Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'The Gamble' by Thomas E. Ricks

'The Gamble' by Thomas E. Ricks

Reviewed By Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times

Thomas E. Ricks’s devastating 2006 book, “Fiasco,” provided a lucid, tough-minded assessment of the Iraq war, brilliantly summing up the political and military mistakes that had brought the United States, after more than three years of occupation, to a terrible tipping point there. Drawing upon the author’s reporting on the ground in Iraq and his many sources within the uniformed military, “Fiasco” chronicled how the United States “went to war in Iraq with scant solid international support and on the basis of incorrect information,” and how flawed assumptions, drastic planning failures and plain old-fashioned hubris led to a “derelict occupation” that fueled a burgeoning insurgency.

In his equally powerful and illuminating new book, “The Gamble,” Mr. Ricks, who covered the military for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, takes up the story where he left off in “Fiasco.” This volume recounts how Iraq came close to unraveling in 2006, how the Bush administration finally conceded it was off course, and how a new set of commanders — headed by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno — began putting a radically different strategy in place.

That strategy, often referred to as the surge, not only involved the addition of some 30,000 troops but also, more important, featured new counterinsurgency tactics (which made the protection of Iraqi civilians a priority) and a new realpolitik approach to dealing with insurgents.

Mr. Ricks writes as both an analyst and a reporter with lots of real-time access to the chain of command, and his book’s narrative is animated by closely observed descriptions of how the surge worked on the ground, by a savvy knowledge of internal Pentagon politics, and by a keen understanding of the Iraq war’s long-term fallout on already strained American forces.

While Mr. Ricks praises General Petraeus’s success in helping the military regain the strategic initiative in Iraq as an “extraordinary achievement” — reducing violence and reviving “American prospects in the war” — he also reminds us that the surge was meant to “create a breathing space that would then enable Iraqi politicians to find a way forward,” and that that outcome is still unclear. “The best grade” the surge campaign can be given, he says, “is a solid incomplete.”

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