The Gamble

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(335)

Thomas E Ricks, Allen Lane; £25

For Barack Obama the Iraq war was a "dumb" war fought for the wrong reasons and with the wrong methods. The Gamble - General Petraeus and the Untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq, 2006-2008, tells the inside story of how a group of "smart" generals developed a "new" strategy to replace the failing Bush doctrine of "shock and awe".

The book's central message is that it was the US military surge that "turned things around" in Iraq. It was not just that extra troops were sent, but the way they fought. A counterinsurgency strategy replaced the "shock and awe" more suited to fighting a traditional army. So did the surge work?

"By the summer of 2007 US losses did start to drop off." However, Ricks provides much evidence to question claims of success. "1,124 American soldiers and about 24,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians" were killed. Of the five reasons proposed for the change in Iraq - "putting troops among the people", the fact that the "ethnic cleansing of Baghdad had run its course", the "ceasefire with Moqtada al-Sadr", the "unity of effort in counterinsurgency" methods - it was the "turning of parts of the Sunni insurgency" that had the biggest impact.

Overnight "anti-Iraqi forces" became the "Sons of Iraq", paid $10 a day by the US to fight Al Qaida in Iraq. In 2008 there were 103,000 former insurgents on a monthly payroll of $30 million. When one platoon leader asked a "turned" insurgent whether he still wanted to kill US soldiers the reply was, "Yes! But not today." Ricks concludes that the US avoided "military defeat by embracing political failure".

In the most interesting chapter of the book, The Long War, US generals propose a war in Iraq lasting decades or more, as a "long term military presence is probably the best case scenario, better than being ejected or pulling out". But Ricks explains that a "continuing US mission in Iraq will drain the US treasury, strain the military, polarise American politics, and provoke tensions with other nations especially in the Middle East". He explains that the new counterinsurgency methods were learnt studying the "British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam", but forgets the insurgents won these wars.

After the US anti-war movement pushed the Republicans out of Congress in 2007 changes were made to military strategy even under George W Bush. Democrat Jeff Merkley said that Obama's "bold agenda for change involves ending this war in Iraq and bringing our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives home".

US generals, despite their PhDs, cannot deny the decisive and continuing influence of the resistance in Iraq, and the anti-war movements at home.