Ricks: Iraq Still a ‘Fiasco’
There are three books anyone who wants to understand the Iraq war should read. First is The Assassin’s Gate by George Packer, for the intersection between the ideas that led to the war and how reality decimated them. The second is Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid, for the Iraqi perspective of the invasion and occupation. Last but by no means least is Fiasco by Tom Ricks, for the U.S. military’s experience in Iraq. When I was last in Iraq in March, the book wasn’t even a year old, but I spotted it on the bookshelves of at least three officers in Baghdad and Mosul. The only volume more popular was the Bible.
Ricks is working on a sequel to Fiasco, as yet untitled and to be published, insh’allah , by early 2009. Just back from Iraq, he treated a small crowd hosted by the Center for a New American Security to his impressions, which serve as something like scratch notes for the upcoming volume. The bottom line? "The surge is working, tactically," Ricks said. "The surge is failing, strategically." In early 2008, Baghdad was "better than it was, but it was still hell."
This will be the decisive year of the war, according to Ricks. (Retiring Army Lt. Colonel John Nagl, a counterinsurgency luminary who was in the audience, contends it was 2007.) The end of the surge forces a "make or break" time: diminished security capability correlates with diminished political influence for the U.S., and many more things can go wrong than can go right. Ricks pointed to a few. The return of Sunni displaced-persons to their homes in ethnically cleansed Baghdad will mean they will ask Shiite police to kick Shiites out of what used to be Sunni homes. Both al-Qaeda, the Mahdi Army and the U.S.-aligned Sons of Iraq militias will adjust to the reduction in combat brigades and observe whether diminished capabilities leads to changing U.S. tactics — and respond accordingly. The U.S. election hovers over everything: Iraqi sheikhs can recite the positions of the major presidential candidates.
Left in the mix is that the war itself — with all its myriad political and security actors — hasn’t been sorted out. Ricks contends that U.S. troops will be in Iraq in a diminished combat role and in diminished numbers for at many years to come. "You call it a permanent quagmire," he told CNAS’s Colin Kahl. "I call it the Petraeus Plan: a long-term presence." That’s the "best-case scenario." Indeed, Ricks said, a U.S. military officer recently told him, "The things for which the Iraq war will be remembered for have not yet happened."
Ricks helpfully complicated something that I’ve reported: that the system in place for determining whether the Sons of Iraq are really going after the U.S.’s enemies isn’t, as Rear Admiral Greg Smith told me last month, just "trust." There’s evidence on the ground, he said: Whether or not the IEDs remain on the streets after the U.S.-allied militiamen sweep through an area. The caveat is whether the people they’re going after really are al-Qaeda. There the evidence is murky. al-Qaeda, Ricks said, "is more an attitude than an organization."