An interview with Thomas Ricks and members of the military about the effectiveness of the “surge” from NPR's "Talk of the Nation," August 1
NPR: Some six months ago, the Bush administration decided to send several thousand more troops to Iraq – to Baghdad and Al Anbar province – to try to calm sectarian violence there. Since then analysts have argued over how effective this so-called “surge” has been. …Today we want to hear from soldiers who have fought in the Iraq War… about the president’s “new way forward,” about General David Petraeus, about the mood among your platoon or company. We’re also joined by the Washington Post’s Tom Ricks whose book, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” is now available in paperback and with a new postscript. Since the book came out last year, Ricks’ inbox has been crammed with emails from service men and women serving in Iraq which give Ricks unique insight into what American troops on the ground in Iraq think about the war. …Tom Ricks, you post some of the emails from service members in your inbox feature. Give us a sense of who’s writing to you and what are they writing about now?
Thomas Ricks: The US military is extraordinarily diverse. So it’s everything from generals to privates, active-duty, gung-ho infantrymen, to laid-back, reserve, civil affairs guys. Their views of the war are as diverse and as mixed up, in many ways, as the American population’s in general. I was really struck. I wrote an earlier book, “Making the Corps,” that was also reissued in paperback this week as a new edition. For it, I’d gone back and interviewed marines that I’d known ten years ago in boot camp. I was struck that they disagreed with each other as vigorously on Iraq – they were all over the place on Iraq – as Americans are that you see in the political debate these days.
NPR: You take some justifiable pride in the fact that so many members of the services say you got it right in “Fiasco.” Do you think you have brought something to that coverage that people in uniform are responding to?
TR: I think what I did was give voice to what a lot of people in the military were thinking. I told them, first of all, “You’re not alone.” There’s a lot of other people in the military who hold this view. And gave them a coherent narrative. Gave them them the documentation that what you saw in your little corner of Iraq was not unique. That these problems were generalized. That you did indeed have poor generalship under General Sanchez. That Tommy Franks probably did put on the table the worst war plan in American history. One battalion commander wrote to me, “Thank you for finally saying publicly what we’ve been saying privately.” And so, I was struck by how quickly the book has been endorsed by the US military. When I was out in Iraq in May, I got to see copies of my book with under linings on the bookshelves behind generals’ offices, and so on. I was told, also, that the Army War College, where they send their colonels to learn how to be generals, has made the book required reading this fall.
NPR: That’s a pretty heady responsibility! Do you feel like you need to keep updating it and make sure it doesn’t become anachronistic?
TR: Yeah… I mean, Iraq is the biggest story in the world and I think it’s likely to be the most important story in my beat – national security – for the rest of my life or the rest of my working life. And so it’s a natural thing for me to keep on paying attention to it. The important thing for me is to remain open to possibility. And so one thing, when I do online chats with readers of the Washington Post, is to mention that we have to be aware of the possibility of a turnaround in this war, a turn in the tide. At the same time we can’t rush to optimism and come to overly optimistic conclusions in the way the US military and the Bush administration has done repeatedly for the past five years. So it’s kind of trying to walk a tightrope between seeing accurately what is happening without getting too entrenched. One thing I expressly don’t want to do is have people say, “Well, he wrote the book, ‘Fiasco,’ so he wants it to be a fiasco!” In the first four years of the war, absolute a fiasco, in my mind. Where it goes from now? It could change. I’m open to that possibility. I don’t think it’s going to change. I think it’s going to be a mess for many, many years to come.
NPR: Even acknowledging the diversity of viewpoints in the emails you’re getting, have you seen over the past year and a half – or even in the last six months since the troop build-up – a change in attitude among the soldiers there?
TR: Yes. I think I’m seeing two trends. Neither of them particularly good. The first is real worries among soldiers, an awareness that they have now been fighting this war longer than the US participated in WWII. And on top of that, the nation isn’t engaged in the war as it was in WWII. We’ve always had the alienation of the returning veteran. Go back to Vietnam. Go back to the movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” after WWII. Go back to the Odyssey. But the different is, when the soldier comes home now, he finds society disengaged and not paying attention. It’s a bit more painful because he’s conscious he’s going back in 12 months. And he’s going back into a war that he now knows the majority of the American people don’t like, don’t support, and want to get out of. Yet he’s going back into this cauldron, an extremely difficult environment where there is no area where you’re safe, the climate is horrific, where the main killer of American troops is roadside bombs – basically an invisible enemy that may be in any dead animal or garbage pile or box along the side of the road. The entire environment is threatening. And he’s going to go back with the certain knowledge that if he’s a frontline troop, he’s going to lose some of his closest friends in the world. So on the one hand there’s this kind of gnawing sense that we’re stuck in a war out there they’re busting their hearts for, they’re bleeding and sweating for. Yet America doesn’t seem to be really engaged in the war. The second trend, which worries me even more, is what I think is the emerging “stab in the back” narrative. This is the view that the US military did everything right. We fought well. We did what we needed to do. But we were “stabbed in the back” by American society and specifically by weasely politicians who didn’t support us, by media who undercut us by focusing on the negative, and by the general impatience of the American people. I worry about that, because if that’s the lesson the US military takes away from this war, it’s going to be very bitter and demoralized for many years to come.
