Thomas E. Ricks and Stephen Biddle
Author and journalist; Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, February 9, 2009 12:00 PM
Just over two years ago President George W. Bush announced a "surge" of U.S. troops to Iraq, changing the mission and tactics of American forces on the ground. Now President Barack Obama, who opposed the surge, must deal with the consequences of its success -- an Iraq that looks to be on the mend, with U.S. casualties so reduced that commanders now talk about keeping tens of thousands of American soldiers there for many years to come.
Thomas E. Ricks, author of "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008," and Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, were online Monday, Feb. 9 at noon ET to discuss the long-term impact of the surge and Obama's prospects for ending the war in Iraq.
Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.
For more, go to The Washington Post'sThe Gamble special section.
Ricks covered the U.S. military for 17 years, first for the Wall Street Journal then for The Washington Post. Currently, Ricks is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine. He is also the author of "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Wilson, Wyoming: What do you believe will happen with the Iraq military going forward and do you believe it will/or won't meld with the civilian government(s)?
Thomas Ricks: Is this the Wilson just west of Jackson Hole? If so, that's my family turf--my father grew up partly in the second shack to the east of where the highway crosses the Snake River. One winter when he was a kid they kept a sick colt in the kitchen, where it slept behind the stove. Say hi to any of my relatives you see (though I think most of them are over the pass toward Rexburg).
Anyway to your question: My guess is that in the long run Iraq will be ruled by a strongman, or (if it becomes a loose confederation) by a group of warlords. They may be civilian or military.
One of the things that really stunned me as I reported 'The Gamble' was how many American advisors to the IRaqi military came away thinking the Iraqi officers were little Saddams, and would revert to the old ways as soon as the Americans weren't around. I discuss this in the epilogue to the book.
Fort Bragg NC: Did the surge work? Yes, of course it worked. But what did it accomplish? Did the war end, the fighting end, do we have less people in Iraq now than before the "surge" began?
The surge created a large number of U.S. military police, SWAT if you will, that have watched neighborhoods be divied by jersey walls and barriers, followed by a "peace" that was brokered by one side killing off the other side until there aren't many people left to kill; thus, we now have less killing.
Go back to the original question: What was the surge supposed to accomplish? I still don't really know. But then, because of all the posturing and reposturing, I don't know what our previous goal was let alone know what our goal is now. Am I expecting Iraq to stand with us, vote with us in the UN? Am I expecting Iraq to send peacekeeping troops to help fight insurgencies and terrorism around the world? Or am I expected to return to Iraq every couple years, along with tens of thousands of military members "keeping the peace" in Iraq?
Stephen Biddle: We have many potential interests in Iraq, but the two most important, it seems to me, are (1) humanitarian - to reduce the loss of innocent life where we can in a conflict for which we bear some responsibility - and (2) strategic - to keep Iraq from returning to intense civil warfare of a kind that creates a danger of a wider war in the Persian Gulf. Of course it is also in our interest to see democracy in Iraq, to have Iraq become an ally in the region, to have an Iraq that can be a stabilizing influence in the Gulf, and many other such goals. But these strike me as much longer term. Our key national strategic interests are to prevent mass violence within Iraq, and to reduce the odds that Iraqi violence spreads in a key region.
Thomas Ricks: No, not of course.
The surge worked militarily. It failed politically.
Washington, D.C.: As you got to know General Petraeus very well over your interviews and time with him, what most surprised you about him? What unexpected thing did you learn about him? Thanks.
Thomas Ricks: Well, I'd known him for a long time before I began this project. In fact, having known him since he was a colonel (or lieutenant colonel, I can't remember) was one reason I was able to get him to agree to this project. The deal was that I would do several trips to Iraq during his time in command there, and have candid invterviews with him and other officers, almost all of them not to be used until the end of 2008.
I think the big surprise to me was General Odierno. I had hit him pretty hard in 'Fiasco,' but he was generous and candid with me, in a series of intnerviews over the last couple of years. I am not sure why that is. I think part of it is that ( suspect he really doesn't care what I or other reporters think about him.
