The War Over the War

Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, July 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, July 8 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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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.


Thomas E. Ricks: Hi. This is my last Iraq chat this year. I hope to come back and do more when my next book on the Iraq war comes out in January.

This has been a good ride. I've enjoyed the chats. Your questions have been a real contribution to the political discourse, notably thoughtful and civil. I hope I have been the same.

Where are we in the war? I think we have a long way to go. I hope I am wrong. Right now I think people back here are being a bit too optimistic. Yes, things are better than they were in 2006. But I don't think Americans are going to be pleased with the end result in Iraq.

Let's get going.


St. Cloud, Minn.: I'm sure you will have many questions about the suggestion that the Iraqi government may ask for a pull-out schedule. What do you make of it? How serious do you think they are? I will miss your stories in The Post! Reporters who are as knowledgeable and even-handed as you are in short supply.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks. I see Maliki floating the idea of a timetable mainly as an act of domestic Iraqi politics. He doesn't want to be seen as a puppet, and a lot of Sunnis still see him as Iranian-influenced, so this burnishes his national cred. Also -- and this is purely speculative -- I was wondering this morning if it is also kind of reaching out to Sen. Obama, with whom Maliki very well may be dealing in seven months or so.


Lexington, Ky.: Loved "Fiasco" as much as one can love a book about a disaster in the making. I have a general question about balance of power in the Middle East. Did no one in the lead up to the war notice that Iran was bordered by Iraq and Afghanistan, and that to invade both countries and install new regimes would increase the regional power of Iran just by default? Or was this obvious concern dismissed as a short-term issue? This seems to be balance-of-power politics 101.

Thomas E. Ricks: Good point. On Iranian influence: An awful lot rides of whether Iraqi Shiites ultimately are more Iraqi than sectarian in their orientation. I used to live in Afghanistan. Historically, Tehran has had some influence in western Afghanistan, around Herat, but not much beyond that.


Portland, Ore.: Perhaps there's a quick way out of the Iraq "fiasco." Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is saying that part of the "agreement" with the U.S. should include a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces; how insistent would he be on this point, in your view? Secondly, the situation in Afghanistan, by all accounts, is heading south. Is this not a more serious problem for the U.S. than Iraq, considering the regrouping of al-Qaeda forces along the border in Pakistan? Thanks for taking my questions.

Thomas E. Ricks: On Maliki, see my earlier answer.

On Afghanistan, yeah, that's a big worry. Right now there is nothing in Iraq that presents an existential threat to the United States, but al-Qaeda on the Pakistani-Afghan border does -- especially if Pakistan crumbles and its nuclear arsenal goes up for grabs. That, in my opinion, is the single biggest problem we face in the world today, at least in the short term. (How global warming plays out, I have no idea.)


Cincinnati: How serious is the Iraqi government about establishing a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops? What do you see as the most likely outcome as to this issue?

Thomas E. Ricks: Please see my previous response!


Washington: The neocons claim that violence is down in Iraq. What are the true numbers? Can we believe anybody's rendition of the daily number of violent incidents in Iraq? The last I heard, the bureaucracy was broken, with only anecdotal evidence available for any quantitative analysis.

Thomas E. Ricks: It isn't just the neocons -- violence is down in Iraq. That said, it still isn't "normal" by any stretch.

I don't think anyone's numbers are absolutely correct, because you never know how much violence you aren't seeing. When I was in Iraq last month, a sergeant I know who fought in Sadr City recently told me that he thought the U.S. government was aware of perhaps half of what goes on. But what we do see are trends -- and the trend has been more or less good for about 11 months now, with occasional spikes.


Baltimore: So, if the political decision was made to get out and leave no soldier or bit of sensitive equipment behind, how long do you think it would take to get out of Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think an orderly withdrawal would take months, even years. The last time I looked, 40 percent of the U.S. Army's equipment is in Iraq.

But if you decided to get out ASAP, you'd simply blow stuff up and skedaddle. Still wouldn't be fun.


Snyder, Texas: Mr. Ricks, first I want to say that my son did two Marine infantry combat tours to Iraq, including the November 2004 Battle of Fallujah; my nephew did three combat tours to Iraq with the Marines; a second nephew just returned from 15 months in Diyala (he was company commander of a Stryker Brigade), and my other nephew has been to Afghanistan with the Army special forces.

