'Gamble' weighs shifting US strategy for war in Iraq

General David Petraeus speaks with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. General David Petraeus speaks with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
By Chuck Leddy
February 18, 2009
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In his 2006 bestseller "Fiasco," Washington Post special military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks described the failure of US strategy in the first few years of the Iraq War. Rather than being welcomed as liberators, as Ricks showed, US forces found themselves up against a powerful and growing insurgency.

In his absorbing, impressively researched new book, "The Gamble," Ricks examines how US goals in Iraq changed in late 2006. Through his impressive access to military and political leaders, Ricks demonstrates that what fueled this change was the lack of any recognizable progress in Iraq.

Ricks opens his account with an example of the first, failed approach. In late 2005, US Marines were patrolling in Haditha, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. After one of them was killed by a roadside bomb, the other Marines "began moving toward the houses along the road, 'running and gunning' in Marine parlance." Twenty-four Iraqis, including a 1-year-old child and an old man in a wheelchair, ended up dead. The author sums up the approach this way: "Protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy, and treat the Iraqi civilians" as potentially dangerous.

By late 2006, US forces in Iraq were demoralized and directionless, reports Ricks. "The Gamble" recounts how a few passionate men and women, some of them skeptics about the initial 2003 invasion, would alter US military strategy by going around the chain of command and appealing directly to the White House.

At the center of the story is General David Petraeus, an intellectual who wrote the military's manual on counter-insurgency. He, along with retired general Jack Keane, would push for a counterinsurgency strategy: "You must protect the people and separate them from the insurgents, and to do so you had to live among the population. And doing all that required a lot of troops." Petraeus wanted US troops out of their big bases and armored vehicles, moving freely among the Iraqi population, building relationships that would foster better intelligence gathering.

Of course, there was opposition to Petraeus's idea. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Petraeus's boss, General George Casey Jr., both disliked it. But Petraeus's biggest ally was the obvious failure of the old strategy. Both he and Keane appealed directly to President Bush to make a change. After the 2006 midterm elections resulted in significant Republican losses, Bush fired Rumsfeld and opened the way for Petraeus's "surge."

The second half of "The Gamble" outlines the implementation of Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy. Petraeus began by lowering the Bush administration's lofty expectations: Nobody on the ground believed democracy and sectarian reconciliation were possible anytime soon, so Petraeus instead aimed for a lessening of violence. But putting US troops out among the population "exposed them to hellacious new levels of violence," writes Ricks, and there were casualties early on as the insurgents hit back.

Yet the strategy ultimately worked, in terms of security. The United States found allies among Sunni militias who hated Al Qaeda in Iraq, and while often unsavory, they provided solid intelligence and additional firepower: "They spoke the language, they knew the area, and they knew who wasn't from it." By the beginning of 2008, the new strategy was making measurable gains.

In the end, the surge would have mixed results. It clearly improved the security situation, but its promise of providing Iraq with political reconciliation has not been met. This lack of political progress will keep US forces stuck in Iraq, Ricks glumly states: "I don't think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE GAMBLE: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin, 394 pp., illustrated, $27.95

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