The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks

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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, March 11, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, March 11 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Ricks's 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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Newport Beach, Calif.: How is it that eight U.S. soldiers killed in one day in Iraq doesn't warrant front-page treatment in The Washington Post? Is the paper that out of touch with how much we, as Americans, care about our troops?

washingtonpost.com: Eight U.S. Soldiers Die in Iraq Attacks (Post, March 11)

Thomas E. Ricks: I can't speak for all Americans. But I can count, and there are fewer questions here today than ever before. So, judging by that and other recent indications, I think Americans really aren't paying that much attention to the Iraq war right now.

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Black Mountain, N.C.: Whatever else it was, one thing a "surge" was for was to quiet the streets of Baghdad and play to the "safe streets" mentality of brain-dead, religious-right bigots. What spin will "sell" the renewed violence in a key, supposedly-safe, district of Baghdad -- toward deliberately-targeted American troops?

Thomas E. Ricks: I'm not sure that anyone was selling Mansour -- the neighborhood where five soldiers were killed -- as "safe." The U.S. military tends to talk in more constrained terms, about making an area secure, or reducing the level of violence to something acceptable in terms of Iraq's history.

I for one wouldn't define anywhere in Baghdad as safe. Better than it was, sure. But a long ways from strolling down the street without concern.

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Reston, Va.: Two quick questions. First, do you think the recent attacks augur a renewed insurgency, capitalizing on the "drawdown," or was this just a lucky strike for the terrorists? Second, are we seeing any real progress on the political front -- is the surge really working?

Thomas E. Ricks: The surge is working, tactically, in that it is improving security, despite the recent hits. Those are to be expected--no one has given up in Iraq. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see violence increase this year. Why? For several reasons: Various adversaries have been studying the U.S. military for new vulnerabilities. Also, more refugees will be returning from other countries, if only because they are running out of money, and many will want their old houses back, only to find them occupied by sectarian militias. Third, the patience of some Sunnis may run out if the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government continues to drag its feet. Fourth, holding provincial elections may be the right thing to do, but it is likely to increase turbulence. Finally, the U.S. ability to bring security and otherwise influence events will diminish as the "surge" troops head home and aren't replaced.

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Anonymous: How safe is Camp Victory?

Thomas E. Ricks: I've been there three times over the last year--May, November, and January -- and I find it very safe. Yes, some rockets landed there one morning at 7 a.m. But I think the biggest danger at Victory is the terrific food. I always eat too much there -- especially when they serve Indian food.

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: Can someone remind me what Gen. Lute is doing? Has his role changed or diminished significantly?

Thomas E. Ricks: Let me know if you hear anything. I almost never hear him mentioned. Of course, some might interpret that to mean that he is doing his job, and making things run so smoothly that no one is complaining to the media about him.

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Arlington, Va.: With eight U.S. soldiers recently killed in attacks in Iraq, and with violence there continuing, do you think any significant troop drawdown is realistic this year? If not this year, when? What would be the circumstances that would allow it?

Thomas E. Ricks: My best guess is that troop numbers will come down this spring and by mid-July will be at about 135,000, close to the pre-surge level.

The drawdown will then pause for several months, with probably one more brigade of about 4,000 troops coming home in December.

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Burke, Va.: Have you read the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Feith? Where is he on the mark and where is he totally off-base?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I read a manuscript from the editing process--it looked to me like what book publishers call "page proofs."

My biggest problem with the book is that he condemns the "conventional wisdom" or "accepted narrative" of the Iraq war--essentially as a bunch of screw-ups and lack of planning--but doesn't really address that narrative. Instead, he portrays a parallel universe where he and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were right but were undercut by those rats at State and CIA.

Here is the summary I wrote with my colleague Karen DeYoung for the Sunday edition of The Post.

