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The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 12:00 PM

Join Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, April 1 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments in Iraq, and 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: Hello to all.

As we open up today's proceedings, the big question on my mind, and I bet many of yours, is just exactly what happened last week in Basra and in Sadr City.

I am struck that no one seems to have a good answer. I've been checking all the experts and the blogs, and they are all over the place. One of my favorite blogs, Abu Aardvark, listed these theories:

"So you can add the [1] 'Iran is liquidating its no longer useful proxies' theory (which would fit this general line of speculation about Iran's doubts about Sadr and preference for the simultaneously U.S. backed ISCI) to the generally most prevalent (in the Iraqi and Arab, not just Western, media) [2] 'Maliki and ISCI are liquidating their more popular rivals ahead of the provincial elections' theory; the optimistic [3] 'Sadr has lost power and now's the time to take him out' theory (thus far not borne out by the course of the fighting, but who knows -- it's early, or it could be a miscalculation); [4] Maliki's own 'it's time to establish state sovereignty over a "lost" province' theory (which Bush, of course, has embraced, and is supported by the reporting that the Iraqi Army began its preparations for the attack months ago; but then why isn't he taking on the other militias and warlords? and why would he start now, and in Basra?); and [5] Reidar Visser's 'Maliki is trying to build a power base in the Iraqi Army' theory."

Another excellent Web site, Small Wars Journal, carried two longer summaries of what people were saying. Here's a comment from there, by Malcolm Nance, a multi-decade veteran of the U.S. intelligence services and also author of a book on the Iraqi insurgencies:

"No one doubts U.S. supremacy on the battlefield, but this is the Iraqi Army engaged now in Basra and by all accounts performing poorly. Any attempt to extract them will be a victory for the Jaish al-Mahdi. On the other hand the JAM can easily make it clear that hardball is a two way game, as they have done in the past. They could suddenly disappear from the battlefield, secretly open up those hidden away crates of Iranian made EFP-IEDs and make Basra a living hell for whoever comes in with armor. JAM's "brave, but stupid" street tactics have a low survivability rate against U.S. soldiers but they are more than a match for the Iraqi army and police of 2008. The Iraqi army of 2009 may be a different matter, but there is no doubt that the JAM may use on any more cease-fires to train their cadres so they can continue to fight the Iraqi and U.S. army like Hezbollah fought Israel in Lebanon.

"Update #1: As predicted, in a replay of the 2004 and 2005 Mahdi militia uprisings, Moqtada al-Sadr ordered the Jaish al-Mahdi to conduct the cease-fire-and-vanish act that typified his conflicts with Prime Minister Maliki. This is not a victory for Maliki, as the Iraqi army will only symbolically enter Basra and none of the JAM controlled districts. This is a strategy that worked very well for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and will work again as the JAM gains strength and once again convinces members of the Iraqi police to mutiny and either refuse to fight or abandon their posts to join the JAM."

As the experts poke the ashes, I think the emerging consensus is that Moqtada al-Sadr won more than he lost, because he and the government agreed to a cease-fire. That makes him 3 for 3 in taking on state powers (the U.S. in the previous two rounds, and now the Baghdad government). If nothing else, this guy is a survivor.

What puzzles me most is the role Iran played, especially in ending the fighting. There are lots of rumors that it brokered the cease-fire, but I have seen nothing definitive. If it did, that indicates that the Tehran government felt it had something to lose through the fighting. I have been told by U.S. officials that the Iranians were taken aback by intra-Shiite combat in Iraq last year around Karbala. I don't know why they would be surprised: It seems to me that one of the obstacles to major political movement in Iraq is that the Shiites still haven't sorted themselves out.

The other international actor of interest is Britain. They have 4,000 troops at the airport on the outskirts of Basra. You wouldn't know it, would you? (By the way, the British defense minister, Des Browne, said today that he is putting on hold a plan to further cut the British troop strength. Why? Seems kind of meaningless to me.) Nance's subhed: "It's Always Tea Time at Basra Airport."

At any rate, the phrase that keeps coming back to me is one I heard last year from a diplomat: If you want to know what Baghdad will look like eventually, look at Basra now.

Now let's get to your questions.

