By Ellen Hamilton Baugh Staff Writer February 15, 2010

Thomas Ricks, a renowned journalist on military affairs and Pulitzer prize-winning author of Fiasco, and recent author of The Gamble, spoke to a crowded hall at George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs on February 4th. He gave a condensed version of a speech that he gave recently at a major US intelligence agency.

He began by posing the intriguing question, “Iraq and Afghanistan: just how screwed are we?” and answered, “More than you think in Iraq, probably not as much as you think in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan has two strengths that are unrecognized. First, it still has a sense of national identity and is a multi-ethnic state. Many Afghans still remember its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s. Second, Afghans have experienced Islamic extremist rule and did not like it. They don’t want it to come back. The United States needs to help provide a “somewhat good government,” but has not been able to do that. Ricks believes that the real problem is not the Taliban, but the Karzai government. The strategic problem in Afghanistan is the Karzai government that the United States installed. It is rapacious. The Afghan army doesn’t pretend to provide security; its members embezzle or extort the country’s money. Ricks reported that a friend of his in Afghanistan spent a lot of money to equip a strong and secure office, but it was just taken by the Afghan police.

A villager explained to Ricks that he didn’t like the Taliban, but they beat the corrupt Kabul police. The villager said, “The first thing they did was take our little boys and rape them.” The United States’ job should be to change the Karzai government. Ricks is mildly optimistic about Afghanistan to the degree that the United States can decouple the Taliban problem from Afghanistan.

When asked about the advisability of efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, Ricks answered, “That is the way wars end, it is what [General] Petraeus did (with the tribes) in Iraq.” To end a war, the sides have to end up “with money, respect, and a seat at the political table.”

The Surge. Ricks is pessimistic about the war in Iraq and is outspoken that “the surge” failed. Although it worked tactically, it failed strategically. The surge bought time for a breakthrough in domestic efforts to build a government, but no breakthrough occurred. The big issues that led to violence in the past are still unresolved, such as: how to share oil revenues, the role of Kirkuk in the government, the relationship between the Shi’a and Sunni, and whether there will be a strong central government or a federation. All these questions could lead to violence again. Before the Surge in 2006, there were 100 being killed a day, but after the U.S. counteroffensive, violence in the country has dropped dramatically.

2010 will be a turning point. If civil war resumes, it is not clear what can stop it. 2010 could be a turning point year, as 2003 and 2006 were. In 2003, General Tommy Franks led the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and then retired from the military just as the real war began. In 2006, the U.S. military approach to the War was bankrupt and counterproductive and the United States was unable to bring security to Baghdad. By October, the Bush government recognized that the U.S. approach to the war was ineffective and proposed “the surge.” U.S. military leaders, including Generals Abizaid, Casey, Schoomaker, and Pace, were against the Surge. Despite this, the Bush White House dictated the operation go forward.

Iraqi Elections. The national elections are now scheduled for March 7th, but the run up to the elections is important to the future of Iraq. “Bombs in Baghdad now are part of the election campaign. The most important time will be the three months after the elections because the government will have to figure out who got the votes and produce a prime minister.” During the last election, this did not go well and the results touched off a small civil war. The election will be important for Sunnis, because it will be a test as to whether they are treated fairly in voting and whether they get political representation they feel is proportionate to their importance. The answer is not clear now. Recently the Maliki government banned 500 Sunnis from standing for office in election, an Iraqi court overruled the decision, but Prime Minister Maliki reportedly said that he won’t accept the court’s decision. (Update: The lower court decision has since been overturned and the candidates have been banned from election once again.)

The Awakening. Prime Minister Maliki doesn’t like the Awakening movement, where General Petraeus cut a deal with the “evil-doers” (tribal chiefs who had been using violence against U.S. troops) and agreed to pay them $30 million a month for a ceasefire. This was “not really a bad deal.” For Maliki, the problem is that the Government did not like the deal because it was agreed behind their backs and only presented to them after the fact. Therefore, the Maliki government has dragged its feet on the deals implementation, especially in regards to putting Sunnis on the Government payroll. The Awakening forces are very good fighters. They are committed fighters. They have fought the U.S. military and can easily fight the Iraq government. If thwarted, they will get money from other sources in the Arab world, which could have significant political implications for Sunni loyalties and Iraq’s stability.

Civil War, the Future of Iraq. “There is a significant chance that there will be significant violence in Iraq by July and for this reason the U.S. should keep more troops in Iraq than planned. There are no good answers.” “Once you invade a country under false pretenses,” it does not mean that violence will end. Ricks gave the example, “just because you walk out of the movie, it doesn’t mean the movie ends.”

[Note: Under President Obama’s plan, U.S. forces are currently around 110,000 and will drop to 50,000 by the end of August. The remaining troops will be focused on non-combat missions such as training. In turn, most of those troops, too, will leave by 2011.]

Ricks believes that the U.S. plan after the election should be to keep troop levels close to 100,000 in Iraq and bring them down slowly over time. More troops, at least 30,000-35,000, need to remain for a long period of time to forestall violence. The first troop withdrawals will be from less violent areas where Iraqi security forces are more reliable. Then the troops will be pulled out of less secure areas. By June, when troops come out of bad areas, there will be violence. There will be political, military and economic tensions at the same time. There are numerous groups with an agenda: those who are pro and anti Iran, Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’a. Neighboring countries also have an agenda, including Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Turkey will not allow an independent Kurdistan, and the United States is a committed ally to Turkey. He believes a strong U.S. presence must remain in Iraq for a longer period of time than the present plan under President Obama.

Iran. Ricks believes that Iran is the big winner so far in the Iraq War, and has gained leverage and strength as a result of it. Iran has been very effective in training inside Iraq, although it has no visible bases, convoys or “private security contractors shooting up Baghdad,” in a reference to the former U.S. security company Blackwater. In contrast, Iranian forces in Iraq are quiet. There are certain floors of the Ministry of the Interior where Farsi is spoken as often as Arabic. And there is evidence that Iranian forces have been killing U.S. troops.

Ricks explained that on a trip to Iraq in the spring of 2004, he and his group were driving in solidly Shi’a territory, “Moqtada al-Sadr territory.” A U.S. soldier reported, “They are dropping our bridges.” It is both striking and difficult to drop bridges in front of U.S. forces and it requires good surveillance, boldness, the ability to get people there, expertise on explosives and possession of explosives. It is a big deal operationally. The bridges that were being destroyed or damaged were superhighway bridges. The unknown forces were hitting the bridges hard and weakening them before the U.S. forces got to them. Ricks found the situation very surprising and wondered which force was doing that. His speculation is that the Iranian special forces (the al-Quds force, an expeditionary overseas wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) were responsible for the attacks. At the end of the mission, a U.S. captain found that there was only one bridge open to the U.S. forces. The bridge was immediately suspected to be the site for an ambush, and in fact it was. They got to the far side bridge and were attacked, with one soldier killed and two badly wounded. Ricks said, “We will in the future find out how active and how careful Iran has been in Iraq.”

Tell me how this ends. General Petraeus once asked about Iraq, “Tell me how this ends,” but he never answered the question. Ultimately, his successor General Odeierno answered, “It’s (peace is) not going to happen, there will always be a level of insurgency in Iraq.” Ricks believes that the United States needs 100,000 troops to stay in Iraq and that “it will always have to have 30,000 – 35,000 U.S. forces or more in Iraq for the long term…President Obama may say that they are pacifist forces, but they are not. Bombers will try to hit U.S. trucks, not just troops. President Obama is in for a rougher time in Iraq than he thinks. We do now know just how violent it will be. This is trouble because the American people are sick of this war. The invasion of Iraq is the worst mistake in the history of US foreign policy. We don’t understand fully the full measure of blood and treasure that will be spent.”

General Petraeus is not well liked by army leaders because he’s smart, he likes reporters and politicians, and he has a doctorate from Princeton. Those are “three strikes” against him. Army leaders don’t like that “Petraeus has had two successful tours in Iraq, because he makes everyone else look bad…Bush was a disaster, the worst president we have ever had. His best decision, the surge, was against military advice and it took courage, he took a gamble. Bush spent six months hiding behind Petraeus.”

President Obama and General Petraeus. When General Petraeus testified to the Senate (September 11, 2007), then Senator Obama used a full seven minutes asking a question, which left Petraeus with no time to answer. When Senator Obama went to Iraq in the summer of 2008, General Petraeus lectured him—that that was not wise. There appears to be “chilliness” between them, although they are remarkably similar people in that they are “outliers, cerebral intellectuals, chilly, remote, and have an appreciation of Ivy League degrees.” In addition, it took a long time for President Obama to perform his review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, whereas it should have been done in 2 weeks.

Iran/Israel. Ricks said, “I do wonder if Iran will become a nuclear power. Iran might tiptoe up to nuclear weapons, but not go all the way.” Iran is scaring the larger Arab and Gulf States community with its actions. “I don’t think Israel will strike Iran. As long as the U.S. is in Iraq, it would be a suicide mission…It would be difficult to do without crossing Iraqi airspace. Even if Israel struck Iran, we don’t know where all nuclear facilities are and it would only set back the Iranians a few years.”

Iraqi security forces. There are some very good officers and some really bad ones. The national police were awful years ago, but they have gotten better. This is Ricks’ concern. The second the United States goes, the Iraqi forces are going to go back to the old ways. “My worry is that when we have pulled out many of the ground forces, logistics, medical, intelligence, others remain. We would have to rely on airpower with the ground forces gone (to protect them). I worry that we might end up being the patsy…I am very wary of [US ground forces] falling back and relying on airpower. It is a morally hazardous position to be in with this emphasis on getting ground forces out.”

The Future in Iraq. Ricks was questioned by an Iraqi citizen from Baghdad, “Will the Baathists ever come back? Baathists are now trying to go under different names. They have 40 years of experience in Iraq and they are embedded with the Sunnis. I don’t know if they will make it, I hope they don’t.” Ricks responded, “When I say 30,000-35,000 minimum troops are necessary to stay in Iraq long term [to keep peace], we will also need additional forces, intelligence, medical, anti-coup forces, others. I think there is a chance that a Baathist will return but not under that name, most likely – a former Baathist general. The Iraqi people say that at least under Saddam Hussein, we didn’t have all the bombs. Iraqis want peace. Maybe a military coup will happen. Generals will start to look like a better alternative [than a civil war]. The U.S. might say a strong man is a better option—if he respects human rights. And the Arab world will be very uncomfortable with a thriving democracy in Iraq.”