'We May Be Only Halfway Through This War'

Proceedings: What does your new post entail at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)?

Ricks: We're still figuring it out. I really like this place. It's small, it's energetic, and I'm ten years older than anybody else here. There's a real commitment to national defense and thinking about it in innovative ways. For example, the woman in the office next door is looking at global warming and national security issues, not just what happens when the Arctic ice melts, but the ramifications when instability increases in littoral areas. My long-term project here is a book on the history of American generalship, from World War II to the present.


Proceedings: What about admirals?

Ricks: Admirals too, but mainly generals. I'm sort of land-force-centric. At the Washington Post for the past several years my focus was on ground operations in the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, and their consequences for the U.S. military.


Proceedings: How can the U.S. Navy better justify itself to the American people?

Ricks: Two things strike me about the Navy. First, there has been no strong intellectual voice in the Navy. It's hard to think of a post-9/11 book out of a Navy officer that's been influential—the equivalent of, say, John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife , or before 9/11, H. R. McMaster's, Dereliction of Duty .

Second, I think there's a public impression that the Navy has not been moving smartly into the 21st century. I was writing on my blog the other day about how, if I were running the Navy, I would announce right now that the next aircraft carrier would be a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) carrier. This would look very different, because presumably you could have a much smaller flight deck and a much different configuration. I was joking on my blog that we could name it the USS Obama .


Proceedings: The Obama administration recently unveiled its Afghanistan plan. The focus seems to be shifting away from Iraq to Afghanistan. Do you think that's the case?

Ricks: I think the administration would like to shift the focus. But I don't think it's going to be able to. I worry that President Obama is wildly over-optimistic about Iraq, and I think in that respect he is really not distancing himself from President [George W.] Bush, but rather walking in his failed footsteps. Bush didn't invade Iraq saying, "I've got a great idea. Let's go to Iraq and get stuck for ten years." Instead, he said, "Let's invade Iraq and get out quickly." He had a war plan that called for us to be down to 35,000 troops by the fall of 2003.

So Obama's plan for having 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the fall of 2010 is actually very similar to Bush's original notion. As we've seen, just because you hang up a "Mission Accomplished" banner on an aircraft carrier doesn't mean the mission's accomplished. And just because Obama says it's going to be a non-combat mission after August 2010 doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be so. I think Iraq is far more fragile than most Americans recognize. And I think we're stuck there for much longer. We may be only halfway through this war.


Proceedings : What if we pull out and the situation turns sour? Do we go back in?

Ricks: I'd rather stay in small numbers than have to go back in large numbers, which is what we'd have to do. I don't think Americans yet recognize that we're not going to like the long-term result in Iraq. The best-case scenario is probably the emergence of another strong man, like Saddam, but younger, tougher, smarter.

The future government of Iraq is probably not going to be a democracy, is not going to be stable, is going to have violence, and is almost certainly going to be a closer ally of Iran than it is to Washington. The Americans haven't taken that on board yet.


Proceedings : So, do you think an exit strategy is a bad way to go?

Ricks: I just think it's an over-optimistic way to go. I think we are stuck. Staying in Iraq is immoral, but leaving is even more immoral. I don't think there are any good solutions here. There are only less bad answers—like the surge, which I thought was not a great idea, but it was better than anything else going. I think staying in Iraq in small numbers is not a great idea, but it's better than any alternative I see out there.

There are just so many more ways this war can go wrong than it can go right. We've been seeing a little bit of that recently with the late March fighting in Baghdad between the Awakening council and the Iraqi government. This is not a good sign. I thought those deals the United States made with the insurgency would unravel, but I didn't think they would unravel this quickly.


Proceedings : You have said that the surge in Iraq failed politically but succeeded militarily. How is it doing militarily today? Is it still a force?

