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The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War | War Over the War discussion transcripts

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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Thomas E. Ricks: Welcome back. I see far fewer questions than ever before waiting for me. Our little group of people who still care about the Iraq war appears to be dwindling. "We few, we (un)happy few, we band of brothers."

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Baghdad, Iraq: Mr. Ricks, I am five months into a 15-month tour here in Iraq. I have read "Fiasco," and as a field-grade officer most of us do not see an end here in Iraq. If we stay, we are attacked; if we leave, Iraq falls apart. I used to believe in the system, but I do not anymore. Is there an end in sight? What do you see ahead for Iraq? The senior leaders will not admit to it, but the Army is dying a slow death ... things will be worse than the late '70s.

Thomas E. Ricks: Hello, Baghdad.

This is a very good question. With you, I think we are stuck in Iraq for years to come. That is to say, the best case scenario isn't that different from what some would call a quagmire.

That said, I do think it might be possible to reduce troop numbers and get the casualty rate down in coming years.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Thank you for your continuing coverage of the war in Iraq, Mr. Ricks. I am dismayed that the chaos there seems to be slipping from the front pages of our nation's psyche. What's your sense of the current attitude of our troops on the ground about the likelihood of political success in establishing a stable Iraq? Is their attitude consistent with that of the upper echelon and reflected in the statements of the military public relations? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Interesting question. On one hand, my impression on my last trip -- in January -- was that troops were feeling okay, having at least seen some reduction in violence in the second half of 2007. On the other hand, see the previous questioner.

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Long Beach, Calif.: It seems the Iraq War has achieved a sort of stasis; it's now an entrenched part of the U.S. government operations, and to change that requires action and initiative that no presidential candidate or political party really seems to have. Is the U.S. "stuck" in Iraq for at least another five years? This seems crazy. The thing has a life of its own. Everyone wants out, but no one is willing to risk their political necks to do it.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, yeah. I think what you are seeing is a rational calculation that the risks of leaving are greater than the risks of staying.

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Boston: I read your article today. Should Chiarelli keep his travel bags handy (having been put in place by a lame duck Republican president at the end of his term) if a Democrat wins the White House and he/she decides to put their "own man" in to run Iraq, someone who is more in line with their overwatch/drawdown policies? Second, should we worry about Defense lawyer Haynes' job prospects in the private sector, or will he slide easily into the constellation of Cheney contacts in the military-industrial complex? That would be an interesting journalistic study in itself.

washingtonpost.com: Chiarelli Likely to Command Iraq Forces (Post, Feb. 26)

Thomas E. Ricks: Well as I recall, Haynes used to work for a defense contractor (Northrop Grumman or General Dynamics, I think), so it wouldn't be surprising to see him head back there.

But it seems to me the real money these days is in logistical support -- stuff that Kellogg Brown & Root does. (And indeed that is the company Cheney used to be at, when it was part of Halliburton.)

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Ocala, Fla.: Admittedly I haven't read your latest book, but the main issue other than the carnage is the graft committed in this war. For a generation, journalists have tried to become "Woodstein" -- are there any journalists rigorously following the money? Thanks for this venue.

Thomas E. Ricks: Some people have tried to follow the money, but it is tough. It has gotten a bit easier now that Congress has woken up and begun holding some hearings on the costs of the war and where all the money goes, but for several years Congress failed in one of its most basic functions, of conducting oversight and informing the people.

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Black Mountain, N.C.: The BBC's story on the Turkish incursion carried the following statement, which The Post's omitted: "Mr Erdogan thanked the U.S. for providing intelligence for its operation." Explain this, could you please?

washingtonpost.com: Iraq denounces Turkish offensive (BBC, Feb. 26)

Thomas E. Ricks: Don't be so paranoid. The provision of intelligence in this operation is nothing new. Indeed, I think both The Post and New York Times have had page-one stories about this in the past few months.

Remember that Turkey is a member of NATO.

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Boston: And what about Chiarelli? Do outgoing presidents usually change theater commanders or higher right before they leave office, or would it be a decision rightly for the next commander in chief?

Thomas E. Ricks: Oh yeah, I forgot to address the Chiarelli part of that question.

I think one of the big concerns in the military is providing some stability and continuity during the transition to the next administration. The worry there especially is that you don't want six to nine months of drift while the next administration gets its people in place and then gets up to speed on its policies.

At any rate, it isn't like Chiarelli is a Republican general -- and even if he were, there aren't a bunch of other logical candidates out there.

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Richmond, Va.: Can you explain why you think Moqtada al-Sadr decided to extend his cease-fire? Is there a hidden agenda there?

washingtonpost.com: Sadr Extends Truce In Iraq (Post, Feb. 23)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I think Sadr is lying low and keeping his powder dry. In the long run, he is likely the big winner in Iraqi politics, so I think his policy is to be patient and collect his winnings in due time.