What I want to say is, I can't thank you enough for providing this anxious Marine mom with such a lifeline during your time with The Post. I read "Fiasco" and followed your work in The Post, and I always knew I could trust you to tell the truth -- good, bad or ugly. You will be missed, sir. Now, my question: Why oh why can't most members of the press understand the difference between "strategy" and "tactics," and therefore quit being such idiots when Obama talks about "refining" his views -- which is not a flip-flop? And why aren't they holding their sides and howling at McCain's claim that he will reduce the deficit through "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2013? Nobody seems to understand that in a guerilla war, there is no such thing as "victory," and the "enemy" never quite can be pinpointed. Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks very much for your note, and even more for your family's service. Fallujah 2004 will be remembered in the Corps for many, many decades.

One thing I have learned from my 14 (I think) reporting trips to Iraq is that it is harder for the family member (spouse, parent) than it is for the one there. But when the deployed member gets home, he or she has been changed by the experience. Re-entry can be tough, and needs a lot of work, generosity of spirit, and love on both sides.

I don't know why most members of the press (or politicians) don't seem to understand the distinction between strategy and tactics. It seems to me a basic thing, like understanding the difference between a steering wheel (strategy) and a clutch plate (tactics). On the other hand, it has left a lot of running room for me to explain these things.


Freising, Germany: Have you looked at the detainee situation in Iraq at all? According to the Human Rights Watch, "the American default option remains detaining all military-age men who are located somewhere an operation or attack has taken place." If the treatment of a detainee is determined by a week-long screening by psychologists, education specialists and imams, isn't it possible that an innocent man, angry and irritated at his incarceration, will receive a worse evaluation and treatment than a somewhat guilty man, who might show remorse for his support of the insurgents? The Business End - Part I (Financial Times, June 28)

Thomas E. Ricks: Hello, Germany.

Yeah, I looked a bit into detainee ops when I was in Iraq last month. Frankly, I was impressed. It is very different from the operation I saw in 2003-2004, which mixed incompetence, brutality, ignorance and criminality.

So, having been a strong critic in the past, I was impressed to see more thought being given to all aspects of the detention system, including screening. For example, newcomers are given a booklet to explain the process. If they are illiterate, there is even a comic book version of that booklet.


Sarasota, Fla.: Hello -- I haven't read "Fiasco" yet, but it is next on my list. Douglas Feith explains that the U.S. governments' objective in response to Sept. 11 was to "prevent" al-Qaeda rather than "punish" them. You seem to be of the opinion that the way the Bush administration responded to Sept. 11 has not resulted in a lessening of the terrorist threat. Given that we have had no terrorist incidents on our soil, do you think that maybe Bush deserves some credit? Or have we just been lucky? Also, any comments on "War and Decision" by Feith?

Thomas E. Ricks: Aw man, you'd read Feith's book, which is still new, before you read mine, which has been out for two years? Go sit in the corner and write back when you've finished "Fiasco."


Henderson, Nev.: Why is it that most if not all newspapers and TV networks have failed to print the disclosure that there is clear-cut evidence that Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction, or were developing same, when President Bush decided to invade and overthrow Saddam? What more compelling evidence is needed than the stockpile of uranium "yellow cake" that has been secretly transported out of Iraq and to Canada? That alone begs more in-depth reporting on weapons of mass destruction uncovered in Iraq. It is now known that Syria and Iran are fully engaged in developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. For what purpose? Isn't it obvious?

Thomas E. Ricks: There has been a lot of Internet gossip about this, but I haven't seen anything that I trust. Have you?


Minneapolis: Mr. Ricks -- great to have you chatting with us today and for keeping the focus on this endless war. Isn't it somewhat of an embarrassment for the administration to have the Iraqi government talking about timetables when Bush has been so adamant about not adhering to one? If the Iraqis really said "go," would we -- as the president asserts -- do just that? Maliki Suggests U.S. Troop Timetable (Post, July 8)

Thomas E. Ricks: Kind of depends on the timetable. The notion sells well in Iraq, but what if the timetable is 12 years long?


Kensington, Md.: Beyond the spin that the White House might put on it, what's the significance of Maliki's statement about a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal? Is it possible that he's reading our electoral tea leaves -- not to mention our repeated public opinion polls -- and doesn't want to get stuck out there on a limb in January? This isn't an argument, just a question.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I had the same thought -- that while Maliki mainly was maneuvering domestically, he also might be extending an olive branch to Sen. Obama.


