The Long War

Andrew Bacevich

  • The Gamble: General Petraeus and the Untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks
    Allen Lane, 394 pp, £25.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84614 145 4

Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, published in 2006, was a scathing account of the invasion and occupation of Iraq; The Gamble covers the ‘surge’ that pulled Iraq back from the edge of the abyss. By 2006, with Bush still insisting that the war was going swimmingly and the Pentagon keen to hand the war over to the Iraqis, it seemed that the US was heading for a catastrophic defeat. If it proceeded with plans to pull out, many observers felt certain that Iraq would descend into chaos. Failure, they warned, would discredit the entire enterprise known as the war on terror or, in Pentagon-speak, the Long War. To save the Long War – and shield from scrutiny the desire for continued global leadership (or hegemony) that hinged on its success – it was essential to avert outright defeat in Iraq. This was the real reason for the surge. Thomas Donnelly, a senior fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and one of those who had the idea of the surge, explained that its purpose was to establish ‘a rationale for keeping the United States in the war’.

Donnelly was not alone in his belief that the US had to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq. He was joined by academics with privileged access to policy circles, notably Eliot Cohen at Johns Hopkins; mid-grade military officers such as Peter Mansoor and Tom Greenwood, who were members of a ‘council of colonels’ convened to assess the war for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS); a small group of retired generals and others led by Jack Keane, who, as army vice chief of staff, had enthusiastically supported the war, but since leaving active duty had been appalled by its mismanagement; and Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who as the second-ranking officer in Baghdad was in charge of the day-to-day conduct of the war, and feared that he was being set up to be the fall guy for its failure. The four-star leadership of the military wanted out of Iraq. Odierno was ‘the sole senior official in the active-duty military speaking out for an increase in troops’.

Keane played the decisive role in turning this disparate group into an alliance of sorts. He endorsed an AEI study calling for the deployment of more US troops, and thereby gave the proposal a legitimacy it would otherwise have lacked. In the Pentagon and in the White House, he used his credentials as a former soldier to lobby anyone who would listen: without radical change, he warned, the Iraq war was headed towards a disastrous end. Keane also encouraged Odierno, a former subordinate, to resist the guidance he was getting from his immediate superior in Baghdad, General George Casey, whose own views mirrored those of the JCS.

None of this would have amounted to much had it not been for the result of the November 2006 elections. When the Democrats took control of Congress, Bush was jolted into realising that his control of national security policy was at risk. Keane and his allies seized the moment to capture the president’s ear. A shift in policy occurred with dramatic suddenness. On the surface the big story was that Bush had finally sacked Rumsfeld, and installed the pragmatic Robert Gates in his place. But the more important story – concealed from the public – was that the president’s senior military advisers had lost all credibility: when it came to setting policy, the views of the active-duty four stars no longer mattered. By autumn 2006, Ricks writes, ‘Jack Keane effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.’

Keane and his collaborators had pulled off a quasi-coup. A small group of individuals, none of them elected or holding appointed office, had joined forces with military dissidents to engineer a change in policy. Those with statutory responsibility for providing military advice to the president were sidelined. It was an impressive achievement, but its implications are troubling. If Keane’s manoeuvre proves a precedent, the chain of command will cease to exist.

To his credit, once Keane had succeeded in getting Bush to change course, he let General Petraeus, the first head of the Multinational Security Command in Iraq, and Odierno run the show. Plans to hand the conduct of the war over to the Iraqis were shelved, and several extra combat brigades were deployed to Iraq. But the approach Petraeus and Odierno (in partnership with Ryan Crocker, the new American ambassador in Baghdad) introduced involved more than simply increasing the number of boots on the ground. Petraeus had just completely revised the US Army’s counterinsurgency manual and now changed the way US forces were operating in Iraq in line with those revisions. The focus until this point had been on killing insurgents, an approach described by Ricks as ‘professionally ignorant and profoundly counterproductive’. The new emphasis was on protecting the civilian population. The implications of this shift were not trivial.

Whatever Washington’s claims, tactical commanders had paid little attention to the way their operations affected Iraqi noncombatants. The old emphasis on avoiding American casualties had made everyone else expendable. Ricks quotes an investigation conducted by a US major general after a particularly gruesome incident: ‘All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine.’ Senior US officers, the report claimed, believed that ‘Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business.’ Under Petraeus, Iraqi lives became more important.

At least as important was the so-called Sunni Awakening that began in fall 2006. Here the Americans had a lucky break. In Anbar Province and elsewhere, Sunni tribal leaders began to back away from their alliance with al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) – a ‘terrorist’ organisation that the Anglo-American invasion had midwifed into existence – and signalled an interest in making a marriage of convenience with Iraq’s occupiers. The terms were straightforward: in exchange for arms and money, Sunni insurgents would cease their attacks on coalition forces and help the US track down AQI. Local commanders began to investigate whether the Sunnis were in earnest. When they proved as good as their word, the new alliance was endorsed by the highest US authorities in Baghdad, if not by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

The pay-off came in the form of lower levels of violence. Security improved, most dramatically in Anbar, which the Americans had all but written off. With ‘his new, more realpolitik approach’, Ricks writes, Petraeus ‘had reduced the size of the opposition, even if that meant negotiating with people who had killed American troops’. US forces had not defeated the Sunni insurgency: they had agreed to its suspension.

