Michael Totten

The Dissidents' War

I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks because an American Marine officer in Fallujah told me to. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”
Fiasco is a devastating critique of the botched war in Iraq before General David Petraeus took over command. It isn’t what I’d call a fun read, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate what Petraeus accomplished without studying in depth the mess he inherited.
I met Thomas Ricks last week at a basement bar in Oregon near Powell’s Books while he toured the country promoting his new book about the surge, The Gamble. I drank a glass of red wine, a locally-made Pinot Noir. He drank a pitcher of root beer.
MJT: Tell us about your new book
Ricks: It’s about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. It’s very different from Fiasco. Fiasco was an indictment. It was an angry book. The Gamble is a narrative. It was a much more enjoyable book to write. It’s an account of the war being turned over to the dissidents. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker reveals in the book that he was opposed to the original invasion of Iraq. [General David] Petraeus took command just after finishing his counterinsurgency manual, which was a scathing critique of the conduct of the occupation. There was entirely new attitude among Americans, a new humility. A willingness to listen. I saw this reflected in the people they brought in to advise them. Emma Sky, a tiny little British woman who’s an expert on the Middle East and an anti-American anti-military pacifist. She became [General Ray] Odierno’s political advisor. Petraeus once said to Odierno, “she’s not your political advisor, she’s your insurgent.”
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Sadi Othman, who was Petraeus’s advisor to the Iraqi government. He’s a Palestinian-American, born in Brazil, raised in Jordan, six foot seven, the first man to ever dunk a basketball in Jordanian university competition. He was raised and educated by Mennonites and pacifists.
This was a very different group of people with a very different attitude. My thought was that, essentially, the transition to Obama began in Iraq two years before it began here. Because in January they basically said, “okay, if you guys are so smart, you do it.” And they turned the war over to the internal critics of the war.
The surge was not supported by the U.S. military. The only person in the chain of command who really pushed for it was Odierno. His boss [General George] Casey was against it. Their boss [General John] Abizaid was against it. And their boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was against it. It really was an insurgency within the U.S. military that set out to fight a very different war with a very different attitude and with a different set of priorities.
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The biggest shift in priorities came when they dropped the swift transition to Iraqi authority which had been an official mission statement — it was number one on the mission statement list. In the back of the book I have an appendix which shows the orders Odierno got when he arrived in Iraq. He was told in 2006 to move his troops out of the cities, seal the borders, secure the lines of communication, and basically let these people have the civil war they seem to want to have. When he rewrote his orders — the orders he gave to himself and Petraeus — they were to move troops off the big bases and into the cities, and drop transition to Iraqi authority as the top priority. Instead our top priority became the protection of the Iraqi people — a huge change in the prosecution of the war.
MJT: Do you think they basically got it right?
Ricks: Look. You have to back up. I think everything in Iraq is the fruit of a poisoned tree — invading a country pre-emptively on false premises. So the question isn’t whether they’re getting it right, it’s whether they’re getting it less wrong. I think it was the best of a lot of bad options. It worked tactically. It improved security. But it failed to achieve its goal. The surge is now over, and the purpose of the surge, as stated by the president and the secretary of defense, was to improve security to create breathing space where a political breakthrough could occur. Odierno says in the book that we did create a breathing space, but some Iraqi leaders — I think he meant [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki — used it to move backwards.
MJT: How did Maliki move backwards?
Ricks: He became more sectarian and anti-reconciliation.
MJT: At what point did he become more sectarian?
Ricks: This is Odierno’s argument, not mine.
MJT: Okay.
Ricks: And he didn’t say. But, for example, Maliki didn’t really sign up for reconciliation. He persisted with a zero-sum view of Iraqi politics where winner takes all. You guys lose, we win.
MJT: That’s true as far as Maliki’s relationship with the Sunnis, but he’s also gone after the Shia militias with much more force and determination than I expected in Basra and Sadr City.
Ricks: That’s true. He did. But I was talking to an officer who wondered why we didn’t back Moqtada al Sadr. He thinks we should have backed Sadr from the get-go.
MJT: Why?
Ricks: Because within the Shia community he is the one least influenced by Iran and the most nationalistic. His is the only group that, when it demonstrates, carries Iraqi flags. None of the other Shia parties carry Iraqi flags at their demonstrations.
MJT: Let’s back up a couple of years. Who made the decision for the U.S. to not work with Moqtada al Sadr? Wasn’t it Sadr himself who basically said eff-you to the United States? He made the call. Not us. And once that happened, how were we supposed to work with the guy? If he’s ideologically opposed to us, then that’s it. It takes two.