But Steve also worked with General Petraeus during this period, so I'd like to ask him if he was surprised at all by the general.
Thomas Ricks: Hi,this is Tom Ricks checking in from my hotel room in New York City.
I'm looking forward to all your questions--and also to seeing Steve Biddle's answers. For those of you who don't know him, he is one of the savviest defense thinkers around.
Stephen Biddle: Hello, and thanks to all for taking part. I'm struck by how important the surge debate has remained as an issue for US strategy. To an important degree, views on issues ranging from the future design of the US Army to the conduct of the war in Afghanistan to the future of Iraq are often based on beliefs about the surge's role in reducing Iraqi violence in 2007. The richer the debate over its role, and the stronger our understanding of cause and effect in the surge, the better the basis for policy and strategy looking forward in a variety of domains. I'm looking forward to a vigorous conversation.
Peaks Island, Maine: Considering quantitatively the reduction in violence, how much owed to paying off Sunni insurgents, how much to Sunnis turning against al Qaeda, how much to al-Sadr's declaring a truce, how much to ethnic separation including walls and displacement, and how much to the extra 30,000 troops killing or capturing remaining insurgents and al Qaedas?
Who among the thinkers about such things does the quantitative analysis that will provide some sort of answer to the question: What did the 30,000 troops constituting the surge accomplish that probably would not have been accomplished with pre-surge troop levels?
Stephen Biddle: Sorting out the relative importance of the troop increase, the strategy change, and Iraqi events over which we had limited control is a key question for the future. I think the best account from what we know now is that the surge was necessary but insufficient for the violence reduction. Also necessary - but also insufficient - was al Qaeda's brutality toward Sunni co-religionists, and especially, the Sunnis' defeat in 2006's sectarian warfare in Baghdad following the Samarra mosque bombing in 2/06. Before the mosque bombing, Sunnis believed they were the stronger side, and that only American support for a weak Shiite puppet regime stood between them and a return to power. Hence their strategy turned on driving the Americans out through a combination of casualties and general chaos. When al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Samarra mosque, however, a collection of Shiite militias that had mostly been standing on the sidelines, defending their own population bases - and especially the Mahdi Army - entered the war en masse and on the offensive. The result was a year long sectarian slugfest in the capital in which the Sunnis got a technicolor view of exactly what a true one-on-one battle with the Shiite rivals would look like (we didn't have the troop strength at the time to prevent this battle, so the Sunnis and Shiites got to fight it out with relatively modest interference from US or Iraqi government forces). To their shock, they lost - badly. Sunnis were pushed almost all the way out of the city in spite of their (and AQI's) best efforts to the contrary. As a result, it became clear to them that if the Americans left and they really were pitted against the Shia alone, the result would be defeat and possible mass violence against them, not victory as they had previously assumed. This gave them a powerful incentive to seek a negotiated deal while they still could - and the result was the Sunni Awakening movement and its progeny. But this wasn't enough. Sunnis had tried turning on AQI before, and AQI's signature brutality had always driving them back into the fold via violent counterattack. Enter the surge. What the surge did was to protect Sunnis who wished to realign against AQI to survive the attempt. The surge wasn't big enough to suffocate the insurgency by putting an American on every street corner - there weren't enough Americans. But what it did was to put Americans into a position to team up with realigning Sunnis to combine their knowledge of who and where the AQI cells were with our firepower. That combination rapidly rolled up the AQI infrastructure in western and central Iraq, and in the process resulted in the series of negotiated deals in which the Sunni insurgency stood down. And this in turn changed the Shiite militia's incentives - and especially Sadr's - in ways that drove them, too, into ceasefire. The net result is a situation that would never have happened without the Sunni defeat in Baghdad in 2006 (and their consequent desire to realign) *or* the US surge (without which that realignment would have died aborning). And this has important implications for US policy elsewhere: more troops can be important - even necessary - for success. But they cannot necessarily guarantee it without favorable underlying conditions. The time has to be ripe. It was in Iraq in 2007; it may or may not be elsewhere.
