As Iraq Elections Near, Few Prospects For A U.S. Exit Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Ricks talks about the upcoming national elections in Iraq and predicts an unexpectedly prolonged involvement in the region. "I don't think Americans realize just how stuck we are in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East," he says.
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As Iraq Elections Near, Few Prospects For A U.S. Exit

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As Iraq Elections Near, Few Prospects For A U.S. Exit

As Iraq Elections Near, Few Prospects For A U.S. Exit

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Now that there are fewer troops and reporters in Iraq, the conflict is getting less attention, but that doesn't mean it's over.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March, and tens of thousands of American troops are preparing to leave by the end of August, but in Baghdad this week, insurgents bombed three hotels and an office of the interior ministry.

A war hiding in plain sight is the way my guest Tom Ricks describes it. He's the author of the bestseller, "Fiasco," which kind of became required reading if you wanted to understand how false conclusions led us into war and how the occupation was mishandled. His follow-up book, "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq," has just been published in paperback with a new afterword.

Ricks covered the military for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, during which time he made several trips to Iraq. He's now a special correspondent -special military correspondent - for the Post. Ricks is also a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which is a national-security think-tank. He also writes the blog "The Best Defense" for Foreign Policy Magazine.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the attacks this week, or at least with some of the attacks this week, in Iraq. On Monday, there was a coordinated attack in Baghdad in which three bombs within 10 minutes were targeted at hotels that were known for having foreign guests.

These hotels were going to house foreign observers for the elections, which are scheduled for March 7th, and in an article by Anthony Shadid and John Leland in the New York Times, they said the attacks were wilting a tattered sense of security and underscoring the uncertainty of the political landscape, weeks before parliamentary elections. What message do you think these attacks were intended to send?

Mr.�TOM RICKS (Author): I think Anthony Shadid, who is a great reporter, had it about right. The message was this place is less secure than you think, and we are willing to fight this out violently as well as politically.

And I think it was a direct response to the recent efforts by Shiite leaders to outlaw hundreds of Sunnis, what they call Baathists, from running in the elections. And the message is okay, if you don't want to fight it out politically, we'll go back to violence.

GROSS: So is there a particular group that took credit for this?

Mr.�RICKS: Usually, the simultaneous bombings are done by al-Qaida in Iraq, a largely Iraqi group, not foreign Arabs. They really like to have that as their signature, and you have this also in the other al-Qaida bombings, like the East African U.S. embassy bombings and indeed the World Trade Center attacks and the other attacks of 9/11.

What they're up to is, I think, trying to spread panic. And here, specifically, with the hotel bombings, yes, send a message to foreigners: you are vulnerable, and we would like to spread panic among reporters and also among the foreign election observers who are due to come in for the March elections.

GROSS: Had you stayed at any of these targeted hotels?

Mr.�RICKS: Yeah, I've stayed in two of them: the Sheraton, which actually the Washington Post bureau moved out of after it was hit by rockets; and the Al-Hamra I've stayed in many times. In fact, the Washington Post bureau is in a house adjacent to the Al-Hamra and had all its windows blown out yesterday. Friends of mine were in the safe room in the house, where they went in after the second bomb went off. The third bomb went off nearby, and they actually thought the house shook so hard, they thought it was going to fall down on them.

GROSS: So what went through your mind when you heard all of this?

Mr.�RICKS: My first thought was: Oh my God, I hope my friends are alive. My second thought was: this is why I don't go back to Iraq. I remember my last night in that house. I thought, one day, this place is going to get bombed. Every time I'm here, I use up another chance. It is not fair to my family to keep using up these chances. I need to stop coming here.

GROSS: Yeah, I remember when you decided to do that. But you're still writing about Iraq, and I expect you're just going to keep writing about Iraq. The story of the war there doesn't seem to end, no matter what we title the war.

Mr.�RICKS: I feel kind of tethered to this war. I actually got quite depressed by this in the summer of 2004. I felt - I came to believe that the rest of my professional life would be dominated by 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that has proven to be the case. And the sense of loss of control over my life was kind of devastating. My God, this is what I'm going to be doing for the next 15 or 20 years.

