'Greatest Generation' of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope

    Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq (Yale Library of Military History)

    War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism...more info
  • Proven wrong even sooner than his last book.
    I remember reading Fiasco and thinking that much of what he said had already been proven wrong. Ricks says the Iraq war will last another 5-10 years? The Iraq war is over, and we won it.
    Is he defining a war as the mere presence of American soldiers? I guess WWII will go on for several more decades in Japan....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
  • The Gamble
    Well written with good facts to back up the story of in-fighting and some dis-harmony within military and political ranks on the formation and out come of the surge. A must read for military officers and historians on this critical time frame in Iraq. The book proves the point that a team effort can achieve excellent results in the face of discord. ...more info
  • Well worth reading to understand Iraq and America's future there
    Another fascinating book from Thomas Ricks-- as well written and illuminating as "Fiasco"-- if you want to understand why the surge was a military success and a political failure, or what America's future may be in this never-ending war, I highly recommend "The Gamble". ...more info
  • "The Gamble"
    Thomas Ricks book on "General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008,"is a masterpiece in that he explains lucidly the action taken by the Bush Administration finally after some long overdue changes at the top level. The author highlights the additional forces coupled with revised strategy and tactics by Petraeus,Ambassador Crocker, and the superb US military professional team have provided Iraq stability, possibilities of peace and a better future. Of many books read on this subject, Thomas Ricks has compiled one of the best accounts of this highly controversial response to the tragedy of Sept 11,2001. ...more info
  • The Best book on the Surge
    General David Patraeus was born in 1952 in New York. He attended West Point and moved up gradualyl through the ranks commanding the 101st Airborne divisions dirve for Karbala in the 2003 Second Gulf War. In June 2004, after success in Mosul, he found himself in charge of the Multi National Security Transition Command. In January 2007 he was placed in charge of the Multi National force in Iraq, tasked with commanding the 'surge' that has been credited with bringing security to Iraq, after the failures of 2004 and the insurgency and confusion of 2005-2006.

    The story told here picks up where Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 left off. This book covers two years and the success of the surge. Unlike 'Fiasco' which explained in terrible detail the failures in Iraq, this one illustrates the sucess. The author who has been intimatly involved with Iraq as a journalist and writer covering it highlighted the successes of Patraeus in his first work, in some ways predicting the success that would come when men when Patraeus were promoted.

    This is an excellent book full of detail, an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the Iraq war, the Middle East, U.S policy and the military. However the problem with books like this is that by the time they come out they are immeidatly out of date because of their telescopic view of the present. Hicks might have been well to wait and rewrite an excellent history of the Iraq war. Instead, as with Bob Woodward's The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008 this will now become a multi-volume epic, a testimony to the war for future generations but one that will inevitably be too long.

    Nevertheless this is a wonderful and fascinating read.

    Seth J. Frantzman...more info
  • Answer for the author... why did it take 4 years to get a winning
    step in the Iraq? Communication and Adaptability. Until the Bush Administration got "disperate" and didn't apply people to the problem (losing strategy) that would listen to the smart people officers on the frontlines that were innovative and winning "the small battles." This was not communicated to the people managing the war only from the top. This is a the same mistake Robert Lee made - not diffusing missions to his very capable officer core to win the small objectives to win a battle on northern soil at Gettysburg. Excellent Book. LTC ...more info
  • 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
  • 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
  • The quest for sustainable security
    In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks told the story of American military involvement in Iraq through 2005. His new book is based on a series of interviews with General Petraeus and other military staff conducted in Baghdad and Washington concerning events from 2006-2008. Although the "Surge" is often characterized as an unqualified success, Ricks argues that the final grade for this part of the American adventure in Iraq is a "solid incomplete." He also suggests that the details of this military reformation and counterattack are, to date, barely known.

    The author describes the transition under General Petraeus from traditional warfare to counterinsurgency which is "founded on the concept that the civilian population isn't the playing field but rather the prize." This change represented both an implicit criticism of past military practice in Iraq and "a major intellectual, cultural, and emotional shift" for American forces. Petraeus' unusual advisors in this effort include an Aussie counterinsurgency specialist, a British expert on the Mid-East who opposes the war and a "pacifistic Arab turned New Yorker."

    In a brisk narrative, Ricks describes changes in strategy and tactics that aim at creating security for Iraqi civilians rather than racking up body counts of insurgents. Violence is reduced and confidence is built by the provisional government culminating in the Maliki led attack on Basra in March of 2008.

    In the end, Ricks agrees that the most that can be achieved in Iraq is Petraeus' vision of "sustainable security." The best case scenario, he projects, is that "in the long run, Iraq would calm down, be mildly authoritarian, and probably become an ally of Iran, but, with luck, not one that threatened the rest of the Arab world." He argues that McCain's campaign rhetoric describing Iraq as a future beacon of democracy is at odds with the General's more realistic hope as well as with all we have learned in the last 5 years of partially successful nation building. Ricks goes as far as to describe McCain's view as verging on fantasy.

    In sum, says the author, "the surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war." The ultimate result of the Iraq war according to Ambassador Crocker is still very much in doubt and "is going to be a very, very long time in unfolding." Petraeus' efforts as recounted by Ricks were both bold and well-executed but their benign impact was circumscribed by the complex nature of the challenges facing Iraq.

    Although a more detailed and nuanced analysis probably awaits us in the future, Ricks delivers a timely and convincing narrative of how an intellectual in the military used a non traditional approach to bring the US and Iraq back from the brink of disaster to the edge of "sustainable security."...more info
  • Rumsfeld vs Petraeus: Shock & Awe vs Military Diplomacy
    Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks comes to this book with over 20 years of experience in journalistic coverage of US military interventions. His access to key military figures is comparable to Woodward's access to the Bush White House. In this book he provides verbatim statements from key players as to how the war changed from a Rumsfeld war into a Petraeus war, with details about the new approach. What a difference in personnel and strategies! - Most of the brass under Petraeus would never have invaded Iraq in the first place. Instead of being hawks they are intellectuals - and it shows in their carefully considered methodology.

    The story Ricks tells is compelling. Bush recognized his dilemma (despite his public optimism about the war) and lucked into the necessary fix through the expertise of Petraeus & company. Unfortunately, Ricks anticipates difficulties in exiting Iraq, predicting "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened."

    This is a comprehensive and definitive read and should be required reading for anyone who wants to know what went on - direct from the horses' mouths. It gives a whole new perspective on how future military entanglements will unfold. Shock and awe may have to share turf with military diplomacy - not such a bad idea.
    ...more info
  • Iraq, a insightful analysis
    There have been fewer wars that were fought so bitterly on the stage of domestic politics as Iraq. "The surge", bitterly opposed by some, trumpeted as the final solution by many is seen by Tom Ricks as less important than Patreus'change of strategy.

    Perhaps more importantly, Patreus developed a strategy where none existed before. The invasion, as seen in Ricks' earlier book "Fiasco" seemed to have no strategy. Patreus developed the vision, lost by the military since Vietnam, of counterinsurgency. War fighting, in the traditional sense, makes enemies in a situation such as Iraq. Ricks careful study of Patreus, his re-development of a working counterinsurgency strategy is brilliant.

    What happens in Iraq in the future is very much in doubt. But Ricks has very much articulated the progress that has happened in the past three years. ...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