Richmond, Va.: You asked the wrong question: Not whether the surge worked -- yeah, sure, violence is down. The real question is, so now that we know it takes tens of thousands of troops to contain the violence, will we need to have a "permanent" surge to ensure the violence stays down forever? In short, has anything in Iraq changed culturally between the warring factions that only a permanent surge can contain?
Stephen Biddle: To sort out the need for US troops in the future we need to decide what the underlying problem is that we're trying to solve with them. My own view is that by 2006 Iraq had become an intense ethno-sectarian civil war, which by December 2007 or so had moved into a condition of ceasefire as a result of a series of essentially bilateral, negotiated deals between former combatants and some combination of the US military and the Iraqi government (mostly the former). We've seen many such negotiated ceasefires in the context of civil warfare elsewhere, and they are typically very fragile in the early stages - many lapse back into renewed warfare. But they don't always, and when they don't it's often due to the presence of outside peacekeepers to stabilize the situation by damping the mutual fears and distrust of the former combatants. In Iraq today, we're the only ones in a position to play this role. We're not ideal peacekeepers - among other reasons, many Iraqis resent our presence and would like us to leave. But unlike the erstwhile internal combatants, US forces are at least tolerated by most factions - no one sees us as a prospective threat of genocide, as many see their internal rivals. So our real mission in Iraq for now is thus peacekeeping - not counterinsurgency warfighting, counterterrorism, or training. Peacekeeping can be labor intensive and slow. But it isn't forever, and it needn't require today's troop count. A useful analogy for this is the Balkans. We began with a large peacekeeping force, but within four years of the ceasefires in Bosnia and Kosovo those peacekeeping forces had been reduced by about half without reigniting the warfare. And today our forces in both countries are just a fraction of what they once were. If we apply that logic to Iraq, it doesn't call for a "permanent surge" - but it does suggest that a continued sizeable presence for several more years could help stabilize a situation that, by analogy to other comparable cases elsewhere, one might worry could be prone to renewed violence otherwise. Elsewhere I've argued that a good drawdown timeline (again by analogy to the Balkans) might be a 50 percent cut by 2011; obviously there are now a number of constraints - eg the status of forces agreement - that complicate the question of how long we should stay with how many forces. Iraq is a sovereign nation - if they ask us to leave we should and must. But if we have the flexibility to do it, my own view is that stability would be served by a slower drawdown rather than a faster one.
Wilson, Wyoming: With the political part of the surge still unachieved, is it reasonable to expect that with American troops leaving the sectarian violence and conflicts will increase?
Stephen Biddle: It might. This is the key danger in Iraq today. But it needn't necessarily happen. The main reason why I favor slower drawdowns rather than faster ones is to reduce the odds that violence returns to Iraq.
Asheville, N.C.: How it is that "commanders now talk about keeping tens of thousands of American soldiers (in Iraq) for many years to come" when there is a SOFA/strategic framework agreement that commits us to leave? Oh, and a national referendum on it scheduled for July that could mean we leave on their schedule too. How did we suddenly arrive at such freedom of action?
Stephen Biddle: The SOFA/SFA is clearly a critical political reality in Iraq today. Iraq is sovereign - they have the right to ask us to leave whenever they want, and if they do, we should go. I don't think an early US departure is in their interest (or ours), but they get to make that call. As for the possibility of a longer stay, the SOFA expires in 2011, and a sovereign Iraq is free to renegotiate it, or negotiate a new agreement at that time or before if they wish. I suspect that some US commanders would favor a new agreement with different terms and a longer US stay at some troop level or other. But of course that's for them to say. For my part, again, I would favor slower drawdowns over faster ones, subject to Iraqis' concurrence on this.
Fairbanks, Alaska: Dear Mr. Ricks,
One possible reason for Gen. Odierno's change of approach is that he was responding to pointed criticism from, among other people, you. Did he say to you in recent interviews that he'd read your book?
Thomas Ricks: General Odierno never gave any indication to me of having read 'Fiasco.' Nor did he ask me to sign a copy, as many other officers did.