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Evansville, Ind.: Sadr continues to outsmart the US. How does he manage this? What are the options for the U.S. besides continuing to sell the revolt in Basra as another sign of progress in Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think our officials underestimated him for a long time. I suspect they still might be doing so. It seems to me that in the long run, power is going to flow toward him.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: I've lost count: Which act is this? Was that the intermission we were having before Maliki's move?

Thomas E. Ricks: I have it in my program right here: This is act III, "The Petraeus Years."

To be serious, I think we probably are only around the halfway point in this war.

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Washington: Sir, when will it end? I also like how Washington Post journalists form the majority of correspondents interviewed in PBS Frontline's "Bush's War." Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: 'Bush's War' (washingtonpost.com, March 26)

Thomas E. Ricks: It will end in a long time, if anything in the Middle East can ever be said to end.

I think Frontline has done a great job on the Iraq war. Anybody who hasn't seen their "Bush's War" should make a point to sit down and watch it tonight. I hear an unconfirmed rumor that the general store on Peak's Island, Maine, will be showing it, along with free lobsters and good Portland ale.)

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Thomas E. Ricks: I'm gonna publish all at once the Basra-related questions you've sent in. I think I have answered most of these in my opening shot. If I haven't, let me know.

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Fairfax County, Va.: If in fact the recent unpleasantness in Basra and the surrounding area is the opening move in a campaign for the Iraqi parliamentary elections in October, it's a gamble that may not pay off, either for Maliki or for the GOP in the U.S. The prospect of the Sadrists gaining the electoral upper hand one month before the elections here may not be the best political development for McCain's position. Of course, a full-out civil war in the fall before the elections is arguably worse...

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's one.

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Newfoundland, Canada: Thanks for taking my true-or-false question: The Cheney visit had something specific to do with the recent "surge" of violence. If true, I'd sure be interested in any additional info you might have.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, Iran also had a state visit to Baghdad recently too. Lots of material here for theorists . . . .

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Anonymous: What is your opinion on whether, as many suggest, that Maliki's Basra venture represented at its core his having taken the side of the Hakim family in its power struggle with al-Sadr's family?

Thomas E. Ricks: That is indeed one theory.

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Alexandria, Va.: So far, what is your take on the Basra offensive? Did this empower Maliki, or did it reassure Sadr's power? What does this teach us about Maliki, and what do you think is the outcome? Thank you as always for your reporting, book and continued expert diligence in this important area.

washingtonpost.com: Relative Calm Returns After Clashes in Basra (Post, April 1)

Thomas E. Ricks: I'm thinking Sadr has won a split decision, but it's probably too early to really know.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: After reading Raghavan's heartbreaking article, I don't see how anyone can claim this so-called surge is working -- unless "working" means maintain relative calm long enough for Bush to leave office. How can Baghdad, which essentially has been turned into a segregated police state, be touted as a model for success? (And Tom ... any plans to interview on Terry Gross's program soon? I hope!)

washingtonpost.com: A Block in Baghdad Mourns Its Own (Post, April 1)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, hasn't Raghavan done a bang-up job the last few days in Iraq? I think the guy deserves a big raise.

I don't think Baghdad is a police state. If it were, it likely would be safer than it is.

As for "Fresh Air," I love doing it. I think Terry Gross is the best interviewer I've ever encountered. But I am really trying to limit by media blabbing while I work on a long-term project on Iraq.

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Denver: While Maliki's attempt to overtake Sadr's forces in Basra seems to have failed, do you think that this power struggle is likely to be the eventual outcome of our invasion of Iraq? In other words, a all-out battle for control among Shiite factions?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, as I said at the top, I do think that the Shiites need to sort themselves out a bit more before the country moves forward. That may be -- I hope -- part of what is going on now.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation describes the recent offensive in Basra as an almost total defeat for Maliki and Bush. Would you agree with this assessment?

washingtonpost.com: The Lessons of Basra (The Nation, March 31)

Thomas E. Ricks: Another theory.

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Bethlehem, Pa.: I have the impression that the Maliki government had to give in to al-Sadr or someone in order to halt the recent fighting. If my impression is correct, does that show that the Maliki government is too weak to set and carry out its own policies on any major area of Iraqi political life?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, could be. But obviously other people have different opinions.

