Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The great gamble of Iraq 2012, what to read about post-surge Iraq, and a new book of Saddam Hussein’s transcripts

President Obama looks pretty serious about U.S. troops leaving Iraq in just 10 weeks. This means not that the war is over, but that we are leaving the war, which goes on. And on. And so on. The next six months in Iraq will indeed be interesting. Secretary of State Clinton said on Meet the ...

U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/ Flickr
U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/ Flickr

President Obama looks pretty serious about U.S. troops leaving Iraq in just 10 weeks. This means not that the war is over, but that we are leaving the war, which goes on. And on. And so on.

The next six months in Iraq will indeed be interesting. Secretary of State Clinton said on Meet the Press yesterday, "Now, are the Iraqis all going to get along with each other for the foreseeable future? Well, let’s find out." I saw that movie! Feeling lucky, Iraq? Well, do ya?

Here is the worried assessment of retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who in 2006 played a major role in fixing U.S. strategy in the war. I suspect various factions and external actors have been keeping their powder dry while U.S. troops were still on the scene. No one wanted to mess much with "the biggest tribe," especially because those fighters and weapons might be handy once that tribe left. It’s like the Jets and the Sharks making nice while waiting for Office Krupke to move along. With Uncle Sam out of the way, it will be interesting to see which players — internal and external –– seek to fill the vacuum. Why am I such a "pestamist"? — to borrow a term my daughter invented as a child. Because none of the basic questions that led to the civil war of 2006-07 have been resolved-how to share oil revenues, what the role of the Kurds will be, and basically how to govern the country. (On the other hand, supporting the Clinton view, I have heard the argument that the U.S. presence is the factor that had enables Iraqi politicians to keep questions hanging fire.)

Think I’m being paranoid? OK, here is Yochi Dreazen’s account in National Journal of a recent visit in Basra:

The Iranian consulate here dominates a section of this oil-rich city’s skyline. An enormous Iranian flag can be seen from half a mile away, ringed by a welter of radio towers and satellite dishes. The walled compound houses three large villas and six smaller buildings. It’s protected by well-trained Iranian and Iraqi troops. On a recent visit, I stopped my car and stepped out to take a few photos. Within seconds, a dozen men in tracksuits rushed out of adjacent houses and stores and surrounded me, handguns drawn. My translator assured them that we were journalists. The men, unsmiling, ordered me to hand over my camera and then methodically erased every picture I had taken since arriving in Basra four days earlier. They shoved us back toward our car and slammed the doors. Leaning into an open window, one of the guards told us to leave the area and not return. He was speaking Farsi.

When I read that, I thought of three things. First, someone telling me years ago that Iran doesn’t want to control Baghdad, which is uncontrollable, it wants Basra, which is oil exports. Also, of two things Ambassador Ryan Crocker said about Iraq a couple of years ago:That the events for which the war will be remembered have not yet happened and that he kind of expected Iraq to wind up looking like Lebanon. I think he is still right on both counts.  

A CNAS colleague recently asked what she should assign her students to read about Iraq since the surge — which after all began more than four years ago. I was surprised that I couldn’t think of a book that captured the post-surge era. What I came up with was the writings of Toby Dodge. Another CNAS colleague suggested also the work of Joost Hilterman, especially this article. I’d be interested in any other suggestions from all of youse. (Maybe for the West Point faculty, we could compile a list of the 10 best articles and books on Iraq since the surge.)

I also really liked the overview provided by a recent article by Safa Rasul al-Sheikh and Professor the Lady Emma Sky in Survival. (She’s slumming at Oxford now.) It provided a pretty good overview of what has happened in Iraq since 2006, especially from the perspective of Iraqis. A couple of their conclusions:

The Sunni insurgents were driven to negotiate because they came to the realisation that they could not overthrow the new regime, that they were losing Baghdad to the Shia militias, and that Iran was a bigger threat to them than the United States.

(p. 127)

Iran eventually succeeded in making a second-term Maliki premiership inevitable by putting huge pressure on the Sadrists to support him.

(p. 138)

Tom again: Meanwhile, over the weekend I read a pretty new book, The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, which consists of edited transcripts of captured recordings of Saddam Hussein’s official meetings. No major Nixonian revelations, but a useful addition to the historical record. Among other things, it appears to confirm what some people have written, that he really believed he had prevailed in the 1991 war, because the Americans unilaterally had given him a ceasefire. As he tells aides on one tape made after the 1992 election, "Bush fell and Iraq lasted." And in an aside Saddam confirms that the Iraqi military really was shaken by the battle of al Khafji early in the 1991 war-a crucial development that Norman Schwarzkopf didn’t grasp.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: Iraq