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Peaks Island, Maine: Nir Rosen writes in the March 6 Rolling Stone: "The Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. ... There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.

" 'We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority,' says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. 'Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future.' "

What is your take on the likelihood that the sectarian conflicts now suppressed will "...burst out with even greater ferocity in the future"?

Thomas E. Ricks: It wouldn't be a online discussion of Iraq without a question from Peaks Island, Maine! Sometimes I think there must be dozens of concerned citizens up there, debating Iraq issues and crowding around the computer in the general store to watch each online chat. As if ...

To your question. I read Nir's article yesterday. He makes a very good case that all we are doing is preparing Iraq for round II of the civil war -- which likely would be fiercer than the 2006 civil war because we have created a cohesive force of at least 70,000 armed Sunni fighters.

Will that prove to be the case? No one knows. But yeah, it is a worry.

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washingtonpost.com: The Myth of the Surge (Rolling Stone, March 6 issue)

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Fairfax, Va.: So if the surge is as successful as Bush apparatchiks like Kristol proclaim on Fox News every Sunday morning, why are we going to have 10,000 more troops in Iraq than we did before the surge began, and why are we apparently going to stay indefinitely? And how could the will of the people in the election two years ago be so blatantly brushed aside in the greatest democracy in the world?

Thomas E. Ricks: On the first part of your question, please go back and look at the first question and answer today, with the officer in Baghdad.

On the second part, it isn't clear to me that the will of the people has been brushed aside. The Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress. They could have pulled the plug, but they didn't.

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Fresno, Calif.: In your 1998 book "Making the Corps" you observed that the people in the volunteer military were more rural, more conservative and more Republican than American society in general. Has that changed? If so, in what ways?

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for reading "Making the Corps" (which, by the way, is much funnier than "Fiasco").

I think the all-volunteer force is still generally more rural, more conservative, and more Republican than American society. That said, I think Iraq has made the U.S. military much warier of the Republican Party. In fact, if you polled the officer corps, I think Ron Paul would win.

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Floris, Va.: If the surge really is working why was there 38 Americans Iraq deaths in January versus 23 in December? And let's not forget that more Americans were killed in 2007 than any other year since we've been there.

Thomas E. Ricks: I think the surge certainly is working tactically, though for how long we don't know. There are lots of adversaries in Iraq who haven't given up, and simply may be falling back to study our "seams" and vulnerabilities.

I don't think the surge has worked strategically. Remember, its purpose as stated by the president 13 months ago was to improve security in such a way as to lead to a political breakthrough. There has been some political movement lately, but nothing that tells us we are reaching "sustainable security."

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Per Peaks Island: Now that we've armed both sides of a centuries old civil war, doesn't that argue, in a Catch-22 way, for us staying indefinitely in Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, good point. The argument now is that we are the glue holding this thing together. No one really likes us, but everyone seems to trust us more than they trust their factional enemies.

I think we will be there for a looooooooooong time.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for your wonderful book and your taking questions. What is your take of the events today regarding Iraqi government telling the Turkish army to leave? Does this declaration have teeth? If so, given that the Iraqi army can't stand without us, are we the teeth? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for reading the book!

I confess I just don't understand what is happening up north. I always feared that if the Turks attacked, then the Kurds would pull out of Baghdad their Pishmarga troops who are now in the Iraqi Army. But I haven't heard of that happening.

The current situation up there reminds me of something my Post colleague Anthony Shadid said one night in Baghdad in the spring of 2004. "The more I know about Iraq," he said, "the less I understand it." (And Anthony speaks Arabic and has spent a lot of time in Iraq.)

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Saint Brieuc, France: No one cares about Iraq? Some of us still do -- but what to say? Not even "we told you so" would bring me any satisfaction, personally: it's more of a fiasco than I ever imagined, and that's saying something. So -- where does it go from here, in your opinion? Other than hanging on in there, what steps can be taken, if only to prevent Afghanistan going the same way? Conscription, perhaps?

Thomas E. Ricks: I understand this point of view.

Where does it go from here? First, I don't see it simply unchanging, maintaining the current situation. Something has gotta give.

Second, I really don't think it will end well. That is why I am pessimistic in strategic terms. I think we will be lucky to wind up with an Iraq that is one country and is relatively stable.

Gen. Petraeus famously asked during the invasion: "How does this end?" It may not end. We may be stuck. Or we may wind up kicked out of Iraq by a pro-Iranian government.

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Snyder, Texas: Mr. Ricks, my son did twp Marine Corps combat deployments to the Anbar, including the Battle of Fallujah in November 2004; my nephew did three Anbar combat deployments with the Marines, and I have another nephew there now with a Stryker Brigade in the Diyala. We have had loved ones in Iraq since 2003, and our family and others like it are absolutely exhausted by these constant redeployments.

Time and again, when I see discussions about whether or not to continue this war in force, nobody mentions the fact that less than one percent of this country's population has been fighting a Groundhog Day war over and over again, and it has taken a terrible toll on our fighting men and women that we'll be feeling for decades. Why isn't this fact taken more into consideration? When McCain talks about a hundred-year war and Bush talks about "winning" and "supporting the troops", don't they know that these troops can't go on like this much longer? Whether the "surge" is working is irrelevant if my family has to still be sending our young men to Iraq five or 10 years from now.

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a good comment from a military family.

My thanks for your family's service to the country, especially in Fallujah in 2004 -- I don't think people back here understand quite how tough that was. Anyone who wants to know more should read Staff Sgt. David Bellavia's memoir, "House to House."

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The senior leaders will not admit to it, but the Army is dying a slow death ... things will be worse than the late '70s.: Today Gen. Casey told the Senate basically the same thing. He said if tours aren't shortened, the all-volunteer force and their ability to prepare for the unforeseen will be greatly diminished.

washingtonpost.com: Army: Service Must Cut Combat Tours (AP, Feb. 26)

Thomas E. Ricks: 'Nuff said.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: I thank you for taking questions today. I think it's a disgrace that reporting on the war simply has vanished. But my question is, how will the situation in Iraq be any different in five years, 10 years, 100 years? It seems that it's exactly what our enemies want.

Thomas E. Ricks: "Vanished"? Diminished, sure. But The Washington Post has carried a bunch of good stories this week, by Josh Partlow, Amit Paley and Sudarsan Raghavan, and also some very good photos by the intrepid Andrea Bruce. Just go to the search box on the upper left hand side of washingtonpost.com's home page.

As to your question: It will be different. Just how, I don't know -- but I suspect we won't like it.

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Mons, Belgium: There currently are protective walls separating Baghdad neighborhoods. Are they meant to stay, or is the surge successful enough to allow reconciliation and render those walls unnecessary?

Thomas E. Ricks: We move from France to Belgium.

The walls do seem to have been effective in reducing violence -- especially al-Qaeda in Iraq's attacks on Shiite public places, such as mosques and marketplaces, and Shiite militia attacks on Sunni neighborhoods.

That said, they were described to me by one official when they were being put in as "tourniquets" -- something you don't like to do, but use in an emergency to stop the bleeding, even if it risks losing a limb.

And no, I don't think they can be taken down yet.

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Columbia, Md.: Thanks for your discussion. How much money has the U.S. been paying local militias/leaders to keep the peace during the surge? This seems to be an underreported aspect of the surge. What would happen if we stopped paying them? I think the American public has the right to know how much of our tax dollars are being used to buy "protection." Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Lots of money! I mentioned this in at the end of a story I did from Baghdad last month. I was told that we have paid out $120 million through the last year to these local groups.

It is readable at this link.

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Seventies Redux: The army of the early '70s was my army -- demoralized, drug-addled, race-riven, wracked by sabotage and mutiny -- and if that's in our future, we won't be in Iraq long, because such undisciplined troops won't be able to deal with insurgents.

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think that is in our future. First, that was a draft army. By contrast, every person in the military today asked to be there -- at least originally, because some have been involuntarily reactivated or "stop-lossed" from leaving. Second, the military has done very well on race issues.

But you are right that there is a lot of concern in the military about captains and NCOs leaving.

The question, I think, is: Is it worth running the risk of "breaking" the Army to do whatever it is we need to do in Iraq? That is the heart of the debate inside the military. Clearly the service chiefs have taken a different view than Gen. Petraeus.

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Norfolk, Va.: Is it too cynical to say that the news blackout on Iraq has two causes: that the media would rather report on train wrecks than trains running on time, and that good news in Iraq is bad news for Democrats?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, it is too cynical. But thanks for asking.

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Arlington, Va.: Just a comment regarding military members becoming more wary of the Republican Party. ... This is just anecdotal, but I was surprised to hear recently from a young Army wife on Fort Campbell who I am in frequent contact with that the spouses she interacts with there talk only about Obama and Clinton as candidates they want to vote for -- there seems to be no love for the Republicans there these days. (They want their husbands home!)

I recently asked her deployed husband what his impressions are about whom his fellow soldiers there are supporting, and he said that he would judge them as being divided half and half between Democratic and Republican candidates. Obviously this isn't in any way a scientific survey, but these are very different responses than I got when I talked with soldiers and their spouses during past elections.

Thomas E. Ricks: Here is an interesting comment. I will keep my ears open on this.

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Thomas E. Ricks: I'm gonna simply pass along some of the questions I haven't yet addressed, especially those that are more comment than question.

