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No End in Sight to the Iraq 'Gamble'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. In his book "Fiasco," my guest Thomas Ricks wrote what many regarded as the definitive account of mistakes the U.S. made in invading and occupying Iraq, mistakes which, according to Ricks, led to an insurgency that was by no means inevitable. In his new book "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008," Ricks looks at the surge strategy in Iraq and the reduction of violence that has led many to regard it as a success. Ricks finds that the critical change in Iraq was not deploying more American troops, but changing the way they were used, embracing a counterinsurgency approach that emphasized regular, respectful contact with Iraqis and protecting the population from sectarian violence. But Ricks argues that the surge has done nothing to bridge Iraq's factional strife, and he warns American troops will be needed there for years to come.
Thomas Ricks has spent much of his career covering the U.S. military. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, as well as a special military correspondent for the Washington Post. He's also a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, where he writes a blog called The Best Defense. Tom Ricks, welcome back to Fresh Air. A point you make early in this book is that, to the extent that the surge worked in reducing violence in Iraq, it was more a matter of the way troops were used than more troops being added. Give us an idea of what was wrong with the military approach in Iraq before this change.
Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Author, "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq;" Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): For several years, we fought a war in Iraq that often was counterproductive. We had our troops in big bases; they called them FOBs, Forward Operating Bases. And they would go out in vehicles, Humvees and Bradleys and tanks, and do patrols and then go back to their bases. They really didn't have a feel for the population in a lot of places. The fundamental difference is when they did the surge, troops were moved off those bases into the population and their mission was changed. The mission used to be transition to Iraqi control. The mission, top priority, became protect the Iraqis, even at the expense of your own casualties. And that made a huge difference, but it took us four years to get there.
DAVIES: Now, it seems that there was sort of a massive-firepower, conventional war approach when the military came in, and if the goal one sees as finding the enemy and destroying them, then you do what they were doing, you patrol in big vehicles and you try and find insurgents or whoever you see the enemy as being, and you try and capture or kill them. What was missing in that whole mentality?
Mr. RICKS: Kill-and-capture is exactly the wrong mission. What you want to do in a counterinsurgency, ideally, is not kill your enemy, but turn your enemy, bring him over to your side, neutralize him. And if there are people who can't be made politically neutral, can't be brought into the tent, the best thing to do is not to kill them but to make them irrelevant. One reason for that is, when you kill somebody, you wind up with blood feuds, with people seeking revenge. But if you can simply make them politically irrelevant, outside the realm, then you're much further ahead. And so, the ideal thing was to simply protect people enough so they felt safe enough to tell you where the bad guys were, then go to the bad guys and talk about it. One of the most important decisions that General Petraeus made in this war was to go to the Sunni insurgency in Anbar Province and basically put them on the American payroll. You know, he was dealing with the evildoers, as President Bush used to call them. But if you can pay someone 30 bucks a month not to kill you and your people, that's not a bad deal.
DAVIES: One of the advisors in this story is David Kilcullen, who, I believe, was an Australian, right?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, kind of the Crocodile Dundee of counterinsurgency.
DAVIES: Yeah. And he made this fascinating observation about the way the population views you if you only appear now and then in a Humvee and a helmet. They don't see you as people, right?
Mr. RICKS: As he said, you look like an Imperial Stormtrooper. You're not a face; you're simply somebody getting blown up that they never saw before and never will see again.
DAVIES: And therefore, no sympathy, no reason to identify with you.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. And also, they're not going to provide you information and help you understand the place you're at. When they moved the troops out of the population of these little outposts, what you saw was troops becoming familiar with the neighborhood, understanding the rhythm, the feel of a place, and also becoming able to recognize strangers. Then, as they got to know the local people in the neighborhood, people would talk to them more. It wasn't easy. When these troops were moved out of the neighborhoods, that spring of 2007 was very, very tough. But this goes to how our troops began to operate differently.
At one point, troops who had just moved into a neighborhood got into a firefight, and an American soldier looked over and saw two Iraqi kids standing there paralyzed with fear in the middle of the crossfire. He jumped up, grabbed the kids under his arms and rolled them over to a corner, to a safe place. And what the troops realized the next day was that was the key moment in the neighborhood. That's when people began to say, hey, these Americans are different. This guy risked his life to save two Iraqi kids. He didn't have to do that. And that nonviolent action of saving two kids was far more important than the outcome of the firefight with the insurgents.
DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit about how the thinking in the American military changed. I mean, people identified David Petraeus with this movement, but you note there were people in Iraq doing things a little different, a few of them, this Colonel Sean MacFarland. Tell us, kind of, where the new thinking in the military came from on how to approach the war.
Mr. RICKS: Well, you had, here and there, as you say, isolated instances of people doing things right. The first major, sustained, successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq was under Colonel H.R. McMaster with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment up in northwest Iraq, in the city of Tal Afar, in late 2005, early 2006. I was up there in early '06, just before my book "Fiasco" came out, and I was really struck how different it felt. He had troops out in the population. They were talking to people. They had a much better feel for the place. Also, he was showing great tactical patience, which is a military virtue that you don't find a lot in the U.S. military. The U.S. military has a can-do feel to it, gung ho, let's go out and do things. McMaster was willing to take his time.
The problem I had with this is this very successful example was largely ignored by the Army. In fact, it was Secretary of State Rice who was the first person to talk about it in Washington, that this guy up in Tal Afar was doing this clear-hold-and-build strategy, as he called it. The Army didn't seem that interested, didn't think this example could be imitated. They treated it as an anomaly.
The interesting thing is Colonel Sean MacFarland replaces Colonel McMaster in Tal Afar and learns a lot about this, and then he gets sent down to Ramadi. His unit gets moved, transferred down to Ramadi, a very tough city. And MacFarland says, you know, every brigade here in Ramadi, over the last several years, has lost 100 guys. If I'm going to lose 100 guys, let's have something to show for it. And he kind of just rolls the dice. He said, I'm going to do what they were doing up in Tal Afar. I'm going to move the troops into the population. Nobody is paying much attention to him. The odd thing is Ramadi, which has this terrible reputation, becomes the first city to become relatively quiet, even as Baghdad, not far to the east, was falling apart in 2006 in a really rough, tough, little civil war and sectarian cleansing battle.
DAVIES: You had the striking situation of where you have a strategy that works right beside one which is counterproductive, and the military seems unable to recognize the difference. And a point you have made in the past is that this is a war in which incompetence, rather than being punished, was rewarded. And as you tell the story in this book about how change occurred, it was really a retired general, Jack Keane, who made a tremendous difference, in effect, working from the outside in.
Mr. RICKS: It really is. It's only when we stepped outside established command structures that people began thinking seriously and effectively about this war. For several years, we'd had the Joint Chiefs going and talking to the president; everybody looking like everything was going OK; they were doing what they were supposed to do, and we were just going downhill in Iraq, and there was no recognition of that. General Jack Keane, extraordinarily - this retired guy sitting in his basement in Northern Virginia - decided in the summer of 2006 that this war was being lost and we needed to do something about it. He became very influential. He eventually got to meet with President Bush and talk about it and told President Bush, you're losing this war. You need to think about a different strategy; you need to think about different generals.
Now, as it happened, General Keane had to protegees, General David Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno. And he suggested to President Bush, along with some other people, put Petraeus and Odierno out there, and let them put this new counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus has written into practice, change the way we're fighting this war. Effectively what happened in January '07 is that President Bush turned the war over to the dissidents, to people who had not supported invading Iraq or who had thought the war was being fought badly. Ambassador Crocker, for example, who was the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq during this period, reveals in the book that he was essential opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and this is one of the most senior Arabists in the State Department.
DAVIES: You know, when they did make this change and David Petraeus and Ray Odierno went to take over the military command structure in Iraq, they brought a different kind of set of advisors with them. Give us a sense of who these people were.
Mr. RICKS: It was really striking to me. I was noticing this in the spring of '07, and to step back a bit, in all my trips to Iraq, through the years since the invasion, I used to hate going into the Green Zone. It's a myth that American reporters live in the Green Zone. Most of them don't. In fact, the Washington Post has a house out in the middle of the city. And I realized one day in early '07 - I was in the Green Zone, in fact, talking to David Kilcullen - and I thought, wow, these people have a better feel for what's going on in Baghdad than I do. And that was the first time in several years of this war that I had that sense, that American officials really were grasping the situation, but they weren't American officials.
What I also realized was suddenly some of the most important advisors in this effort were foreigners. America was listening to foreigners. David Kilcullen, the Australian infantryman-turned-anthropologist, is the first example. The second one is Sadi Othman, a Brazilian-born Palestinian-American who became David Petraeus' ambassador to the Iraqi government; by the way, a Mennonite-trained pacifist Palestinian, who thought he was doing his best to end the war there. The third person was perhaps the most striking, a tiny bird-like woman named Emma Sky, again, more or less a pacifist, also an Arabist and, in many ways, anti-American. But she was signed up to advise General Odierno. She said, I'll take the job on one condition; the first time I see you commit or condone a war crime, I'm going to personally report you to the War Crimes Tribunal in Hague. Odierno, to his credit and, I think, showing some courage, chuckled and said, OK, and signed her up as his political advisor.
DAVIES: Of course, the other major change that occurred in the American military effort was the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. What differences did the commanders you spoke to see in the style and approach of Gates as opposed to Rumsfeld?
Mr. RICKS: What you saw with American commanders when Rumsfeld was fired was enormous relief. There was a feeling that he couldn't adjust to mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. The problem with Rumsfeld was he wouldn't recognize them, and so, the system couldn't move on, couldn't say, OK, let's reconsider the situation. Gates comes on, a much more flexible secretary of Defense, and there is, really, a sense of adult leadership. Here's a guy we can talk to, back and forth, who wants to be effective in this war.
At the same time, you had a change over in the entire chains of command: a new chief at the Central Command, the American military headquarters for the Middle East. Petraeus goes out to replace General Casey as the top American commander in Iraq, and General Odierno goes out as the number-two guy. There was also a generational shift in the war, and I think this hasn't been really noticed. When Petraeus and Odierno took over, for the first time in the Iraq war, four years into it, you had two guys who had commanded combat units on the ground in Iraq. The previous top commands had not. These guys had a feel for the war. They'd been out on a lot of patrols. They knew big chunks of the country, and I think, not only did they have a better feel for it, their subordinates trusted them more, especially when General Petraeus and General Odierno said, we're going to fight this war a lot differently.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Ricks. His newest book is "The Gamble." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tom Ricks. He is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post. His previous book about Iraq was called "Fiasco." His latest, which deals with the surge, is called "The Gamble." There was a huge change in early 2007 when the commanders took a counterinsurgency approach, and this meant not living in bases outside of cities and villages, but moving in among the people, patrolling on foot, not in Humvees. Was the point here to convince the population that you could provide security, that you were there to protect them day and night, as opposed to just run a patrol through?
Mr. RICKS: Yes. What you had seen was Americans coming through on these short patrols, and the insurgents controlling the neighborhood for the other 23 hours of the day. Well, if you're a police chief, who are you going to cut the deal with? You're going - if you want you and yourself and your family to stay alive, you're going to have to cut a deal with the insurgents. If the Americans are around 24/7, able to respond very quickly, in five minutes, rather than two hours, that makes a big difference. The other thing that happened at the same time is the Americans started talking to the enemy, going to the Sunni insurgents and saying, look, we understand you fought us; we understand you had reasons for doing that, but can't we talk? Now, some people said, no, we can't. Others said, maybe we can.
And when David Petraeus started handing out cash, millions of dollars, to the insurgents, they actually started saying, OK, we'll start working with you. One thing that they noticed when they started talking to detainees was that a lot of people in the insurgency were doing it for the money, that they were simply jobless Iraqis looking to get some cash. Well, the Americans said, we can do that; we'll pay you to man checkpoints. And that's one reason the war quieted down very quickly in the middle of 2007.
DAVIES: Now, it had to be a little controversial among the troops to be making peace with and even paying money to the people who, months before, had been killing their buddies.
Mr. RICKS: Yes, there was a lot of uneasiness. There's one exchange I quote in the book where an American soldier in the town of Baqubah turns to an Iraqi who has been an insurgent, who's now manning a checkpoint with the Americans, and he says, would you like to kill me? And the Iraqi looks him up and down and say, yes, but not today.
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Mr. RICKS: So, these aren't really people who have changed their point of view. These are ceasefire arrangements, people who have come over for a variety of reasons to cooperate, maybe just temporarily. Maybe they're just waiting for the Americans to get out of the way, so they can have their big civil war. The other really controversial point here that struck me, and I really fell out of my chair when I heard this, at one point in an interview - and what I did was a series of embargoed interviews over the course of two years with Odierno, Petraeus and other senior commanders, as well as soldiers. One day, I said to General Petraeus, I'm really amazed that you got President Bush to agree to put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. How did you sell that to him? And Petraeus looked at me and paused and said, I didn't, I didn't ask. And I said, this is probably the biggest policy decision in the war in the last couple of years, and you didn't ask the president about it? And he said, no, it was within my existing authorities. Well, I kind of, you know, winced a little bit, but I thought, well, that's - you know, you want your generals to be audacious; that's an audacious move.
