In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The Gamble" by Thomas Ricks

Here is my summary of “The Gamble” General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006 – 2008, Penguin Press, New York 2009 By Thomas E. Ricks

Ricks divides the Iraq war into three phases: Old War, New War, and War Without End. In the first phase he describes the deteriorating situation in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 starting with the first election and the hardening of sectarian positions. The second phase focused on how Retired General Jack Keane, former vice chief of the staff, U.S. Army, decided that the war in Iraq was in danger of being lost and began working with Lt. General Petraeus and Lt. General Odierno to develop a new strategic approach. They developed a concept based on the successful surge strategy already employed in Tall Afar, al Qaim and Ramadi by a group of Marine and Army field commanders. The surge of forces strategy was designed to give the Iraqi government “breathing space” to allow political reconciliation to stop the insurgency and begin a process of national healing.[1] The last section is only a small portion of the book providing details on what lies ahead.

The story begins with a description of the low point of the war, Haditha, a village 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, where a roadside bomb attack on a Marine convoy provoked the massacre of 26 civilians. General Keane upon hearing the news decided he had to get involved. Ricks wrote that his actions were unprecedented for a retired General. Keane was focused on finding a way to go from a conventional war which we were losing to a counterinsurgency strategy with which we could win.

During the period 2003 to 2006, U.S. commanders had tended to seek strategic gains – that is winning the war – without taking tactical risks. The book describes the process that Petraeus went through to develop and gain approval for an effective counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq – a strategy that included using the surge of military forces (5 brigades – 15,000 soldiers) to create stability. Petraeus knew what was needed but it was a difficult task to change the mentality of the U.S. Army. After his last tour as a Division Commander in Mosul, Petraeus used his next assignment in 2006 as Combined Arms Center Commander at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to pull together a group of intellectual officers and civilians to draft the most comprehensive counterinsurgency manual ever adopted as doctrine by the US military. The focus of that strategy was on protecting the population, enhancing the legitimacy of the host country government, and creating the conditions required for economic and social development. The manual was published by the Marine Corps and the US Army in 2006.

Prior to Petraeus’ decision to develop the counterinsurgency manual, there was a realization among field commanders that a change was needed and three forward thinking commanders, two Marines and an Army Col., established the first successful counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq. Col. HR McMaster led a successful counterinsurgency effort in Tall Afar that Ricks characterized as a model. Lt. Col. Dale Alford used the same strategy with success in northwest Iraq area of al Qaim. This approach was adopted by Col. Sean McFarland. He was later moved to Ramadi and in 2006 he began what would become the strategic approach for the “surge” in 2007. MacFarland moved his troops into the communities and ordered respectful treatment for Iraqis and he committed his forces to protect those leaders that would work to strengthen their communities. Tribes tired of heavy handed tatics of Al Qaeda were turning to the Americans. Information flow increased while successful attacks against the US forces decreased. The strategy was based on concentration of force but dispersed in key area with focus on protecting the population and promoting legitimacy of local government.

In the US, the political event that provoked change was the Congressional election of 2006 when the Democrats won both the House and the Senate. Retired General Jack Keane had already determined that the war was in trouble and he brought a group together to brief President Bush. In December 2006 with the President disapproval rating at 62 percent, the timing was right to explain what was wrong and what would be needed to fix it. Not long after the meeting a group of National Security Council staffers called Keane to tell him the briefing had a profound impact on the President -- they had been pushing for a surge approach based on the experience and demonstrated success in Tall Afar and Ramadi.

Petraeus’s officers said that they had deplaned into a small civil war and the situation seemed to get worse each day. In early January 2007 a series of bombings and other attacks culmulated at the end of the month with F-16s engaging the enemy on Haifa Street twelve hundred meters from the Embassy. There was almost universal pessimism about the surge. The middle section of the book describes the difficulties that U.S. forces had to overcome during the early part of the surge. General Petraeus arrived in Iraq as the commander of all US forces on Feb. 6, 2007, and immediately injected a new spirit into senior commanders. Genearl Keane stated, “He took over a command with a sense of futility and hopelessness about it and almost overnight he changed the attitude and be brought them hope and a sense that we can do this, we can succeed at this.” [2] The costs were high. In Petraeus’ view the surge was in some ways a horrific nightmare – the casualties increased significantly with 1,124 American soldiers killed and 7,710 wounded. With reports of at least 24,000 Iraqi soldiers, police officers and civilians killed.

