'Fiasco': The Turning Point in the Iraq War

Thomas Ricks on 'Fresh Air'

With little good news coming out of Iraq, a veteran war reporter argues that the U.S. set itself up for failure within the first months of fighting. Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, asserts that the turning point in the Iraq War came with the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in August of 2003.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, federal intelligence agencies recruit hackers. First though, a grim anniversary today. Three years ago today, a car bomb ripped through the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. Eleven people died, 50 more were wounded.

Unidentified Man: Let's go. Everybody back on this side of the guardrail. Let's go.

Unidentified Woman (Reporter): U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police work together to secure the area around the Jordanian embassy and begin their investigation. Officials said the charred carcass of an SUV-type vehicle had carried the bomb. It's not clear if the attacker stayed in the car or used a remote control to detonate the bomb.

BRAND: That was a report filed just after the blast. The bombing would become a turning point in the Iraq war, according to Washington Post correspondent and author Thomas Ricks. He writes in his new book, Fiasco, that the insurgency began with that explosion. And Thomas Ricks joins me now from Washington. Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Author, Fiasco): Thank you.

BRAND: Well, what was so significant about that particular bombing on that particular date?

Mr. RICKS: Well, three years ago exactly, that was when the insurgency really announced that it had arrived. It had been bubbling under the surface for a couple of months while U.S. officials asserted that there really wasn't an insurgency first and then said, well, yeah, there's a few dead-enders.

That was the beginning of a concentrated campaign that actually continues until now. It's the real battle for the future of Iraq, who's going to control the country. You had that bombing and then a series of other attacks in the following weeks. They really aim to peel away allies of the American effort.

BRAND: And that attack was coordinated allegedly by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was the insurgent leader killed earlier this year by Americans. He was also Jordanian. So why did he target the Jordanian embassy?

Mr. RICKS: Well, I think the insurgency probably was very unhappy with Jordanian support for the U.S. effort, and specifically wasn't happy that the Jordanian government was cracking down on al-Qaida.

BRAND: How did U.S. forces respond?

Mr. RICKS: To the insurgency in general they cracked down, which was the proper thing to do. Unfortunately, the tactics they used - in retrospect - were pretty counterproductive. Broadly speaking, they launched large coordinate sweep operations.

Military age males in the Sunni Triangle were scooped up pretty indiscriminately and frequently humiliated in the course of that detention, disrespected in front of their families. And this is a culture where dignity and respect and honor are the core values in a way I think we still don't fully grasp. And then put into Abu Gharib and other places where they were cheek-by-jowl with hardcore al-Qaida types with Zarqawi's organization. And so when they emerged - after 90 days or even six months of detention - they likely were less pro-American than when they went in.

BRAND: Have American military commanders realized that their tactics didn't work and, in fact, were counterproductive?

Mr. RICKS: Many have. There have been internal studies done by the U.S. headquarters in Iraq that's gone back and looked and said, look, this is really not the way to go, that we were in ignorance of a lot of the basic precepts of counter-insurgency. One example is, rather than use overwhelming force - as the U.S. military culture calls for - use the minimal amount of force necessary to get the job done.

Another precept is treat your prisoners well. If you're successful in shutting down an insurgency, today's prisoner is tomorrow's mayor. And most of all, the people are not the playing field for your war, the people are the prize. They really are what you want to go after.

BRAND: I want to get back to the Jordanian embassy bombing and as you say that that bombing provoked a very, very strong response. Since then, there have been countless other bombings. And have the Americans changed their strategy with regards to these big bombings? Or do they still respond to the bombings with a heavy presence?

Mr. RICKS: They don't respond quite in the same way, partly because a lot of the violence has turned from being directed at U.S. forces to being directed against other Iraqis: police units, army units, and political leaders. The danger for the U.S. military in Iraq right now, I think, is simply becoming not relevant to the situation or really appearing to be just one more heavily armed militia, in this case mainly camped on the outskirts of towns rather than in the middle of them.

BRAND: Thomas Ricks is the author the new book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Thomas Ricks, thank you for joining us.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

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The American Military Adventure in Iraq

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