02.10.09

'Stop Commuting to War'

In an exclusive excerpt from The Gamble, Thomas E. Ricks’s sequel to his No. 1 bestseller Fiasco, the author returns to Iraq in the bloody days before the 2007 surge.

The surge really began even before the first of the surge brigades arrived. That may sound paradoxical but isn’t, because the surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them. The first new brigade wouldn’t fully arrive until February, but as the bombings increased in January, the 1st Cavalry Division, which already was in the country, escalated its efforts to protect the population, seeking new ways to protect markets, neighborhoods, main roads, and bridges, said Col. Tobin Green, the division’s chief of operations, and a friend and former student of Eliot Cohen. “I believe that was a turning point,” Green said, “a visible sign of commitment to protecting the Iraqi people.”

Read Thomas E. Ricks on Why I Went Back to Iraq

Moving American soldiers from big isolated bases and into new posts of 35 men (if platoon-sized) to around 100 (if manned by a company) located in vacant schoolhouses, factories, and apartment buildings in Baghdad’s neighborhoods was the hardest step. Essentially, US forces were sallying out to launch a counteroffensive to retake the city.

Seeking to translate the strategy into operational and tactical sense, [then Commanding General Raymond] Odierno was looking downward, monitoring the adjustments of subordinates from division commanders to platoon leaders. “That’s especially difficult with units that were already there,” recalled retired General Jack Keane, his mentor. “He was transitioning those forces from a very defensive strategy to an offensive strategy.” On top of that, having only the minimum amount of troops that he and Keane thought he needed, Odierno began to move them around in order to maximize their effectiveness. “He took risks,” Keane said. “The easy thing would have been to put all the surge brigades into the city.” Instead, following the “What would Saddam do?” approach, Odierno put much of his combat power outside the capital. This was the biggest difference between Odierno’s plan and the one Keane and Frederick Kagan had pulled together at the American Enterprise Institute. Eventually, he would split his total available combat power evenly between the city and its surroundings, with six brigades in each.

In February, the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, the first official surge brigade, was sent into eastern Baghdad. Over the next several weeks, 19 new outposts were established across Baghdad. “Get out of your Humvees, get out of your tanks, your Brads, and walk around,” Army Maj. Joseph Halloran, an artillery officer, later summarized. “Stop commuting to war.... The concept of a super FOB [forward operating base] is more damaging to the war effort than any Abu Ghraib or Haditha incident could ever be.”

The first days were surprisingly violent, with an average of almost 180 attacks a day on US forces. “That was the battle of Baghdad,” Petraeus said looking back 18 months later. “It was just very very difficult, very very hard.” During February 2007, Baghdad suffered an average of more than one car bomb attack a day. Between late January and late February, at least eight US helicopters were shot down.

In March, the second surge unit, the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, began operations in western Baghdad. One skeptical soldier from the Big Red One told a reporter that he didn’t expect the new approach to work. “It’s getting worse and worse,” he explained to the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow. “They don’t even respect us anymore. They spit at us, they throw rocks at us. It wasn’t like that before.” In some Shiite neighborhoods, units were greeted by stacked loudspeakers blaring the chants of the Jaysh al-Mahdi, Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia. In Sunni neighborhoods that had been ethnically cleansed, patrolling soldiers often found piles of executed bodies and vacant houses with blood smeared on the walls.

From THE GAMBLE: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 by Thomas E. Ricks. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Thomas E. Ricks, 2009.

Thomas E. Ricks is The Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, where he has covered the U.S. military since 2000. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams for national reporting, he is the author of Fiasco, Making the Corps, and A Soldier's Duty.