Book Review: The Gamble


The Gamble is Thomas Ricks’ superb sequel to Fiasco, his best-selling account of the misbegotten US invasion of Iraq and its immediate consequences, including America‘s role in creating a vicious insurgency.  

Fiasco accounted for the war up to 2005. The Gamble takes this forward to about November 2008. Despite this continuity the two books are radically different: Fiasco laments the cerebral shallowness of the warmongers – President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. The Gamble, by contrast, celebrates a “Counterrevolution in Military Affairs” and describes an intellectual rebirth in a military confronted by a vicious insurgency.

Neither book is of course is a history of the Iraqi misadventure, which is still ongoing. It is too early for histories. Mao Zedong (Tse Tung) was reportedly once asked what he thought were the results of the French Revolution of 1789. He replied that it was “too early to tell”.

The Gamble thus describes the circumstances leading up to the writing of FM3-24 Counterinsurgency and the subsequent effort to implement the field manual in Iraq.

The manual, a joint US Army – US Marine effort was led by Lieutenant Generals David Petraeus, then commander of the US Army Combined Arms Centre and James Mattis, then Commander of 1 Marine Expeditionary Force.

Ricks concentrates on Petraeus, who by many accounts was one of the better division commanders during and after the 2003 invasion.

The foreword to the manual, which is available electronically, states that it “is designed to fill a doctrinal gap. It has been 20 years since the Army published a field manual devoted exclusively to counterinsurgency operations. For the Marine Corps it has been 25 years.”

The foreword continues that with the Army and Marines “fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is essential that we give them a manual that provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations.

“Such guidance must be grounded in historical studies. However, it also must be informed by contemporary experiences. This manual takes a general approach to counterinsurgency operations. The Army and Marine Corps recognize that every insurgency is contextual and presents its own set of challenges. You cannot fight former Saddamists and Islamic extremists the same way you would have fought the Viet Cong, Moros, or Tupamaros; the application of principles and fundamentals to deal with each varies considerably.

“Nonetheless, all insurgencies, even today`s highly adaptable strains, remain wars amongst the people.”

This is where the US had made its biggest mistake, waging an anti-insurgency struggle premised on the false pillars of force protection and killing insurgents, rather than counterinsurgency, based on the all-important principle of protecting the people from the insurgents, whom Mao once compared with fish swimming in water.  

To defeat insurgents one has to address not only reasonable grievances but separate the fish from the water. Up to the arrival of Petraeus in early 2007 as commander of   

Multi-National Force-Iraq – the supreme mostly-US headquarters there – that meant killing guerrillas and anyone else who got in the way. US troops employed maximum violence and showed little restraint – in effect and in practice becoming the main recruiting agent for the insurgency, an unfortunate replay of VietNam.      

Many presume in light of that last experience and Iraq that the US is incompetent at counterinsurgency. A look at a list of US conflicts since the Revolutionary War, itself an insurgency, shows this is not the case. Indeed VietNam and Iraq seem to be aberrations, largely as the US military after World War One (1917-1918 for the US) adopted a conventional mindset. While some learned, they and their knowledge were purged at the end of that conflict. The US military refocused on heavy mechanised warfare against the Soviets and North Korea and deployed a force tailored to that requirement in both Iraq wars – 1991 and 2003.        

Under Petraeus and more importantly his operational commander – III Corps GOC Lt Gen Raymond OdiernoUS troops had to reset their mindset, with securing the cooperation of the population as a priority objective. This required placing US troops in platoon and company strength all over the Sunni insurgency zone, a veritable net that would separate fish from water. Allied to this was a five brigade surge in US troop numbers and efforts to draw over insurgents.

The result by July 2007 was a rapid drop in attacks on US forces and a decrease in the sophistication of such assaults – including bombs. Drawing over insurgents proved a force multiplier for the US, who deployed them as neighbourhood guards while reducing the pool of guerrillas. By late 2007 one insurgent leader was complaining that he had just 20 out of 600 fighters left – and that their reliability was suspect.

Deploying troops into the community on a 24/7 basis quickly had other dividends. People started to trust them and talk to them, providing crucial information. Previously, when the US used a “tourist” approach to counterinsurgency this would have been a kiss of death leading to the cruel public execution of anyone who had spoken to an American soldier. US troops also learned to discern patterns and learned to tell when something or someone was out of place.

The troop web also made it more difficult for insurgents to move personnel and equipment or mass for attacks. Command-and-control also suffered and insurgent leaders started relying more on electronic means of communication that could be – and were – intercepted.                        

By all accounts – including Ricks` – “The Surge” and the guerrilla defections combined to defeat the Sunni insurgency. But at what cost? Ricks warns 2009 could be a crucial year. As US forces draw down and attention shifts to Afghanistan, the net is lifting. Tribal insurgents were largely bought over with money and remain armed. The country is effectively Balkanised into three zones – Kurd, Sunni and Shia and civil war between these entities over oil that straddle borders is highly likely – the more so as the Shia-dominated “national” government is not much interested in nation building or reconciliation. There is also the question of Moqtada al-Sadr`s militia organisation that could have Hezbollah-style aspirations.      

Indeed, Ricks underlines the concerns of US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker that the country will likely become a type of Lebanon. Was “The Surge” a victory or a flash in the pan that has only prolonged the war? Ricks does not know.

One trusts a few years hence, when the situation is clearer, he will confront us with another erudite answer. Until then: read this book. It is as clear and concise and probably as unbiased an account as is possible at this time.


One afterthought: The book covers the period 2006-8, during which the US bought nearly 15 000 mine-resistant ambush protected armoured vehicles, many thousands of them to South African designs. Ricks mentions not even once – a pity as their role is contested. Clearly purchased for the “tourist” war, when US patrols largely drove around their area of operations, one would like to have understood their role under Petraeus and Odierno.           

This is not an isolated oversight – Ricks does not discuss weapons or weapons effects at all, perhaps not surprising as the book concentrates on the politico-strategic level and seldom addresses the operational or tactical levels, except where developments there had strategic, policy or political consequences. Fortunately Ricks provides a bibliography for the reader who wants to dig down – and much of it appears available on the Internet.      

Thomas E Ricks
The Gamble – General Petraeus and the untold story of the American surge in Iraq, 2006-2008
Penguin Books
New York