Ricks, Thomas, The Gamble, General David Petraeus And The American Military Adventure In Iraq, 2006-2008, New York: Penguin Press, 2009
The Gamble, General David Petraeus And The American Military Adventure In Iraq, 2006-2008 was journalist Tom Ricks second book about Iraq. His first, Fiasco was one of the best discussing how the U.S. military went wrong in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The Gamble focused on how it tried to fix things with the 2007 Surge. Ricks looked at several individuals responsible for the new strategy namely Generals Jack Keane, David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno. It’s an interesting read because it argues that the U.S. succeeded tactically in bringing down the horrific violence in Iraq but did not provide the political change it hoped for that would ensure long term stability.
The Gamble can be read as two halves with an extended epilogue. The first is about how the Americans were failing in Iraq before 2007. Then U.S. commander General George Casey was pursuing a strategy of turning over responsibilities to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and withdrawing American troops. Iraq was falling into civil war with the Iraqi army and police actively involved in the violence rather than trying to stop it. Despite that Casey continued with his plan. This was supported by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who wanted out of Iraq as soon as possible. The Joint Chiefs head General Peter Pace was a rubber stamp for him. President Bush was wrapped up in declaring victory and claiming that things were getting better in Iraq when they were getting decidedly worse. Ricks presses home the fact that there was no leadership and no one was being held responsibility for what he called a fiasco. He is well versed in this history as he was posted to Iraq during this period as a reporter and it was the topic of his first book on the war.
This sets the background for how the Surge came about. Independently Generals Jack Keane, David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno came up with the idea of sending more troops to Iraq where they would implement a new counterinsurgency strategy based upon protecting the Iraqi public. The book goes through all the meetings and actions that eventually led to the Surge. Ricks is different from other accounts writing that President Bush wasn’t convinced of a change in direction until December 2006. Keane was one of the key figures to convince him, Odierno was already deployed to Iraq and working on a new strategy and then Petraeus was appointed Iraq commander and provided a grand scheme of things while also improvising and taking in some things that were already happening in the country such as engaging tribes to fight the insurgency. This was all during a time when the majority of the American public and Congress had turned against the war. The Surge then was a huge gamble as the title suggests.
The final chapters are like an epilogue and proved prophetic. Ricks thought that the Surge saved Iraq from the civil war. Thousands of people were being killed in the country, death squads were terrorizing the public, the government was helping the Shiite militias fight the insurgency and purge the capital and surrounding areas of Sunnis. Many people back in the States thought this meant victory finally. The generals and Ricks however were far more pessimistic. They had stabilized Iraq but not brought about any political changes which were at the heart of the conflict. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was completely resistant to taking any steps towards reconciliation and by 2008 was using the ISF against his political foes. That’s the reason why Ricks wrote that the Surge was a tactical victory but a strategic defeat. He believed that the U.S. would be in Iraq for years, perhaps decades trying to maintain the peace between factions. He also predicted that if the U.S. left as it did in 2011 it would have to go back to fight again which happened in 2014 with the rise of the Islamic State.
The Gamble isn’t as compelling as Ricks’ Fiasco, nevertheless it is a very interesting read about the Surge. It goes through how bad Iraq was, the ideas and individuals that pushed for change, how it came about both at the strategic and tactical level, all the doubts about whether it would work, and then the aftermath. It gives a realistic review of what worked and what didn’t and correctly predicted that Iraq would be a long term commitment for the U.S. because of the inability of Iraqi politicians to make any changes. That makes it one of the better American military histories of this period.
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