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Miami: Tom, the Pentagon had a strategy (kept hidden apparently by or from the press) for the the first few years of the war to abandon Iraq ASAP. What is their real strategy now?

Thomas E. Ricks: I love these casual parenthetical pops at the media. No, no big secret here. As I wrote in 'Fiasco' (and published earlier in the Washington Post), the original war plan called for the U.S. to be down to about 30,000 troops in Iraq by the fall of 2003. At one point, I actually published an Army briefing slide about this.

The real strategy now is to improve security sufficiently to bring about political progress.

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Montreal: Sadr is the big winner. Maliki is the big loser. Badr and ISCI (formerly SCIRI) are small losers. Expectations now are that October elections will cement these facts. Is that about right?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't know how battlefield results will correlate with the ballot box. I suspect that one reason Maliki moved was because he thought Sadr was sufficiently weakened in the south.

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New York: What do you think of Patrick Cockburn's new book on Sadr? I found it shed a lot of light on last week.

Thomas E. Ricks: I hadn't even heard of it. I will have to take a look

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Hagerstown, Md.: How many insurgents and/or weapons come from Iran into Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think the Iranian government is releasing accurate statistics on this.

To be serious: The U.S. military maintains that it has solid evidence that lots of the most powerful roadside bombs--that is, the ones that can destroy an armored vehicle and kill its occupants--come from Iran. Also, they say that Iraqi fighters have received advanced training in Iran, and then come back into Iraq to train others.

As for other weapons, Iraq is so awash in AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades that I don't know if those need to be imported.

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Weston, Fla.: Where is the mourning and the media coverage of all the innocent people the terrorist kill ... where is the outrage for the beheadings and mentally challenged suicide bombers, where is Amnesty International there? Why is only the U.S. at fault?

Thomas E. Ricks: It isn't. I speak as someone who has a friend who was decapitated by al-Qaeda.

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Anonymous: My predictions for the Iraq election in October: Shia-backed parties win 60 percent of the seats, and Sunnis and Kurds split the rest. Will they use purple ink again?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, but which Shia parties?

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Montpelier, Vt.: Recently, Richard Cheney was asked about pervasive and substantive opposition to the war in the United States. His blunt reaction was "so?" If the president is unwilling to take public opinion into account and it is impossible to get 60 votes in the Senate for substantive changes in the conduct of the war, isn't all this moot until next February?

Thomas E. Ricks: What I found odd about Vice President Cheney's "so?" comment to the intrepid Martha Raddatz of ABC was his reasoning, that polls fluctuate. I actually haven't seen a lot of fluctuation on this war. Since early 2004, Americans consistently have expressed unhappiness with the state and direction of the war.

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Raleigh, N.C.: How are Iraqi refugees faring? Where do most of them resettle? Do they have realistic expectations of being able to return to their homes soon, or do they see themselves as emigrants?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: The Iraq Refugee Crisis (washingtonpost.com, March 20)

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a big worry. I was talking recently to a Syrian woman who said that large part of Damascus now feel Iraqi to her. Likewise, when I was last in Amman, Jordan, in February, a Jordanian I was talking to blamed everything from rises in the cost of nursery school tuition to the cost of propane on the influx of Iraqis.

Also, a lot of Iraqi refugees are going to run out of money, if they haven't already.

But how to they go home, if their houses are occupied by others -- or controlled by the militias who pushed the refugees out in the first place?

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Re: McCain's "surprise": What exactly was McCain surprised about in the Basra thing (did he give specifics?). I can't figure it out. One would have to surmise that he doesn't have a clue as to the complexities of this war, and that everything would surprise him. Any thoughts?

Thomas E. Ricks: Dunno, but he may have thought that the Basra offensive would be put off until Mosul was calmer. I would bet that was what American commanders advocated.

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Washington: First of all, I loved your book and made my family read excerpts whenever I could. How would you describe the role of private military contractors in Iraq through the past few months, and could you make any predictions for the future? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks very much for reading the book.

On contractors, I don't know. My Post colleague Steve Fainaru is the house expert on that issue. We should haul him in here for an on-line chat.