I don't think Americans really have fully come to recognize just how stuck we are in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East. And when they do, I think they're going to be quite angry about it. We are probably not even halfway through the events in the Iraq War.

I keep on thinking of something that Ambassador Ryan Crocker said to me in the book, and I actually - I concluded the hardcover edition of the book with the quote, "the events for which the Iraq War will be remembered have not yet happened."

And I think that's true. I think we have a long way to go, much more blood and treasure than Americans even now recognize.

GROSS: Why do you think that?

Mr.�RICKS: Because even though Americans have kind of disengaged, and have even persuaded themselves that the war in Iraq is close to over, I don't think that's the case. As another thing Ryan Crocker used to say was, just because you walk out of a movie doesn't mean the movie ends. And I think we're still in the middle of this movie. There are still events to play out.

All of the basic questions that have led to violence in Iraq in the past, are still out there. How do you share oil revenue? What's the relationship between Sunni, Shiite and Kurd? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a weakened federation? What is the disposition of the Kurdish cities like Kirkuk? What's the role of Iran, and will Iran insist that it have a weak neighbor that it can dominate?

All of these questions are still out there. The Iraqis have been unable to resolve them politically, and when that happens, what we've seen, is that they turn to violence.

The March elections and the event of the following sort of three and four months after that, I think, will tell us whether Iraq slides back into violent solutions, violent ways of addressing these problems, or comes to some political solution.

GROSS: Well, the larger goal of the surge was to create enough security in Iraq so that the political process could succeed, and that's one of the reasons why the March 7th elections are so important. It will tell us how much the surge has accomplished in terms of a secure environment to allow the political process to succeed. How is it looking so far? I mean, with the bombings this week, not exactly security.

Mr.�RICKS: That's a good way of putting it. The March elections will be the first big test of the surge. It'll actually tell us: did the surge succeed in leading to some sort of political breakthrough?

The second big test will be the formation of government after the elections.

GROSS: Well, do you think, like, the losing party will fight the winning party after the election, that that's a real possibility?

Mr.�RICKS: Yes. People who feel excluded from the process, or people who feel they won political power yet are not given a seat in the government, all these people may become alienated from the government, from a political process, and say: A, we're not going to get what we want, peacefully; and B, Uncle Sam isn't around to stop us anymore.

The big difference in 2010 from Iraq, say, 2007, is that American troops will not be available to intervene like they did back in late '06 and early '07 to stop the Iraqi civil war.

So the only thing changing in the equation in Iraq is waning American influence, and that's significant because it was the American intervention that really stopped the violence the last time.

GROSS: I haven't been able to really keep track of the candidates and the parties in the upcoming Iraqi election, but I have gotten the point that Ahmed Chalabi is a player, and he was one of the Iraqis who convinced who helped convince the Bush administration to invade Iraq. He was so before I ask you about Chalabi's role in this upcoming election, just kind of sum up for us the role he played in the invasion of Iraq.

Mr.�RICKS: Ahmed Chalabi is one of the world's great characters. This is like something out of a Dickens novel. You're right, he did help persuade the Bush administration to invade Iraq. He said it would be easy, and he persuaded them that exiles like him understood Iraq, that it was a secular, modern state, and it would be fairly easy to decapitate that state and to install new leadership - presumably him.

That was especially alluring to the neoconservatives at the Pentagon, such as Douglas Fife, and advisors such as Richard Perle.

Chalabi went to Iraq and very quickly alienated the U.S. military and didn't seem to connect to Iraqis. This urbane, Shiite, secular intellectual who had a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and expensive British suits didn't really seem to fit in.

That said - even though he kind of fell out of favor early on and really alienated the CIA, which profoundly distrusted him, and I think helped run the big bust of him in the spring of 2004 by Iraqi and American forces - he survived.