NPR: When General Petraeus took over in Iraq, two big changes and emphases were to protect and to get away from big operational bases – to get out into society more. Have you heard from troops about the day-to-day effects of that? Is that being lived on the ground?
TR: It is being very much lived on the ground. What you hear from troops is that their lives are tougher and harder, they’re not back on those big “FOBS” as they call them – the forward operating bases – where there’s a Baskin Robbins stand that gives you free ice cream you can eat as you walk out of the mess hall. They’re out in these little combat outposts with very few amenities and suddenly showers or something you get maybe every couple of week or once a week if you’re lucky. I think soldiers think generally it’s the right thing to do – to get out there – and it really is in theoretical terms. It took us four years to get to the right strategy and the problem is that it may be too little too late. At the same time, the purpose of this counteroffensive – popularly called “the surge” – the purpose of it is not just to improve security in Baghdad. It’s stated strategic goal was to create a political breathing space, an opening in which Iraqi political leaders could achieve reconciliation. And here were are seven months into this new stated strategy and there is absolutely no sign of that strategic goal being realized. And soldiers know that. So they’re looking around and saying, “Okay, what’re we going to do now? The Iraqis aren’t showing up politically. This whole purpose for which we’ve suffered and suffered increased casualties may not have the payoff we hoped for.
NPR: Is it possible that is another narrative, as you called the “we did the work but the American people weren’t there”? Is there also a sort of blame-the-Iraqis narrative going on?
TR: Well, there is. And that’s actually “freakin’ Iraqis” – my subtitle for part of this war for quite a while. “Let’s blame the Iraqis.” One thing I think Americans really don’t get is that Iraqis don’t share our agenda. Iraqis have different goals than this. We’re asking them to do things they basically don’t want to do, can’t do, or both. Iraqis are in a very difficult position. One of the things that General Petraeus has tried to do by getting the troops out there is really to get America back into the Iraqi conversation. In 2006, the US was becoming irrelevant in Iraq. A civil war, a chronic low-level civil war broke out, and we were having very little effect on it. One of the purposes of this new strategy is to simply get the US back in the conversation. Now we’re back in the conversation, but it doesn’t appear Iraqi leaders are listening to us.
NPR: Joe is calling from New York [on a bad cell phone, breaking up].
Joe: I just completed a tour in Iraq, in Baghdad. We were serving on a “PRT,” a provincial reconstruction team. We’re civil affairs soldiers and as civil affairs soldiers we fell under the command of the [inaudible]. Are you familiar with that term?
TR: Yeah, I think so.
Joe: Yeah, it’s army civil affairs and psychological operations. We were so stretched that they had to basically to resort to a back-door draft to get enough soldiers to be able to staff the positions they needed. So we were [inaudible] PRT’s, probably one of the most critical positions over there [inaudible] interface with the provincial governments. The governors, the deputy governors, the director generals, provincial councils, etc. To get them actually functioning – up and running. … We were in a particularly crucial and sensitive position. We were responsible for setting up the local and national government. The problem we experienced [inaudible] was that [inaudible] had to resort to the back-door draft to stand up the PRT’s and the vast majority of people who were back-door-drafted and after-reserve activated in did not want to be there. They had no interest in being there. They were civilianized. And in a lot of cases they undermined the mission. They did subtle things and at times active things that undermined the things that were going on there. In my particular PRT, the problem was these gentlemen were [inaudible] and they were conflicted with the mission to the point that our work would come to a halt.
TR: When you say conflicted, are you saying they didn’t believe in the mission, or what?
Joe: They certainly didn’t believe in the mission. They believed we should just go out to the borders with the Iraqis doing for themselves and let the country go.
TR: I’ve been hearing that opinion a lot lately over the last year among officers. I think you’re right. Especially among reservists. “These people want to have a civil war. Let’s stand back and let them have it.”
NPR: Carl Levin, on the Senate floor, said that we couldn’t save the Iraqis from themselves. Do you think that’s a growing point of view?
TR: I think it is. You’re hearing soldiers say that if these people are determined to have a civil war, let ‘em have it. The other opinion you hear is that a civil war is inevitable and all we’re doing is staving that off – and bleeding and killing American troops. That’s probably the best argument for simply getting out. The problem with it is that it condemns tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians to death and raises the possibility of genocide. That’s going to be really hard to live with.
NPR: We have an email from Claire in St. Louis asking for some clarification. She says, “Did General Petraeus develop the surge strategy? I thought the president had picked that strategy and then found someone willing to implement it.
TR: No, I don’t think that’s the case. But I think General Petraeus really came along when a bunch of lieutenant colonels and colonels with some advice from people in Washington had put together a surge plan. By the time General Petraeus showed up, they had not only had the plan written, they were beginning to implement it. So it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it the “Petraeus plan.” But I don’t think it was something thrust on the military by the White House.
NPR: Let’s hear from Chris in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Chris: If we’re going to go over there and do it, we need to go over there and we need to do it. We can’t go over there with a small amount -- if we’re going to go over there, we’re going to need to use our entire force.
NPR: Have you been there, Chris?
Chris: Yes, I have.
NPR: And are you heading back?
Chris: I won’t be going back. No.
TR: We have used our entire force. When you ask the Pentagon about additional troops, they’ll tell you we’re outta Schlitz – there’s no more troops on the shelf! So what do you want them to do that they’re not doing now?
Chris: They could activate inactive reservists.
TR: Done that.
Chris: They need to extend the cycles and just mess around with how our deployment cycles are right now. Just keep more people in there, because all we’re doing is we’re just playing a game of cat and mouse. We go out, we clear an area, we push ‘em out. When we go and move to another area? They just move right back.
TR: Well, this is the point of the “surge.” They say, “We’re going to clear, hold, and build, and the holding is going to be done by Iraqi forces.” Now, as you and both know, the problem is that repeatedly Iraqi forced has failed to hold areas. What they’re counting on now is Iraqi forces performing better than they have in the past. Do you think that’s going to happen?
Chris: Um, yes, from my experience… I’ve seen two units of Iraqis. One of them was real bad. The other one was real good. They were really well trained. So I think they’re capable of doing it, you just have to keep training them. If we pull out, I’ll tell you right now they’re probably going to quit. Because the conversation I had they said that once the US pulls out they’re goners. They’ll just go back to their normal lives.
TR: I see that worry again and again among American troops. That if we just leave, all we’ve done is trained up Iraqis to fight in a civil war. They think the Iraqi military will fall apart along Sunni-Shiite lines and all we’ve done is pour gasoline on that fire. The problem we have in Iraq right now is not training or equipment of Iraqi forces. They have better training and equipment than anybody else. The problem is the guy who’s fighting in a Sunni insurgency or who’s a member of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army – he knows what he’s fighting for. He’s motivated. The guy in the Iraqi army frequently isn’t as motivated because he isn’t even sure there’s going to be an Iraqi army next year.
NPR: Do you think the military has a communication problem? If someone like Chris feels that not enough people have been deployed, do you think they have not necessarily communicated to their own troops how far they’ve gone trying to get more people on the ground?
TR: Well, I think what you’re hearing from Chris is a frustration that, Man! there must be something we could do better here! I think they actually are doing better now, four years into this war. The problem was we fought in Iraq longer than we fought in WWII before we started getting our strategy basically right. The US military went into Iraq ignorant about how to wage and maintain a counter-insurgency campaign. It took them four years! Finally General Petraeus says, “Here are the basic facts. Study this. This is how you do it.” And the US military effectively threw the ball to the dissidents. Guys like Petraeus who, back in ‘03 and ’04 said, “You guys aren’t doing it right.” It was kind of, “Hey! You’re so smart? You do it!” But it may be too little too late.
NPR: Let’s hear from Tim in Lodi.
Tim: I retired in ’04, in September, after I got back from Iraq in February of ’04. I was in the first Gulf war and I was in the first go-round of the current insanity. I spent 4 months in Kuwait, executive officer of Camp New York, which was one of the northern staging bases.
TR: A place I knew and hated, yes!
Tim: Same here! Then I spent 4 months in Baghdad as the [inaudible] officer for the C-4 section of what they used to call the combined joint task force 7. My comment would be that, having been there for one and having been there for the second one, the first one was run like a well-oiled machine. The second one made me lose all my faith in the ability of the people in charge to do something effectively and competently. I think that many of the higher-level generals and people in the Defense Department who knew better didn’t speak up soon enough and loudly enough. I saw a lot of insane directives come down from on high. Just one, for example – I think it was in July of ’03. They said, “We going to train 30,000 Iraqi soldiers in 30 days. We’re going to get them vetted, trained, and equipped.” And I remember thinking to myself, we can’t even do that with our own people. It was just a mess.
TR: Well, Tim, you’re right. But remember the generals were assigned a plan back then that had us down to 30,000 troops by 2003. It was a very unrealistic approach...
Tim: My unit was going to be going back and then they sent the entire unit forward to Balad. And they ran the logistics up in Balad.