Sausalito, Calif.: What is your upcoming book about? What is your best guess on how many U.S. troops will be in Iraq in Jan. 2010?

Thomas E. Ricks: My next book is called "The Gamble," and it will be about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. It is scheduled to be published in January.

My guess is that in January 2010 there will be perhaps 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with an increasing emphasis on advisory and overwatch functions, and so more support troops (medical, aviation, logistics, communications) and fewer infantry -- who likely will be sent to Afghanistan.

But, as the man said -- never make predictions -- especially about the future.


Riverdale, N.Y.: I'm confused. If the surge is working, if violence is down, if the Iraqi forces are assuming more and more control, aren't the conditions being laid -- more and more by the day -- for an orderly and expeditious withdrawal? What am I missing? I mean, Dunkirk this isn't!

Thomas E. Ricks: Not if you view the U.S. military presence as the glue that holds this all together. And we need to be precise. Has the surge worked in the sense that violence was reduced? Yes. But an equal or greater factor was the turning of the Sunni insurgency into allies of the U.S. effort. But those turned militias are not supporters of the Baghdad government -- so our short-term solutions sometimes create long-term problems. Has the surge worked strategically -- that is, as President Bush said it would in January 2007, leading to a political breakthrough? Some say yes, others say no.

That's what you're missing.


Fort Bragg, N.C.: Mr. Ricks, after you leave The Washington Post and are working on your new book, will you be writing/publishing in other media or periodically for The Washington Post? That is, will you still be readable or on a Web site? Thanks for your reporting and your commentary; whether I've agreed with your or not, you've made me think about other views I might not have otherwise.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks! Part of the fun of this job is getting my views challenged every day. Another word for that is "learning." For example, I think Gen. Odierno performed very differently on his second tour than on his first in Iraq -- but that also tells me that I missed something about him when I wrote a scathing section in "Fiasco" about his command of of the 4th Infantry Division in 2003-04.

To answer your questions: I plan on continuing to do some writing for The Post. If that doesn't work out, I've got a bunch of other offers. (One very nice offer that I turned down last week was to teach at a U.S. military institution!)

But mainly I want to write books. I've already got two planned after I finish this current one on the middle phase of the Iraq War, 2006-2008.

Stay safe!


Peaks Island, Maine: In a June 30 NewsHour segment on the Army's recently released history of combat operations in Iraq, retired Army Col. Douglas McGregor suggested that Gen. Petraeus is given credit for what others before him had done. What is your take on Col. MacGregor's comment re: whether Petraeus invented something new?

"There is this myth that Petraeus invented something entirely new and changed everything. The truth is that our forces adapted fairly early at the lowest levels to new circumstances. This book makes that very clear, and I think that's a good thing, because our forces at lower levels are adaptive, much more than they get credit for being."

Thomas E. Ricks: Hi to the gang at Peaks Island! I heard there is an overflow crowd today at the general store, causing some grumbling by regulars about "out-of-staters." I think Maine should have one lane on its highways reserved for "year-rounders."

I think Col. MacGregor is wrong -- the Army was in Iraq for almost four full years before it started really changing. Here and there isolated units did well, but the lessons were not transmitted quickly, and often were ignored.

Think of how much the U.S. military changed from 1941 to 1945, and how little it changed from 2003 to 2006.


My next book is called "The Gamble": Is there a timetable in it? If not, there's always the need for a third book. Or a fourth...

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I expect I might write another Iraq book, but after this one I need a break. I've been doing nothing but thinking about Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11. Time for a break. So my next book will be a broader look at U.S. history.


Snyder, Texas: Marine Mom, again. It disturbs me that a recent poll showed the American people having second thoughts about remaining in Iraq -- probably because they think it's all happy and friendly there now. But no one seems to be discussing the alarming toll that repeat deployments are taking on not just the troops but their families -- every stress indicator measureable, from alcoholism to family violence to child abuse to PTSD, has skyrocketed. And now, troops who've done multiple tours in Iraq are being sent to Afghanistan. Don't people (and pundits and politicians) know that without a draft, these same people can't keep fighting these Groundhog Day wars over and over and over again?

Thomas E. Ricks: That's a big problem.

