The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, Nov. 20 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq, and whether Americans are resigned to having troops in Iraq for many years.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Ricks' Inbox

Ricks has covered the U.S. military for The Washington Post since 2000. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. His book, " Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" was published in July 2006.

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Boonsboro, Md.: When will it be okay to state that we are winning in Iraq and all the naysayers ("the war is lost") were wrong? Even the New York Times is admitting things are going well.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, things are going better. I just got back from Baghdad last week, and it was clear that violence has decreased. But it hasn't gone away. It is only back down to the 2005 level -- which to my mind is kind of like moving from the eighth circle of hell to the fifth.

I interviewed dozens of officers and none were willing to say we are winning. What they were saying is that at least now, we are not losing. But to a man, they were enormously frustrated by what they see as the foot-dragging of the Baghdad government. Here is the story I wrote summarizing their views -- and their current worries.

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Bethesda, Md.: Tom, I note you were in Iraq last week and I am really interested in your perspectives on the security in Baghdad and its sustainability. My understanding is that the neighborhoods are safer but am wondering if that's because they have been walled off and ethnically cleansed. I also wonder whether, as I hear in some news reports, the Shiite areas are in fact more peaceful and beginning to reconcile their factions -- i.e. al-Hakim's and al-Sadr's followers. I would also like your views on whether Iraq is moving closer to the federalism suggested by Joe Biden and/or whether the central governing approach of Maliki has viability. Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, the story I linked above summarizes what I heard.

Yes, one reason that the city is quieter is because of the presence of American troops. But yes, another reason is that some Sunni neighborhoods are walled off, and other Sunni areas have been ethnically cleansed. In addition, the Shiite death squads, in addition to killing a lot of innocents, also killed some of the car bomb guys, I am told.

Where is Iraq going, in political terms? Currently, nowhere. That is the worrisome stalemate I wrote about in last week's article. The U.S. is placing great hope in bottom up movement, and many officials think that provincial elections will break the political logjam.

But you are right in that some Iraqi officials and some outside experts think that the emphasis on local political movements and militias is helping pull apart the country.

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Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: Mr. Ricks: I've long favored a withdrawal from Iraq and relocating more forces to Afghanistan, but given the recent stunning -- albeit limited -- success of the surge and the remarkable lessening of the violence (particularly in Baghdad) do you foresee the Democrat-controlled Congress altering their anti-Iraq stance and supporting, at least with funding, the current working Petraeus strategy? Can this strategy continue to succeed if it's adequately funded and the troop level is maintained?

Thomas E. Ricks: I can't figure out where the Democrats are at on Iraq now. Ever since the September hearings, they seem to have moved on to other issues. Yet today's Post reports that for voters in Iowa (where the caucus is coming up soon), Iraq remains the single most important issue. So I just don't get it.

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Oviedo, Fla.: I question the premise in the blurb written near the promo for this chat -- "resigned" to more war? I am resigned to many things in life, but not this war. I am livid, mournful and sad beyond description, but nobody checks in with us, the taxpayers. A call to Tom Feeney, my wing-nut congressman, gets babble about "fighting terror," and you can't get past that. "Regular" people who try to speak up are assumed to be in favor of losing the war on terror. Our pockets are picked, our nation's honor is compromised and thousands are dead or disabled. Show me someone who is "resigned" and I will show you someone who is checked out.

Thomas E. Ricks: This is an interesting response to the question I posed -- are Americans resigned to having troops in Iraq for many years to come?

I suspect that there are chunks of people on both sides of the question who feel passionately -- "livid, mournful and sad" as here. But I also suspect that a bigger chunk of Americans is indeed checking out of the war. But as someone I know in Iraq likes to say, just because you walk out of the movie theater in the middle doesn't mean that the movie ends then.

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Kingston, Ontario: Mr. Ricks: Here's a two-part question. Do you think that the success in reducing violence in Iraq is because of a decisive breakthrough against the insurgency, or are the insurgents just biding their time? And do you have the sense that the Americans have any control at all over the political process in Iraq, or are the Iraqi factions just pursuing their own strategies? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, that's the big question. Are the warring sides standing down until Uncle Sam gets out of the way?

The Sunnis have largely stopped fighting while they seek to cut a deal to get a place at the table in post-Saddam Iraq. And the Shiites have stopped fighting the Americans for at least six months, they say -- and why not? With the Sunnis standing down, Uncle Sam would be focusing all his firepower on the Shiites.

But what if the Sunnis get sick of waiting? And what happens when U.S. forces start declining in number next year?

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Homer, Alaska: Where is Dick Cheney these days, and how do you see him operating at this point? Has he checked out of Iraq and moved toward Iran? Or has he become far less effective? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Vice President Cheney is kind of the Great White Whale of this administration. I hear many more rumors about his influence than I see facts. (And that may be part of his perceived power.)