But he certainly was aware of what I wrote in that book. Among other things, when I was writing 'Fiasco,' I e-mailed to him the chapter that hit him hard.
I really came to respect him a lot over the last couple of years. But we didn't become buddies.
Madrid, Spain: How do you rate the record of Ambassador Ryan Crocker? Is Christopher Hill a good choice as his successor, despite having virtually no experience in the Middle East?
I was really surprised by the pick of Chris Hill. As you say, he lacks experience in the Middle East. I suspect that Richard Holbrooke may have been involved in this pick.
One of my worries is that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus made things work in Iraq by sheer force of will. They were determined to cooperate in all things, and not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. I don't know how well Hill will work with the military.
What I'd really like to see is one person in charge of the overall American effort. But I don't think General Zinni will be interested . . .
Stephen Biddle: A key contributor to effectiveness in Iraq was the personal relationship between Crocker and Petraeus. They worked together as effectively as any soldier and diplomat have ever done, and this was a powerful advantage in a conflict where politics and the use of force are as closely tied as they are here. It's critical that the new team work well together in personality and style. I don't know Hill, but for me a key criterion in selecting an Ambassador would be the chemistry with the military leadership, and especially GEN Odierno.
What About the "Anbar Awakening?": Tom, I was hoping your article would address the Anbar Awakening, the agreement by shaykhs in the Anbar area not to cooperate with al-Qa'ida in Iraq or other terrorists. I'm ready to agree that the surge was one of the factors that led to an improved situation in Iraq. But do you think it would have worked had there been no Anbar Awakening? Is this very question actually overstating the importance of the Anbar Awakening?
Thomas Ricks: Thanks for this. The book gets pretty deep into this question. One of my favorite parts of the book is "A Light in Ramadi," about what Col. Sean MacFarland's brigade, and attached Marines and SEALs, did in that city in Ramadi in 2006. It was very impressive.
I think that the Awakening (I would prefer the turning) contributed enormously to the eventual success of the surge.
Superior, Wisc.: What's happened to the career of Col. Peter Devlin who wrote the 2006 Anbar Intelligence Report?
Thomas Ricks: Dunno. Pete, you out there? Anyone else know?
I miss you Ricks: Come back to the daily beat -- we need your perspective and I miss your insights on the chat.
Thomas Ricks: Thanks, but I'm a bookwriter and blogger now. If you want my daily take on events, just go to foreignpolicy.com and click on "Tom Ricks."
washingtonpost.com: Tom Ricks on foreignpolicy.com
Auckland, New Zealand: Why doesn't the U.S. try and negotiate with the Taliban? There seems to be different entities within the Taliban, so why doesn't the U.S. take the lessons it learned from the Anbar Awakening in Iraq and apply it to Afghanistan??
Stephen Biddle: The applicability of the Iraq experience to Afghanistan is one of the key reasons why the surge debate remains so important. There's a general consensus in the US right now that negotiations of some kind with at least some factions among the Taliban are the right way to go. So I think something like this is very likely to be pursued. Another part of the emerging consensus, though, is that the military trends on the ground have to be propitious for such negotiations to go anywhere. A key lesson I draw from Iraq on this score is exactly this sensitivity of political success to military circumstances: negotiations with Sunnis in 2007 and Shiite ceasefires would have gone nowhere without two key prior military developments: Sunni defeat in Baghdad at (mostly) Shiite hands in 2006, and US reinforcements and strategic change in 2007. The implication of this for Afghanistan is that *successful* negotiations with any major Taliban faction(s) will probably require substantial military changes on the ground first. It's fine to start talking now, but for that talk to go anywhere will require military preconditions that aren't there yet.
Failed Politically?: What of the recent elections? Seemed peaceful and secure enough - seems like a fairly stable government. What more do you expect?
Thomas Ricks: Elections in Iraq are the beginning of things, not the end. Remember all the purple fingers a couple of years ago--and then the small civil war that followed?
I actually think 2009 in Iraq is gonna be a lot tougher than 2008, for three reasons:
--Elections in Iraq tend to be destabilizing, and there are three scheduled for this year, with national elections at the end of the year.
--At the same time, large numbers of American troops, who have been keeping a lid on things, probably will be withdrawn. General Odierno says at the end of the book that he thinks things will get dicey at the end of his year and the beginning of next year, when we start pulling out of less secure areas, having already left the more secure ones.
--Finally, NONE of the basic questions facing Iraq have been resolved. Oil revenue is just the most prominent. As Odierno says in the book, the surge created a breathing space, and some Iraqi leaders used that space to move backward.
Sewickley, Pa.: So good to have you back with us, Tom Ricks. And thank you Mr Biddle for taking questions. The role of General Keane surprised me -- have retired brass always had as much influence as he did? The Bush administration seemed to have a lot of ad hoc advisers outside the normal national security apparatus. Is this the template for future operations?
Thomas Ricks: No, the saga of General Keane is extraordinary. Bob Woodward told a chunk of it in his last book, but it was so central that I had to deal with in mine. Bob was doing Washington, I was doing Baghdad--and Keane connected the discussion between the two places.
As one general put it to me, for several months in late 3006, Keane effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is, he formulated policy, talked to the White House and field commanders about it, and then talked to Pentagon officials about how to implement it. As you can imagine, that bothered some of the people at the Pentagon who were supposed to be doing those things.
Washington: Whatever happened to Bush's "war czar"? We heard a lot about the search, and Gen. Lute eventually was named, but there hasn't been a mention of Lute in ages.
Thomas Ricks: That's a good point. He almost never came up in the hundreds of hours of interviews I did. I don't believe I mention General Lute in the book.
Philadelphia: The military successes of the surge seems rather obvious, but what is not clear to me is the political purpose of a long-term presence in Iraq. Harping back to a "realist style" critique of the war -- what would extending the campaign in Iraq actually do to enhance US national security? Is the U.S. national interest in any practical way threatened by an 'unfinished job' even if the military goals highlighted can succeed? Given the long-term financial problems the US will no doubt face in the coming years - is the expenditure of blood and treasure in anyway worth the cost? Might U.S. national security dollars be better invested elsewhere?
Stephen Biddle: I'm not in favor of extending this campaign for the sake of extending the campaign, and I certainly don't want a permanent US presence in Iraq. The cost is horrendous, it reduces our flexibility elsewhere, it delays prospective reinforcements for Afghanistan, it delays the reset of the US military, to name just a few disadvantages, and setting aside the question of anti-Americanism in Iraq or elsewhere. But even the hardest core realist would be concerned with the danger of a return to violence in Iraq that could threaten the stability of a region as important as the Persian Gulf. I'm no fan of the war in Iraq - I was against it in 2003, and I don't see much upside in this for the US even today. But there is a huge downside in dealing with the situation badly - eg with a withdrawal that's too fast or too deep at this point. Our main goals in Iraq today are negative: to prevent really bad things from happening. But chaos in the Gulf is a very important bad thing to prevent. If I could get in a time machine and spare us this conundrum by skipping the war, I would. But one can't. We are where we are, and the realist strategic imperative of the moment, it seems to me, is to do what we can to keep Iraq stable and thereby reduce the risk of a wider war. Not very satisfying, but that's where we're left by years of bad strategy.
Princeton, N.J.: Tom, about a year ago I sent you the following comment in a chat.
"In 2006, Miranda Toft, an historian who studies civil strife, published an article in the Washington Post. She pointed out that civil conflicts from the 30 Years War, through our Civil War to Bosnia, are rarely settled until a great number of people are killed. In Bosnia, for example, 200,000 were killed before a settlement was reached. This is equivalent to about 3 million in Iraq. Furthermore the situation is even more complex in Iraq than in Bosnia. Besides the Shia - Sunni divide, there is the expansionism of the Kurds, the disappearance of two million Christians, the ethnic cleansing of the Turkmen in Kirkuk, the slaughter of the Yazidi, and the intra Shia conflict in the South. It seems to me that there is a large possibility (if not probability) of a major catastrophe in Iraq. Because the Administration is unable to admit defeat, we are not planning for this possibility. Our failure to deal with the 4.5 million displaced people is clear evidence of this. I am afraid our policy in Iraq will be remembered as the "Iraq Catastrophe." And it has seriously impeded our efforts in the rest of the world such as Afghanistan."
