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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
By Thomas E. Ricks

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The Gamble

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The Gamble
General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
By Thomas E. Ricks
Thorndike Press, Large Print Edition (2009), 702 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4104-1411-3
Genre: History, American

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 1, 2009

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Ricks subtitled this superb description of the recent problems of the Iraq War "General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008." Ricks had disclosed the earlier Iraq War troubles in his New York Times Bestseller Fiasco.

Ricks reveals how the United States fought against Iraqi insurgent forces with outdated counter-productive methods designed for large military engagements, such as World war II, resulting in thousands of American and many more Iraqi deaths, as well as an Iraqi civil war, until just a handful of active duty and retired generals were able to persuade President Bush and the military establishment to use instead counter-insurgency methods.

Everyone interested in knowing the inside information about what is only sketched out in newspapers and TV, who want to know what will happen in Iraq in the future, and when the United States can leave Iraq, must read this book.

The United States attacked Iraq in 2003 and President Bush announced that he had achieved a military victory within weeks after American forces began to fight. He, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and virtually the entire Pentagon establishment saw success continuing for the next three years despite several thousand American deaths, constant suicide bombings, deadly explosives left on roads, assassinations, and the apparent need for American soldiers to hide in fortified enclaves. Frustrated and confused American soldiers indiscriminately and brutally murdered twenty-four innocent Iraqis at Haditha in Iraq in 2005, including women and children and a wheelchair-bound old man, and this was not an isolated murder.

It was not until 2006 that President Bush was forced to admit that the actions of the past three years were a dismal fiasco.

Ricks interviewed hundreds of people and relates their assessments. One expressed the view of many: "The truth is that many commands in Iraq (before 2007) are no longer focused on winning and instead are focused on CYA" – that is, covering your ass. Another highlighted the problem: "Part of this loss of focus is lack of clear guidance on exactly what winning means and how to achieve it."

Ricks shows that the answer for what to do in Iraq would come in large part from General David Petraeus. Petraeus changed the war from conventional fighting to counterinsurgency. He taught that rather than focusing on killing insurgents, the primary objective of the American forces should be the Iraqi people "figure out how to win them." The military should concentrate on providing security and opportunity for every Iraqi. The troops needed to get out of their enclaves and move among the Iraqis, live among them, protect them, stay with them, separate them from the insurgents, give them a sense of security, and they will begin to talk with the Americans. This would also bring over many dissatisfied insurgents to the American side.

Petraeus insisted that he could only spread out his forces among the Iraqi people if he had an increase in forces. The American government and most of the general population were against an increase; they were tired in 2006 of seeing the increases in deaths, no reason for staying Iraq and no plan to end the war.

President Bush increased the number of forces in 2007. General Petraeus was given command in Iraq. He led his soldiers in a "surge" that cleaned out many areas and began to place forces among the population. The psychological impact of the surge was huge. As predicted, the number of insurgent attacks decreased and some local Iraqis and some tribal chiefs began to work with the American forces. But the underlying festering problem in Iraq was not solved.

In 2008, President Bush announced that the surge was "doing what it was designed to do," but, he admitted, it had not done what he hoped it would do – it did not lead to political reconciliation among the Iraqi people, among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. These people could not get along with one another and there was a simmering civil war boiling underneath the surface of Iraq. It was only the presence of American forces that held the civil war at bay.

The Iraqi government was and is unable and unwilling to solve this basic problem. The Iraqi Prime Minister "Maliki government is very dysfunctional, and unwilling to reach out to his enemies…. He has a conspiratorial mind-set, and is fearful of a coup."

While many Americans and their representatives in Congress saw the reduction in deaths, they still have "a hard time seeing the big picture and what constitutes success."

What is the current American goal in Iraq?

One observer described it as a very limited hope: "We have given up on having a shinning beacon of democracy in Iraq. We want a nation that is relatively stable, not a threat to its neighbors, and can protect its borders. We have also largely given up on sectarian reconciliation; we now simply hope for some type of sectarian accommodation that will reduce the likelihood of widespread conflict when we leave…. We’ve planted the seeds and will know the time to leave when the seed blooms. Unfortunately, we cannot tell the American people how long this particular flower takes to bloom" (emphasis added). In the mean time, America needs to spend time, money and lives to try to keep Iraq stable.

How long, realistically speaking, will Americans need to stay in Iraq? Ricks points out that history has shown that states as divided and weak as Iraq rarely become stable; and experts predict that even the current minimal American goals cannot be achieved for over a decade.

But why should America care? Leaving aside the humanitarian answer, that to leave now would result in chaos and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in civil war; there is an important American, indeed world interest. Ricks makes it clear that the internal civil war in Iraq will spill over the Middle East, involve countries such as Iran, which is viciously hostile to the US and US interests, and cause the US to become involved in a much greater war.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.


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