I recommend going back and reading my colleague Bart Gellman's series on Cheney. Maybe we can get the kindly folks at washingtonpost.com to post it here.

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washingtonpost.com: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

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Washington: Last week, former President George H.W. Bush defended his son's decision to invade Iraq by saying that "critics of the war forget the extraordinary brutality of Saddam Hussein." Has the brutality of Saddam Hussein become the new "justification" for the invasion? Isn't $1 trillion in U.S. tax dollars a bit too much to spend on getting rid of a petty dictator? Let's not forget about a million dead and four million displaced Iraqi's, and a completely wasted Iraqi infrastructure. Everyone who was for the Iraq invasion should should resign ... simply for helping W waste precious U.S. tax dollars! And that includes those in the media and on the Washington Post Editorial Board!

Thomas E. Ricks: Should everyone in the media resign?

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Minneapolis: Your Iraq article was simply superb. Am I right to get the sense that the military leaders are deeply concerned that we are at a potentially very dangerous tipping point -- if there is not some political follow-through on the military success of the new strategy, then that strategy will end up having made things actually way worse -- because we will have in effect armed and trained large numbers of fairly unsavory characters, particularly on the Sunni side recently, who are more than prepared to go into full-fledged civil war against their adversaries in Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I think they see that outcome as a possibility. That said, they are more optimistic than they were six months ago.

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Boston: Do the Shiites need to fight it out amongst themselves to determine a dominant group before they can have legitimate reconciliation discussions with the Sunnis and Kurds? Who speaks for the Shiites?

Thomas E. Ricks: 1. Some insiders think so.

2. Lots of different people. The Shiites definitely are not monolithic. This is one reason that provincial elections might help sort out the impasse, by connecting the people more to the leadership.

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Princeton, N.J.: I would like to know if any of the real problems are being solved in Iraq such as: Is there any evidence that the many divisions in Iraq are being overcome? I do not mean only the Shia-Sunni division, but also the Kurd vs. Arabs and Turkmen over Kirkuk, the problem of the 1,000,000 (mostly displaced) Christians, the 500,000 Yazidi who are hated by all, the Badr vs. Mahdi conflict roiling the south, the local police vs. the national police , etc., etc., etc. Is corruption getting any better? Does anyone besides Maliki believe that many of the 4.5 million refugees can return to their homes? Is there more drinking water, electricity, less smuggling of oil, more jobs, etc. And so on.

Thomas E. Ricks: All your questions go to the theory of the surge, which was that a. improved security would lead to b. political movement and thence to other improvements.

A. has happened to a degree. Baghdad isn't great, but it is better than it was. But B hasn't happened. So we are in a kind of twilight zone. And time will run out on it, probably over the next six months, I was told when I was out there.

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New York: I just finished your book "Fiasco" and found it well-written and informative. I particularly liked the topical format within chapters, as it makes reading easier, i.e. no guilt about not always finishing a chapter. I came away with the impression that our forces had spent the better part of four years pursuing the wrong (conventional) strategy instead of a counterinsurgency one. If it took us that long to change gears during World War II, we would still be fighting the Germans! Who is responsible? And doesn't the relative success of the "surge" vindicate Gen. Shinseki, who advocated an initial force of several hundred thousand?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think you have the right impression on our strategy, but I am not sure that having more troops at the outset would have been that helpful. More troops being counterproductive simply might have enflamed more Iraqis.

The key to understanding the surge is that it isn't just more troops, it is more troops used differently. That is, they have been moved off the big bases and into small outposts, so they are in the neighborhoods 24 hours a day instead of being out of them 22 hours a day. And they have been explicitly told that their top priority is protecting the people. That is classic counterinsurgency theory, but we didn't apply it until this year.

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Seattle: While your reporting says that the government is shut down or stalemated, does any group have a broad appeal beyond their immediate tribal area? Would new elections bring together a coalition of like-minded Iraqis, or would it just bring in a new batch of local tribal leaders?

Thomas E. Ricks: The theory of provincial elections is that among these new batches of local leaders, a new generation of national leaders would emerge eventually. But that might take many years...

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Pepperell, Mass.: The U.S. finally has shown that with the right leadership and resources we can at least quell (if not entirely stop) the violence. But you said the political reconciliation is not happening -- that the Iraqi leadership is not taking the next step forward. Should our job now be to undertake a "political surge"? Can the U.S. solve the political situation the way it has the military/security situation.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, that is tough. I think that what is becoming apparent is that the Iraqi leaders don't necessarily share our agenda.

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Fairfax, Va.: The President and his supporters on Fox News now say "we are winning" in Iraq; NBC News and papers like The Washington Post have reduced their coverage on Iraq -- all this in the 4-5 months since the Petraeus hearings. Are we actually "winning," and what does that mean? Or are we being propagandized and brain-washed again?