And he keeps on popping up. Now he's popped up as essentially a pro-Iranian figure in Iraqi government. He's such a survivor, such a glib, sophisticated figure, also, it wouldn't surprise me if one day down the road, he does wind up running Iraq. And if he does, it's going to be as a pro-Iranian figure. And that's going to be the ultimate irony and shock to the old Bush administration neoconservatives, that their guy did wind up in power, but wound up as a puppet of Tehran.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He's the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the invasion of Iraq. His follow-up to that book has just been published in paperback. It's called "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq." The paperback edition has a new afterword. Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which is a think-tank on national security issues. Tom, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rom Ricks, the former military correspondent for the Washington Post and the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His latest book, "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq," has just been published in paperback. When we left off, we were talking about the elections in Iraq, which are scheduled for March 7th.

So Ahmed Chalabi is powerful and one of the parties, one of the political parties in Iraq. The Iraqi National Alliance, led by the Supreme Council of Iraq, and followers of - Muqtada al-Sadr is powerful, too. Now, Muqtada al-Sadr, he's the radical Shiite cleric who leads or led his own militia, fought U.S. troops. So he's one of the powerful guys in the political process now?

Mr.�RICKS: Yeah, American intelligence people call him Mookie, Muqtada al-Sadr.

GROSS: Great.

Mr.�RICKS: He's kind of the Al Sharpton of Iraq. Sadr City, this big slum on the east side of Baghdad has four million people, so one out of every six or seven Iraqis lives in that neighborhood. One out of six or seven people not just of Baghdad but of the whole country.

And Muqtada al-Sadr represents the nationalist wing of the Shiites. It was significant that in the early demonstration, in '04, '05, his followers were the only people who not only carried religious banners, but also carried the Iraqi flag. You didn't see that in the more pro-Iranian parties, the other Shiite parties that really didn't seem to have a problem with a close relationship with Iran.

So one of the things we're looking at down the road, as power shakes out in Iraq - especially as American influence wanes, and you kind of get to a post-American Iraq - is who will really speak for the Shiites? Will you have a profound Shiite split between the pro-Iranian Shiites and the more-nationalist Iraqi Shiites? Will there even be, at some point, an intra-Shiite civil war?

When people talk about a civil war in Iraq, it's not necessarily two or three parties, it might be four or five with foreign intervention. You already have Iran deeply involved in Iraq. You already have had Turkey intervening in the north against the Kurds. You probably would have Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states intervening. So it very quickly could roll up and snowball from simply an Iraqi dispute on the streets of Baghdad to a regional dispute across Iraq.

GROSS: Yeah, you're saying regional dispute across Iraq. I feel like d�j� vu. I feel like we had this conversation years ago about how Iraq can become a regional dispute.

Mr.�RICKS: Yeah, it's still a live possibility out there that we should not dismiss. When people say, oh, we should just get out of Iraq, we gave them a chance, in my heart I agree. I think staying in Iraq is wrong for American forces. My problem is, I think leaving Iraq is wronger. There are no good answers here, and this is a conversation you and I had years ago.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr.�RICKS: There are only bad answers, and I think it all comes from the fruit of the poison tree, which is the original decision to invade Iraq. We invaded a country on false premises, preemptively; I think, perhaps, the worst decision in the history of American foreign policy. And Americans, I think, still don't grasp just what a terribly expensive decision that was, not just in money, but also in blood and moral credibility.

GROSS: When you describe, you know, a political party or certain political leaders in Iraq as being pro-Iranian, what exactly does that mean?

Mr.�RICKS: We don't know. I think Iran has had a model of how to intervene in a neighboring country. They don't have big bases. They don't have Iranian trucks with the Iranian flag painted on them, driving around the capital. What they do have is influence.

I remember a friend telling me that on one floor of the Iraqi interior ministry, you heard Farsi spoken as often as you heard Arabic, Farsi being the language of Iran, not Iraq.

I think they've had a model training and advisory effort, very low key but very effective. I remember being in a convoy of the First Infantry Division, from Baqubah down in Najaf - big convoy, about 300 trucks. And the bridges ahead of the convoy were being dropped. And that's a really difficult military task to carry out. You had to figure out where the convoy is going, you have to have people who can get to the bridges who have the expertise to use explosives against bridges, who have the explosives.