Ricks: We had a discussion inside the U.S. government in 2003 and 2004 over whether to engage him or attack him. Eventually, an order was issued to arrest him. And he took that as a declaration of war. But look. You know Iraq. In Iraq, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally.
MJT: Yes.
Ricks: If we applied that standard, that he’s a declared enemy, we never would have put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. That was one of Petraeus’ great breakthroughs. And, by the way, in one of my favorite moments during my interviews with Petraeus I asked him how he sold the president on that notion, and he said he didn’t. I said, “wait a minute, you have a secured teleconference with him every Monday and you didn’t bring it up?” He said no, it was within his existing authorities. It was a really ballsy move. It was audacious. You want audacity in your leaders. If it had failed, the egg would have been on his face. We went to these allies of Al Qaeda and said “what’s it going to take?” It turned out that it took 30 million dollars a month.
MJT: They weren’t real allies of Al Qaeda, though. You know how it is over there. They were being paid by Al Qaeda, so we just paid them a little bit more.
Ricks: Yes. I think it was a good idea.
MJT: I do, too. But saying we put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll makes it sound more cynical than it was. It’s not like we put [Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al] Zarqawi on the payroll. We put the moderate, more flexible ones on the payroll.
Ricks: Oh, bullshit. We had guys on the payroll who cut off heads, who had killed American soldiers.
MJT: We killed Zarqawi. We flipped and paid the flexible insurgents, the ones who were not particularly ideological.
Ricks: The ones who were venial.
MJT: Before they flipped I wondered why on earth we were even fighting them in the first place.
Ricks: That’s what [Petraeus advisor David] Kilcullen said. 90 percent of the people are fighting you because you’re in their neighborhood.
MJT: Yeah.
Ricks: And if you get out of their neighborhood or cut some deals with them…
MJT: Yes. And we were never going to flip Zarqawi and his guys.
Ricks: Right.
MJT: We could never pay them enough money. They’re real enemies of the United States. But with the others we could say, ‘listen, this is stupid, we should stop this.’
Ricks: Yeah. And Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations. They said “before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq.” The American policy said “we can’t do that.” So the Sadrists said “well, then we can’t have talks.” Then the Americans said, “well, just out of curiosity, what was the date you had in mind?” The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.
MJT: [Laughs]
Ricks: It’s funny. I was talking to Kilcullen about this the other day. You know who Kilcullen is, right?
MJT: Of course. Brilliant guy. [He’s an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus.]
Ricks: He is so smart. Kilcullen was meeting in a safe house with some Sadrists in Baghdad. They had been working with Sadr, but also talking to Americans on and off for years. Kilcullen realized he was talking to a former military officer, a civil engineer, and an accountant. These are the three elements of reconstruction: military security, civilian reconstruction, and finance. And a light bulb went on in Kilcullen’s head. He said “if you guys were going to secure Sadr City, how would you do it?” They began huddling and talking urgently. Kilcullen said “sorry, fellas, I didn’t mean to insult you.” They said “no, no, you didn’t insult us, it’s just that in the four years of talking to Americans, nobody ever asked us that.” This was the change in Iraq.
One of the points in the book is that the surge fighting was tough, the toughest six months of the war, even tougher than the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a sustained six month battle.
MJT: The first half of 2007. In Bacouba, Mosul…
Ricks: …and Baghdad. I capture it in the siege of Tarmiyah. There were 38 guys in Tarmiyah, the northernmost surge outpost in the Baghdad area. They got car-bombed, mortared, RPGed, and machine-gunned. They held the post, but at the end of the day they had two dead and 29 wounded. The car bomb was heard seven miles away.
But my favorite part of the book isn’t about fighting. It’s called “The Insurgent Who Loved Titanic.” It’s about Captain Sam Cook. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him. In the little town he’s in, he hears about an insurgent boasting that he set off 200 bombs against Americans. Cook is a really smart guy. He’s been around a while. He was on his second or third tour in Iraq. He sent an invitation to the guy for a cup of tea. That said two things. It said “I know where you are.” And it said “I know who you are.”
The guy comes and says “if you know who I am and where I am, why didn’t you arrest me?” Cook said “because I’ve invited you for tea and won’t abuse the rules of hospitality.”
What Cook wants to do — and I think you understand — is bring in the network. He wants to understand the guy and his network, not just kill or capture one guy. And they began talking. Cooks says, “look, if I see you in the street tomorrow, I might shoot you. But let’s talk. You’re here. Let’s have tea.”
MJT: That’s very Arab. They like to have tea when they aren’t shooting each other.
Ricks: Yeah. And it goes on for a couple of weeks. And one day, the guy says “you need to understand something. I hate everything about America. America is the Devil. Nothing good comes from America.”
