All in: America's gamble in Iraq

I’ve blogged previously about Thomas Ricks’ new book, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. Dexter Filkins’ review is the best I’ve read. Incidentally, Filkins’ own elegiac The Forever War, about post-invasion but pre-surge Iraq, is also a stunning read. 

Here is Filkins writing about The Gamble: 

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is the mother of radicalism. Bush–defying the generals, the Democrats, much of his own party, and a good chunk of the American people–decided to throw deep. Today, in the spring of 2009, it no longer really matters whether Bush was brilliant or stupid, a man who listened to reason or an idiot savant struck, Forrest Gump-like, by a fleeting insight. Whatever one’s view of the war, it is impossible to deny that in the eleventh hour Bush was right. The gamble has worked, at least so far.”


“Given the astonishing bloodletting of 2005 and 2006, Iraq in the spring of 2009 is a remarkably calm place. Rescuing Iraq from the abyss was an epic achievement, and we owe Petraeus, Odierno, MacFarland, and the others a huge debt for dreaming it up and pulling it off. (Petraeus spent four entire years in Iraq before leaving in the fall of 2008.) But if Iraq is calm, it is not stable. It is, in fact, very fragile. The tens of thousands of Sunni gunmen who came on the government payroll as part of the Awakening regularly threaten to rejoin Al Qaeda. The Shiite-led government, wary of these former insurgents, appears eager to provoke them. The failure of all three of Iraq’s major groups–Sunni, Shiite, Kurd–to reconcile in any meaningful way pushes ethnic and sectarian tensions constantly to the edge. Indeed, the Iraq that emerged from the war of 2003-2009 is an essentially shattered state: the Kurds seceding in every way but in name, the Sunnis inhabiting a dysfunctional strip along the Euphrates, the Shiites sitting astride a pro-Iranian authoritarian state.

“This is not, in other words, something we can walk away from. That is Ricks’s powerful point. What Petraeus and the other generals have ensured, by staving off defeat, is a longer war. How long? I do not know, but surely a lot longer than the debate in Washington would have you believe. ‘While there was an exit strategy,’ Ricks observes, ‘the exit was years away, in fact so far into the future that it is hard to discern.’

“President Obama’s pronouncements on the war must therefore be read carefully. He has never said that America will leave Iraq by 2010. He has said only that American combat troops will leave. What is a combat troop? Well, you can bet it is not a military adviser, or a trainer, or a police mentor, or a special forces soldier, or a CIA paramilitary. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi state will need many years to cohere again. Until that day, it seems unlikely that American soldiers will not be there by the tens of thousands, whoever the American president is. For this reason, the president may be a little divided against himself. His rhetoric of winding-down may be politically welcome, but may not be the best way to ready the American people for what will likely be a very long commitment.”

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