Two small consolations: First, if the Iraqi forces stand up and fight, then the type of U.S. troops who might be needed should shift, from infantry and combat-heavy to more units that support combat units. Second, morale did seem to me to generally be better this year than it was in, say, mid-2006.


Southwest Nebraska: If the U.S. bomb-bomb-bombed Iran, what would happen to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Our grandson (a Marine) is stationed in Farah province, so this isn't an academic question.

Thomas E. Ricks: I just don't think it is going to happen, but yeah, it would be problematic for U.S. forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Farah province is particularly rough in the summer! Write often, and maybe send him a battery-operated fan, with some batteries. If his Humvee has a cigarette/power outlet (some do, on the commander's side of the front seat) get him one that runs off that outlet.


Northville, N.Y.: I think we should look at this the way an insurance company would. If your house catches fire and suffers damage, and you had a run-down kitchen with 15-year-old appliances and a worn-out floor, you're entitled to be made whole, but you're not entitled to brand new, spanking clean, state-of-the-art stuff. It's the same with Iraq. We broke an autocratic regime held together with Stalinist terror, with a standard of living below that of the West. That's all we should pay to get back, and then hit the road. Bring in the neighbors to keep the peace. I'd like to give them something better, but we can't afford it. What goal are we shooting for?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think we are aiming for much more than that, especially because a stable Iraq that was pumping lots of oil could refurbish the whole country faster than my wife has renovated our house.

But my neighbors are a whole lot more peaceful than Iraq's. Just who do you have in mind? Iran? Syria? Turkey? Lots of problems in any event. Maybe the Bangladeshi army (Muslim but not Arab) could be hired to step in. At any rate, I love their food.


Boonsboro, Md.: The recent reports in the overseas press -- like the London Times -- have been very positive about Iraq. Are we actually on the verge of decisively defeating al-Qaeda/etc, there? Can we reduce violence to the level that is "typical" for that part of the world?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey Boonsboro -- lovely valley you have there!

Defeating al-Qaeda -- I think we are close, but that ain't the same as ending the violence. You've still got Sunnis that oppose the Baghdad government. You've got Shiites who haven't sorted out who among them will lead in an era of Shiite dominance in Iraq. You've got the Kurds, who are kind of moving as close as they dare to autonomy. And then there's the big question: How will oil revenue be shared? Until those questions are addressed, no one should be calling this thing done.


Wilmington, N.C.: Why am I under the impression that 88 percent of the Army's equipment is in Iraq, not 40 percent as you stated? Thank you for answering!

Thomas E. Ricks: I doubt it. What's your source?


Military Wife: Thank you for all the honest work you've done. I wish you the best and appreciate your thoughtfulness in these discussions. My husband filed his retirement papers about six months ago after nearly 21 years in the Army and Army Reserve. So far we haven't heard a peep. Does Dick Cheney have alternate plans for us?

Thomas E. Ricks: Don't they have to tell you if you are stop-lossed?

It's funny -- the other day I was talking to someone in a similar position whose agency "lost" some crucial papers three times. They knew they were wrong, so couldn't respond to him, but they could misplace the papers. Finally he got a congressman to write to the agency -- and they "lost" that letter!


Sacramento, Calif.: Thomas, no question, but I wanted to tell you that I finally read your book, "Fiasco," last week, while I was camping in the California mountains. Thank you for the amazing work, and am looking forward to the follow-up volume. Sure takes a bit of a shine off a carefree camping trip, though!

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks very much! Sorry to mess up your trip.

I was told that John McCain read "Fiasco" he used to throw it down every 15 minutes and say, "sonofabitch!" and then walk around until he calmed down and could read some more. He did tell me that he really liked it.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Tom: Will look forward to your next book. Lots of talking-head show blather on weekend about "how well things are going in Iraq" now and that "we are winning." Is either accurate?

Thomas E. Ricks: Never listen to anyone who hasn't been in Iraq in the past couple of months.


Wokingham, U.K.: Your UK readers will miss you too. You created a lively discussion in our book group. We recently have heard about raids against Iran, but presumably the boot isn't all on one foot and the Iranians are making trouble within Iraq's borders. What are the Iranians looking for? What situation in Iraq would meet their objectives?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think Iran wants to be the dominant foreign influence over Iraq -- and I suspect that in the long run it probably will be.

What was your book group's "lively discussion" about?


