Book review: Fiasco

Mao Zedong was once reputedly asked whether he thought the French Revolution (of 1789) had been a success. He reportedly responded that “it was too early to tell”. Much the same applies to the lessons to be learnt and the observations that can be made of America’s misadventure in Iraq, now in its fifth year.
Much has been written elsewhere about the war and its conduct, much of it polemical: situating the appreciation rather than appreciating the situation. However, Thomas E Ricks` Fiasco was recently recommended to the reviewer by a senior officer closely associated with the SA Army`s Vision 2020 project. Once acquired, it was in George W Bush`s words – and he has a way to mangle English – “unputdownable”.    
One would not argue that Ricks` book is without bias – the title implies as much – but frankly speaking it is difficult to come to any other conclusion on the facts he and virtually anyone else presents. However, Ricks largely lets the facts speak for themselves. The opinions are mostly those of others, many of them angry colonels and four-star generals with combat experience. Politicians creep in on the edges, but this is not a political book.
According to his biography Ricks has been a journalist for 25 years, of which more than ten has been on the defence beat, which he covered for the Wall Street Journal and latterly the Washington Post, two of America`s most prestigious and level-headed newspapers. In that time he has reported from everywhere the US has seen combat or done peacekeeping, including Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently the Washington Post`s senior Pentagon correspondent, the five-pointed building itself being not an unimportant battlefield for the US military. Ricks has also authored a book on the US Army and another or the US Marine Corps.          
In the foreword Ricks notes that when he set out writing the book in 2004 he was often asked if he seriously intended to call it Fiasco. When the first edition appeared at the end of 2006, he says, “almost no one questioned the title.”
What is his thesis? Simply that in its planning and execution, at the political and military level, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a fiasco. Starting with the political, he says the primary blame for the invasion and what follows lies with Paul Wolfowitz and his crony Douglas Feith. Both ceaselessly argued for invasion and hammed up the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links with al Qaeda. In this they were helped by CIA chief George Tenet helped by dressing up opinion as fact.
Watching over them was – or more likely wasn`t – a president whom Newsweek described as a “strange combination of arrogance and incompetence” and a Congress that did “little follow-up investigation or oversight”. In a comment that would be as applicable to the Thabo Mbeki administration as to Bush`s, Ricks notes that one “reason the administration could drift along in its own world was because it simply refused to admit mistakes or to act to correct or remove those who made them” including defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.         
Looking at the military-political planning – such as it was – for the 2003 invasion, Ricks finds that it was heavy on rosy assumptions and light on troops – the latter at Rumsfeld`s insistence. Central Command, under General Tommy Franks, a strategic lightweight, produced an “intellectually shoddy” campaign plan that assumed Iraqis would receive US troops with open arms. It foresaw a quick victory and an even quicker American troop withdrawal. An insurgency was neither anticipated nor planned for – not even in contingency.
Feith, a “management disaster”, was placed in charge of planning postwar Iraq, as was Central Command and several ad hoc structures. These produced a great deal of paper but nothing much more substantial, an inevitable fate considering the jerry-rigged nature of the command structure, the lack of planning guidance, the rosy assumptions and the absence of anyone in charge. It amounted to “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck”, a disgruntled colonel later said.   
At least two of Franks` predecessors were worried about the planning, Marine General Anthony Zinni was anxious what would happen after “victory” and General Schwarzkopf was worried about the cockiness of the war plan. Schwarzkopf was also worried that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith lacked the experience or knowledge to make sound military judgements by themselves and were ignoring the better informed advice of senior generals. This fate befell their concerns too.
Once in Iraq, the Americans seem to have excelled themselves creating an insurgency. Ricks avers the only counterinsurgency lesson the US institutionalised after Vietnam, their last such effort – was not to get involved in this type of conflict again. Bush and his cronies solved that problem, leaving the American military the unhappy task of rediscovering the art and science “on the job.”
Intellectually it took some years for the Americans to realise that in the words of one civil affairs officer “the battlespace isn`t physical, it is psychological. The battle is for the people.” He added that killing insurgents wasn`t the point. “Bottom line is, you can kill every bad guy, and there will be two more tomorrow – until you start focussing on their support, active or passive, in the resident population.”
Untrained in counterinsurgency, American soldiers quickly found a substitute – violence. Killing insurgents, regardless of consequence or damage became the hallmark of US operations. Where insurgents could not be found, roughly and rudely rounding up any males of “military age” meaning anyone aged between 16 and 65 became common. There can be few better ways of making enemies that by destroying people`s property, arbitrarily denying them a livelihood or humiliating them in public or before their families. With vast stocks of unguarded explosives and light arms ready to hand the means for revenge was close to hand.            
In his conclusion Ricks writes that the war in Iraq now most closely reflects the French war in Algeria, a comparison also made in Armor. In the last year the Americans have realised many of their mistakes and are seeking to make amends. They seem to have realised ‘the key to counterinsurgency is focussing on the people, not on the enemy.” Insurgency is driven by the politics of grievance. Address that grievance and the oxygen is taken from the fire. In Iraq that list of grievances is long and as has been the case elsewhere, addressing them will not immediately put out the flames. But Ricks frets that it may already a case of “too little, too late”.  
As an aside one may wonder about South Africa`s counterinsurgency doctrine and its applicability in places such as Iraq or Darfur. In another parallel with the US, the term “counterinsurgency” fell into political incorrectness in the new South Africa. It is not clear if the term has been rehabilitated and to what extent – nor whether it is being studied with any great seriousness. Recent South African military exercises have all focussed on conventional operations with a sop to peacekeeping, the rosy assumption usually being that either the enemy is militarily incompetent and so does not put up much of a fight or that the situation is benign with all parties respecting a ceasefire.   
Ricks quotes the White House`s November 2005 “National strategy for victory in Iraq” as saying “what happens in Iraq will influence the fate of the Middle East for decades to come, with a profound impact on our own national security.” One dares say that the brinkmanship of Bush and his gang have imperilled us all. Meanwhile, it will do us well to learn to teach tolerance, liberal values and the value of political inclusion and process over violence. God help us all, otherwise. 
Fiasco – The American military adventure in Iraq, 2nd Edition
Thomas E Ricks