Thomas E. Ricks: Please go back and read my first answer today, which is my best attempt at addressing these questions.

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Anonymous: The center of violence evidently is shifting to northern Iraq. The city of Kirkuk, with its super-giant oilfield and with claims being laid to that area by all groups, has been long mentioned as the mother of all contested areas. Are the battle lines for Kirkuk being drawn, or do we see a whack-a-mole experience happening in Northern Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: The violence lately seems to be not in Kirkuk but along the

Tigris River valley from the northern edge of Baghdad, through Tikrit and Baiji, up to Mosul.

But yes, Kirkuk is hanging out there as an issue. I keep on hearing about extensive ethnic cleansing there, with Arabs pushed south.

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College Park, Md.: I quickly was reported a few days ago that violence dropped by 90 percent in areas of Iraq after (because?) British troops pulled out. After the initial reports -- nothing. It seems that many are unaware or don't want to acknowledge this. The president says over and over and over that if the U.S. troops pull out now, then violence will increase. The realities seem to contradict his assertions. Is there a story here worth getting out a little better? What is your take?

washingtonpost.com: In Basra, violence is a tenth of what it was before British pullback, general says (AP, Nov. 15)

Thomas E. Ricks: I think this is just sad. As one intelligence officer said to me in Baghdad in May, "the British have surrendered in Basra."

The worry I've heard from some people is that Basra today is Baghdad tomorrow. To go back to my article last week:

Marc Lynch, a George Washington University expert on the Middle East, argued recently on his blog, Abu Aardvark, that partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: Two questions, and maybe I'm not looking for an answer. What is the administration's current goal/expectation when all in Iraq is said and done? And if we expect to have 50,000 or so military troops (and the unknown number of U.S.-paid contractors supporting the troops), many to maintain the "peace" in Iraq (vs. "fighting terrorism/terrorists"), have we accepted that those troops aren't available for anything else, and that one-year rotations will be damned expensive to maintain? And thanks for your excellent reporting and taking time to answer chat questions.

Thomas E. Ricks: A shout-out from Fort Bragg!

I think the Bush Administration's plan is to pass off Iraq to the next administration. They know it isn't going to end on their watch. I think what they would like is to pass along a situation that wouldn't force a Democratic president to pull the plug immediately. As you say, that means aiming to have a force of perhaps 50,000 troops in Iraq by the middle of 2009.

But I've heard generals talk about big troop cuts in Iraq for more than four years now. (The first story I did on this was, I think, in Oct. 2003.) So I will believe it when I see it.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Ricks, not a question, just a comment: It seems that those who are claiming the surge to be a success either are lowering the bar (for political or other reasons), or simply can't tell the difference between tactics and strategy.

Thomas E. Ricks: Good comment.

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Anonymous: Karzai has been called the Prime Minister of Kabul -- not of Afghanistan. Is Maliki the Prime Minister of Baghdad or the Green Zone, and not of Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: Could be. The difference is, when I lived in Afghanistan, in 1969-1971, that was true of the Kabul government then, to a surprising degree. Iraq, by contrast, had decades of strongly centralized government. So it is a bigger change for Iraq.

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Princeton, N.J.: Obviously not everyone in the media should resign, but it is annoying to having The Post (and others) regularly publish articles by those who were wrong, wrong, wrong, but those who were right about Iraq (e.g. Feingold) still get short shrift.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I agree with you. There are a few people out there who should have the decency to follow the advice of the king of Spain.

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Can the metrics be trusted?: After all, the metrics also were changed. How can anyone truly know, given that the military and the Bush administration started fudging the metrics when they saw how abysmal they were? Can you address this crucial issue? Thanks for the best chats anywhere.

Thomas E. Ricks: The absolute numbers should be viewed with skepticism, but the trends are I think trustworthy. My own experience bears this out.

Two years ago in Baghdad, I heard an average of 50 or so rounds a day of weapons fire, including some .50 caliber fire. I also heard at least one bomb a day.

When I was in Baghdad earlier this month I heard an average of perhaps 10 rounds being fired a day. In a week in the city, I heard only one bomb. And I only got mortared once.

So, not great, but certainly better.

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East Bootberry: If the Iraqi leadership is the big problem, isn't it in everyone's best interest for the U.S. to replace it ?

Thomas E. Ricks: Easy to suggest. Hard to do.

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Sharing our agenda: "I think that what is becoming apparent is that the Iraqi leaders don't necessarily share our agenda." This was apparent many years, many 10s of billions of dollars and -- most tragically -- many thousands of U.S. casualties ago. With the differing agendas, are we going to trade a long-term 50,000 troop presence for looking the other way with the Shiite's agenda?