Ricks: The surge succeeded tactically and militarily. It improved security, but that was not the stated purpose of the surge. The purpose was to improve security to create a breathing space in which a political breakthrough could occur. That breakthrough didn't occur, and so, judged on its own terms—terms in which it was presented and sold to the American people—the surge failed. Right now, I think the political process is undermining those tactical gains, because tactical gain is only a means to something else. And that something else hasn't happened. There was no political solution, no reconciliation. The basic questions facing Iraq have not yet been solved. The political process is undoing the security gains.


Proceedings : When will we know when it's time to pull out? What has to happen?

Ricks: I don't know. Obama is going to find it much harder to get out of Iraq than he recognizes. I think his generals will advise a smaller long-term presence. They'll call it a post-occupation force or a non-combat force. But I think a force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops for many years is likely. The U.S. forces will not leave at the end of 2011. In fact, General Raymond Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, said in my last interview with him in November that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in 2015. If that is the case, it means we'd have a substantial U.S. military presence in Iraq well into what would be President Obama's second term.


Proceedings : Since terrain plays such a key role in military operations, how would a surge work in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan?

Ricks: That's a good point and something that hasn't been doctrinally recognized. While the people are key in counterinsurgency, terrain is just as important in counterinsurgency as in every other type of warfare. One of the key aspects of the surge as implemented tactically and operationally by General Odierno, under General [David] Petraeus, was the dictum to subordinates that once land was taken, we would not give it up. That's significant, because it was intended to send the signal to Iraqis that they will not be abandoned again by Uncle Sam.

Repeatedly over several years, we'd gone into areas, and after we thought we cleaned out bad guys, we left. As soon as we left, the bad guys poured back in and not only made their presence felt, but intimidated and even terrorized and executed anybody who had cooperated with us. So we surfaced a generation of allies in Iraq—police chiefs, city council members, tribal leaders—and then more or less let them be slaughtered.

The key aspect of the surge was protecting the people. Part of that was, once you go in, you will not give it up. One of my favorite parts of my book, The Gamble , is the story of 38 soldiers in a U.S. outpost in Tarmiya, a little town about 30 miles north of Baghdad, the northernmost part of the surge in the First Cavalry Division's AOR [area of responsibility].

They were attacked one morning by a car bomb. It was so large that Soldiers seven miles away heard the explosion. That was followed by mortar and rocket fire and machine-gunning. Their communications were knocked out. They fought a ferocious fight. And at the end, of the 38 Soldiers, two were dead and 29 were wounded. But they held the outpost, and I think that makes it the emblematic battle of the surge. The surge was very tough, but it was about holding terrain.

So what do you do in Afghanistan? It's a different terrain and, yes, a much more difficult one. These aren't just mountains, these are mountains twice the height of the Rockies in extremely austere environments with nothing you could really call a road in most parts of the country. I lived in Afghanistan as a kid. I think the key principle, though, is applicable in Afghanistan because it's about being out with the people. Being in the proximity of the people has two effects: It protects the people from your enemy and also protects the people from your allies. This is one real aspect of counterinsurgency that we haven't discussed much.

One of the biggest problems in Afghanistan is the corruption of the government forces, the police shaking down truck drivers at checkpoints every ten miles, which destroys the economy. It also drives people into the arms of the Taliban. One reason you have U.S. troops working alongside their partner Afghan units is to make them more professional. You're not going to eliminate corruption, but you could keep it to a tolerable level. That would be huge, both by improving the economy and in conveying to the Afghan people a sense that the Americans really are protecting them from the forces besieging them.


Proceedings : What's your take on our relationship with Pakistan? Are we going to end up chasing the Taliban into that country?

Ricks: [General] Tommy Franks did that for us. Tora Bora was much more of a strategic defeat than I think people recognized in the fall of 2001. It was not a victory to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan into Pakistan. In fact, it was a huge strategic mistake.

In Afghanistan, we had freedom of movement, a friendly government, and no nuclear weapons. Those three conditions do not apply in Pakistan. I've been critical of the Obama administration, but it's a good thing this is being seen as an Afghan/Pakistan war. Of the two arenas, Pakistan is more important and also presents a much more difficult problem. Pakistan has two things that are worrisome. It has Islamic extremists, and it has nuclear weapons. Those two things coming together are al Qaeda's dream and our nightmare.