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Fairfax, Va.: I saw the piece from your "Inbox" and I too was struck by Part D (Timing of the Dissent) in Col. Don M. Snider's formulation. I guess if I were in the shoes of a general, even if I disagreed with a policy I might not necessarily speak out immediately; I don't have a monopoly on wisdom. I guess, in my mind, it would depend more on whether I felt opposing views were at least given proper consideration.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Ricks's Inbox: When is it legitimate for a general to criticize a war? (Post, March 9)

Thomas E. Ricks: That's a good point. I think what Col. Snider was trying to say was that if something is really worth dissenting about, it is worth dissenting about at the time of disagreement -- not months or years later when it might be more convenient. I suspect he had in mind, for example, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003-2004, but didn't step up and criticize the war until years later.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I read your article on Feith's book in disbelief, because it sure seems the clown is still cooking the books. Or is it such an early draft that he expects to fill in blanks and clean up the contradictions?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Defense Official Assails Colleagues Over Run-Up to War (Post, March 9)

Thomas E. Ricks: Nah, my impression is that this was a draft from pretty late in the editing process. It wasn't a typewritten manuscript.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What is your view of the "State of Iraq" report by O'Hanlon et al in the Sunday New York Times, which runs with the lead "Iraq's security turnaround has continued through the winter"? Among other things the report states that Iraqi security forces now number 425,000. Does O'Hanlon pull our collective leg in implying that there exists this number of people who, by implication, are capable of perform at least the low-level security functions? If they are as numerous (and capable) as he implies, why are Iraqi forces not doing the patrols that result in U.S. troop casualties?

washingtonpost.com: The State of Iraq: An Update (New York Times, March 9)

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, Peaks Island! My best to everyone at the general store, where I am sure "Fiasco" is a bestseller, even if it doesn't mention Manny Ramirez or any other of the Red Sox.

I think O'Hanlon does a good job. I pay close attention to what he writes. He was one of the first to pick up on the turnaround in Baghdad security trends -- and got a lot of grief from people who should know better.

Now get back out there and catch those lobsters! Or whatever it is Mainers do during the winter.

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Bow, N.H.: Do you ever wonder whether maybe Shinseki was right, and we needed to go in with more troops on Day 1?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I do. I used to think General Shinseki was right. (The background here is that in the spring of 2003, before the invasion, he told Congress, in response to questioning, that the thought several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. For his honesty, he was denounced by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others.)

But the more I think about it, the less sure I am. Why? Because U.S. troops, and their commanders, weren't trained or equipped or mentally prepared to deal with the rise of an insurgency. So there is a good chance that twice as many troops might have made twice as many errors. For more on this, see the chapter in my book 'Fiasco' on "The Descent Into Abuse."

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Boston: "I can't speak for all Americans. But I can count, and there are fewer questions here today than ever before. So, judging by that and other recent indications, I think Americans really aren't paying that much attention to the Iraq war right now." Are you covering the news, or what is popular?

Thomas E. Ricks: I'm covering the news. I am working on Iraq full-time this year, because I think it is important. But that doesn't mean Americans want to read it.

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Newfoundland, Canada: If you graph violence in Iraq from the past four years, there is a lull every January or February and an upsurge and peak later in the spring, usually April or May. A second surge occurs in most of the falls, peaking around November or December, though that was less prominent this year. Why is this? Weather? Religious reasons? Is the recent seem upsurge part of this cycle?

Thomas E. Ricks: Two reasons, I think: Weather and religion.

It really does get cold in Iraq during the winter. I just think it is hard for fighters to hang out all night in the wind and cold and mist, than it is for them to do so in the summer, when the night time is the right time to move around. So spring is when fighters start moving back out again.

I think fall has seen spikes in violence because for the last several years, Ramadan has some then -- first late October, then (moving forward under the lunar calendar of Islam) to early October, then to mid-September. In 2007, the violence of Ramadan was lower than it was in 2006, but about the same it was in 2005.

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Sacramento, Calif.: An historical question: Is there a war in U.S. history that widely was disapproved of, yet public opinion turned around and victory enthusiastically was pursued? Is it a valid question regarding the Iraq War?