But Cook knows the most popular theme for cell phones in Iraq is the theme from Titanic. And he says to the insurgent, “well, you saw the movie Titanic, didn’t you?”
MJT: [Laughs]
Ricks: And the insurgent says “seven times. I cry at the end every time.”
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MJT: [Laughs] The Arab world is so much fun.
Ricks: There’s an emotional connection there. The guy never comes over to the American side. He never becomes persuaded to support American goals. But after months of these talks he says, “Look, I can’t surrender to you. It’s a matter of self-respect. But if you will arrange my surrender to the Iraqis and then put me on the payroll, I’ll tell you a few things. And me and the boys will help you out.” Cook says, “Done deal.” And they do it.
The insurgent sits down and says, “Okay. The first thing you need to know is that the reason you never captured me is because every time you came to my house, the Iraqi Army soldiers at the checkpoint called me on my cell phone. You might want to take away their cell phones. Second, we have a deal with the police chief. Our war is with you, not with him. The Iraqi Police are sitting it out. The third thing you might want to know is that my sniper rifle was a gift to me from the Iraqi major you work with.”
Cook said it was like the lights were being turned on. Suddenly he could see it.
This was happening all over Iraq in 2007 and 2008. The Americans were sitting down, talking, listening, and cutting deals. In some ways, it was the Arabization of the American war.
MJT: That’s a good way to put it.
Ricks: And it was combined with a real reduction in American goals. Petraeus’s people never really articulated this, but in their internal discussions they lowered the American goals. They threw out the notion that we’re going to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy. They said they’ll settle for a more or less stable Iraq that is somewhat democratic and somewhat respectful of human rights. This was never put into any policy statement that I saw approved by the White House. They basically threw out the gold-plated Lexus that was the original plan and settled for a Volkswagen Bug.
MJT: They didn’t have much choice. That’s just reality.
Ricks: Except the Americans, for years, had ignored that reality. And even that minimal goal is tough.
MJT: I got back from Iraq not too long ago, and one of the things I tried to figure out — as much as a person can figure out something like this — is whether or not Iraq will be more or less okay after the U.S. either leaves or draws down significantly. About half the Americans and half the Iraqis I talked to said they’re optimistic, and the other half said they’re pessimistic.
Ricks: In both the Iraqi and American conversations?
MJT: Yes. Half the Iraqis were optimistic, and half the Americans were optimistic. Half the Iraqis were pessimistic, and half the Americans were pessimistic. Whoever I was listening to at the time persuaded me, and I left not knowing what to make of it all.
Ricks: Crocker’s prediction is that the future of Iraq is Lebanon.
MJT: Iraqis will be lucky to get to where Lebanon is. I’ve worked in both countries, and Lebanon is like the Star Trek universe compared with Iraq.
Ricks: [Laughs]
MJT: Where do you fall in this spectrum of opinion? Do you think Iraq will be at least sort of “okay,” or do you think it’s a doomed country?
Ricks: Iraq will not be okay. Americans are not going to be happy with the ultimate product. The best case scenario, I think, is an Iraq that is not democratic, not really stable, still has some violence, and is probably a closer ally of Iran than the United States. This is why the invasion of Iraq was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy.
MJT: Bigger than Vietnam?
Ricks: Oh, absolutely.
MJT: In Vietnam we lost 50,000 people and killed two million of theirs.
Ricks: Vietnam was at the periphery of U.S. interests. The Cambodians suffered a holocaust…
MJT: …Twenty five percent of them were killed…
Ricks: …and America’s allies in Vietnam spent 15 years in “re-education” camps. But six years later we were saying it’s morning in America. It ain’t going to be morning in Baghdad any time soon.
MJT: Sure, but it was morning in America, not morning in Saigon.
Ricks: Yeah, but when you walk out of Baghdad…This is why I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but leaving Iraq is even more immoral. There are no good solutions. The least bad solution is staying in smaller numbers for many years to come. If you walk out of Iraq tomorrow, that’s the Jerry Rubin solution. Remember Jerry Rubin? He was asked what he’s going to do after the revolution, and he said he was going to groove on the rubble.
Iraq would rubble-ize.
MJT: I think so, too.
Ricks: There would be a civil war. And it could spread and become a regional war in the middle of the world’s oil patch. This is why Iraq is a bigger strategic problem than Vietnam. You could walk away from Vietnam. You can’t walk away from Iraq.
That’s not just my opinion. I had dinner with Henry Kissinger, and I asked him which is the bigger problem strategically, Vietnam or Iraq? And he said Iraq.
The argument from the Bush Administration is, well, at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But I’m not sure we did. There are a lot of little Saddams in Iraq. And some day, one of them is going to grow up and be a big Saddam, and he’ll probably be a smarter, younger, tougher, meaner version.