We could suffer setbacks in Afghanistan and it would not be a national catastrophe. It would be bad for Afghanistan obviously, but we could get through it. If, however, Pakistan collapses, and if nuclear weapons and materials are loose, that's a catastrophe for us. And it's also catastrophic for India, which has shown great restraint in response to the Mumbai terrorist attacks last year. I doubt this ally is going to stand by idly with loose nuclear weapons and Muslim extremists on its doorstep.


Proceedings: Tell us about your experiences living in Afghanistan and what it is that Americans might not understand about the Afghan people.

Ricks: I really love the country. In fact, I'm one of the few people I know who has gone recreationally skiing in Afghanistan. I lived there from 1969 to 1971. My father was a professor at Columbia University who taught briefly at Kabul University. He had grown up in rural Wyoming, and his family would ride up into the mountains every fall and shoot an elk, which would be their food for the winter.

My father grew up with people who were the grandsons of the fur trappers who opened up that area, names you recognize, like the descendents of mountain man William Sublette, for example. These were the kids who went to school with my father.

He found Afghans very similar and said Afghanistan looked similar, felt similar. Afghans basically are Clint Eastwood with a turban. They are enormously proud, independent, and I think in many ways more like Americans than, say, people in much of the rest of Asia. It's a terrific country.

When I was 13, 14, and 15 years old, I rode buses all across the country, by myself and with friends. I was even a junior member of the Afghan Ski Patrol. It's just a really fascinating and beautiful place to knock around. I've told my wife I'd be happy to never go back to Iraq. But I would go back to Afghanistan for vacation, even today.


Proceedings : What do you think of the way General [Anthony] Zinni was treated after he was supposedly appointed ambassador to Iraq?

Ricks: I think the way General Zinni was treated was one of the most worrisome signs I saw come from the new administration. It was especially surprising to me because the new national security adviser was, for the first time in our history, another former Marine four-star, General [Jim] Jones. It also bothered me because I thought Zinni would have done a terrific job in Iraq.

One of the basic problems we've had in Iraq from the outset has been a bifurcation of our command structure. There's no one person in charge there. The civilian and military efforts have different chains of command and offices to which they report. One of the basic rules of counterinsurgency is that you must have one person in charge and it should be a civilian. Ultimately, all of the questions are political and have to be solved politically.

I thought Zinni would have been great atop the American command structure, with both an ambassador and the U.S. military commander reporting to him. He speaks both languages, could have coordinated those efforts, and I think had a multiplying affect on our influence there and in the region.

The selection of Ambassador Chris Hill instead of Zinni also puzzled me, because Hill doesn't know the Middle East. He'd come in cold. We have a situation there now where General Odierno is essentially home alone. He succeeded Petraeus as the top commander, he has a new corps commander coming in, and he has no ambassador there as the top American diplomat. That places a terrific burden on Odierno at a time when Iraq is very uncertain.

I think 2009 is going to be a much tougher year in Iraq than 2008 was. They have a series of elections coming up, and none of the basic questions facing Iraq has been resolved. How do you share oil revenue? Will the country have a strong central government in Baghdad or be a loose confederation? What's the role of Iran, which, by the way, has been the big winner in this war so far. These are the questions that are going to be resolved, violently or nonviolently, this year, next year, in the coming years. Not having General Zinni there and stripping out your presence by bringing in new and untried people is distressing. It's just a terrible time to do that. I'm quite worried about the American effort right now, especially how it's being led.


Proceedings : Compare for us the leadership styles of Secretaries of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Robert] Gates?

Ricks: I think switching out Rumsfeld and replacing him with Gates was probably the best move George Bush made in the entire war. Rumsfeld had a lot of bluster about him, but inside the Pentagon had a reputation for being indecisive, for taking months to make key decisions.