DAVIES: When the U.S. commanders were making these arrangements with Sunni tribal sheiks and former insurgents, one issue, of course, was getting permission from the - or at least, the approval or - advising U.S. authorities, but you also had the government of Iraq, which, of course, was Shiite-dominated and might not have been so happy about, you know, in effect, kind of sustaining the capability of these armed Sunni militias.
Mr. RICKS: And that's still a major question in Iraq. The Baghdad government doesn't like what we did with the Sunni insurgents, putting them on the payroll. And in fact, at first, we went behind their backs; the Baghdad government was not aware of what the Americans were doing. They started hearing about it and started questioning it; they were very upset with it in 2007. The Americans talked about it to them a lot and sort of tried to get Prime Minister Maliki and other officials to kind of, at least, accept it. I know it's not fully accepted at this point. As one Shiite politician said, baby crocodiles are cute, but they grow up and you can't keep them in the house.
DAVIES: You describe the efforts of a company in the 2nd Infantry Division in Baghdad, I believe, operating in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad. If you could just describe a little bit about what they did in trying to kind of get to know the community and take a census of who these insurgents were?
Mr. RICKS: Sure. What they did was go out and essentially map the population. This is part of getting out of your vehicles and showing your face. These guys went from house to house, sat down and talked; who are - you know, who's in this family? Who lives here? And they also marked houses that were vacant and locked them up to prevent insurgents from going in there and using them as bases. They took photographs of people, and they were able to quickly identify where the problems were and where potential allies were. They even learned to mix it up. They didn't just go one house to the next house, to the next house; they jumped around.
DAVIES: And I loved this, the instruction that you said that a commander gave was when you go in, you sit down, you take off your helmet, you take off your sunglasses, you take a drink if it's offered and you speak respectfully.
Mr. RICKS: And - exactly, but the other soldiers keep on their helmets, sunglasses, and they face outward and provide security, because you are in a combat environment and the enemy will come after you. So, that ability to talk and fight at the same time, and be willing to do both, I think, became key in 2007. One of my favorite parts of the book is the story of an Army captain, Sam Cook, who spent weeks talking to the local insurgent leader, who he could have killed or captured at any time. But he wanted not just to bring in this guy; he wanted to bring in the entire network. This insurgent leader sat down with Captain Cook and said, you know, I've set 200 bombs against the Americans. And they talked about that and how this guy became an insurgent. And the insurgent said, why don't you just shoot me now? And Captain Cook said, because you are my guest; I invited you here. If I see you on the street, we might have to kill you, but now, let's talk.
And they talked for weeks, and at one point, the insurgent said, the Americans are the devil; I don't like anything about America. And Captain Cook, who knew his Iraqi culture said, but you watched the movie "Titanic," because all Iraqis have watched "Titanic." And the insurgent looks at him and says, yes, I've watched it seven times and I cry every time at the end. And that became the turning point with this insurgent. And within a few weeks, he had brought in his entire network, and he sat down; he said, let me tell you some things you need to know here. He tells Captain Cook, when you come to our town, the police call us at the checkpoint and tell us you're coming. That's why you've never captured me. And by the way, the sniper rifle we have was given to us by an Iraqi major. And by the way, there are certain things you need to know about how we make car bombs and where we make them. And Captain Cook said it was like somebody turned on the lights. They began to see the entire situation. And that's really what changed in Iraq in 2007, not different ways of killing people, but different ways of talking and relating to people.
DAVIES: Thomas Ricks, author of the new book "The Gamble." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Thomas Ricks, special military correspondent for the Washington Post. His book "Fiasco," detailed mistakes the U.S. made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His new book, "The Gamble," examines the surge strategy that's credited with dramatically reducing violence in the country. Ricks says the strategy has done little for the long-term prospects for peace in Iraq, but he said, violence went down because new American commanders brought a different approach: moving closer to the Iraqi population and making peace with former insurgents. One other change that was implicit in this was the way detainees were dealt with and whether or not they were held. How did that go?