So that's a big command and control and training and skills task. At the time, I couldn't figure it out because this was Shiite territory, in fact Muqtada al-Sadr territory. And as I said, I kind of considered Mookie to be Al Sharpton with heavy weapons, and it really stunned me to see this very sophisticated, difficult military task being carried out. In retrospect, I think there's almost certainly Iranian special forces of some kind doing that, carrying out a major military mission against U.S. forces.

I don't know whether it was Iranian Special Operations or Iranian Quds Force -which is kind of the foreign interventionist wing of the Revolutionary Guards -but I'm pretty sure it was Iranians.

American officers have told me privately that we know that Iranians have been involved directly in the killing of American troops in Iraq. There's also considerable amount of evidence that Iran, someone in Iran, whether with government approval or not, helped provide the very large and powerful roadside bombs called EFPs, explosively formed projectiles.

So I think there's been a lot more Iranian influence in Iraq than even now we understand.

GROSS: What is the importance of the March 7th elections to the American plan to eventually pull out troops from Iraq?

Mr.�RICKS: It's a really interesting problem. The American plan was to keep troops pretty much at a plateau through all of '09 and into early '10. And remember, this was this forced President Obama to throw out a major campaign promise to withdraw a brigade a month from the time he took office.

Instead, he's maintained, pretty much, Bush administration force levels this whole time he's been in office. The plan was, have the Iraqi elections in January, and they would have been held already. And then after three months in which you kind of give the Iraqis time to form a government, then you begin your troop withdrawals, and you begin them very quickly and heavily, 10,000 a month, leaving every month starting in March.

The problem was: Iraq delayed the elections. So now we have a very difficult lineup in which they're going to hold the elections just as the Americans start pulling out 10,000 troops a month. Will the Americans be able to keep to that plan? I think they will, and I kind of cross my fingers saying that because, ma'am, one thing I've covered in Iraq over the last eight years is withdrawal plans. I think I've covered five or six American plans to bring the troop levels down.

Now, President Obama is really serious about this, and the American people, I think, are serious about this. But it could get pretty messy pretty quickly if you have lots of violence in Iraq, come April, May, June, and Americans are saying tough luck, we're out of here, we're going to get down to 50,000 troops by August of this year.

GROSS: Yeah, so I mean, can't we just say hey, it's your problem, Iraq, deal with it?

Mr.�RICKS: Yeah, and I think we probably will say something like that. I think the Iraqi response will be: But you created it. I think the Arab world's response will be: so this is what we suspected all along. The Americans didn't want Iraq to be a powerful country. It's the natural leader of the Arab world, the only Arab state that has a big population, that has oil wealth and has water, the three great ingredients of power in that part of the world. And so what you Americans did was you went in, you broke the country, and then you left.

If Iraq does descend into violence and that violence involves the region in a kind of a World-War-I type scenario, America will be blamed. And I think that will be very difficult for us.

GROSS: Tom Ricks will be back in the second half of the show. His book, "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq," has just been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Tom Ricks. His bestseller, "Fiasco," was about what he described as the recklessly launched invasion of Iraq, the flawed plan for war and the worse approach to occupation. His follow-up book has just been published in paperback. Its called, "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq." Ricks was the Washington Post military correspondent for eight years, and is now a senior fellow at the think tank The Center for a New American Security. He also writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy Magazine.

Your book is about General Petraeus and the war in Iraq. And one of the things that hes best known for is the Sunni awakening, convincing many people in the Sunni insurgency to stop fighting the U.S. and the Iraqi leadership and to, you know, to join the team. And a lot of Sunnis participated in that, and it seemed to be going well. But now, a few years later and with the American troops pulling out, how does that look? Did that whole - did the Sunnis who took the money and stopped their insurgency, are they still on our team, so to speak? Or are they

Mr. RICKS: I think they may be on our team, but remember, were trying to disband our team.