Thomas E. Ricks: I dunno. I think the closest parallel to the war in Iraq may be the U.S. war in the Philippines around 1900. I don't know if there was any reliable public opinion polling back then -- but I doubt it because I didn't see it mentioned in Brian Linn's terrific history of that war. The U.S. military did get better at fighting that war. On the other hand, the occupation lasted several additional decades.

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Pacific Northwest: Mr. Ricks, violence in Pakistan seems to be increasing dramatically. This cannot bode well for democratization in that country -- nor for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which also seems to be experiencing an increase in insurgent violence. Could you share your thoughts about these developments? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I am really worried about events in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is happening in those two countries presents much more of a threat to us, I think, than anything happening in Iraq.

The real worry is that Pakistan descends into chaos, and then control of its nuclear arsenal goes up for grabs. I don't believe there ever has been a nuclear-armed state in as fragile a position as Pakistan is now.

For a variety of reasons, I've been reading a lot about the Spanish Civil War lately. The ferocity on both sides was astonishing. I'd hate to think of what one side would have done with a nuke.

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Greenville, S.C.: Thanks to you and Karen DeYoung for the preview of Douglas Feith's memoir "War and Decision." Your article got more than 500 online comments. I read about a hundred of them and couldn't find one that had anything positive to say about Feith. Most of the comments excoriated him for serving his superiors the cooked intelligence that justified a war of aggression against a nation that was no significant threat, and had no connection with the Sept. 11 attack or al-Qaeda. Does Feith, in his book, acknowledge the extent to which he is reviled among the thousands, maybe millions of Americans who actually have followed the events of this war from the beginning, or does he assume his readers are the brainwashed and ignorant viewers of Fox News?

Thomas E. Ricks: No, he really doesn't address any of that. Rather he takes the posture that everything you know about the war is wrong, and he is gonna take the high road and correct the record.

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Lafayette, Calif.: Tom, listened to your book -- so great. The deaths -- they keep coming, but they aren't on the front page. Why not? They are soldiers with names, faces young. My son is in Kirkuk and they just put a young soldier to bunk with him because he has lost three best buddies from boot camp. My son is a great comfort, but where are the stories? Where is the sacrifice? Thanks for listening, from a Blue Star Mom.

Thomas E. Ricks: First, thank you for your family's contribution. I think it is harder having a relative in Iraq -- especially a son or daughter -- than it actually is to be in Iraq.

On the coverage: Well, we keep doing a lot of stories. The other day two of our reporters were hiking all over Kurdistan working on a story. I just think a lot of America is bored with Iraq, or perhaps despairing of it. Five years is a long time to be in a war. The Iraq war is now longer than any of our overseas wars but Vietnam, and I think it will wind up far longer.

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Fairfax, Va.: If troops stayed at 135,000 how long would it take for us to achieve victory in Iraq? McCain is thinking long-term, but what is a reasonable estimate, short of 100 years?

Thomas E. Ricks: Our troops are not going to achieve victory in Iraq, and they aren't being asked to. Rather they are being asked to help achieve conditions which will lead to political progress and so allow Iraq to have some sort of "sustainable security."

How long is that gonna take? My guess is at least another three to five years. You wouldn't need 135,000 troops for that duration, but you'd probably need 40,000 to 80,000 during that time.

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South Portland, Maine: Do you find that the majority of troops (enlisted) fall into the gung-ho category, or -- as I found in Vietnam -- the lemme-outta-here group?

Thomas E. Ricks: More gung-ho than get-me-outta-here. I think the improvement in security, and the sense that we finally have a meaningful strategy, has made many soldiers feel better about the sacrifices they and their buddies have made. That said, soldiers on their third tours are getting tired. I am worried not just about soldiers leaving the Army, but especially the quality of those who are getting out.