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Washington: My brother is in the medical corps over in Iraq and says that the Army is continually sending over unfit soldiers just to fill the slots. These include physical disabilities (some even wounds from combat that have not fully healed) and mental issues (there are soldiers stationed in Iraq who are too mentally unstable to have a gun in their possession). My question -- what is the actual size of the "surge," or even the fighting force in general, that actually can respond to anything? (I do understand there is a ratio of something like 6:1 or 10:1 for support vs. combat troops.) Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Here is one.

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Peeling the onion: When you peel away all the shifting rationales for our ongoing presence in Iraq, is it out of the realm of possibility that we really are staying there in force so that President Bush doesn't have to admit he failed in both the decision to invade and how his administration has handled Iraq after the invasion?

Thomas E. Ricks: Here is another.

Certainly it is going to be interesting to see how long Democrats consider this "Bush's war," especially if they are in the White House.

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Re: Snyder, Texas: St Brieuc again here -- the Snyder question seems to me to beg an answer to my suggestion -- surely conscription is the only way out of the impasse? I realize how unpopular it would be, but surely it's one of the few ways of radically changing the situation? Is defeat really preferable to conscription?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think conscription is in the cards, especially to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign. But certainly an opinion some people have...

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Anonymous: With the seemingly sweeping under the carpet of how and why we invaded Iraq, the nonexistence of government oversight regarding Iraq and the apathy of the majority of the American public, aren't we doomed to repeat this behavior 20, 30 or 50 years from now?

Thomas E. Ricks: I sure hope not.

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Levittown, N.Y.: Regarding the enemies involved, and the need for Congress to declare, is it legitimate to call this a war? Is the actual death toll skewed by where, how or when death actually occurs? Why is the death toll cited so often, but the numbers (and severity of the injuries) of the other casualties -- the wounded -- mentioned so infrequently and quietly?

Thomas E. Ricks: It sure is a war.

I don't think the death toll is being artificially depressed. I get all the Pentagon death notices, and you see sometimes that a soldier has died in a military hospital stateside from wounds inflicted in Iraq.

I think the wounded are mentioned a lot. There have been a ton of stories about amputees, and about Walter Reed Hospital, for example.

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Falls Church, Va.: One reason I don't pay as much attention to the war as before is that I seldom see the political progress, or lack thereof, covered. Maybe, just as The Post runs regular casualty summaries, there could be a regular political progress summary: "The U.S. is hoping that the Iraqi parliament passes laws X, Y, and Z and comes up with Plan Q to share oil revenue between regions/ethnicities; currently, the status of legislation X is..." etc.

Thomas E. Ricks: One problem with that is that there has been little political progress. Another is that a death toll is pretty unambiguous, while there are tremendous arguments inside Iraq about every political step -- what does it mean, it is significant, will it do what it purports to do?

That said, I think The Post covers this stuff pretty closely -- again, I recommend you go back and look at the recent stories by Joshua Partlow, Amit Paley and Sudarsan Raghavan.

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Richmond, Va.:"I don't think the surge has worked strategically. Remember, its purpose as stated by the president 13 months ago was to improve security in such a way as to lead to a political breakthrough. There has been some political movement lately, but nothing that tells us we are reaching 'sustainable security.' " Do you think the upcoming provincial elections (scheduled for November 2008?) have a change of providing the "political breakthrough" required for this?

Thomas E. Ricks: That's certainly the hope of American officials. The problem is that political change from below takes time. Also, the provincial elections may be violent.

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New Boston, N.H.: Will it take a full legion of Chinese troops invading this country before the Bushies connect the dots in Bush's sellout to China for his own personal vanity war in Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: New Boston, I'm gonna put this in the "comment" category.

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Chicago: As the Iraq War drags on, are there any Middle Eastern countries that could step up and assume some strategic role in working things out? So far everybody seems either to be sitting on the sidelines or engaging in covert ops (unless, like Turkey, they just lob shells over the border from time to time). Might any of Iraq's neighbors ever emerge to perform a constructive function here? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Depends on what you mean by "constructive." Iran has been pretty active in Iraq, but not in ways the U.S. government considers helpful.

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Baltimore: What are the odds that the Turkish incursion into Northern Iraq leads to a full-blown conflict with the Iraqi Kurds, which would leave us with the unwholesome choice of coming down on one side or the other?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, Bodymore! (I am doing a marathon of episodes from "The Wire" with my wife these days. I think it is the best TV show ever.)

I don't understand why people aren't more worried about this.

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Nagoya, Japan: If president Bush would have followed the advice of Colin Powell, what would have been different?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, it would. But was Gen. Powell ever really influential in this administration? My impression is they kind of used him politically without listening to him.

I am off for lunch with my boss. Wish me luck!

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