Mr. RICKS: For a long time, people were just scooped up and tossed into these prisons and - without much attention being paid to them, and this is one of the shocks to me when I wrote the book "Fiasco." I had not realized the extent of abuse or the really incompetent way in which detainees were handled. And this is one of the neat things under General Petraeus. He said, let's think about counterinsurgency inside the detention camps; how can we deal with these people differently? And the first thing, as I said, was they began taking surveys. They began asking these people, what made you an insurgent? Where do you come from? How religious are you? One of the surprises was the detainees, people who had been accused of being insurgents, were not particularly religious. I think about 40 percent didn't go to the mosque every week. So, our conception of these guys changed.
The second thing was, OK, if they've doing it for the money, let's find a different approach. They began giving them vo-tech training. Do you want to train to be a bricklayer, a construction worker? And they offered them a variety of classes. They offered them, also, voluntary classes in moderate Islam to say, here are other interpretations of Islam besides what you may have heard from Islamic extremists. They even enabled families to come visit. They sent buses to bring families of detainees to visit them, because they realized that people who maintained connections with their families were less likely to become violent upon leaving.
And they even tracked these people went they went back into the neighborhood. And they'd go to the local police and say, we know he's a former insurgent, we know he's here, but we're watching him, and don't be going and busting him for no reason. And giving these people an element of protection. You even had officers looking out for the families of detainees, making sure these people, the families, had food while the detainee was in prison. And the families would tell the detainees about this and word got out; the Americans are really trying to do this differently.
DAVIES: Another really important step in reducing violence in the country was getting the cooperation of Muqtada al-Sadr, the, you know, the powerful Shiite leader. How did that happen?
Mr. RICKS: Well, I think two things happened with Muqi(ph), as the Americans tend to call him, as you say, the radical anti-American cleric. The first was, once he saw that the Sunnis had cut a deal with the Americans, that meant the Americans could focus all their firepower on him and his militia. So, I think it was prudent of him to say, well, I'm going to cut a deal, too. The second thing was that the Americans reduced their goals broadly. The vision of transforming Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy that would then become a beacon of change for the Middle East was quietly abandoned. And instead, the goal under General Petraeus and Odierno became a more or less stable Iraq that is more or less democratic that is more or less respectable of its minorities, but is not anything that we would recognize as a kind of country like America.
DAVIES: Yeah, or one that necessarily recognizes human rights the same way that a Western country will.
Mr. RICKS: Yes, and in fact, may well not become an ally of America in the future. And this lowering of goals included dealing with Muqtada al-Sadr and quietly cutting deals with him. So, for example, even now in eastern Baghdad, Sadr City, which is a big chunk of Baghdad - it's five million people - American troops don't go into two-thirds of Sadr City. It's as if the Americans were occupying New York but didn't go to the Bronx.
DAVIES: And it's quiet?
Mr. RICKS: It is quiet, because we're coexisting with Sadr's militias.
DAVIES: You lay out in clear terms why the change in approach of the American military got different results and reduced violence in Iraq. But there's this wonderful sentence you have, and I'm going to quote it and ask you to explain it. You say, "The danger of making policy on the fly and not vetting it through scrutiny and debate is that it may win short-term advances without recognizing long-term costs." There's another side to what we're doing there, right?
Mr. RICKS: There is. And the surge worked militarily; there's no question that violence declined in Iraq as a result of the surge and the associated things we've talked about, the deals with the Sunnis, with Sadr's organization, and the grim fact that the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was largely completed by the time the surge began. That said, the surge failed. I say that because the surge's purpose was not just to improve security; it was, as the president said, to create a breathing space in which political change could occur. And the fact is the political change has not occurred. All the basic questions facing Iraq before the surge are still there and have not been addressed, have not been solved. Those are, for example, the disposition of the disputed city of Kirkuk; the power relationship...
DAVIES: That's in the Kurdish area, right?
Mr. RICKS: Exactly. The power relationships between the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites, who holds power in the Shiite community; and most importantly, the sharing of oil revenue. None of those existential issues have been solved. All of them threaten, still, to be solved violently. So, a lot of people think the war is over, and my response is the war is changing. We've seen this war morph several times: It was an invasion and then an occupation, then a small civil war, then a surge, a counteroffensive. The war is different now, but it's still out there. It's a long fuse, and I think we're going to have American troops there a long time, and as long as American troops are there, some of them will be fighting and dying.
DAVIES: Now, you have - President Obama has, I believe, promised to have most American combat troops out of Iraq by the middle of 2010. There's the security agreement that says they have to be out by 2011. Is that right?