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Manhattan, Kan.: One quick question: Are we building a welfare state in Iraq that will remain dependent forever on the generosity of the American taxpayer?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so. After all -- at the risk of sounding like Paul Wolfowitz -- they do have lots and lots of oil.

That said, right now the welfare state we have is a system where we are paying lots of former insurgents $10 a day not to kill us. I can live with that.

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Chicago: It seems there has been a significant uptick in violence in Iraq. Is this correct? If so, to what do you attribute it?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so. Rather, I think there have been a few spectacular attacks. But, unfortunately, time will tell.

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Washington: I think that it seems to many of us who follow the Iraq conflict casually (for lack of a better word -- I mean something less than keenly), Iraq is in a holding pattern at the moment. What do you think is the next event/decision that will change the current pattern and move Iraq more toward stability and security, or instability and insecurity? Do you think it could be some change in tactics/position on the part of one of the Iraqi political figures?

Thomas E. Ricks: I follow it keenly, and I agree with your assessment.

The problem with a holding pattern is that it is very easy for that to morph into a spiral of slow descent.

The event that would move Iraq forward is some sort of change in its politics, especially the emergence of someone who transcends differences and seems to offer a new path -- kind of an Iraqi version of Nelson Mandela. So far, no sign of that.

There are lots of ways for it to go wrong.

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Seattle: Do you feel that we don't want to dedicate the proper diplomatic and military attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan, or that we just can't with the commitments to Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure there are any good answers. All I know is that the path we have been on doesn't seem to be working.

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San Diego: Mr. Ricks, have you read Michael Scheuer's new book, "Marching Towards Hell"? If so, what are your thoughts? I found it every bit as disturbing and incisive as your own book, "Fiasco."

Thomas E. Ricks: San Diego, I haven't. What did you particularly like about it?

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Arlington, Va.: What is your take on the current public debate regarding counterinsurgency between Army lieutenant colonels? Any bets on whether Col. McMaster is among the upcoming brigadier general promotions?

Thomas E. Ricks: I've been following this counterinsurgency debate on the terrific Small Wars Journal Web site, which is worth checking out. I think Col. Mansoor has it about right.

I would be very surprised if Col. McMaster isn't selected for the brigadier list. I was embedded with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment when he was commanding it outside Tall Afar in northwest Iraq. Many people know about his insightful new approach to fighting there. What isn't as well known is how well he commanded. He had one of the best run headquarters I've ever seen, with information flowing quickly to the people who needed it.

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Arlington, Va.: I just want to say that I hope that the fact that you haven't been getting as many questions lately doesn't mean that this chat will be going away. I don't always submit a question myself, but I always read the chat (either live or later in the day). It's an important source of information for me. Thanks much for sharing your expertise and insight with us.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks. I enjoy it, but I have got to tell you that there seems to be much less interest than in the past. I actually have been thinking of taking off the summer from this chat.

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Dallas: "Bored or despairing" ... please don't say bored. Bored breaks my heart. From an Army brother.

Thomas E. Ricks: I know what you mean.

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Anonymous: Why are Petraeus and Crocker both leaving soon after the inauguration in 2009? Doesn't seem to wise to have a new commander-in-chief without these two experienced leaders on the ground...

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, that is worrisome, especially with a new administration moving in.

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New York: "Because U.S. troops, and their commanders, weren't trained or equipped or mentally prepared to deal with the rise of an insurgency." But had we gone into Iraq with Shinseki's number of troops, would there have been an insurgency? Wouldn't it have been nipped in the bud? And don't forget the looting...

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I think there would have been an insurgency, in part because the counterproductive actions of U.S. forces alienated many Iraqis. Also, the three things an insurgency needs are recruits, weapons and financing, and for a variety of reasons, our actions helped them solve that problem. I explore this in the chapters in 'Fiasco' about 'How to Create an Insurgency.'

It wasn't until 2007 that U.S. forces made it their mission to protect Iraqis -- and that is when the air began to go out of the insurgency.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thank you for all your questions, and also for the civil tone of them.

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