Gates strikes me as almost the opposite, a smile on his face and very quick to make decisions. In fact, his management style had a certain ferocity in his first year. I'm losing track, but he quickly got rid of a lot of top officials. What was characteristic of Gates was that these problems did not linger. They would surface, and within 72, 96 hours, Gates would have made his move. You got the impression he decapitated people so quickly that sometimes they didn't even know their heads had been removed. Maybe that was the career intelligence officer coming through.

You also had a sense of adult leadership at the Pentagon, a leader who listens to people and then acts on the issue. Gates has particularly stood out in how he speaks to the uniformed military. He speaks with respect but also with clarity and an understanding that he's in charge. I think the military not only needs it, it likes it.


Proceedings : So you would say that indecisiveness was Secretary Rumsfeld's biggest liability.

Ricks: No, let me back up. Rumsfeld had many liabilities. He reminded me sometimes of an aging pitcher who had lost a few miles an hour off his fastball but wouldn't admit it. I would say Rumsfeld's tragic flaw was his inability to adjust once he made a mistake, to recognize a mistake had been made and to do something about it. Instead, he would persist on the mistaken course.

I think one of the worst things you can do in warfare is, quote unquote, stay the course. Warfare is a game of constant information that requires you to think, reconsider, and adjust. To doggedly put your head down and just say "no, I'm going to keep on doing what I'm doing," reminds me of the generals of World War I.


Proceedings : What's the most significant thing you've learned in your years writing about the U.S. military?

Ricks: I think my takeaway is that the U.S. military is not only an important institution, but one of the world's most interesting institutions. Looking at the military is a great way of not only looking at a vital function of our country but also of understanding our country. In each of my books, I've taken on a different aspect of the military.

Making the Corps looked at 18-year-old Americans, some of whom people think of as inarticulate. In fact, my sort of joke title for the book when I was working on it was Beavis and Butt-Head Go to Boot Camp. But what I found was, when I sat with these people for any length of time and listened to them, and after they began to have a bit of trust in me, they could be very articulate in their critique of American society. They were really quite devastating in describing the lack of discipline they had been given in their lives and how much they craved the things the Marine Corps was offering—structure, stability, rules, discipline, and clear outcomes. They really liked that very simple approach to the world, that there are a few things you have to do. Do them right, and you're one of us.

My next book, A Soldier's Duty , was about the other end of the U.S. military—U.S. generalship, especially in the 1990s. That book was provoked by watching [former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [John] Shalikashvili testify about Bosnia before the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling the senators he thought we would be out of Bosnia in a year. I didn't think we would be, nor did I think he really believed it. And so I was trying to think about duty. What is a Soldier's duty, and especially what happens when your duty to your superiors may be at odds with what you believe to be your duty to your subordinates?

Fiasco was in some ways my easiest book, because it was such an indictment against the way the war was being prosecuted in Iraq. I began that book on January 3, 2005 and finished it December 15, 2005.

This latest book, The Gamble , was in many ways the most rewarding, because it looked at people I really came to admire, people who were in the middle of the surge, running it, developing a strategy, and implementing it. Many of them were opposed to the war. General Petraeus took command in Iraq immediately after publishing the new counterinsurgency manual, which really amounted to a scathing critique of the conduct of the occupation.

These people were in many ways the dissidents of the U.S. military establishment. A lot of them thought we shouldn't have been there in the first place, yet I really thought they were accomplishing a great thing by doing their best to help their country in a time of need even if they had opposed the war. It wasn't just Americans. There were foreigners.

Three of the key advisers to the surge effort were a former Australian army officer, Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, Palestinian-American Sadi Othman, who would become an American, and Emma Sky, a female British pacifist and expert on the Middle East. These people were simply trying to mitigate the damage done. Kilcullen once said: "Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you should leave it stupidly." To me, it was a great story of people doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances. The surge was much harder than I think anybody in this country recognized.



Conferences and Events

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership