Thomas Ricks’ new book The Gamble is an excellent account of how the US strategy in Iraq changed in late 2006 in response to the near disaster that was the US occupation of Iraq starting in 2003.

It provides interesting sketches of the key players, such as General David Petraeus, both in Washington and in Baghdad, and adds texture and sophistication to the popular, but simplistic, narrative of exactly how the security situation in Iraq changed so dramatically.

The Gamble
is much better than Ricks’ previous book on Iraq, the best-selling Fiasco, which frequently seemed to devolve into a gripe session by mid-level officers about their senior leadership.

Unlike many popular accounts that explain the dramatic improvement in security in Iraq with the rather smallish increase in US force levels in theater, Ricks suggests that several trends and initiatives came together at the same time and contributed to the significant improvement in the Iraqi security environment. The increased force levels certainly helped, but since the numbers were comparable to those in theater shortly the 2003 invasion, they were not the main factor. But Ricks also points to strategic mistakes committed by Al Qaeda (extreme levels of violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda that Iraqis finally got tired of), Sunni insurgent groups opting out of the fight with the US, as well as the creation of the Sons of Iraq, a paramilitary group funded by the US and used for local security operations. US tactics and procedures changed too with the surge. From 2003 and on the emphasis was on force protection, and US forces ended up being concentrated in “super bases” and only went out on raids and to respond to major fights with insurgents. With the surge and Petraeus being made commander of MNF-Iraq the focus shifted to spreading smaller US units out among the Iraqi population and conducting foot patrols (a move that many experts believe would further anger the Iraqis, since US forces were an “antibody” in Iraqi society). All this suggests that the US certainly got smarter about counter-insurgency, but that luck and local circumstances beyond the control of the US military and political leadership certainly played a part as well.

Readers wanting an inside take on the goings on in Washington before, during, and after Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s legendary testimony to Congress will be disappointed. The Washington political circuit has taken a back seat in this book to the events in Iraq, and the process to transform the US military for counterinsurgency operations. Readers wanting that perspective can perhaps console themselves with the in-depth account in the book on how the retired General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army, managed to circumvent both the Joint Chiefs and the CENTCOM combatant commander and get right to President Bush with his ideas on counter-insurgency and who should lead the effort in Iraq. At many times it seems that the military leadership in Washington and at CENTCOM were less than thrilled with the new strategy in Iraq. From Ricks’ perspective it is clear that Admiral “Fox” Fallon was not asked to resign as combatant commander because of his frank remarks on Iran to grand strategist turned journalist Thomas Barnett, but because he actively resisted the surge strategy in Iraq.

The story about Fallon and his resistance to the new Iraq policy also lends itself to an interesting re-appraisal of civil-military relations in light of the Iraq war. One of the popular stories told about the Iraq war is that the US got into this mess because the president did not listen to military advice about force levels, post-war planning, and so on. What Ricks shows in The Gamble is that the military leadership was overwhelmingly against both the surge in forces and the new strategy of having coalition forces fan out among the population rather than stay zipped up in their bases, but the president went ahead with the policy anyway.  It seems that the new strategy did reverse the dangerous slide in the security situation in Iraq. (Whether this means that a political solution is any closer to fruition is another matter but somewhat beside the point in this case.) So, there are now at least two examples of major differences between the Commander in Chief and the military during the Iraq war, with two very different outcomes.

Perhaps the book best serves as a case study on exactly what it takes to transform an organization and/or a policy – near, or actual, catastrophe, combined with fresh minds that were not part of the original leadership, or at least served in less senior positions. It should be remembered that Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division, a relatively minor command in the big scheme of things, during the Iraq invasion and spent his time between that command and taking over MNF-I in early 2007 at Fort Leavenworth where he oversaw the writing of the new joint counterinsurgency manual. By the time it was published and a new strategy for Iraq was announced, Donald Rumsfeld and Peter Pace were long gone, too.
For almost a decade now Washington has seen plenty of studies and op-eds from scholars and former senior government officials that pleaded for more resources and attention for counter-insurgency, peacekeeping, and “military operations other than war.” The failure to heed these recommendations became obvious in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. Real transformation for counterinsurgency operations came only after the US military stared defeat in the face in Iraq and Rumsfeld and the generals responsible for the invasion and the early days of the occupation had departed the Pentagon.

Ricks final conclusions about the US mission in Iraq will likely disappoint neoconservative democracy promoters and the “let’s leave now” crowd alike. Ricks believes that while democracy will never blossom in the Middle East because of the invasion of Iraq, the country could now be on a path towards stability and a future where it would be at peace with itself and the region. In order to achieve at least this, Ricks believes that US forces will be present in Iraq for many years to come, albeit not at the current levels of 130,000. While disappointing to many, perhaps this is the best that can be hoped for in an imperfect world where not even the efficacy of a super power can be guaranteed.

 Magnus Nordenman is associate director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Magnus Nordenman