Regarding the future, Ricks concedes that the surge and change in strategy was effective in reducing violence but he continues that it only delays problems that are invariably are going to re-surface as we further draw down US forces – political reconciliation remains an elusive goal, sharing of oil wealth in an equitable manner is no where in site, specific regional issues continue with the Kurds, Turkomans (in Kirkuk) and Sunni enclaves. He also believes that the surge may have only brought transitory successes but inadvertently strengthening forces that threaten the long term stability of Iraq: tribalism, warlordism and sectarianism. Ricks believes the most memorable parts of the US Iraq war are yet to happen. This will still be President Obama’s war for years to come. My thoughts are that we are seeing a move toward reconciliation through the political process. Ricks’ assessment goes counter to what I’m seeing on the ground here. To me things are actually beginning to look much more positive. I met with a powerful Sunni politician in mid-February who is interested in ag investments. In talking to him about some of the legislative changes that are needed in Iraq to promote a stronger agricultural sector, he said, “Oh, we’ll do that after the next election.” I thought that sounds good – he’s projecting out that there will be at least enough stability to start thinking of moving reforms through a legislative process.[3]

[1] Different citations for who gets credit for the surge – p. 15 “The answer for what to do in Iraq would come largely through one person, Gen. David Petraeus, who over the next year would lead the way in determining how to revamp the US approach to the war.” pp. 59 – 60 – Four commanders operating first in Northen Iraq (Tall Afar – between Mosul and the Syrian border) where in 2005 Col. H.R. McMaster, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, established the war’s first successful counterinsurgency campaign in Tall Afar. p. 60 – In far northwest Iraq in the area of al Qaim, a Marine battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Dale Alford carried out a campaign similar to McMaster’s with successs. Col. Sean MacFarland’s 1st Armored Division replaced McMaster’s regiment and he saw that McMaster’s strategy was working. McFarland later transferred the same strategy to Ramadi and expanded it where it was picked up by Marine Brig. General John Allen (p. 220) whose job was “… to expand the accomplishment of Sean MacFarland’s brigade and its attached Marine units in Ramadi. p. 72 - General Odierno praised MacFarland efforts and used them to build his own strategy for Baghdad – “He’s the guy who put this together,” Odierno said. “Once they cleared Ramadi and they stayed in Ramadi with a significant amount of force, that was the tipping point. The whole province seemed to turn over.” p. 107 “If Jack Keane was the spiritual godfather of the surge, Odierno was its biological parent. Petraeus, arriving in Baghdad two months later, would become its adoptive father.” p. 303 – “From Odierno’s perspective – and that of many other senior officers in Iraq – it had been more or less conceived and executed by Odierno in Baghdad, with some crucial coaching from Gen. Keane.”

[2] In reading the “The Gamble”, I can compare my ground level view to the events that went into a change in strategy with the military surge, initiation of Concerned Local Citizens (Sons of Iraq), improved “unity of effort” actions (more effective and engaged PRTs), and better execution of classic COIN strategy (protect the local population, move into the communities, increase local government legitimacy, etc.).

[3] Misc. Passages - p. 133 – On his fourth day in Iraq, February 10, Petraeus took command and sat down with his generals, “We are in an information war,” he told them. “Sixty percent of this thing is information.” p. 140 – Quote from David Kilcullen, “The system in the Green Zone is built to protect you from realizing there’s a war on.” p. 191 – Example of using market survey for indicator of mood of population – “For example, it (was) noticed one that heavy portable heaters were being offered in their local market, which they interpreted – correctly – to mean that people were planning on staying which in turn meant that the pressure on the population (mainly Sunni) brought by Shia militias must be declining. p. 219 – “Tribal society makes up the tectonic plates in Iraq on which everything else rests,” concluded Brig. Gen. John Allen. p. 310 – Regarding what will happen to the Sons of Iraq – “American generals also said that if Baghdad didn’t pay the militiamen, they would. But it isn’t clear how long they can fulfill that promise, which costs more than $20 million a month.”

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