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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 Hardcover – February 10, 2009
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Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: Anyone who read Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks's superb, bestselling account of the Iraq War through 2005, and has followed the war since has likely noticed that many of the heroes of that devastating book, the officers and analysts who seemed to understand what was going wrong in the war when the rest of the political and military leadership didn't, have since been put in charge, starting with General David Petraeus, the cerebral officer who took command in Iraq and led what became known as "the surge." Ricks, the senior Pentagon correspondent at the Washington Post, has stayed on the story, and he returns with his second book on the war, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. As good (and influential) as Fiasco was, The Gamble may be even better, telling the remarkable story of how a few people inside and outside the Pentagon pushed the new strategy through against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military top brass, and then, even more remarkably, how soldiers put the difficult plan into action on the ground and managed to sharply reduce the chaotic violence in Iraq. But the story doesn't end there, and Ricks's bracing conclusion--that the American military, like it or not, will still have a necessary role in Iraq for years to come--makes it likely that this may not be the last book we have from him on the subject. --Tom Nissley
Questions for Thomas E. Ricks
We exchanged emails with Tom Ricks for a few weeks before the publication of The Gamble, a time which saw, among other things, the inauguration of Barack Obama and regional elections in Iraq. You can read the full exchange on the Amazon books blog, Omnivoracious.com. Here are some highlights:
Amazon.com: The Gamble is the history of what has become known as "the surge." What do you think the public understands about the surge, and how does that compare with what you've seen from up close?
Thomas E. Ricks: I think there are two big misunderstandings about the surge. The first is that the surge "worked." Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed--the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.
The second misunderstanding is just how difficult the surge was. People back here seem to think that 30,000 troops were added and everything calmed down. In fact, the first six months of the surge, from January through early July 2007, were the toughest months of the war. When troops moved out of their big bases and into little outposts across Baghdad, they got hammered by bombs and rockets. It took some time before being among the people began to lead to improved security, and during that time, a lot of top American officials in Iraq weren't sure the new approach was working. General Petraeus says in the book that he looks back on that time as a "horrific nightmare."
Amazon.com: Let's start with that second point. Because The Gamble is in many ways the story of a remarkable success: a minority of officers and analysts who pushed through a new plan for the war against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military leadership, and then, even more impressively, soldiers who put the plan into action on the ground and managed to stem a great deal of the violence in Iraq within a matter of months.
The new counterinsurgency approach to the war was one you had argued for in Fiasco, but in the most violent days of early 2007, how did you think it was going to turn out?
Ricks: I was very skeptical back in early 2007 about the surge. I think there were two reasons for this.
First, there was little evidence that the U.S. military was going to be able to operate differently, and more effectively. After all, they had been fighting there for longer than we fought in World War II, and the only thing we had to show for it was that in 2006, Iraq was going straight to hell.
Also, I didn't get out to Iraq in 2007 until May, on the first trip I did for this book. It was only then, five months into the surge, when I got on the ground there, that I sensed how different the American leadership was from earlier on. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the U.S. military, was talking about counterinsurgency, and making protecting the Iraqi population their top priority. That was a huge change from earlier on in the war, when different units seemed pretty much to do their own thing--one outfit would be drinking tea with the sheikhs, another was banging heads.
The new candor and understanding in the Americans was striking. One that May 2007 trip, I went into Green Zone and got from David Kilcullen a really thorough and insightful briefing into the state of play in the streets of Baghdad. That was a big change from earlier on, when officials inside the Zone had no idea what was happening out there. I remember also one general, David Fastabend, an advisor to Petraeus, beginning a conversation then by saying, "We have done some stupid shit" in Iraq. There clearly was a new gang in town.
Amazon.com: And many of the people who had been put in charge, Gen. Petraeus first among them, were well known to readers of Fiasco as advocates for counterinsurgency. But one who wasn't turns out to be one of the crucial figures in your story: Gen. Ray Odierno, who early in the war was one of the ones banging heads. By the time 2007 rolls around, he's Petraeus's top commander in Iraq and he's a changed leader. What happened to him?
Ricks: The change in General Odierno is one I wrestled with throughout the reporting of this book. He seemed so different, so in sync with Petraeus on the counterinsurgency plan. And he was of almost no help in figuring it out. "General Odierno, you strike me as so changed from the guy I wrote about in Fiasco. I can't figure out how that happened." "Hey Tom: Your problem, not mine."