At the time you thought I was too pessimistic. I still am afraid of a catastrophe. Do you still believe it is likely one can be avoided?
Thomas Ricks: Well, you're kind of coming at this issue from the opposite side of most Americans.
I think the American public thinks the war is over. I don't. And clearly you don't.
Can a catastrophe be avoided? Maybe. But the point I hope Americans will take away is that a catastrophe is still a real possibility. American officials were too optimistic about this war for many years. I hope we don't make that mistake once again.
Rockville: "that bothered some of the people at the Pentagon who were supposed to be doing those things."
Some people should be bothered.
Thomas Ricks: Yeah, it is surprising to me how many people even in the Pentagon are continuing peacetime processes, especially in personnel policies. I mean, it only seems recently, after several years in of war, in which battlefield success seems to be considered in picking new brigadier generals.
In 'The Gamble' I quote Eliot Cohen telling the president in December 2006 that he should stop judging generals as "good guys" and instead judge them by their military effectivenss.
San Francisco: President Bush said the surge would result in a "unified, democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror."
Thomas Ricks: Yep. And he also said Brownie was doing a heckuva job.
Saint Paul, Minn.: Mr. Ricks and Mr. Biddle -- Thanks for taking questions today. Putting aside questions of whether we should have even been in Iraq in the first place, thus creating the need for a surge, might we see this same strategy in Afghanistan, where we should have had a surge a long time ago? Isn't that where our attention should be focused now?
Stephen Biddle: US strategic attention is definately refocusing on Afghanistan. And there will clearly be a shift of resources - as well as attention - from Iraq to AFG. The pace of that shift, however, is a key unresolved decision for now. My own preference is for a slower shift rather than a faster one. This is partly because I see a continuing need for substantial US forces in Iraq to provide a crucial peacekeeping role. But it's also because I think we need to keep the strategic interests at stake in these two conflicts in context. Failure in Iraq is still possible, and threatens profound US interests in the stability of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan is important, too, but its importance is less direct than sometimes supposed in the US debate, and does not necessarily dominate the scale of our continuing interests in Iraq. The key US interest in AFG is now across the border in Pakistan. We invaded Afghanistan because bin Laden used it as a base for the 9-11 attacks, but bin Laden is no longer in Afghanistan - by all accounts, bin Laden and the AQ global base structure is now in Pakistan. The stability of Pakistan is a critical US security interest - about the only way AQ is likely to get its hands on a nuclear weapon is if Pakistan collapses or its government is toppled and loses control of its nuclear stockpile. Chaos in Afghanistan makes the threat to Pakistani stability worse (the Taliban is a cross-border Pashtun movement with important connections to other Pakistani Islamists), but our actual influence over events in Pakistan is pretty limited. And our ability to ensure Pakistani stability by defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan has important limits, too. We can make things *worse* by failing in AFG, but we can't make things all that much *better* by succeeding there. The result is still a very important US security interest in AFG, but the view one sometimes hears that Iraq is a sideshow for real US interests whereas AFG is central because bin Laden planned 9-11 from there is overstated.
Re: Little Saddams: So for all the blood and treasure we poured into Iraq, for all the high-minded talk of spreading democracy, we get a loose confederation of little Saddams? Are Petraeus and Odierno okay with that as long as their resumes don't show a mark in the loss column? My husband served in Iraq in 2003 and when I read your article yesterday, I couldn't help thinking that Genl Odierno arranged a great big do-over for himself. How many generals get that opportunity? Thanks for coming back to chat with us.
Well, effectively the whole U.S. military got a do-over. I just wish it hadn't taken so long. By the time that we started operating effectively in Iraq, we'd been there four years. By that time in our participation in World War II, the war was over!