Mr. RICKS: Yes. But it's an interesting phrase that candidate Obama used on the campaign trail, I'll have combat troops out in 16 months. News flash for President Obama: There are no noncombat troops; there is no pacifist wing of the U.S. military. All troops carry weapons, and in fact, I would much rather be in an infantry patrol in Baghdad than be in a convoy of transport troops. Infantry patrols aren't - they're not going to waste a bomb on them, on taking out a couple, but taking out a whole bunch in a truck convoy, they'll do that, the bad guys. So, I don't know quite what President Obama means when he says that. I think what Americans hear when he says that is, Americans won't be dying in Iraq starting 16 months from now. And I will tell you flatly, that is wrong; that is not going to happen.
DAVIES: What's David Petraeus' relationship with Obama? And what's his future, do you think, in an Obama administration?
Mr. RICKS: The Petraeus-Obama relationship is interesting and, I think, surprisingly contentious, given that they're such similar men. They're both lean, smart, intelligent, very successful, but also somewhat more reserved than their peers. I was surprised when candidate Obama sat down with General Petraeus in Baghdad last July. It was an unpleasant meeting; it was not a meeting of minds; it was not even a conversation. Essentially, Petraeus felt that Obama in congressional hearings had never given Petraeus a chance to answer his questions. And so, when Obama came onto Petraeus' turf in Baghdad, Petraeus gave him, essentially, a 90-minute lecture on Iraq. It was a little bit of surprise to some of the senators in the meeting. It's what you would do in a public forum, in a hearing; it's not what you would do sitting around a table in someone's office.
DAVIES: Not the kind of heart-to-heart that a senator would expect?
Mr. RICKS: Exactly, especially a senator who has come all the way out to Iraq to talk to you about it. I think Petraeus really kept him at arm's length. That said, I think the two men are so similar that I think they will come to understand and appreciate each other, if time permits. I can easily see Petraeus winding up in a top position in this administration, for example, replacing James Jones as national security advisor down the road, if Jones moves onto something else. It's funny, though; I don't think Petraeus really has political ambitions. The one time I really saw a spark in him talking about his future was when we were talking about his time at Princeton where he did a Ph.D., and he said what he would really love to do - and he grinned about this - was be the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
DAVIES: Hmm. Thomas Ricks, his new book is "The Gamble." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Tom Ricks. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He's the author of the book "Fiasco," about the American invasion of Iraq. His latest book about the surge is called "The Gamble." There were provincial elections recently in Iraq that seemed to go well, at least in the sense that there was - you know, ballots seemed to be freely cast without violence. Should we take heart in that?
Mr. RICKS: I don't think so, particularly. I think we have placed too much faith in elections in Iraq, partly because we tend to see them as if they were American elections. In our country, you have a big fight, you have an election, and when it's over, basically everybody agrees, OK, some people won. In Iraq, elections frequently are the beginning of fights, not the end of them. Remember all the purple fingers a couple of years ago? Hey, Iraq had a big election. And then, yeah, what happened? Then they had a civil war, because the lines had been drawn. The big question right now is, will the people who lost power in this last election give it up? Will the people who won power exercise it decently? And thirdly, will the people who didn't win, who think they won, use violence? And a lot of these political parties are both armed groups and parties. There's a continuum between politics and violence in Iraq. And these people have the weapons to respond violently, if they feel they have been maltreated by the electoral process.
DAVIES: If the surge has, in effect, left America stuck in Iraq, I mean, keeping an uneasy truce among armed and hostile factions, let me ask a naive question. I mean, why not pull out and let things take their course? I mean, there's all this concern that Iran would dominate Iraq, but in fact, these two countries fought a war for eight years. And while that took a terrible human toll, you know, the West didn't intervene militarily, oil didn't stop being produced and the region didn't fall apart. You know, there is a point of view that says Western military intervention is going to generate bad results pretty much no matter what you do. Is there an argument for pulling out and letting, you know, a reckoning of the forces occur?
Mr. RICKS: Yes, I think of that as the Jerry Rubin argument. If you remember Jerry Rubin, the '60s radical...
Mr. RICKS: He was going to have a revolution, and asked what came after the revolution, he said, we're going to groove on the rubble. You pull out of Iraq now, and you're probably going to wind up grooving on the rubble. But it's not going to be so groovy, because you're probably going to have large elements of genocide; you're going to have people go after civilian populations violently; you could easily have this spill over and become a regional war involving Turkey, a NATO ally, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran. You could take Sarajevo, 1914, and turn it into Europe, 1917. So, it's a risky proposition. A line that Ambassador Crocker had that I liked about this was: Just because you walk out of a movie halfway through it, the movie doesn't end. And I think we have a moral responsibility. We have created a big mess in Iraq. I thought the war was the wrong thing to do at the outset, but if you walk away from it now, the entire Arab world - and the entire world, in fact - will blame us for any genocidal-like civil war that follows. So, I think we have a responsibility not to - not be irresponsible about this.
