The Troops' View of the 'Surge'

Scott Simon speaks with Thomas Ricks, military reporter for The Washington Post, about Gen. David Petraeus' testimony before Congress this week and President Bush's subsequent speech to the nation, both of which discussed the successes and failures of the "surge," and future plans for the troops in Iraq

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

President Bush told the nation this week he will heed the advice of his commander on the ground that reduce the number of troops in Iraq by one brigade by Christmas, four by next summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later added he hopes troop levels can be reduced even more by the end of next year.

But hopes for Iraq's future suffered a blow on Thursday when a key Sunni tribal leader, allied against al-Qaida, was killed by a car bomb. Thomas Ricks is military reporter for The Washington Post. His book on Iraq titled "Fiasco" is just out on paperback. He joins us from The Washington Post.

Thanks much for being with us.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Reporter, The Washington Post): You're welcome.

SIMON: And was there something almost predictable about this because as soon as General Petraeus says there's progress in Anbar, Sheik Abu Risha in Anbar was assassinated?

Mr. RICKS: Yes. I think it was a strategic hit job timed, I think, between General Petraeus' testimony when he hung so much hope on events in Anbar province and on the eve of the president's speech, which likely - to the same with Anbar.

SIMON: I want to ask you about an exchange this week between Senator John Warner of Virginia and General Petraeus.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): If we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army Commander): Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

Sen. WARNER: Does that make America safer?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Sir, I don't know actually.

SIMON: What do you make of that answer?

Mr. RICKS: Well, it struck me, first of all, as an honest reaction from General Petraeus. He's a careful thinker and understands that it takes time to work your way through the issues of international relations. But more importantly, I thought it also reflected the personal integrity of the general.

He knows that White House rhetoric is that we have to fight them there, so we don't fight them here. He was explicitly not endorsing it when he basically said, I don't know whether the war in Iraq has made this country safer.

SIMON: Are there differences among military commanders about the whole idea of a drawdown?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, quite a lot. They feel that the war in Iraq is straining the U.S. military and it's exposing us to problems elsewhere. They also have a sense that a confrontation with Iran may be looming and the more troops you have in Iraq essentially the more hostages you have in Iraq.

I think there also is a little bit of unease about Petraeus selling the plans for Iraq as a troop drawdown because there are no replacement troops available for the surge and so commanders in Iraq have been saying for months, we're going to start bringing down the numbers in April through October of 2008.

SIMON: Isn't there also some concern at the same time that if you substantially reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Iranians move in to fill the void?

Mr. RICKS: There is exactly that. At the same time, the strategic calculation is that A, Iran is already there in large numbers because the government we created in Baghdad is allied with Iran. In fact, I think in some ways, if you want to look at a model of the training and advisory program it's not ours in Iraq, it's the Iranians.

SIMON: It's interesting that General Petraeus also seemed pointedly to oppose a shift in mission in the - more of an advisory role with Iraqi military and it's taking on more of a role in combat. What does that say?

Mr. RICKS: Well, there's a phrase he used several times - rushing to failure. The feeling of General Petraeus and other commanders in Iraq right now is they're very worried that the key hinge point is not this September. It's next spring because you're going to be drawing down U.S. forces.

That's when you're going to see whether Iraqi forces behave well without American troops around. How do they treat Sunnis and have we simply created the conditions for a deeper, more vicious, brutal and longer-lasting civil war?

SIMON: Thomas Ricks, military reporter for The Washington Post. His book on Iraq, now out on paperback, is called "Fiasco."

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.

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