A new realism was also evident in America’s war aims. Without consulting his political masters in Washington – or so Ricks claims – Petraeus began to lower American ambitions in Iraq. ‘The grandiose goals of the past three years, of turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy that would transform the Middle East, or even of turning Iraq into a dependable ally of the United States, were quietly put on hold,’ Ricks writes. Bush continued to speak of a decisive military victory triggering a wave of democratic change but on the ground the goal was simply to prevent the country from imploding. Testifying before Congress in April 2008, Petraeus said: ‘We’re not after the holy grail on Iraq; we’re not after Jeffersonian democracy. We’re after conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage.’

As Petraeus was the first to admit, however, this more modest goal could not be achieved by military action alone. The architects of the surge hoped that improved security would pave the way for a political solution. This did not happen: Iraq is still far from being a stable, functioning nation state. ‘Petraeus found tactical success,’ Ricks writes, ‘but not the clear political breakthrough that would have meant unambiguous strategic success.’ Indeed the surge ensured that the war would continue. As the level of US casualties declined and the economic recession bit, Americans implicitly accepted this: ‘They understood that the United States was stuck in Iraq.’ The war, Ricks writes, became ‘part of the national wallpaper’.

In Washington, neoconservatives and the rump of Bush supporters now depict the Iraq war as all but won. But the military officers who planned and implemented the surge know better. According to Colonel Greenwood, a member of the JCS ‘council of colonels’, the surge has produced ‘de facto partition’, and left Iran the chief beneficiary. ‘We have destabilised the region worse than Saddam Hussein ever did,’ he claims. When Ricks asked Petraeus when he expected the war to end, Petraeus would hazard only that it was likely to last a ‘long time’. Colonel Mansoor, Petraeus’s executive officer in Baghdad, insisted that ‘the United States has got to be willing to underwrite this effort for many, many years to come. I can’t put it in any brighter colours than that.’ Another member of Petraeus’s inner circle said: ‘I don’t think it does end. We are going to be in this centrally located Arab state . . . for decades.’

Despite his fear that the war will ‘continue to drain the US Treasury, strain the military, polarise American politics and provoke tension with other countries, especially in the Middle East’, Ricks himself has come to believe that ‘we can’t leave.’ In perhaps the least consoling line of the book he suggests that ‘the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.’ What might that mean: a resurgent insurgency, a civil war with a remnant of US troops caught in the middle, a new dictatorship with the US now cast in the role of sponsor? He doesn’t make it clear.

The Iraqis themselves may of course – an understatement – have some say in all this, but Ricks tells his story from an exclusively American perspective. His preoccupation is with the US army and its officer corps. Representatives of other services, whether American or allied, barely have speaking parts. As for the Iraqis, they form the backdrop against which the narrative unfolds, as if the surge were something that happened to them rather than an event in which tribal and sectarian leaders played a big part.

The war in Iraq may not have caused a transformation of the Middle East, but it has transformed the mindset of the American military. An officer corps previously wedded to high-tech conventional warfare and fearing a repeat of anything remotely resembling Vietnam has now embraced the notion of the Long War. For Petraeus’s generation, the prospect of perpetual war has become a reality. To say that they welcome that reality would be unfair, and Ricks captures their dilemma as they themselves see it. Yet neither the military nor Ricks can imagine an alternative. An officer corps that once worshipped at the altar of General Patton or (briefly) Norman Schwarzkopf now views Ulysses S. Grant – ‘patron saint of the long, hard slog’ – as its role model.

Bush has now bequeathed this long, hard slog to his successor. And though Obama has wasted no time in jettisoning some of the language used by the previous administration – banishing the phrase ‘global war on terror’, for example – the reality is that the Long War has now become his war. This is the Bush legacy. Six years after Bush ordered US forces into Mesopotamia, they remain mired there. More than seven years after Bush invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban controls much of the countryside, and the government in Kabul remains utterly dysfunctional. Then there is Pakistan, the Long War’s most recent front and Bush’s most dangerous gift to his successor.

In Washington, nationalists, neoconservatives and many right-wingers will insist that Obama must prosecute the Long War to the fullest extent possible and for as long as necessary. They will settle for nothing less than complete victory. Members of the officer corps know that victory is an illusion. But because they can’t conceive of an alternative to the Long War, they too may insist that it continue. If Obama follows this advice, his presidency will fail. Making good on his promise of change requires that he extricate the United States. Should he continue the policy of perpetual war, he will follow Bush in doing incalculable damage to the American economy, the American political system and US national security. He will also fail in his obligations to the soldiers for whose well-being he bears direct responsibility.