GROSS: Right. So that team doesn't exist anymore.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: The question is: What team is there for them at this point? The Baghdad government was never down with this. They didnt like it. We began a lot of these dealings behind their back. General Petraeus put the Sunni insurgency, about 100,000 fighters, on the American payroll to the tune of $30 million a month. This was done, initially, in secret. The Baghdad government was not informed. And, in fact, Iraqi commanders on the ground who came across it were suborned and asked not to tell their chain of command above them about what was going on. This was deeply resented by Maliki and other people of the Baghdad government.

We twisted their arms and we said, for future security and peace here, you need to maintain the ceasefire with the Sunnis. The problem is the Baghdad government really has never liked this deal, and the Sunnis have always seen it as a preamble to a subsequent deal in which they would become part of the ruling entity in Iraq, that they would either be given autonomy in Anbar Province, or a say how Iraq is run. Well, that hasnt been resolved. What say do the Sunnis have? Will the people of Anbar province - overwhelmingly Sunni -be given a share of Iraqs oil revenues? Those questions havent been decided.

So, the shape of the team - to use your term - has not been decided, and that'll be the big question in 2010: What will the team be in Baghdad after the elections? Will the Sunnis be part it, or will they feel they have to take up the gun again?

GROSS: So, the Petraeus approach of basically buying the loyalty of Sunni insurgents looked like a pretty good plan at the time because it helped really cool down the insurgency. How does it look now?

Mr. RICKS: Im ambivalent about it. It certainly improved security. But as I say, I believed it failed because it did not lead to the political breakthrough. There was a strategic goal. The response Ive gotten from Army officers when I've talked to them about this - the people involved in the surge - is, look. It may not be great, but it sure beat the alternative, which was the continuation of a bloody civil war in Iraq that could lead to America leaving the country in disarray, leaving Iraq in disarray and a civil war that spreads and becomes a regional war. We avoided that. We bought time. The question is: How much time did we buy? Time maybe running out in 2010.

GROSS: So, you are now ambivalent about the Sunni awakening - similar tactics about to be tried in Afghanistan. General Petraeus is now the head of CENTCOM. So he's overseeing things, you know, from the top in Afghanistan. And the plan now is to put out some feelers to see if theres any possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. But at the same time, the goal is to kind of buy off - I think thats fair to say - low-level Taliban, like local Taliban fighters who might be willing to stop their affiliation with the Taliban in return for jobs and money. So, if you look at how the similar plan worked in Iraq and apply it to Afghanistan, what do you see?

Mr. RICKS: Its funny. Last week, I was in a two-day meeting on precisely this subject, about 25 U.S. military commanders, a couple of Iraqis, some other experts. It was all off-the-record, so I cant attribute directly what was said, but that was exactly the question we were addressing. And the conclusion was interesting. These commanders, some of whom have been directly involved in the Sunni awakening and the deals with sheikhs, and so on, again and again said these type of things are very localized. You cant do it top-down. You have to do it town by town, even neighborhood by neighborhood. You cant replicate in Afghanistan what we did in Anbar Province.

Its a very different country, very different culture. Afghanistan's not an Arab country. The tribes have a very different structure. Tribal leadership has much less sway. That said, their bottom line was that you cant take the recipe book, but you can take the attitude. The key thing they thought was a different American attitude of humility was really, they thought, the key ingredient, which really surprised me coming from a bunch of kind of, you know, tough, smart, macho U.S. military commanders, a little humility. And at this point, one of the Iraqis present, it was like a light bulb went over his head. He grinned and he said: This was the key thing to me.

He said, after five years of dealing with the Americans, suddenly the Americans started listening. And he pointed across the room, at one of the generals present at this meeting. He said, I remember this guy. He came in to my office. This guy - this Iraqi speaking (unintelligible). And he said, for years, American officers would come in. I told them about my worries, my concerns, and they nodded and said, okay. Now this is how its going to be. This general, he said, comes into my office, listens, and he said at the end of each conversation he had a habit. So, he would say here are the three things I've heard you say today that I need to understand. Do I understand them?

He said - and that was the big difference to him in the surge. The point that these guys made again and again was if that's the kind of attitude that you need to take into Afghanistan, that will the beginning of local deals, local reconciliation. That might give you a chance of success in Afghanistan.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks. His bestseller, "Fiasco," was about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His follow-up book, "The Gamble," has jut been published in paperback. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He is the author of the bestseller, "Fiasco," about the invasion of Iraq. And his latest book, "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq," has just been published in paperback with a new afterword.

