Looking at the bookshelves of company and battalion commanders in Baghdad and Mosul during the spring of 2007, I saw about as many copies of Tom Ricks’ Fiasco as I did the Bible. That seemed practically subversive: Fiasco is an account of how thoroughly the U.S. military, enabled by the willful blindness of the Bush administration, misunderstood the nature of the occupation of Iraq. But the fact that young and midcareer officers were poring through the book shouldn’t have been surprising. For one thing, the U.S. military is an adaptive, learning institution, constantly asking itself what it could have done better. (If not always arriving at thorough conclusions.) For another, March 2007 was the dawn of the surge, and soldiers and officers I talked to thought the troop increase and new counterinsurgency focus would be something close to a fresh start for the whole war. It made sense to look back at what went wrong.
The Gamble, Ricks’ follow-up, is the story of what happened when the uniformed critics of the manner in which the war was fought — those inspired and nurtured by Gen. David Petraeus, the counterinsurgency theorist/practitioner who spearheaded the ascent of the current generation of small-wars-centric defense wonks — took charge. For anyone looking to understand how the surge looked to those who designed and implemented it, The Gamble is essential reading. No other account has captured the uncertainty of the surge. "I’m not sure it’s gonna work," remarked Col. Pete Mansoor, Petraeus’ executive officer. No other account has captured the way in which the surge quietly recast the U.S.’s objectives in Iraq. Major General David Fastabend, a crucial member of the Petraeus brain trust, advised that the U.S. should do things that were previously only advocated by dirty hippies — like cut separate peaces with insurgent groups, reach out to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and publicly announce a withdrawal schedule. And no other account has sufficiently held the counterinsurgents up to the standards they set for themselves and for the mission. If counterinsurgency is 80 percent a political endeavor, then how can a strategy that didn’t yield a thoroughgoing political compromise from Iraq’s major factions get a better grade than the "solid incomplete" that Ricks assigns?
It should come as no surprise that Tom Ricks produced a book this insightful and this thoroughly reported. Ricks, the former chief defense correspondent for the Washington Post, puts in the work like few reporters do — traveling back and forth from the major centers of power for the surge, from Camp Victory in Baghdad to the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth to the Pentagon to frontline embeds with the units carrying out Petraeus’ strategy. I’ll cop to professional jealousy when I discovered how richly reported The Gamble is, but it didn’t surprise me. Tom Ricks is a journalist who does not commute to the story.
There are other books to be written about the surge, and other books to be written about the Iraq war. The Gamble is not an account of how the Iraqis lived through it — or, as the U.S. has yet to fully understand and respect, didn’t. It doesn’t answer the question of how the enemy-centric Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno of 2003-4 became the population-centric Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno of 2006-8. It doesn’t address the ways in which Iraqi politicians adapted to the surge, nor how U.S. diplomats dealt with their Iraqi interlocutors. But the fact that The Gamble can’t tell every story doesn’t diminish from its achievements. And I’m reliably informed that it’s on the shelves of commanders in Afghanistan already.
Please welcome Tom Ricks to the Lake. Let’s talk about what the surge was, what it wasn’t, and what it does and doesn’t mean for U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and beyond.