Re: War and Economics: You both seem to be advocating a cautious approach to winding down the Iraq war. But running up huge deficits overseas doesn't seem to be helping people in need at home. Is the political climate here conducive to patience in Iraq? Will our financial system withstand much more war spending?
Thomas Ricks: Yeah, that is a huge additional problem. I think we are going to be heavily involved in the Iraq war and the Afghanistan/Pakistan war for many years to come. And we have wasted so much money in the way we've fought those wars . . .
Potomac, Md.: You credit Odierno with conceiving of the surge and selling it (via Jack Keane) to Bush. There are two key attributes of the surge: more troops (5 brigades) and a change of tactics -- throw out the bad guys and then hold the ground, rather than withdrawing back to a MOB. Granted Odierno sold the idea of more troops, but do you also credit him with the change in tactics? My reading has always credited that part to Petraeus.
Thomas Ricks: Petraeus certainly played a large role in changing how Americans fought in Iraq. But Odierno did as well--which was one reason I thought there was a good book to be done on the Iraq war over the last couple of years.
But one thing you all aren't asking about is the troops who did it. I have got to tell you: the spring of 2007 in Iraq was hard. I think it was the most difficult period of the war (at least so far). Moving off the big bases and into small outposts was difficult and dangerous. Another of my favorite parts of 'The Gamble' is the story of the battle of Tarmiyah, when 38 soldiers in a small 1st Cav division outpost were attacked. They fought for hours, they held the place--and by the end of the day, two of them were dead and 29 others had been wounded.
Sewickley Pa: Tom, I have been dying to ask you how you assess Russell Tice's allegations that journalists were/are being monitored by the NSA all day everyday. In connection with his allegations some have asserted that the American public would be shocked if they new what NSA's capabilities really are. Can you comment?
Thomas Ricks: I don't know anything about it. But I suspect we will be finding out for years to come about questionable steps that the Bush Administration took during the post-9/11 panic.
Falls Church, Va.: TR: "The surge worked militarily. It failed politically."
In Washington, sure. And that's largely the press's doing. But in light of the recent elections, can you really say that it failed politically in Iraq? In what way?
Stephen Biddle: Iraqi politics is a work in progress. Tom may disagree (!) but I think it's too early to render final judgment on the Iraqi political end state. The early indications from the Provincial elections are mostly promising. But the real test will be the reactions of the losers to the fact of defeat, and we can't really know this yet. If the losers decide not to accept this fate, for example, they probably would not declare war and march on the palace in Baghdad - far likelier is a gradual re-opening of central Iraq to AQI (if the disgruntled losers are Sunni) or the Mahdi Army or other militias (if Shiite), followed by a gradual ramp-up of bombings and other violence leading ultimately to a return to 2006 if the process isn't arrested in time. If this is to be Iraq's fate, it wouldn't be observable now. So the real test is yet to come. More broadly, the Provincial elections strike me as one of a series of gates through which we have to pass to reach a stable Iraqi end state - with others including the upcoming referendum on the SOFA, the national elections next year, and the end of the current SOFA's term in 2011. If any of these are botched too badly, we could end up on a slippery - and steep - slope back to 2006. But that doesn't mean this fate is inevitable, or that the result is necessarily a strongman government. Our choices, and Iraqis', will have a lot to do with this. And again, that's part of the reason why I think caution in troop drawdowns is warranted. But one shouldn't interpret this as a call for keeping 130,000 troops in Iraq until every conceivable "gate" has been passed and every possible test passed. Stability does build on itself, and as Iraqis start to change their expectations of one another we can gradually draw down (as we did in the Balkans) at minimal risk. So far so good for Iraq politically, it seems to me. But that leaves a lot left to be determined, and in the meantime I think there's a strong case for being careful about the rate of our withdrawals.
Thanks very much for all your questions. And thanks to Steve Biddle for coming aboard.
I'll be doing a bunch of signings and readings in the coming weeks. This Wednesday night I'll be at the Barnes and Noble at 82nd and Broadway in NYC. And on Wednesday the 18th I'll be at Politics & Prose on Connecticut Ave in DC.
Stephen Biddle: Thanks for a very thoughtful array of questions!
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.