Lets talk about the cable by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He wrote this - well, these cables, actually, in November. But they just were published in full this week in The New York Times. And it really shows how much at odds he was then with the American strategy. Let me just read a couple of excerpts.

He was arguing against the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. He said, sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and will make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable. An increased U.S. and foreign role on security and governance will increase Afghan dependence, at least in the short-term.

And then he said President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. The proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal: a secure, peaceful, minimally self-sufficient Afghanistan hardened against transnational terrorists.

Yet Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave, and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.

Thats a - thats pretty potent stuff. He's saying

Mr. RICKS: It is.

GROSS: He's saying this - that that the counterinsurgency wont work, and Karzai isnt a partner we can work with, and that the Afghan people assume, and the government assumes were - we really want military bases there - a base for the war on terror thats going to go on forever. Thats - thats pretty potent. Whats your response to this? What do you make of it?

Mr. RICKS: Its well argued. Its thoughtful. The nagging problem I have with it is it sounds to me exactly like the argument the U.S. military establishment made it against the surge in the fall of 2006. People forget now that almost all American top generals were against the surge. This was not a Pentagon plan. The Pentagon fought it tooth and nail. General Abizaid, the head of Central Command at the time, was against it. General Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, was against it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was against it. The head of the Army was against it. Very few generals were for it.

So, Ive heard this before. It was summed up in the Bush administrations view as we stand down, they will stand up. And thats basically what Ambassador Eikenberry is arguing - toss the ball to Afghan security forces. Now, the response of General Petraeus and General Odierno in arguing for the surge three years ago was we tried that. We have rushed to failure again and again. Can -Iraqi security forces cant handle it.

Thats the argument that Petraeus, who now has succeeded Abizaid at Central Command, has made in Afghanistan, along with Stan McChrystal, the commander on the ground in Afghanistan. Look, Afghan security forces can't handle it. Yes, we want to toss the ball to them, but before you do that, you have to get them adequate to the task. Dont rush to failure one more time.

So this is very much a replay of three-year-old arguments. The big difference, in my mind, is Karzai. And this is, I think, the more important part of whats going on in Afghanistan now, the recognition that our biggest enemy in Afghanistan is not the Taliban and Islamic extremists. Thats a military problem that we can really handle. The biggest problem - our biggest enemy in Afghanistan is the Karzai government.

Ironically, its as if Chalabi had taken over in Iraq - the guy we installed, who later turned against us. Thats kind of who you have in Afghanistan now, in the form of President Karzai.

GROSS: You're saying we installed him, and now he's turning against us?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, we - and I think thats the one real point of agreement between General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry, is that Karzai is the problem. Mr. McChrystal is saying Karzai is the problem, we can make him the solution. Eikenberry is saying no, you cant. So - and its something I dont understand exactly how the Americans plan to alter the behavior of Karzai and the people around him.

GROSS: When you say Karzai

Mr. RICKS: Mr. Karzai

GROSS: has became our enemy, what do you mean?

Mr. RICKS: That the corruption of the Karzai government is the single biggest problem in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. That the Karzai corruption -especially his brother down in Kandahar - the enormous drug business they're in, the rapacious behavior of the police forces underneath them that they turned a blind eye to, that the police dont do any policing. Theyre simply a big, you know, gang in uniform - that these are the things that are creating instability in Afghanistan that are driving people into the arms of the Taliban.

The Taliban can be quite brutal, but can bring a sense of order to a village. The Afghan government can be quite brutal and not bring that sense of order. I keep on thinking of an article in Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, in which an Afghan villager was interviewed. And he said to a reporter: Look, we dont like the Taliban. But at least when they came into our village, they didnt rape our little boys like the police do.

GROSS: Wow. Is that whats being happening?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I mean, a friend of mine was talking about a place in Jalalabad he had set up and refurbished and really, you know, put in generators and computers and satellite phones, really set it up well so that charities and non-governmental organizations could operate out of there.

The day he set it up and had spend it all - spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, the local police came in and said thanks very much. Were taking the house now. No compensation, no anything, just its ours. That kind of behavior where they dont even pretend to provide services has got to be stopped.

GROSS: So, what have you learned about counterinsurgency that you think should be applied in Afghanistan?

Mr. RICKS: Well, were coming up against the problem here in our counterinsurgency theory. A friend of mine and a colleague at CNAS, Andrew Wexham(ph), points out that there is a basic problem that we have in the way we do counterinsurgency. Our counterinsurgency theory is based on British and French experience, which was colonial experience in which they did counterinsurgency in places like Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, in order to stay there. They wanted to maintain their presence there.

We do counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan to get out. And that begs the question of your relationship with the local government, the host government, whether the Maliki government in Baghdad or the Karzai government in Kabul. This is a real hole on our theory that we have not yet figured out. I suspect the answer is we only leave when we get kicked out, when the government we create is strong enough to make us leave, to tell us get out now. The problem with that is effectively in order for us to leave the local governments have to be anti-American.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I dont know what to make of that. In order to win we lose, I mean, is that what you're saying?

Mr. RICKS: It is. Its a mind-numbing problem of the sort you get when you invade countries willy-nilly. I actually was a supporter of the invasion of Afghanistan. I thought it was the right thing to do after 9/11. But its still a big problem. How do you leave? How does the local government, the government that youve created, survive without becoming anti-American? I think in order to have credibility they have to have become anti-American. So you wind up creating a government that says - kicks you out and says we are against you now.

GROSS: You still talk to a lot of people lot of leadership in the military. Do you sense that the military is really angry at the Bush administration for getting us into Iraq and for doing a bad job at first?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I do. Especially in senior leaders, I'd say battalion, brigade, division commanders up, which is to say lieutenant colonels, colonels, generals. There is a real sense I think of antagonism, especially towards Rumsfeld, Cheney and some of the other civilians around them, that these guys were not just arrogant, but also ignorant.

There is an old saying in French diplomacy: it wasnt just a crime, it was a blunder. Especially the way we handle detainees. I was talking to a professional interrogator the other day who said these guys werent just brutal, they were counter-productive.

GROSS: Right. Now, whats the feeling about Obama now in the military?

Mr. RICKS: I think there's a bit of unease. There's a sense that Obama increasingly feels to them like Jimmy Carter - uncertain dithering leadership and they are not sure where its leading.

GROSS: You always try to read between the lines in the State of the Union address. Any advice on what to look for in President Obamas State of Union address when he is talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, which I assume he will say something about?

Mr. RICKS: Ive been struck in listening to President Obamas big speeches this year. His speech on Afghanistan at West Point and a couple of the other foreign policy statements he made, especially his Nobel Prize address. They strike me as odes to ambivalence, in which - he kept on talking about Nobel Peace Prize about Martin Luther King. I think he mentioned Dr. King six times. And I read the whole speech almost as an apology to Dr. King. Here I am escalating in Afghanistan while I accept the Peace Prize and Im only in this job because of what you, Dr. King, did.

I expect to see more of that ambivalence and ambiguity in President Obamas State of the Union address. Im doing what Im doing, but I dont particularly like it. And I think this drives both his followers and his opponents crazy. The opponents say, well, you're doing what we want, but you are not reaching out to us. And his followers, especially on the left, say this is not what we thought we elected, this rather centrist president whose foreign policy if anything resembles that of the first Bush president.

GROSS: As somebody who has been saying for years there are no good solutions in Iraq, and you probably believe the same about Afghanistan, do you emphasize was that ambivalence that you sense in the president?

Mr. RICKS: I sure do. I think its probably exactly the right feeling to have. It's just, unfortunately for him, he's not a writer. He's a political leader.

GROSS: Tom Ricks, thank you so much for talking with us and for your insights.

Mr. RICKS: Youre welcome. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Tom Ricks latest book, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, has just been published in paperback with a new afterword. He writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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