I think two major things happened to him between 2004, the end of his first tour in Iraq, and the end of 2006, when he came back for his second tour. First, his son was badly wounded in Baghdad, losing an arm to an RPG. Second, when he came back to Baghdad, he saw that the place was falling apart, and that the war could be lost on his watch. That has a way of concentrating the mind.
What he did then was kind of astonishing: He went around his bosses and basically cooked up the surge. He was the only officer in the chain of command who was for it. (Petraeus also was for it, but he hadn't yet arrived in Iraq.) I think he showed genuine moral courage in what he did. It was a huge risk, going against all his bosses. As I say in the book, he was the natural father of the surge, and Petraeus was the adoptive father. I have no problem saying that General Odierno is one of the heroes of this book.
Amazon.com: While we're talking about the surge, there's one basic thing to clarify: despite the name, as you say, "the surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them." What did the new counterinsurgency tactics translate into on the ground, and why do you think they worked to the extent they did?
Ricks: This is a hugely important question, so I want to take some time on it.
There were two key aspect to the different use of troops. First, they had a new top priority: protect Iraqis. (Until February 2007, the top priority of U.S. forces in Iraq was to transition to Iraqi control.) Second, to do that, they had to move out into the population. Before this point, they were doing a lot of patrols from big bases, usually in Humvees. They would be in a neighborhood maybe one hour a day, and the other 23 hours of the day belonged to the insurgents. Now, they were living in the neighborhoods, and constantly going out on short foot patrols. They got a lot more familiar with the people, often visiting every single family, and conducting a census. In military terms, they were mapping the sea in which the insurgent swam. Familiarity made them far more effective, and also constrained the movements of insurgents.
For all that, there are other important factors in why Iraq changed, and they shouldn't be forgotten. First, by the time the U.S. military moved into the streets of Baghdad, the city was largely ethnically cleansed. Second, in the spring of 2007, in a huge policy shift, General Petraeus began putting the Sunni insurgency on the payroll--essentially paying them not to attack us. This split them off from al Qaeda in Iraq, and isolated the terrorist extremists.
Once the Sunni insurgency was seen to be on our side, even temporarily, the Shiite fighters under Moqtadr al Sadr went to ground. Otherwise, Uncle Sam would have been training all his firepower on them.
The problem is that all these arrangements are temporary, and could easily unravel. For example, the Sunni insurgents made a separate peace with the United States. They never have given up their objection to Shiite control of Iraq and of the Iraqi army. So what we may have done is simply delay that fight--and armed both sides in the meantime.
From Bookmarks Magazine
By and large, critics were less eager to assess Ricks's work as an author and more interested in his opinions about the success of the "surge" and the future of Iraq. But this is perhaps the book's greatest endorsement; whether they were liberal or conservative, American or British, critics viewed Ricks's facts as unassailable and his analysis as strong. They were impressed not just with his unparalleled access to the main actors in Iraq but also with his ability to integrate two commonly held but seemingly irreconcilable views -- that the war was a mistake and a catastrophe (as expressed in Fiasco) and that Petraeus and the surge represented an amazing turnaround. Thus, many critics found that although Ricks seems to express a consensus view, The Gamble is counterintuitive and challenging, refreshing yet sobering.Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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For many reasons I opposed the war in Iraq (hence the gastric distress), but after shattering the fabric of that country -- a tenuous fabric holding in check three distrustful and vengeful groups: Kurds, Shia and Sunni -- I felt we had an obligation to stay the course. My mother always said: you break it, you bought it. And boy, did we break Iraq.
From shortly after the ill-conceived invasion in 2003 to the arrival of General David Petraeus in 2007, the U.S. floundered in Iraq. An insurgency was ignited, sectarian groups squared off in what for all intents was a civil war, and our military tactics only made things worse. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis died or were injured, with the numbers increasing month by month, while the futility of Washington's "strategy" was revealed.
Eschewing the heavy-handed tactics which were not working, Petraeus and his corps commander General Odierno, and their support staffs, used the hard-won surge of five brigades of additional troops to implement a classic counter-insurgency (COIN) approach whereby the people of Iraq were viewed as the prize to be won.
