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Beating the retreat

How was a war that dragged America into a quagmire and cost taxpayers a trillion dollars somewhat salvaged? How was Iraq pulled back from the brink? A journalist gives us the answers...

books Updated: Jul 17, 2009 23:30 IST

The Gamble
Thomas E. Ricks
Allen Lane
* Rs 495 * pp 394

In The Gamble, a sequel to his 2006 Fiasco, the definitive account on how the war in Iraq went dreadfully wrong, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas E. Ricks serves up a meticulously researched account on how a stoic general (David Petraeus), a surge of troops and a rash of ‘cash for cooperation’ deals with tribal chieftains stemmed the internecine violence that had sent the country into a spiral of civil war and horrific sectarian strife.

In the beginning, Ricks says, collateral damage was de rigueur. One officer wrote: “Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business,” he wrote. (If you believe estimates by the influential Iraq Body Count group, nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the six-year-old war.) An imperial ambassador and a feckless general only made matters worse. And George W Bush’s White House appeared to be in denial about the course of the war.

Rick’s admiration for General Petraeus as the architect of the US army’s audacious turnaround in Iraq is obvious. But he deftly avoids the familiar defence correspondent’s weakness for hagiography of men in uniform. An outstanding soldier with a damaged lung (in accidental fire) and a smashed pelvis (in a parachute accident), General Petraeus pushed through the troops’ surge against stiff opposition from many in the Bush administration and outside. It helped that Bush himself was forced to turn a new leaf in Iraq sacking his controversial Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replacing him with former CIA director, Robert Gates, and backing Petraeus and his men on the job.

It was Petraeus, Ricks writes, who understood that Iraq was not a conventional war that America had got embroiled in.

What they were dealing with was a motivated insurgency. “The American tradition”, says Ricks, “tends to neglect the lesson learned repeatedly in dozens of twentieth-century wars, that the way to defeat an insurgency campaign is not to attack the enemy but... win over the people.”

This was a radical shift from big hit and run operations where American soldiers would return to their bases after cleaning up hot zones, allowing al-Qaeda and local militias to return.

But Iraq remains a perilous work in progress. At the end of the surge, says Ricks, Iraq’s “fundamental political problems” remain the same. The surge has not lead to political reconciliation between the majority Shias (60-65 per cent) and the sizeable minority Sunnis (32-37 per cent).

There are other worrisome posers: what happens to the over 100,000 neighbourhood militias, majority of them Sunni, that sprung up as the American cut deals with them to check violence? Have the Americans, as a retired general says, avoided military defeat by embracing political failure? Or will these militias evolve into a responsible Sunni political force so that Iraq does not — again — descend into another despotic majoritarian state? (Greater Sunni participation in the vote would surely cut the Shia hold on power).

And what about the disputed city of Kirkuk which sits on top of Iraq’s oil and the Kurds claim to be their capital? Iraq's economic progress will depend on the contentitious issue of sharing of oil revenues.

Six years, over 100,000 lives (including over 4,000 American soldiers) and some 700 million of tax payers money later, Iraq appears to be a war which the US will probably lose. It is unlikely, as Ricks says, the Iraq would end up as a strong and genuinely democratic nation. “In the long run, Iraq would calm down, be mildly authoritarian, and probably become an ally of Iran, but with luck, not one that threatened the rest of the world”. This is possibly the best case scenario.

And even that looks a long time away. “In other words,” Ricks says, “the events for which the Iraq will be remembered probably have not yet happened.” It is a sobering thought.

(Soutik Biswas is India Editor for the BBC News website)