DAVIES: President Obama wants to focus a lot on Afghanistan now. Is the military prepared to be smarter in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq?
Mr. RICKS: I think the U.S. military is. One major reason for that is General Petraeus, having succeeded militarily in Iraq, was promoted to be the top U.S. commander for the entire region, overseeing not just the war in Iraq but also Afghanistan. The problem is Afghanistan is, in many ways, a tougher problem than Iraq, not because of Afghanistan, particularly, but because it's really an Afghani-Pakistani war. A friend of mine, Andrew Exum, has a great blog called Abu Muqawama, and he said in his blog last week, it's really tough to fight a war in Afghanistan when the enemy has decided to fight it in Pakistan. And Pakistan is a much bigger problem for us than Afghanistan. We could, you know, wind up with a bad situation in Afghanistan; we could live with it. A bad situation in Pakistan, say, where the country falls apart or where Islamic extremists take over, is a nightmare scenario for us. It's a big country, it has a lot of Islamic extremists and it has nuclear weapons. And to have Islamic extremists with nuclear weapons was a primary goal of al-Qaeda and would be a major victory for them and a major defeat for this country.
DAVIES: This seems to be one of the lessons of the post-colonial world is that Western military intervention in third-world countries tends not to work. It's hard to exercise, you know, foreign will among a local population. You tend to create more problems than you solve. On the other hand, there's this notion of counterinsurgency, that when troops are used in a smart way, in numbers, in the local population, you can succeed; you can accomplish goals among a civilian population. What's the best approach in Pakistan?
Mr. RICKS: That's a terrific question because you've really put your finger on the problem. This is the basic strategic issue in how to go about these things. The answer is, ultimately, American troops cannot win these things. What they can do is what they've done in Iraq: They can tamp things down; they can contain things; they can calm things; they can basically call a timeout or a ceasefire. But to prevail, you have to have local troops, local allies, not just people you've put on the payroll, but people who sincerely believe that they can operate in a humane, different, semi-democratic way. So, you really have to have local allies, local forces, who are cohesive, who believe in what they're doing, who are not just being paid to do it. So, the answer in Pakistan is, really, like what the answer in Iraq ultimately is going to be. It's not American troops; it's going to be good local forces that operate in a decent way, that are not killing civilians, that protect the population and make the Islamic extremists irrelevant. That's the answer in all these insurgencies. It's called the indirect approach. It's very hard to do, but I think eventually we got there - almost there - in Iraq. If we're going to have any success in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that's what we're going to wind up doing as well.
DAVIES: Well, Tom Ricks, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RICKS: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Thomas Ricks, his new book is called, "The Gamble." Coming up, we speak with Ryan Kules, an Iraq war vet who recovered from a serious injury and is now working to help other veterans. This is Fresh Air.
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Retired Army Captain Helps Wounded Warriors
DAVE DAVIES, host:
While violence has declined in Iraq over the past year and a half, the war has taken a terrible human toll. More than 4,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq, and more than 31,000 wounded. Ryan Kules has spent the last three years recovering from serious injuries he suffered in combat in Iraq, and he's come a long way. He's physically active and employed full-time at the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization dedicated to helping severely injured veterans recover and build productive civilian lives. Well, Ryan Kules, welcome to Fresh Air. I thought we should begin by hearing about your injury. Now, as I understand it, you have no direct recollection of it; is that right?
Captain RYAN KULES (Retired, U.S. Army; Coordinator, Warriors to Work Program, Wounded Warrior Project): That's correct, Dave. I don't remember the attack and also the day before. So, I remember just bits and pieces of that week and then nothing until I woke up in the hospital.
DAVIES: But as you've reconstructed it, as, you know, you've talked to folks who were familiar with the events, what actually happened? You were on patrol, I think, in November of 2005; is that right?
Capt. KULES: That's correct. I was on patrol on November 29th of 2005. We were coming back from an early-morning cordon-and-search. We went and checked out someone's house that potentially had some weapons or was of interest to us. On the way back to our base at Taji, my vehicle struck an IED buried in the road. That device, when it went off, went off right underneath my vehicle. It threw me approximately 100 feet in the air, into a small canal off to the side of the road, and unfortunately, it killed my gunner and driver instantly.