Ricks rightly calls the surge a tactical success -- violence and deaths were radically reduced, but not eliminated -- but grades it as incomplete overall as the strategic goal of fostering political reconciliation between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups was not achieved. In fact, by paying former Sunni insurgents to stop fighting us and overlooking the ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods by Shia militias, the events of 2007 really represented a somewhat unsavory gamble that could have blown up in our face at any time, and still might. Realpolitik, indeed.
It is interesting to note, too, that as the level of violence in Iraq began to come down, events in the U.S. began to overshadow public interest, notably the presidential election and financial meltdown. One shudders to think what would have happened if the shift to COIN operations had not worked and a wartime loss, divisive election and crippling recession occurred simultaneously.
Some reviewers have noted the somewhat pessimistic view of many quoted in the book that US presence in Iraq would likely continue for decades is out of step with the reality of our withdrawal in 2011. Realize this book was published early in 2009 (although the Afterword appears to have been included later in the year), and therefore it is a point in time and doubtless those interviewed were giving their best estimate at the time.
Ricks' prose is sharp and to the point, and I'd argue the point with those reviewers who think there was a "liberal bias" showing through. Facts are facts, and Ricks sticks to the facts in his reporting but through interviews with key persons and experts all sides of the political spectrum are aired. At the risk of producing groans, I'd say it is fair and balanced. The Gamble is an important addition to understanding the events of that period and I highly recommend it.
Ricks' story is that the surge (adding significant additional combat forces to Iraq) concept wasn't the consensus plan of the military but was instead championed by a small group of officers and some academics in the defense establishment. It took the intervention of a retired Army four-star general to bypass Secretary Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sell the surge to the White House. This contradicts some of the claims in Bob Woodward's "The War Within" that the idea of the surge was originally hatched in the White House.
But Ricks goes on to explain how the true genius of the surge wasn't the addition of additional combat troops, it was a change in tactics and outlook. The soldiers got out of their vehicles, patrolled dismounted, and lived among the Iraqis - they no longer "commuted" to the fight and then returned to their bases at night. (As an aside, I observed in 2004 on the ground in Iraq that the emphasis on force protection and unwillingness to take risks among the Iraqi people was damaging to the mission.) And once the soldiers cleared and occupied an area, they were to hold it. This change in tactics was partly the result of the new counterinsurgency manual produced by General Petraeus in late 2006, and it was enabled by the surge in combat troops. At the higher levels, the military engaged the Iraqi tribes and Sunni militias and co-opted them, often with payments and sometimes behind the back of the Iraqi and US governments, in an effort to eliminate, but not necessarily through firepower, enemies to the peace and security in Iraq.
And while Ricks lauds the success of the surge, he is quick to point out its weaknesses and risks: although it brought relative peace and security to Iraq (after an initial increase in fighting), it did not move the political process forward. The surge also, by appealing to the tribes and militias, made it more likely that they'll remain powerful extra-political forces in Iraq even as the political process moves forward.
Because this book was written so soon after the incidents, and is based heavily on media accounts, it will serve as a good first draft of history. It is also not the definitive history of the surge because it gives the view from the top in Iraq, then tiny slices of the war on the ground, and never gives a full accounting of the brigades and divisions involved or their areas of operation.
But my biggest criticism is that many of the Ricks's conclusions are already out of date: he claims that we are at the mid-point of the Iraq War and expects tens of thousands of troops to remain in Iraq through 2015 or even later. However, his narrative includes events in November 2008, just a month before the Status of Forces Agreement was signed requiring all US forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 - a provision of the agreement that was being debated openly before November 2008. Ricks also knew about Obama's promises to have all troops out of Iraq within 16 months but never really addressed this possible chain of events (clarified by President Obama's recent announcement to remove all combat troops by August 2010 and the remained out by the end of 2011). While it is certainly difficult to release a book during a time of rapid change in the subject, holding publication of the book a couple of key months would have allowed him to address these issues.
This is an extremely informative and engaging book. Ricks takes up where he left off with "Fiasco," shows that the American military can adapt and overcome, and highlights the personalities who made this happen. He does this in an even-handed manner that highlights the success of the surge but points out its weaknesses. Anyone with any interest in current events, the war in Iraq, or the military should read this book for a much fuller understanding of the Iraq War.