Chicago: Good luck and hurry back -- your chats have been invaluable. My question is about reality vs. perception. Back here in the States, does it really matter anymore what actually is happening on the ground in Iraq? So long as things don't go completely out of control, won't the conservatives convince themselves they've won a great victory, and won't the liberals convince themselves Iraq was a disaster, and each will blame the other side to the extent things don't go their way? I'm not justifying this mindset, just cynically noting that it doesn't seem like the bloviators actually care about facts anymore.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, that's why I stay away from the bloviators.

I think we still have a long way to go on Iraq. I think it will be America's longest war, and I think it will be hard for conservatives to claim a pro-Iranian Iraq as a great victory.


Boston: Thanks to these chats, I'm planning on a visit to Peaks Island this summer! Now my question: Obviously, Iraq was never "an existential threat" to the U.S. and Iran is not either. What is the media's role when prominent members of an administration or U.S. Senate make statements that are so factually erroneous? Ignore? Report with statistics? Call for psychiatric help?

Thomas E. Ricks: Dear Beantown,

The media's role is to report what is being said by officials and then to quote what informed experts say about it. Also, if there are contrary facts, those should be pointed out.

It is not the media's role to write "President Bush, a notorious liar, today said... " I get the feeling that a lot of lefties won't be happy until they see that clause on the front page of the newspaper every day.

Yours for the dwindling MSM,


P.S.: Sorry about your bullpen!


Junket to Iraq: How much benefit does a politician get from going to Iraq? Information, or political points?

Thomas E. Ricks: It ain't no junket, even for the VIPiest. You will learn something -- even if you are just stuck inside the Green Zone, you will benefit from it some.


Sarasota, Fla.: Defeating al-Qaeda? You've got to be kidding! Terrorism and al-Qaeda, it seems to me, won't be gone any time soon. Al-Qaeda is a popular lifestyle, not just a group of old guys with beards and lousy educations.

Thomas E. Ricks: I should have been more precise: Defeating "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia," aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. Thanks.


New Hampshire: Thomas what do you make of the horrific suicide bombings in Afghanistan? If I remember correctly, suicide bombings never happened in Afghanistan before our invasion of Iraq... Suicide Bombing Leaves 40 Dead In Central Kabul (Post, July 8)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, it made me sad. I know that neighborhood. It worries me a lot.


Anonymous: It's sad to say, but would we support someone ruling Iraq who occasionally rounded up suspects and killed them, if the streets of Baghdad became as safe to walk down as they were during the reign of Saddam Hussein? I say yes -- with gusto.

Thomas E. Ricks: You sound like some Iraqi generals I've been hearing about lately!


Edinburgh, N.Y.: Didn't the surge troops just go home? If so, is this really a good time for the head of the Joint Chiefs to be taking the country's temperature to tell if any of these gains in security are permanent or not? How about next January?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, it is a good time to be paying attention to security issues in Iraq, and also to establish a good base line against which to compare conditions in November and January.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom. From a policy standpoint, we seem to be in a holding pattern in Iraq -- that is, we have no new ideas. Given the lower level of violence, are infrastructure (power, oil, etc.) inroads being made? Obama's promise of 16 months aside (not going to happen) do you see the potential to start transitioning to greater Iraqi control?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, greater Iraqi control is happening -- the Basra operation was very Iraqi from start to finish -- albeit with lots of important American support, like airstrikes, cargo planes, reconnaissance, and advisors with communications to tie it all together.


Thomas E. Ricks: Okay, I am wheels up. I'll plan on talking to you all again in late January.

I have to go help raise some money for some Iraqi refugees I know.


Thanks for your great work: Tom: You've enlightened me greatly with your past work and I count on you for more enlightenment in the future. I can't decide what surprised me more, that 40 percent of the Army's equipment is in Iraq, or that somebody decided to read Doug Feith's book before yours. Sarasota, get to the book store and buy "Fiasco." Finally, my question: I keep having the sneaky suspicion that al Sadr is on the verge of being the big winner in Iraq (I've expressed this to you before). As things quiet down, he still seems to have support, and can prepare for the next Iraqi election -- either to disrupt it, or more likely to do well in it. If Maliki doesn't get a timetable from us or if he seems in some other way to be on shaky ground, al-Sadr could cause him big trouble next year, either on the streets or in the government. Your thoughts?

Thomas E. Ricks: Megadittoes.

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