sckenda's Reviews > The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

The Gamble by Thomas E. Ricks
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Dec 20, 13

bookshelves: current-events, war, middle-east, iraq
Recommended for: Those Interested in Understanding Controversial Wars
Read in March, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 1

"Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you leave it stupidly," says a general cited by Tom Ricks. According to Ricks, The United States came close to losing the Iraq War during 2005-2006. Some predicted that U.S. forces might have to fight their way home through a “Mesopotamian stampede”--even as insurgents fire upon the last helicopters out. Many Americans, having tuned out the war, did not realize how close the U.S. came to ignominious retreat.

Journalist Tom Ricks, in “The Gamble,” covers the second phase of the Iraq War, 2006-2008 in a sequel to his earlier book, “Fiasco” (about phase one of the Iraq War, 2003-2005). Ricks focuses on the machinations that led to a decapitation of Pentagon leadership and the new counter-insurgency strategy (“COIN”) that (depending on your point of view) prevented, minimized, or delayed an Iraqi civil war, long enough for the U.S. to create enough breathing room to declare “victory” and exit (sort of).

After the “thumping” in the 2006 midterm elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld and stopped listening to his senior generals. According to Ricks, President Bush, almost at the last possible minute, recognized that failure was imminent and gambled on a risky new strategy. Over near unanimous objections of his senior military team, President Bush trusted a handful of retired insiders and junior generals and ordered a new strategy of counterinsurgency (“COIN”).

The remainder of this review will focus on the main tenets of COIN, which Ricks sprinkles throughout the book. I am trying to avoid politics, emotion, and nationalism to present the strategy.

1) Protect People. Defeat insurgents by protecting and winning Iraqi people rather than by attacking the enemy. Collateral damage can’t be tolerated as cost of doing business like it was during the first phase of the war. “An operation that kills 5 insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage to civilians leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.”

2) Show Restraint. “You can’t kill your way out of this type of war.” The more force you use, the less effective you are. Indeed, the best insurgent is not a dead one because he leaves behind ten relatives wanting vengeance--better to convert him and get his information. “Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.” Thus, doing nothing (“tactical patience”) is sometimes the best reaction, so be patient and don’t let yourself be provoked.

3) Live Among People. U.S. infantry abandoned the security of giant bases in the rear to move to posts of 35-100 soldiers. “The more you protect your own force, the less secure you are.” Get out among people on foot patrols and stop mindless Humvee patrols. By holing up in big bases, U.S. forces lost touch with Iraqis, conveyed an image of fear, and lost the element of surprise as spies monitored every patrol leaving big bases.

4) Aim for Normalcy. Isolate insurgents from the population. Conduct a census and issue identity cards to civilians. Use traffic control points to channel and track movement. Deter AQI by establishing checkpoints at entries to markets to defend against suicide bombing. Deter Shiites from seeking revenge against Sunnis at night by enclosing Sunnis within gated communities with cement walls.

5)Isolate Insurgents. COIN aimed to cut off the freedom of insurgents to move by channeling their movement in the direction desired by the U.S. As the enemy moved, they were forced to communicate with each other, and, when they did, the U.S. intercepted their communications, tracked them to their desert hideouts where the USAF attacked them, away from civilian population centers.

6) Be Flexible. History shows that nearly all armies get it wrong at the beginning because war is unpredictable. The question is which army adapts fastest? The U.S. Army remade itself in ‘70's and ‘80's as a blitzkrieg force. That force was successful in toppling Saddam with the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad but, according to Ricks, was ill equipped for its role in stabilizing the situation after the fall of Saddam. The old Army attitude was, “We don’t do windows!” (Meaning: “we kill people; we don’t engage in messy peacekeeping missions.”) Five years into the war, the U.S. finally designed a new strategy requiring “tactical patience” (at odds with Blitzkrieg) and became more alert for signs of division within the insurgency that could be exploited. When AQI overplayed its hand by butchery, it drove fence-sitters straight into the arms of the US.

7) Stop the Drawdown. Previously the Bush administration said to the Iraqis: “Don’t worry. We’re leaving,” but the new saying became, “We’re staying until this is done.”

8) Accountability. Get new generals and hold them accountable. Ricks indicts army leadership and their civilian supervisors. At the beginning of Phase 2, not a single general had been removed for ineffectiveness during the war--unlike WWII when senior officers were routinely fired. (Ricks believes that the promotion and assignment system for American generals in wartime is disastrous.)

9) Bribe the Enemy. The US started bribing Sunni tribes to stop killing American troops and thereby, according to Ricks, bought its way out of total defeat in Iraq. However, this strategy of arming Sunni was at odds with the stated political goal of reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. So U.S. focused instead on reconciliation at local level instead the national level.

This book, published in 2009, does not tell the final story of Iraq. Ricks judges the surge “a military success” only because it avoided military defeat. But Ricks believes that this “success” came at the price of political failure, meaning the sacrifice of a stable, unified democratic Iraq. There may be no dramatic images of failure like those from the Fall of Saigon, but the ingredients of massive civil war still exist. We all hold our breath and hope for the best for a long-suffering people who deserve enduring peace.

(Originally reviewed on March 23, 2013, on the 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War.)
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Tricky subject and informative and objective review! I was thinking to read The Yellow Birds, but I'm afraid that an individual account of a former soldier might not be very instructive and completely depressing...


message 2: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Great information here Steve. Iraq is such a twisted piece of steaming crap that it is hard not to have my blood pressure rise even thinking about just the lies that got us into this conflict. There are still neighbors of mine confused about the fact that Iraq did not bomb the Towers and the reason is because attacking Iraq makes no sense if there isn't some tie. I don't want to get your review off track, wonderful job presenting this with objectivity. You did a better job of it than I did in my recent Afghanistan review.


message 3: by Dolors (last edited Mar 28, 2013 11:26PM) (new)

Dolors Steve wrote: "Dolors wrote: "Tricky subject and informative and objective review! I was thinking to read The Yellow Birds, but I'm afraid that an individual account of a former soldier might not be very instruct..."

Yes well, a case (in form of a video) of Spanish soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner came to light just a week ago. That was more than disgusting...
At least you did what you felt was right (and reflected upon the matter), which far more than what most of the people must have done. So, you should feel proud of yourself, too bad for those closed minds who didn't want to understand!


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