An Insider Portrait of the Surge’s Rogue Backers

Posted February 23, 2009 at 5:11pm

Army Gen. David Petraeus, then the three-star commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, began the widely watched Congressional hearings on the Iraq War in 2007 with what seemed like a political disclaimer.

“I wrote this myself and did not clear it with anyone in the White House, Pentagon or Congress,” Petraeus said as he began testimony that convinced skeptical lawmakers that the military “surge” in Iraq was working and quieted calls for a quick end to the unpopular war.

The general’s remarks take on a different light after one reads “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008,” a new book from venerable Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. His opening testimony could just as easily have referred to the bold moves Petraeus and a handful of military leaders used to buck the chain of command and reverse the course of the Iraq War.

Drawing on battlefield reporting and unparalleled access to military brass, Ricks, who spent more than 25 years covering the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post before recently taking a buyout, has produced a page-turning account of the military surge in Iraq. A worthy successor to his well-respected 2005 work on the mismanagement of the Iraq War, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” Ricks’ latest book is a turnaround tale about how out of wartime chaos a successful military strategy emerged.

The story of that reversal begins in late 2005 with violence rising in Iraq and Petraeus 7,000 miles away at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., writing a new Army guidebook for fighting a counterinsurgency. Over the next year, Petraeus, a West Point graduate with a doctorate in international relations from Princeton, would not only rewrite rules for combating insurgencies — he’d also outline a new military strategy for Iraq.

His approach called for shifting from the use of overwhelming military force to quash insurgencies without regard for enemy casualties and property damage. Instead, Petraeus favored sending smaller military units to live within the local populations to create stability that they would prefer over the chaos of insurgents and destruction of larger forces.

“It was both a devastating critique of the conduct of the Iraq War and the outline of the approach that Petraeus might take if ever given the chance,” Ricks writes of Petraeus’ manual. “In political terms it amounted to a party platform, the party in this case being the dissidents who thought the Army was on the path to defeat in Iraq if it did not change its approach.”

Meanwhile, a covert battle was under way in Washington to sell the Bush administration on a new Iraq strategy. Led by recently retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a handful of military insiders worked around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders in Iraq to convince President George W. Bush that a surge, not a reduction in forces, was needed and it should be led by Petraeus.

In some of the book’s most enlightening reporting, Ricks tells how Keane became the de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2006 by developing a back channel to communicate directly with the White House.

In one memorable scene in December 2006, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney adjourn a high-level meeting of military experts without showing their hands on a new strategy for Iraq. However, one former general who was at the meeting tells Ricks he knew the “fix was in” after seeing Keane pulled aside afterward for a private talk with Cheney.

By early 2007, Petraeus was back in Iraq and tens of thousands of “surge” forces were on their way to carry out his new strategy. Ricks’ best reporting comes in this part of the book as he offers colorful accounts about how U.S. forces used unorthodox methods to create alliances with former insurgents.

For instance, Army Capt. Samuel Cook gained key intelligence from a one-time insurgent leader by meeting him one-on-one and bonding over American culture. Cook knew Iraqis liked American movies, particularly “Titanic,” and asked the insurgent, who has admitted to planting more than 200 car bombs, if he had seen it.

“‘Why, yes,’ the insurgent confessed. He recounted watching it seven times and crying every time at the end as Kate Winslet lets the dead Leonardo DiCaprio slip into the freezing North Atlantic,” Ricks writes.

Ricks also paints a portrait of U.S. forces that are not only innovative but also unwilling to give up a foothold in insurgent-controlled areas. In Tarmiyah, a small U.S. outpost created by the surge, 31 of 38 U.S. troops were injured or killed when a truck loaded with explosives crashed into the compound. Still, the troops, several wearing their boxer shorts, spend hours fighting off the insurgents, and stayed in the area.

Perhaps Petraeus’ most significant, and controversial, decision has been paying millions of dollars to have tens of thousands of former insurgents fight against al-Qaida and other lingering insurgents. According to Ricks, Petraeus never sought Bush’s approval to pay more than 100,000 former enemies tens of millions of dollars, but he believed he had the authority to do so as the top commander in Iraq.

Despite recent military successes, Ricks ends the book by arguing that the surge in Iraq has only been partially successful. While the surge has dramatically improved the security situation, he said it has failed to achieve its long-term goal of political reconciliation among various political factions in Iraq.

Ricks also interviewed several military experts who offer no end date for the military mission in Iraq, and he suggests U.S. troops will be there until 2015 — and perhaps much longer. “In sum, the first year of Obama’s war promises to be tougher for America’s leaders and military than was the last year of Bush’s war,” he writes.