MJT: Meaner would take some effort.
Ricks: We took out a guy who was dumb as a box of rocks. He was the only world leader who thought he could take on the U.S. military with conventional means.
MJT: [Laughs]
Ricks: He was in some ways our ideal enemy. The guy who emerges will have studied how to take on the Americans for 25 years. And any strongman who emerges will almost certainly be anti-American because if you can unify Iraq, it will probably be on the basis of anti-Americanism.
MJT: I don’t know if unification on anti-Americanism will really be possible. The Sunnis are anti-American, no question about it. The Shias are mixed, around 50-50, and the Kurds are, well, forget it. You can’t possibly unify the Kurds around anti-Americanism.
Ricks: That’s true.
MJT: They’re more pro-American than Poland.
Ricks: Well, we sell out the Kurds every twenty years.
MJT: Yes, we do. Actually it’s more like every fifteen. According to them, eight times since World War I.
I’m curious what you think of Michael Yon’s work, and I’ll tell you why I’m asking this question. When friends ask me what they should read about Iraq, I say “read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon.” They’re very different books, about different time periods in the Iraq war, from different perspectives, but combined I think they fit well together. I don’t think your book and Yon’s book are contradictory, although some people might think so.
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Ricks: I’m a big fan of Michael Yon’s work. Sometimes I worry if there’s some blogging feud that’s going on.
MJT: Not that I’m aware of. But some readers might think they’d like one and not the other. I actually liked both.
Ricks: I like Yon’s work quite a lot. I’ve followed him closely in Afghanistan lately, and I’m very impressed by him. He’s done some really interesting work in dangerous areas. I think he’s a bit over-optimistic about Iraq, though. He thinks the war is over. And my response is that the war changes. It morphs. It began as a blitzkrieg invasion, it became a botched occupation that led to a slowly rising but durable insurgency. It then led to a small civil war. It then became an effective American counter-offensive. It’s now in an odd lull period where people try to sort out what a post-Bush and maybe post-American Obama-run war will look like. It morphs, but it doesn’t end. I think American troops will be fighting and dying in Iraq for another ten or fifteen years.
MJT: Really? You think that long?
Ricks: Yeah.
MJT: You’re definitely gloomier about it than I am.
Ricks: It will be in smaller numbers. Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in 2015. I don’t think any American troops were killed by violence in Germany after the war. A lot of them died in car accidents.
MJT: I think you’re right. I think there were none.
Ricks: The war will be over when American troops stop dying. Then our war will be over. When Iraqis stop dying, their war will be over.
MJT: Yon looks at it from a military point of view. He’s a former soldier, so that’s his filter. I’m a bit gloomier about Iraq than he is, but I’m not a military guy. The other factors, the politics and culture of Iraq, aren’t encouraging.
Ricks: You do have to look at it politically. It’s never going to be a strictly military question. The military is only a means to get to a political end. The Middle East is profoundly Clausewitzian. It’s either armed politics or political warfare. You have these guys on a continuum. You have militias with political wings, and you have political parties with armed wings.
MJT: A lot of the Middle East is like this. Not Kuwait, but certainly Lebanon.
Ricks: I think it’s a great story, the last couple of years. I’m just fascinated by it.
MJT: It is interesting, isn’t it?
Ricks: Another difference between Fiasco and The Gamble is that in Fiasco I knew what the events were that I had to write about. I just had to provide context, meaning, and depth. I knew I’d have to write about the invasion, blowing up the UN headquarters, the first battle of Fallujah, the second battle of Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib. In The Gamble, it wasn’t clear to me what the major events were, partly because there was so much less media coverage. The media was less equipped to cover a counterinsurgency. The battle in Basra in the spring of 2008 was a real eye-opener for me. It was a hugely important turn of events. And there was almost no coverage of it. And the coverage it did get was wrong.
MJT: Yep.
Ricks: The press said it was a huge setback for Maliki.
MJT: And it wasn’t. Although it did look that way at the beginning.
Ricks: Yeah. Americans were freaked. There was a conversation on a Friday night. An Iraqi leans over and says to Petraeus, “the prime minister wants to talk to you about doing Basra.” And Petraeus said, “you mean Mosul?” Mosul was first in their plan. And the Iraqi said, “no, Basra.” Petraeus says, “oh?”
So Petraeus goes over to see Maliki the next day, and Maliki says, “yeah, we’re doing Basra.” The plan laid out for me was that we were going to finish Baghdad, then do Mosul, and then do Basra. And Maliki just threw it all up in the air. He rolled the dice. And that’s one of the themes of the book. Americans taught Maliki how to gamble.

Order copies of Fiasco, The Gamble, and Moment of Truth in Iraq from Amazon.com.
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