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Toronto: How did the recent Pentagon report by Institute for Defense Analysis ("The Iraq Perspectives Project") get so thoroughly censored by the press despite concluding there was no link between Saddam and al-Qaeda? The vice president was just in Iraq still spreading this lie.

washingtonpost.com: Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents (PDF file, with redactions) (Institute for Defense Analyses, March 2008)

Thomas E. Ricks: I haven't had a chance to read the thing yet. I am struck at how some people, such as you, say it says one thing, yet people on the right maintain that it proves that Saddam did have links to active terrorist organizations.

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Pacifica, Calif.: It seems to me that Sadr is showing everyone just how much influence he has in the south and in parts of Baghdad, and that the potential for even wider resistance to the government is great. Regarding the control of oil, I've read that the Virtue Party controls the port. Is Sadr working with this party to share the exports and the smuggling of oil, or is this still in the midst of a huge power struggle?

Thomas E. Ricks: One of the points that needs to be made here is how very little I or anyone knows about what is happening in Basra. I've only seen one article out of Basra in the last few months by a Western reporter--it was a very good one by Solomon Moore of the New York Times, which is a newspaper published about 200 miles north of here.

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Miami: Tom, I'm glad you love my parentheses. The majority of Americans were not aware of the Pentagon's true strategy and this allowed Bush and the Republicans to mark anyone who wanted to leave Iraq as cowards. Now, some press did cover this and wrote some great books, but the press in general went along with Bush and never mentioned the arch of the Pentagon's strategy; otherwise, the nation would have been informed otherwise.

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not buying the media-bashing, Miami. What didn't the media tell you? Rather, I think that the American people didn't want to hear it.

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Pleasant Hill, Calif.: We should be discussing unprovoked armed aggression, and the consequences. We are talking about how to do things right, when we should have been discussing how to do the right things.

Thomas E. Ricks: That's an interesting way of putting the issue. You are saying that we need to have the correct strategy before we discuss tactics. I agree. As my friend Col. Bob Killebrew once taught me: Good strategy will fix bad tactics, but good tactics can't fix a bad strategy.

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Washington: What troop level in Iraq is indefinitely sustainable so that our armed forces no longer are nearing a "breaking point"?

Thomas E. Ricks: I've heard that 40,000 to 75,000 could be sustained for a long time without breaking a sweat. Of course, that depends in large part on what else is going on in the world. For example, if (or when) North Korea collapses, will there be an international peacekeeping effort to feed the population and prevent refugees from swamping South Korea. If so, what happens if a few North Korean "dead-enders" decide to fight the peacekeepers? And how long will Fidel Castro live, and what happens to Cuba if he dies? And what does the future hold for Afghanistan and Pakistan? Etc.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, but which Shia parties?: The meanest and best-armed ones.

Thomas E. Ricks: Taint necessarily so. Iraqi army units, for example, have had a lot of good equipment given to them. But victory in Iraq has not always gone to the best equipped. The problem for the new Iraqi army frequently has been the question of what they are fighting for, and whether there will be a central government backing them. Sadr's fighters, by contrast, know who they are fighting for.

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Fairfax, Va.: Tom -- enjoyed your book. My comment may be seen as a technicality, but it is not -- except perhaps to chickenhawks and armchair strategists. It is commonplace to say "we won the war but are losing the occupation." That is nonsense -- the war is still going on. We declared victory after the first quarter, but the enemy still is fighting. The war is not over. We won the battle for Baghdad and ousted Saddam, but the outcome of the war is still in doubt.

Thomas E. Ricks: I agree with you.

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Princeton, N.J.: Us lefties don't doubt that Saddam had links to some terrorist groups, just not to al-Qaeda, as the righties claim.

Thomas E. Ricks: That may be the important distinction. But I'd also like to know how extensive and significant those non-al-Qaeda links are. I mean, none of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Iraq.

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Montreal: The evidence seems to indicate that Iran has at least some ability to calm violence in Iraq. Isn't that an iron-clad argument for opening diplomacy with Iran and seeking their aid?

Thomas E. Ricks: Certainly not iron-clad.

