Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: The Gamble, by Ricks

Title: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
Author: Thomas E. Ricks
Rating: ****1/2
Tags: iraq, war, counterinsurgency, david petreaus, ray odierno, military, non-fiction

The Gamble is one of those rare books that has entirely changed what I know and what I think about a topic. It is about the change in U.S. military strategy in Iraq in 2007, what is usually called "the surge". I have been opposed to the war in Iraq, and was opposed to the surge, but I now know that I didn't know what it meant.

The big lack was in not understanding what counterinsurgency means as a strategy. Its first goal is to protect the population, and then to isolate the insurgents and so starve them of support. This meant a huge change in the previous strategy, which was to capture and kill, not being concerned about civilian casualties, and to operate out of large bases not near the population. Counterinsurgency requires higher numbers of troops, because they have to live, patrol, and hold territory in the population centers.

The whole book is fascinating, and well-written, in telling how the new strategy came to be adopted, by who, and what effects it had. It meant a change in military top brass as well as in strategy, and it is remarkable how much change was driven by people outside the normal chain of command. An Australian counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, wrote one of the leading documents, and a retired general, Jack Keane, saw how badly the war was going and pushed for change. But primarily the two responsible for having the new strategy adopted and implemented were David Petreaus and Raymond Odierno. Petreaus was in charge of a team that wrote the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, and then took over operational control of Iraq. Odierno was more in charge of the day-to-day operations that made the new strategy happen.

The new strategy had its biggest successes in turning the Sunni tribesmen in Anwar away from Al Quaeda in Iraq. And all over, when protecting the population became the main goal, terrific things happened. The soldiers got to know the people they were protecting, understanding them better, which led to people sharing intelligence with them that made for greater success in defeating the insurgents. And over the course of several months, deaths began dropping dramatically.

The book, thus far, is a rather thrilling adventure about what had failed by not caring about people turned into a success by caring about them. It is an uplifting story.

However, in the final section of the book, Ricks brings it all back down to earth again. The surge worked, militarily. Deaths dropped dramatically. The military was irrevocably changed in its culture and approach. Yet military success did not breed political success in creating a more stable Iraq. Ricks finds it unlikely that Iraq will ever be the kind of secular integrated democracy that Bush so grandly envisioned yet failed to have any realistic plan for. Iraq may yet have more dictators in its history. Even worse, it is almost inevitable that some U.S. troops will be required for many years to have even a mildly acceptable Iraq, one that isn't a flash point in a regional war.

I highly recommend this book for those who want to understand Iraq and U.S. relations with it.

Publication Penguin Press HC, The (2009), Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1594201978 / 9781594201974

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