Is there really an argument for lingering in Iraq?

by Stephen M. Walt Like his 2006 book Fiasco, Tom Ricks’ The Gamble is a gripping read. It is also a useful preliminary account of the shift in U.S. tactics that helped stop the escalation of violence in Iraq in 2007. To call it a “preliminary account” is not veiled criticism, because even the best ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
588210_090225_81204365_rez2.jpg
588210_090225_81204365_rez2.jpg
US Army soldiers carry shot guns as they walk along a corridor separating what they deem to be the most extreme and dangerous detainees held inside the Camp Bucca detention center located near the Kuwait-Iraq border, on May 19, 2008. There are approximately 22,000 detainees being held by US forces in two detention facilities in Iraq, up from only about 14,000 before the American troop surge this year. Camp Bucca currently holds 19,070 detainees in 33 separate compounds. The detainee population contains, juveniles, insurgents of all anti-coalition groups in Iraq, and innocent Iraqis detained during military operations. Military officials have initiated programs for the detainees in the detention facility including educational classes, Islamic discussion courses, work programs, art classes and a vigorous review board to discuss with detainees the circumstances surrounding their arrest. AFP PHOTO/DAVID FURST (Photo credit should read DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images)

by Stephen M. Walt

Like his 2006 book Fiasco, Tom Ricks' The Gamble is a gripping read. It is also a useful preliminary account of the shift in U.S. tactics that helped stop the escalation of violence in Iraq in 2007. To call it a "preliminary account" is not veiled criticism, because even the best journalism amounts to "instant history" and is subject to revision once more sources become available and once scholars are able to take a more detached view of these events.

by Stephen M. Walt

Like his 2006 book Fiasco, Tom Ricks’ The Gamble is a gripping read. It is also a useful preliminary account of the shift in U.S. tactics that helped stop the escalation of violence in Iraq in 2007. To call it a “preliminary account” is not veiled criticism, because even the best journalism amounts to “instant history” and is subject to revision once more sources become available and once scholars are able to take a more detached view of these events.

For me, the book’s main lessons are not about Iraq. Rather, it tells us a lot of useful lessons about military organizations, about the oft-neglected relationship between tactics and strategy, and about America’s capacity to shape events in unfamiliar societies. Yet the evidence Ricks provides suggests a different conclusion than the one he draws; namely, that the United States has to stay in Iraq for many more years. Let’s start with the lessons, and then consider the disconnect between Ricks’ own account and his (surprising) bottom line.

First, The Gamble clearly shows that America’s armed services are not immune to the various pathologies that can compromise military leaders and undermine effectiveness in the field. After the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War and won lopsided victories against a set of third-rate opponents (Iraq in 1990-91, Kosovo in 1999, the Taliban in 2002), some people began to think our armed forces were almost magical: that a combination of technology, training and far-sighted commanders meant we could take on any opponent and win quickly, easily, and on the cheap.

The Gamble disabuses us of that notion. While painting a vivid picture of individual dedication and heroism by numerous soldiers and junior officers, it also presents a devastating picture of blind civilian leaders and rigid, unimaginative, and overly politicized senior commanders. Other writers have made the same point — notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in a much-discussed essay in Armed Forces Journal — but Ricks’ account will do nothing to repair the reputations of the civilians and generals who mismanaged the war from the beginning. Ricardo Sanchez, Donald Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Peter Pace will not be giving copies of this book to their friends.

Second, and following from the first point, The Gamble also shows how difficult it is for military organizations to change course, particularly when it involves rethinking basic tactics, rules of engagement, and the core values and world-views informing how it approaches battle. Although it was clear by 2005 that the U.S. effort in Iraq was failing, it took nearly two years for that realization to sink in and for a new approach to emerge. Getting the Army and Marines to pursue a different approach ultimately depended on interventions by an ad hoc coalition of retired officers (e.g., Jack Keane), academics, intelligence advisors, and a commander (David Petraeus) who had served in Iraq but was state-side when the reappraisal began. 

A third lesson involves the relationship between tactics and strategy. In a sense, both Ricks’s earlier book (Fiasco) and this new volume remind us that tactical success and strategic victory are very different things. In 2003, the United States won an overwhelming tactical victory over the overmatched Iraqi forces, occupying the country in record time and at very low cost.  But as the earlier book showed, that impressive display of tactical and operational expertise did not translate into strategic success. Similarly, the new book argues that the tactical achievements of the 2007 surge — a dramatic reduction in the level of violence in Iraq and the apparent defeat of jihadi groups like al Qaeda in Iraq did not produce the political reconciliation that it was intended to achieve. Indeed, of the eighteen “benchmarks” outlined by President Bush in his speech announcing the surge, only three had been achieved a year later and most remain unfulfilled to this day. Hence Ricks’s depressing conclusion: the United States will have to stay in Iraq for many years to come.  

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the argument breaks down. As Marc Lynch points out in his own comment in this forum, a key omission (possibly due to publication deadlines) is any discussion of the November 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. If the United States observes the letter and spirit of that accord, an end to major U.S. involvement will come much sooner than Ricks predicts.

A second omission is the lack of any significant discussion of the alternative explanations for the surge’s success. The Gamble focuses on the various things that the U.S. military did to bring the violence under control, but other accounts suggest that the killing declined because ethnic cleansing was nearly complete by the time the surge began, so there was less incentive for sectarian violence. In this view, the success of the “surge” was partly the result of fortuitous timing. Similarly, the reversal of fortune in Anbar province may have been due in part to the new American approach, but also to the split between the Sunni/Ba’ath insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq that occurred after AQI overplayed its hand. 

To be sure, the debate about the relative contributions of these different factors undoubtedly reflects political biases — those who supported the surge think it is solely responsible while some who opposed the surge are reluctant to give it any credit at all — but there is a genuine analytical question here: how much of the reduction in violence was due to increased numbers and smarter tactics, and how much was due to other features of the overall situation? Ricks does not really attempt an answer, and we will have to wait for a more thorough and dispassionate assessment of this question before we know exactly how much credit to give the architects of the surge and the brave soldiers who implemented it.

Most important of all, the evidence in The Gamble points to a different conclusion than the one Ricks advances. His account shows is that even after the United States got the right commanders in charge, employed the right approach, and adopted more realistic goals, it was still unable to achieve its broader strategic objectives. Thus, Ricks’s belief that we must stay for another ten years or more doesn’t really follow from his own account: if we couldn’t win under the best circumstances we can reasonably expect, why linger on? 

And let’s be clear about what staying in Iraq entails. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely means we will continue to hemorrhage our power and wealth on behalf of a government that has 1) already forced us to sign an agreement to withdraw, 2) is openly hostile to Israel, 3) friendly to Iran, 4) lukewarm about us, and 5) increasingly uninterested in Washington’s desires. And this is the regime on whose behalf we should expend more blood and treasure?

Indeed, Ricks offers one final lesson for how the United States should deal with clients that is at odds with his conclusion that we should stay there for the long haul. As he recounts, another reason the surge worked was the willingness of U.S. officials to play hardball with the Maliki government and demand that Maliki appoint competent commanders and begin to crack down on Shi’ite and Sunni insurgents alike. The lesson is clear: U.S. forces cannot prop up venal, incompetent, or corrupt leaders, and threatening to go home and leave them to their fate is often the best leverage that we have. And if a government we are trying to help cannot help itself, then exercising that exit option is the right response. I hope Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Zardari are paying attention, but I hope Obama is, too.

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

Tag: Iraq

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.