I doubt that Iran is much interested in helping the U.S. in Iraq. After, all, why should it change the present strategic equation, in which Iran looks to be the long-term beneficiary of the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein?

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Princeton, N.J.: Isn't the Fadhila party that controls the port a splinter from Sadr's party? If so, it seems unlikely they are friends.

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey Princeton Tiger. I am not sure any party in Iraq can be called "friends" with another. It is clear in Iraq that today's adversary can be tomorrow's ally, and vice versa. After all, look at all the former insurgents now on Uncle Sam's payroll as "Sons of Iraq." Your tax dollars at work!

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Anonymous: Where's Rumsfeld?

washingtonpost.com: Off the Record With Donald Rumsfeld (GQ, Sept. 2007)

Thomas E. Ricks: I haven't seen him lately. Funny how someone who loomed so large in American life, and especially in Washington, can be here one day and almost invisible the next.

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Media Bashing: I agree with you 100 percent -- the information was and is available but the American public does not want to take responsibility for not paying attention or for supporting this fiasco (great book, by the way). We need to look in the mirror instead of blaming the press. Everybody should remember President Bush was re-elected in 2004.

Thomas E. Ricks: Funny, that line about the mirror is something I've used in public talks!

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Bridgewater, Mass.: About books: Do you plan to wait until everything's all wrapped up before doing another on Iraq? As for "Fiasco," it was one of the hardest things I'd ever read -- especially the part about the armed forces having forgotten everything they learned in Vietnam.

Thomas E. Ricks: Nah, I aim to have another book out next year on Iraq. Thanks for reading "Fiasco." Some of it was pretty hard to write, especially the chapter titled "The Descent Into Abuse."

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Re: Inbox: Which of Gen. McCaffrey's predictions do you see as most likely to come to pass, and which are the most worrisome to you?

washingtonpost.com: Tom Ricks's Inbox: Looking Toward the Future (Post, March 22)

Thomas E. Ricks: All of them worried me, except his bullet on Iraq, where I fear he is overly optimistic.

The one that worried me most was the idea of another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Also, it is almost certain that Castro will die within the next few years. So some kind of major changes in Cuba seem likely.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I just read a tragic article in Newsweek about the common practice of poppy farmers in Afghanistan selling their young daughters to pay off debts. With more than 90 percent of the world's opium coming from Afghanistan and girls being traded like cattle, how can we claim to have achieved any success in Afghanistan?

washingtonpost.com: The Opium Brides of Afghanistan (Newsweek, April 7 issue)

Thomas E. Ricks: Afghanistan was a success in getting rid of al Qaeda and Taliban control of Kabul. Also, the Karzai government is a whole lot better than most Third World governments, I think.

But yeah, lots of worry there. I keep on meaning to look up a history of how the Turkish opium trade was eliminated, I think in the 1950s. I remember being told that Western governments agreed to buy the entire crop for several years, and then processed the opium into morphine that then was given to hospitals in poor nations. (You people are smart -- anyone got any book titles for me?) Maybe we should be thinking of something like that approach.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: I was someone who was against the war in the beginning but felt that once we were there, the pottery barn rule meant that the U.S. couldn't leave Iraq without some kind of stable government in place. In the past couple of months, I am coming to the conclusion that the GOP/McCain/Bush etc. arguments for staying do rely on shadowy, apocalyptic "what will happen" rhetoric that is divorced from any actual risk/benefit analysis. I really am quite anguished about it. Am I wrong? Is there a rational argument for staying, in your view?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that there are no really satisfactory answers on Iraq. Right now American troops do seem to be the one thing that is keeping big parts of central Iraq from sliding back into civil war.

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Denver: Do you see Colin Powell publicly speaking out about the war in any capacity between now and November?

Thomas E. Ricks: I would be surprised if Powell did speak out this year. But I wouldn't be surprised if, after the Bush Administration leaves office, he lays out his version of events.

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Chicago: I know you're not an economist, but how seriously do you and the people you talk to take the projections that when it is all said and done, the Iraq War will have cost approximately $3 trillion?

Thomas E. Ricks: It is gonna cost a bundle. But honestly, I am more worried by what it costs, here and abroard, in heartache, willpower, and American credibility.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thank you for an unexpectedly lively chat!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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