Thomas E. Ricks: Good point.

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Washington: How is the equipment in Baghdad? I've often wondered if the guys who are leaving just leave their Humvee/Bradley/Tank for the next unit that arrives, or if it comes back stateside every year for repair and refit, only to go back when the unit redeploys. Do you think we'll see a massive re-armament bill when all the gear finally is back home?

Thomas E. Ricks: I didn't hear any equipment worries this time. What I did hear was some worry about morale of U.S. troops. It seems to be uneven -- very good in some units, not so good in others. A lot of guys are getting tired.

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Fairfax, Va.: I opposed the war from the beginning, but I would say I am resigned to the fact that it will continue. There aren't enough votes in the House or Senate to overcome a veto, and the president has refused to give an inch. Conservatives say that if Democrats truly oppose the war then we should cut off funding, but I'm sorry, I'm not in favor of leaving the troops hanging to make a point. That's a game of chicken I would refuse to play.

Thomas E. Ricks: Interesting comment.

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Arizona: Can there be security in Iraq before basic services like electricity and water are available on a consistent and equitable basis? It seems that as long as militias or gangs control essential services, there will be an insurgency. In your opinion, are we going to see an unsustainable surge sustained just long enough for the current administration to make it out of Washington and declare that we were winning when they left? Thanks for your reporting.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, if that were the case, the surge would end in Jan. 2009, when it really closes out next summer.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Quick questions: What do you think of Petraeus returning to head a promotion panel while the war is ongoing? I'm military and I'm uncomfortable with it. What do other military personnel think? Where is the War Czar in any/all of this? And when will Gen. Odierno be quiet regarding politics and let the embassy (ambassador) talk politics? (For that matter, when will the comments come from the ambassador, political counselor or embassy rather than from U.S. military personnel?)?

Thomas E. Ricks: I thought by pulling Petraeus back from Baghdad, the Army was making a high-profile statement. Petraeus is kind of an outrider among Army generals. I expect his panel will only be able to sneak in maybe at most a dozen guys who otherwise wouldn't have made general. But that will send a message, I think.

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Richmond, Va.: Great chats. Love the different view points. I'd think the different militias would be just lying low, building up their arms caches, waiting for the American forces to leave (and they know they have to). If you are a militia, you know every other militia -- Kurd, Sunni or Shia -- is doing the same thing. The Shia-dominated government certainly isn't helping to dispel this perception. Are the American forces going to be able to step back in if the Iraqi government doesn't make political peace before they have to start leaving?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, that will be kind of push-comes-to-shove time. That's one reason I think 2008 may be the most important year in the Iraq war.

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Minneapolis: You said things are apparently getting better, that violence is at least down, if not eliminated. What does this mean for the average Iraqi? Is there a sense of progress, that there might be a future for the country? Or are they just trying to survive from one day to the next?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think they are kind of poking their heads up into the sunlight, blinking, and hoping that the trend will continue. But yeah, they also are exhausted.

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Princeton, N.J.: What is the best outcome we realistically can expect in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, Princeton, am I writing a paper for you or something?

I'll be speaking up there next month, by the way, at the Woodrow Wilson School.

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Foreign service officer with a tour in Iraq: I've heard from several of my former military officer colleagues that what Iraq needs (at least what Baghdad and the Iraq government need) is for Maliki to take a strong-arm approach, in the same manner as Saddam Hussein. Is this what others are saying, that a "Saddam Hussein" could put a damper on violence?

Thomas E. Ricks: This would be a sad outcome -- replacing one dictator with another. But I think that may be the direction in which Iraq is headed.

What worries me is that a new strongman emerges, with all of Saddam's skills and little of his baggage. He unites Iraq under the banner of anti-Americanism, gets the oil pumping, and uses the revenue to buy himself weapons of mass destruction. Then in 10 or so years we might face the Iraq that the Bush Administration wrongly thought it faced in 2003.

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Washington: Mr Ricks, please, please tell me this isn't true: "The U.S. Military is demanding that thousands of wounded service personnel give back signing bonuses because they are unable to serve out their commitments. To get people to sign up, the military gives enlistment bonuses up to $30,000 in some cases. Now men and women who have lost arms, legs, eyesight, hearing and can no longer serve are being ordered to pay some of that money back."

washingtonpost.com: Wounded Soldier: Military Wants Part Of Bonus Back (KDKA TV, Nov. 17)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yow. I hadn't heard this. Let me get our crack reporters Anne Hull and Dana Priest (the duo who did all the coverage of the shabby treatment of recuperating soldiers at Walter Reed) on this case.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for all your questions. I apologize to those I didn't get to. I am going to head off for lunch. If you want more, just listen to Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" show. I believe she will be airing an interview with me today.

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