TR: Tim, I think you’re putting your finger on something that has struck me in this war. This war is so different from a lot of other American wars in a variety of ways. The first ever American occupation of an Arab country. The first war of preemption. A war we went into on false premises. The first all-volunteer force war of a sustained ground war overseas. But another anomaly here is the lack of accountability of generals. I think you put your finger on that. I was struck that during WWII, 17 division commanders relieved. 4 corps commanders were relieved. In this war, not a single general has been relieved. Except may with an asterisk for Janice Karpinski, the Abu Ghraib commander. It’s not clear why she was relieved.
NPR: I think he also brings up that not only is it different from any other war, it’s essentially different from the first Gulf war, which seems counterintuitive.
TR: Well, the first Gulf war also – I almost hesitate to call it a war. It was a 4-day ground campaign. It was a blip. And I think probably 100 years from now it will be remembered not as a separate war but as the beginning of a 25-year American war in Iraq which began with that ground campaign and then we had 12 or so years of this no-fly zone stuff with sort of operations on the periphery and special operations inside Iraq and the CIA inside Iraq. Now we’re stuck in Iraq. I don’t think we’re going to get out for a long time. We may be there for another 12 or 15 years.
NPR: Let’s hear from Nelson in Pennsylvania.
Nelson: I was over with the Marines at the beginning of the war and special operations groups. We were sent over to reestablish government like civil affairs troops usually do, usually in a permissive environment. What happened over there and why this is going to be going on for years is because when they put Bremer in office, the guy essentially knew nothing about the Middle East. I think he had a two-week training on the Middle East, a brief-up essentially. And then he goes and fires the whole Baath party. I questioned that at the time. I said, “He did what?” I mean, who were we supposed to work with? The Baath party were the only people in Iraq that had the skills to get the country moving again. They’re the only people who had jobs.
NPR: We should just clarify here. We’re talking about L. Paul Bremer who implemented the de-Baathification policy in 2003.
Nelson: Exactly. So currently our special forces troops, which are the best-trained troops in the Army, they’re working with the equivalent of tenth-string rejects. All the good people left Iraq including the Royal Guard, people who ran the hospitals, people that ran the public facilities, offices. Essentially anyone who had a job in Iraq has left.
TR: I agree, but I think it’s part of the larger problem. I have a chapter about this in “Fiasco” called “How to create an insurgency.” Ambassador Bremer did three things back in ’03 that helped create the insurgency. He had de-Baathification – basically anybody who’d held a position of authority in Iraq was told they were banned from participating in the future of the society. Second, he dissolved the Iraqi military after we had leafleted the Iraqi military for months, saying, “Don’t fight us, we’ll take care of you.” And then he implemented free-market policies and they shut down inefficient government-owned factories. So a Fallujah brick factory is shut down. And suddenly you have young men out there looking for work and you have people saying, “I’ll pay you to plant bombs.” Bremer basically solved three problems facing the insurgency as it emerged. Any group of rebels has three basic problems: recruiting, arming, and financing. Through American mistakes, Bremer’s and the military’s, we solved the three problems for the insurgency.
NPR: Tom in San Francisco.
Tom: I have a question. About Bremer: his excuse was that Saddam’s army was primarily Sunni and they’d been oppressing Shia all that time so the thing to do was to dissolve them and reconstitute them on a more democratic basis.
NPR: It’s right that there was a Sunni leadership out there. But there were a lot of Shiite officers, and you had many, many Shiites in the enlisted ranks – privates, corporals, sergeants, and so on. You didn’t need to massively dissolve the entire army. And you didn’t need to and probably shouldn’t have kicked out the Sunnis because suddenly these guys were out of work and they knew how to operate weapons. And that would up killing American troops. So a little bit of sophistication might have said, “Let’s keep these guys on the payroll, ease them out in the long term, but don’t give them an excuse to take up arms against us.”
Tom: Okay. I served with the Petraeus and the 101st during the invasion which, if there was a happy time, that was it! We were actually being waved at as we went overhead in helicopters. Some good will was there. The thing that’s not brought up about him is what a remarkable physical person he is. He was both a distinguished and honored graduate at Ranger School – I’m a Ranger myself – and you’re competing with 20-year-olds, Marines, the best the farm has to send and that kind of determination is just remarkable.
TR: I agree with you. Petraeus is kind of a force of nature. He’s famous, for example, for his one-armed push-up contest against privates. You know – challenging a guy half his age to one-arm push-ups. But basically Petraeus’ determinated is he’ll do one more than the other guy will, no matter how many the other guy does. And also remember: Petraeus, in addition to having this real will, is also quite bright. He’s a PhD from Princeton in International Relations. So he really is a unique leader. My worry is just that I wish we’d done in 2004 what we finally did in 2007.
NPR: Yes. There seems to be a fair amount of “if anyone can do it, Petraeus can – but maybe no one can do it.”
TR: Yes. I think that’s a very good summary of the general feeling I hear among lieutenant colonels and colonels these days.