DAVIES: So, you woke up in a hospital; is that right? Was it in Iraq or Germany? Where?
Capt. KULES: Actually, I woke up in the hospital in Walter Reed, in Washington, D.C. When I woke up in the hospital at Walter Reed, I had - I was missing my left leg below the hip and right arm just below the shoulder, and at the time, my right ankle was broken in addition to my left wrist, and I was later diagnosed with a mild TBI, which is a traumatic brain injury.
DAVIES: I'm sure rehab was a long, hard road, and we won't go through the whole story here, but tell us, you know, what your condition and capabilities are today.
Capt. KULES: Today, my condition is really very close to what it was before I was hurt, with some obvious issues, that I can't run as fast as I would be able to before; I can't clap, which, you know, is in some situations, somewhat of a big issue.
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Capt. KULES: But really, I work full-time. I have a 20-month-old daughter who I enjoy and love spending time with her. Certainly, don't get over on any of the tasks in - around the house. I change diapers, take out trash and do all those things that everyone loves doing. So, really, my condition and my quality of life today is very good.
DAVIES: You have a prosthetic leg; is that right?
Capt. KULES: That's true. I walk on a prosthetic leg. I actually don't use a prosthetic arm just due to the level of my amputation, on how high my arm was taken off. The prosthetic device doesn't really work for me. The technology has not - doesn't really fit my particular amputation.
DAVIES: You know, one of the issues that's been raised about caring for veterans who have been wounded is that there's a point at which you are under the military's care, that funded by the Department of Defense, and then you have to transition to the Veterans' Administration care, and that there are gaps or difficulties in processing and paperwork, which can make it hard to get treatment at a time when you are vulnerable and really need it. Did you experience that?
Capt. KULES: I, fortunately, did not experience very much issue with my transition to the VA system. I'm very fortunate in the sense that my injuries are severe to the point where you send in a snapshot of me, and I'm going to get the care and benefits that are due. But there are many out there, unfortunately, that experience backlog with VA claims and have issue getting the benefits and care and treatment that they rightly deserve.
DAVIES: President Obama has appointed General Eric Shinseki as the new secretary of Veterans' Affairs. What issues should he tackle first? What are the key issues facing veterans that need serious reform?
Capt. KULES: I think one of the biggest issues that need to be - needs to have a look taken at it is the issue of caregiver benefits. I'm very fortunate in that I have a wife and a very strong support system, but not every service member has that. And sometimes, with some of the severely wounded service members, they have to rely on a mother, father, or a sister or brother, or whoever it might be, to provide the care for them that they need, and there's not any substantial caregiver benefits for those family members. They have to, potentially, leave a job, sell a house, move across country to care for a wounded service member, and they need to have the same benefits that a spouse would have.
DAVIES: Tell us about how you came into contact with the Wounded Warrior Project.
Capt. KULES: I came into contact with Wounded Warrior Project, actually, when I was in the hospital. They were one of the first organizations, along with Disabled Support USA, which is one of our partner organizations, to come by my hospital room and let me know that, even after my severe injury, my life wasn't over and I'd be able to get out and enjoy activities that I had enjoyed before. And within four months of my injury, I was actually skiing in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, with my wife. So, four months after having an arm and a leg blown off, I was able to go out skiing. And that really says a lot, in an emotional sense, letting not only myself know that I'm able to still go out and have a good time, but my wife and family know that my life's not over and I still have a lot to go out and do.
DAVIES: We're about out of time, but I wanted to give you a chance before we go to give our audience any message you think is important from your own experience, either recovering from your injury or your work with the Wounded Warrior Project.
Capt. KULES: I think that the one message that I would certainly like to pass on is that when these conflicts that we're in right now are in the history books, I'll still be dealing with my injuries, as will the thousands of other warriors that have similar injuries and also a wide variety of injuries. So, the point is that it doesn't go away and we can't be forgotten.
DAVIES: Well, Ryan Kules, I want to wish you, you know, success in your career and a happy family life and continued recovery. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Capt. KULES: Thank you very much, Dave. I certainly appreciate the opportunity.
DAVIES: Ryan Kules retired as a captain from the Army. He now works with the Wounded Warrior Project.
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DAVIES: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, Joan Toohey-Wesman, Sam Briger, Jonathan Menjivar, John Myers and John Sheehan. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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