December 04, 2009

Have Lessons of Iraq War Been Learned?

December 4, 2009 - CNAS Senior Fellow Tom Ricks discusses how the U.S.  can apply the lessons of Iraq to forthcoming “surge” in Afghanistan on NPR’s All Things Considered.



When President Obama gave his speech on Afghanistan Tuesday night, he said the debate over the Iraq War was well-known and bore no repeating.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's enough to say for the next six years the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy and our national attention. And that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.

BLOCK: Now as the U.S. prepares to escalate its involvement in Afghanistan, have the lessons of Iraq been learned? To explore that question, we turn to Thomas Ricks, who has written extensively about the Iraq war in two books: "Fiasco" and "The Gamble." He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Thank you.

BLOCK: As in Afghanistan, there was a surge of U.S. troops, of course, sent to Iraq in 2007, more than 20,000 troops, most of them sent to Baghdad. In your view, did that surge work?

Mr. RICKS: I think the surge in Iraq worked tactically, that is, it improved security, but it didn't work strategically. That is, it didn't lead to a political breakthrough. All the basic problems you had in Iraq before the surge are still there.

That said, the surge was good thing because it stopped a civil war that was going on in central Iraq and killing thousands of Iraqis every month.

BLOCK: When more troops were sent into Iraq, as they're about to be sent to Afghanistan, there was also a re-thinking of how those troops would be used - what the mission was. Why don't you walk through what that was?

Mr. RICKS: I think that's an important point because it was something I think was really missing and oddly missing in the president's speech the other night. You're not just sending in more troops to do the same thing, you're sending in more troops in order to do things differently.

What I saw in Iraq was moving troops off of big bases and out into the population. When you're out among people, when you're living in that place, it becomes familiar. You know whether that truck comes through every day or whether there's an unusual truck you haven't seen before. People even might become familiar with you and start talking to you.

I remember talking to one commander who was very skeptical about this whole counterinsurgency thing. He went in and he had a lot of casualties and a lot of shoot-ups, and he started talking to the locals and just started working with them. And he became a real convert and actually made a part of southern Baghdad that had been quite violent quite peaceful.

BLOCK: Well, what are you hearing? Is the assumption that with this infusion of tens of thousands more troops in Afghanistan that will become part of the mission? There will be population security as the focus of what they're doing there.

Mr. RICKS: Very much. That's the basic plan that McChrystal proposed and that the president - I think somewhat grudgingly - has accepted, is in the major cities, go out and try to protect the population. And in rural areas that are Taliban-held, you don't want to put a lot of troops out there. You want to basically contain those areas.

And if there are clear indications of Taliban troop concentrations or al-Qaida convoys coming in, you go out and launch a counter terror strike. So, population, protection in a few key areas, counter terror in the rest of the country.

BLOCK: Let's talk about another factor that's credited with tamping down violence in Iraq, and that's what was known, what's been called The Awakening - turning former Sunni insurgents around, getting them to integrate into Iraqi security forces. And the question has been: Can that model apply to Afghanistan? Or is the country fundamentally different in how its tribes, its clans are structured?

Mr. RICKS: It is a very different country. I lived in Afghanistan as a kid and I really loved the country. Whereas Iraq I'd be happy to never go back to again. That said, I think you can do a lot of the same things. You aim for the less extremists. You aim for the fence sitters. You aim for the people who inadvertently got painted into a corner by us.

And you're right. That was a big part of what happened in Iraq is General Petraeus, amazingly, under the Bush administration, went to enemy and said: What's it going to take to pay you off?

BLOCK: So, another lesson for Iraq: Bring a lot of cash.

Mr. RICKS: Bring bundles of cash. The old saying is, you can't win the loyalty of Afghan leaders, but you can rent them.


Mr. RICKS: Renting people is not a bad idea if it gives you some breathing space to operate and to bring a newer, less corrupt Afghan government into place.

I'm an optimist on Afghanistan, oddly enough, because the hurdle is pretty low. You don't need to have a great government there. All you really need is a mildly competent, mildly abusive government. The people can live with that.

BLOCK: Is there any lesson from Iraq, any model to follow, thinking about the structure in Afghanistan and the power wielded by warlords throughout the country?

Mr. RICKS: You know, one man's warlord is another man's freedom fighter. I think it's a bad term to use because somebody is a warlord in a violent country. You know, so what? These are people that we can work with. So I think the most important element that I saw in Iraq that I think we could use in Afghanistan is humility.

After several years of telling the Iraqis how it was going to be, we finally shut up and listened. We actually sat down with people and said, how would you fix this? What's your solution? That's the beginning of wisdom, not only because their solutions might even be better than ours, but because their solutions are the only ones that are sustainable. And so before we talk about imposing democracy on people, we might actually pay attention to how they run their lives.

BLOCK: Thomas Ricks, thanks for coming in.

Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Thomas Ricks covered the Iraq war for The Washington Post. He writes a blog called The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine.