Thomas Ricks

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Ricks is the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006). Here he outlines the many strategic missteps and mistakes, recounts the war's crucial battles in Tal Afar and Fallujah, and explains why he thinks the surge is not a strategic change. This is an edited transcript, drawn from two interviews conducted on Jan. 8 and May 1, 2007.

... Who is [Gen. George] Casey?

Casey is probably your classic modern U.S. Army general. He's smart; he's careful; he's as much a manager as a leader. And he's a second-generation Army general. His father was a general who died in Vietnam.

He goes out to Iraq, yet he's never led troops in combat, and he recognized, I think, his own shortcomings, which is an essential part of leadership. One of the first things he does is begin an assessment on his own independently of the situation in Iraq. And he's assessing it rather differently than the official reports are in the summer of '04.

He pulls in a lot of the smartest colonels floating around the U.S. military, some of them experts on insurgency, some of the area experts, and some of them simply very smart guys. He starts telling them, "You need to give me an independent analysis of the problem and an independent prescription of what to do."

How does Casey get the job?

Casey, at the time of his appointment [as commander of the Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I)], was the Army's vice chief of staff, the number two officer in the Army, not a combat leadership position, but really a bureaucratic, managerial position at the Pentagon. I suspect he was chosen for the job because of his closeness to [Gen.] John Abizaid, who was the U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM] chief, the top U.S. military officer for the Middle East. ...

Abizaid long had wanted a four-star officer as the top commander on the ground in Iraq. Until you get Casey out there, you had only had Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez [commander, MNF-I, 2003-2004], a junior lieutenant general, well below Casey in rank. Abizaid wanted somebody with the heft of a four-star officer, mainly to be able to tell other parts of the U.S. military, the Marine Corps, the Army itself, "I'm the big dog at this table." ...

Casey goes out there, and after a few months starts his own academy on counterinsurgency [COIN Academy] in Iraq, in Taji. It is striking to me when I went up to Taji in '06 and asked the guys running that school, which was informally called the Casey Academy of Counterinsurgency, I said, "Why do you have this school here?," and they said, "Because the Army back in the United States wasn't giving us what we needed in officers when they came out here, so we put them through this one-week fast course in counterinsurgency."

So it's striking that even Casey, one of the top officers in the Army, couldn't get the institutional Army back here out of its sort of almost disregard for Iraq, and focus them on the problem.

How does [then-Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld feel about him at the beginning? Is he a Rumsfeld guy?

Certainly Casey was familiar with Rumsfeld. I'm told that one reason that Rumsfeld liked Abizaid was that Abizaid would talk back to him; that Abizaid was able to stand up to him and say, "No, you're wrong; here's why." That's very important with Rumsfeld, the ability not only to say, "You're wrong," but also to give cogent reasons.

By the fall of '06, the Shi'ites thought, 'We have won this thing, and all we need to do is nail it down.' You have these Americans yammering at you for reconciliation ... but that's not the agenda of the Shi'ites who are running this government.

Casey's come, I think, out of a similar mold, probably not as swift on his feet as Abizaid is, not as nimble, [but] certainly as solid in his understanding of the Army and how things needed to go.

In strategic terms, what's Casey's overall approach?

... I associate Casey with maybe a manager, but a manager who begins with the very important recognition that what we've been doing out here is not working, that the institution in which I have spent my life not only as a soldier, but as the son of a soldier, this institution is not dealing appropriately with the problem. ...

When Casey looks around Iraq, what does he see?

... Number one and foremost is recognizing the reality on the ground in Iraq, that the rather rosy and optimistic official assessments that have been coming back to Washington from the military simply aren't right; that these guys on the ground who preceded Casey didn't understand the situation, didn't recognize the basic realities of what was happening in Iraq, and that our position in Iraq in summer '04 is quite negative to where we were in spring '03; that they've wasted a year, dug themselves a pretty deep hole. The question Casey has to address is, can we dig ourselves out of this hole?

The second problem Casey has to look at is his own institution. Why is my institution responding inappropriately here? What is the Army doing that works? What is the Army doing that doesn't work? And why are so many things we're doing in the second category of not working?

This is best summarized by the study that [Kalev] Sepp, [professor, Naval Postgraduate School] does for him in I think the fall of '04. He does a list of best practices in counterinsurgency and worst practices in counterinsurgency. I think of the 12 worst practices, the major mistakes that militaries have made in trying to put down an insurgency, the United States is committing nine of the 12. It has failed to close the borders. It still is following peacetime processes in its military operations and how it handles personnel, and so on. It isn't treating its prisoners well. It focuses on big, battalion- or brigade-size operations against the insurgents, not recognizing that the job is not to kill the insurgents; it's to make them irrelevant. And fundamentally, it's not making the most important recognition, that the people are not the playing field; the people are the prize. Now, it's one thing to recognize those. It's another thing to turn around this huge ship called the U.S. military. ...

I think the reason that a lot of people think Casey essentially failed is when we didn't protect Iraqis, Iraqis, seeking to survive, looked to see who could protect them. And the story of 2006 was, "The militias will protect us."

Baghdad, a city of 5 or 6 million people, a huge city, devolved into a series of small armed camps, where neighborhoods threw up barriers. So there's only one entrance to the barrier. There's armed men, not in uniforms, standing at the front of that gate, and they're looking at everybody who comes in and out. It's essentially a chaotic Hobbesian state now of thousands of tiny, armed camps allied with each other, and the U.S. is irrelevant to the situation. When people want protection, they look to the Shi'ite militias or to the Sunni militias, which is the Sunni insurgency.

When you look back at '03 and even the summer/fall of '04, looking at Mosul under [Gen. David] Petraeus, [then-commander, 101st Airborne Division], Tal Afar under [Col. H.R.] McMaster, what were they doing that was right?

The core thing that I think both McMaster or Petraeus did was get their troops out among the people and work with the Iraqis. I remember Petraeus talking about the importance of giving Iraqis a sense of a shared future. If the Iraqis didn't buy in to whatever you were doing, even if you thought it was a good thing, don't do it. Protect the Iraqis; protect their investment in this future you're putting in front of them. ...

Now, with McMaster in Tal Afar, it meant having outposts across the city so that your good intentions were backed up by actions; that people who allied themselves with you were not then killed when they went home, because you had troops out there watching for insurgents and protecting people. I think that's the key difference.

In the rest of the country, you had what David Kilcullen, another one of the very smart advisers on counterinsurgency, termed "war tourism." It's a term that soldiers hate, and I think rightly so. What he's talking about is units based on big forward operating bases, FOBs, going out and doing patrols from Humvees, usually not foot patrols but mounted patrols, and then coming back to their base. He said if that's the way you're operating, you're not in the war; you're simply a war tourist. You've got to be out there.

I wanted to look at one unit that got it, and I wound up with the company of the 101st Airborne down in the so-called Triangle of Death southwest of Baghdad in early '06. I was down there talking to this captain at this little outpost called Patrol Base Swamp, appropriately named. It was surrounded by a sea of knee-deep mud.

We're standing on the roof of this building. This was really the forward edge of American operations in this area. And I said, "Tell me about what you're doing here." And he said, "See that cow?" I said, "Yeah." He said: "That cow walks up the road every day at 8:00 a.m. And that red car? That red car comes down the road about the same time. If I don't see that cow, if I don't see that red car, I know something's up."

That's what you have to understand out there. ... You have to know what normal is to be able to detect what's abnormal. You can't get that if you're driving through the war. You have to be out there, living it and smelling it.

We don't have enough guys to be out there. Is that part of what Casey discovers?

Yes, absolutely. What Casey discovers is, OK, the successful guys -- Petraeus, McMaster -- these are the guys who go out, and they clear, and then they hold, and then they build. The problem is you couldn't do that in the key problem in Iraq, which is Baghdad. We simply didn't have enough troops.

We were talking to planners up in Tal Afar, and I said, "How many troops would it take to replicate in Baghdad what you've done up here very successfully?" And they said, "About 30 divisions."

How many men is that?

Thirty divisions is, oh, maybe 450,000 men. It's three times the size of the active-duty U.S. Army, which is 10 divisions.

So the U.S. answer becomes: OK, we can clear, then the Iraqi troops will hold. And we'll achieve that when we get up to the number of trained Iraqi forces, soldiers and police that we're supposed to have, which is about 320,000. The problem is in '06 they achieved that number of 320,000 trained Iraqi security forces, yet the violence still increases.

So the basic quandary they find themselves in is the Iraqi troops don't seem to be capable, for whatever reason, of holding. ... The worst thing you can do, we realize, is clear and not hold, because it's destructive. The population turns against you, and you can't protect the population.

And we find ourselves in that situation repeatedly, especially in Baghdad, because the Iraqi government says, "Yeah, we'll send out these troops," but either the troops don't show up and a fraction of the number that they promised actually show up, or they're either incapable or just don't want to do that job.

The basic problem with the Iraqi military has not been training and equipment; it's been motivation. A member of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia knows what he's fighting for. He's fighting for a certain brand of radical Shi'ism, kind of national radical Shi'ism.

A member of the Iraqi army doesn't seem to know what he's fighting for frequently. Maybe he's actually a Kurdish peshmerga wearing an Iraqi uniform. He knows he's fighting for the Kurds, and he's not necessarily going to take an order from a Shi'ite commander to go do something. Or he may just be showing up for the paycheck, and he certainly has no interest in getting involved in somebody else's war.

What did we think we were doing in Iraq in '04 and early '05?

... You still hear a lot of this official optimism: You guys in the media are too negative. We're just about to turn the corner here. Things are much [better] than you guys realize. There's been a lot of good work, and soon we're going to start seeing the fruits of this.

I think Casey's recognition, to his credit, is no, it ain't working. He brings in this small group of advisers. ... Casey takes the huge step of inviting these guys into the tent. ... He's a rather conventional guy coming out of a conventional Army background who reaches out to some of the most innovative and fringe thinkers in the U.S. military establishment and says, "Tell me what's going on here." ...

And their dissenting narrative becomes the official narrative over the course of a couple of years, which is, we're not doing this right. We're not winning this thing. We need to have a different sort of approach here and a different force. And even if we take all those steps, we still may not win, but it's worth trying. ...

What's the significance of Fallujah II?

Fallujah II, first of all, is an extraordinary, difficult and violent battle, I think the most intense combat U.S. forces had seen certainly since the Vietnam War, probably since the battle of Hue City in the Vietnam War. In terms of Casey and what's he's doing out there, Fallujah II is remedial work. It's a mess that had to be cleaned up, a mess created by his predecessor, by Sanchez and by [L. Paul] Bremer, [head of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), 2003-2004], in their mishandling of Iraq with Fallujah I in the spring of '04.

After first Fallujah, the city was in the hands of insurgents and Al Qaeda operatives. And it's fairly close to Baghdad, maybe a 40-minute drive if the roads are clear. ...

I think the problem that Casey faces and his advisers are telling him is: "You're not going to be able to hold elections here as long as Fallujah's out there. They will do everything they can." And so even though he's come in to try to take a different approach, he has to fight a very big, conventional battle simply to get to where he needs to get on elections. It's a kind of prerequisite to holding the election, cleaning up Fallujah.

How bad was it?

I talked to a lot of Marines about Fallujah II, and some Army guys. It's astonishing, the narratives. Hand-to-hand combat. One Marine comes into a room, and he's got his weapon up in front of him. He comes around a corner, and there's an insurgent with his weapon up in front of him. ... Both pull the triggers almost simultaneously. The Marine had pulled his trigger a split second before the other guy, and so his bullet goes into the insurgent. The insurgent's bullets just go right over his shoulder because it knocks the weapon up.

You have Marines killing insurgents with knives, fighting on the ground. You have guys biting each other sometimes. Some Marines started using an improvised weapon they called the "house guest," which is, they realized after a while some of these houses were so infested with insurgents hiding below the floors, behind false walls with heavy machine guns set up at the top of stairs, you couldn't clear them. So they'd take what they called the house guest, which is a propane tank with plastic explosives slapped on the side. They'd blow it up. It would take down the whole house and create a small kind of fuel-air explosion that would suck all the oxygen out of the house for a moment, too, and so suffocate anybody who was left inside the house. It was really rough fighting in Fallujah.

And the impact?

I think it did clear the way for elections. The problem was I think the United States saw elections as the coming of democracy. Well, elections are an important part of democracy, but hardly the whole of it. Democracy is rule of law. Democracy is being able to trust the cop on the corner to enforce the law equally, with all civilians and citizens.

I worry that what we did with the elections was actually intensify the sectarian divides. Because you hadn't had time for a new political culture to grow up, because Iraq was already splitting into sects, when you had an election, people voted their sectarian differences. So the elections I think probably emphasized sectarian differences, the Sunni-Shi'ite split, rather than somehow reconciling people. ...

In late '04, on into '05 period, what's Washington doing about whatever is happening over there? ...

My sense in '04/'05 is the overarching story of what happens in Washington is it's the transition time from being deeply in denial and thinking that things in Iraq are going well, and slowly coming to recognize by the end of '05 that things are not going that well. Remember, end of '05 is when the president gives a series of speeches about how he's recognized the problems in Iraq; he's going to do much better.

Rumsfeld during this time, I have the sense that he's detached from it, that Iraq is somebody else's problem in his view. I was always struck that he talked about transformation. People were saying: "How do you want to be remembered as secretary of defense? You've been in this job now five or six years." He talked about transformation. Rumsfeld I think will be remembered for one thing and one thing only, which is Iraq. And to think that he's going to be remembered for that would be like [Robert] McNamara, [secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson], thinking he's going to be remembered for the EF-111, which is an aircraft he spent a lot of time working on during his time.

It's also a time I think almost of deep division bordering on warfare in Washington about Iraq with the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and the CIA coming in with very pessimistic reports, and actually getting them in front of the president at the end of '04 and through '05, saying, "You are not winning in Iraq," and Bush being a little bit taken aback: "Who are these guys? What are they telling me this for?"

The story is supposedly after one such meeting with the Baghdad station chief of CIA, Bush asked afterward, "Is that guy a Democrat?" But these guys I think are actually doing a very honest job of trying to speak truth to power.

The U.S. military also is developing deep divisions during this time of late '04 through '05, where this very small group at the outset -- special operators, civil affairs guys, a few other officers like Petraeus and the staff he'd assembled -- are saying: "What most of the U.S. military is doing here is not working. In fact, it's counterproductive. What you are doing," they start saying, "is helping inflame and broaden the insurgency." ...

Is this getting to the president?

It does, partly because he's being grabbed by the lapels at times. ...

In the middle of '05 [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice is testifying in front of a Senate committee, and she starts talking about clearing, holding and building. That was because a State Department official had looked at what McMaster was doing in Tal Afar and came back to Rice and said, "There are some guys in the military who get this."

And Rice pushes this out there and starts talking about it. It's interesting that she picks up on it in a way that people at the Pentagon really aren't. So I think top members of the administration are hearing this and seeing that there's a different path to take here and the U.S. military can do it. But it's difficult, and it's not what they expect to be doing out there.

[State Department Counselor Philip] Zelikow takes a tour of Iraq and comes back with good ideas. I had the impression that part of the White House was not buying that kind of re-evaluation.

I don't know. I mean, you never know with Bush what he's buying. ... You see this fight, and it's played out actually in those very phrases. Are we "staying the course"? Is there a "strategy for victory"? People start talking about "clearing, holding and building." Well, what does that mean?

This war of the phrases, for me, was summarized most of all in "standing down as they stand up," partly because when we reached the end of the rainbow, there wasn't a pot of gold; there was nothing. It turned out that a stood-up Iraqi force couldn't quell the violence, so the Bush administration redefined standing down as they stand up. What we knew was standing up an Iraqi government, an effective Iraqi government. That had never been the original definition. And it's a much longer task that's going to take several years. ...

In the spring of '05 Casey starts focusing on counterinsurgency, and they talk about, "We're going to get out of here in '06." That comes under some criticism for sounding like withdrawal, not victory. What do you remember of that period?

It's a little bit hard to parse out because there's always been an official U.S. military over-optimism about Iraq. The original war plan has us down to 30,000 troops by September 2003. By October 2003 they're saying, "Next year we're going to get down to 100,000."

Casey I think in some ways falls into that pattern of official optimism, but also is thinking, "If I'm going to do things different in Iraq, I need a rather different force." It doesn't need to be as big; it needs to be reoriented. He's already thinking about cut your combat presence; don't just go out and have patrols wandering around Iraq; focus more on training and advising. And for that, you could probably bring your forces down some.

He's also very worried about the strain on the U.S. Army, I'm told -- not really something he should be focusing on as the commander out there, but remember, he's been Army vice chief of staff. The expectation is, he's going to come back to be chief of staff of the Army. So part of his calculation, I am told, is he's trying not to break the Army while operating in Iraq. ...

One of the things I read a lot about is a time lag where [John] Negroponte, [ambassador to Iraq, 2004-2005], leaves in January to be the new intelligence czar. Then there's nobody there for a few months. Finally [Zalmay] Khalilzad, [ambassador, 2005-2007], comes in. What does this signal?

What they were trying to do, if you asked them that question, why the absence at the top was, it's "We're trying to pass the ball to the Iraqis here." This is about Iraqi sovereignty. It's about us getting out of the way. The American presence is an alien presence here, and it inflames opposition.

I think that's essentially a correct analysis. The trouble is, we again and again have pushed things too fast in Iraq. We tried to do it in months where it takes years to get accomplished. So I think we've overburdened this new polity and pushed on a task that it simply is unable to do. ...

I mean, Iraqis aren't enjoying the situation right now. They're facing this catastrophic situation in their own country. ... At the same time, the people who are the glue of democracy -- the doctors, the lawyers, the professors -- have left the country or are leaving. There's 1.6 or 1.7 million Iraqis in exile now who have left, refugees. ...

What you've got left are the hard men, the men of the gun, and they are fighting a very serious war, both for the future of Iraq, for control of Iraq. That's why the militias are so effective. They know what they're fighting for. They're fighting for the future, for control of that country. It's a very concrete, tangible goal.

When Khalilzad comes in, he comes with an idea from Andrew Krepinevich and others, this inkblot strategy. First, who is Krepinevich? How does he get to Khalilzad?

Andrew Krepinevich is another one of those very interesting people that the Army produces. Krepinevich is a very bright officer, Army officer, who goes off to Harvard and does a Ph.D. on the Army in Vietnam. He concludes that the U.S. Army lost the Vietnam War -- not the protesters, not the Democratic Party; the U.S. Army. ...

For his pains, Krepinevich retires as a lieutenant colonel from the Army. The irony is, upon retirement, he becomes far more influential in Washington than any Army general I can think of. ...

He picks up on the notion of ink spot, which actually comes out of French colonial counterinsurgency theory. If you drill down deep enough, what you find was invented by a French officer in Morocco in the 19th century and applied fairly successfully there, and then again in Indochina by the French.

It says rather than fight everywhere and spread out your forces across a country, focus on a few places, plant your flag, establish yourself and then build out from there. Concentrate your forces -- really classic military theory brought to bear on this political-military problem of how do you deal with an insurgency, but really not that different from clear, hold, build. ...

Does Casey like the idea of inkblot?

I think Casey generally is willing to embrace a number of different counterinsurgency theories. Inkblot/clear, hold, build is one that's easily comprehended by the people that are being taught about this. So I think yeah, he does sort of endorse that notion.

Why can't he apply it theaterwide?

Troops. You don't have enough troops to do it. And it's not just troops. It's also resources. Inkblot/clear, hold, build is as much an economic and political strategy as a military one. You militarily clear something; then you go in and hold it through not just a military presence, but a police presence and economic presence of showing projects happening, and a political presence of actually having local governance and people's problems being heard and showing them that there's a future. That's how you're supposed to hold on to the place.

There's no way we could. We didn't have the guys, money, interest.

Well, the idea was we don't have enough American troops, but the Iraqi troops will do it. And this became the weak link in the strategy, that if U.S. forces could always clear a place, that the Iraqi troops, even though the numbers of troops had been trained up, seemed to be incapable of holding. Sometimes that's because the troops didn't want to; sometimes that's because the government didn't want to.

And you get these screwy situations where there's a Sunni unit out in Anbar province -- and that's good, because there are Sunnis out there -- yet the [Shi'ite-controlled] Ministry of Defense isn't sending them any money or resources because they're Sunnis. ...

Was the February '06 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra the demarcation point of civil war?

Yes, sort of. Clearly the demolition of the Golden Mosque in Samarra was a turning point, and I think Iraqis recognized it as such. Whether it's as much of a turning point as we have come to perceive it, I doubt for this reason: ... Certainly the violence increased after the Golden Dome Mosque got hit, but I think actually the violence was much worse.

I was in Iraq during the two months just before then, and it struck me again and again that violence was much higher than the U.S. government recognized. I remember sitting down and looking through a classified significant acts [SIGACTS] database on the part of Baghdad I knew best. I was sitting in Baghdad hearing explosions and mortar fire and firefights. Yet when I looked at the official U.S. database for this area, January, February 2006, it said it was secure and rated green. That was insane. I lived in that area, and I knew to move through there, you needed armed men and armored cars.

The recognition came to me that the U.S. military defined an area as secure and green if you could drive a Humvee with a 50-caliber machine gun atop it and most of the time not be attacked. That's a definition that's irrelevant to the average Iraqi.

So what the U.S. database on violence failed to capture was most of what was happening to Iraqis. I think they got most threats to U.S. troops, and they got most killings of Iraqis. What they didn't get was a whole bunch of other killings, and also robberies, rapes and kidnappings and general acts of political intimidation. Armed men, maybe wearing a red flannel shirt and blue jeans standing on the street corner -- you don't know who they are, who they work for, but they control the neighborhood. ...

I was looking at the Baghdad sewer system, because some troops wanted me to look at the work they'd done. I said sure. We're asking this Iraqi guy who worked on it what one of the problems was, and he said, "Well, they've got these bodies in the sewers coming through these big drains, and they get caught in the filters." Well, those are bodies that ain't showing up in the morgues if they're just floating out to the river on the sewer system.

I think there's much more violence than we understood. The violence did increase notably in '06, though. And you kind of went from having a threat of a civil war, through '06, [to] really having a low-level chronic civil war. ...

What's Casey facing spring/summer '06?

Well, there's a basic problem here, which is the U.S. Congress and the American people aren't particularly interested in getting involved in Iraqi civil war. They don't want their kids out there trying to prevent these people from having a civil war that actually may be inevitable. ...

If you're Casey, and the president says, "What do you need?," what do you say in the summer of '06?

The first thing Casey does is abandon the official optimism that he had still subscribed to through much of this period, and he gives up the idea of trying to draw down U.S. troops during 2006. ...

The other thing he's got going out there is the clear recognition that there's probably going to be a shift in Iraq policy by the end of '06/early '07. Yet Casey also knows during this period that he's a short-timer. I think he told me early in '06 that he expected to come out of that job sometime early in '07, like January '07.

So I think what he's doing is essentially trying to keep the lid on through the midterm elections, brace himself for policy shifts, and try to get the whole situation in shape for this successor, who I think he probably suspects will be David Petraeus. ...

What happened with clear, hold, build Baghdad, in the summer of '06, Operation Together Forward?

It was ineffective. It didn't work. ... At the beginning of '06 it was really surprising to me how little U.S. presence there was on the streets of Baghdad. Baghdad had kind of become a doughnut for U.S. forces. They were out on the outskirts, but you really didn't see them in the city that much, aside from the Green Zone.

What they decided was we need to reassert our presence; we need to go back in, and that will quell the violence. Well, it didn't.


I think because Baghdad was undergoing a civil war to which U.S. forces were more or less irrelevant. ...

What I worry about is by the fall of '06, the Shi'ites thought, "We have won this thing, and all we need to do is nail it down." You have these Americans yammering at you for reconciliation, because that's their agenda. But that's not the agenda of the Shi'ites who are running this government.

I think even now what we really don't recognize adequately is the big winner in post-Saddam Iraq is Moqtada al-Sadr. Moqtada al-Sadr is a radical Shi'ite cleric who is a supporter of Hezbollah. This is the power we have installed in Iraq. It's stunning to me that that's the outcome.

Now, if you're sitting where he's sitting, he's just saying: "OK, I need to ease the Americans off the stage while I consolidate my grasp here. And the Americans are useful as long as they don't threaten my power." And we're telling the prime minister, "Go challenge Moqtada al-Sadr"? Are you kidding me? He can't.

Some people in the military are thinking the main reason for the surge is so that we can counter al-Sadr.

Eastern Baghdad has a population of at least 2.5 million people, probably 10 percent of the population of the country. It's a huge area. We've put troops in there before, and they've been in some very tough fights there. And unless you moved all the U.S. troops in the country into that neighborhood, I don't think you'd be able to deal with Moqtada al-Sadr. We've confronted this guy twice before, in the spring of '04 and August '04. Not only did he survive a confrontation with the U.S.; he thrived. He is now the single most powerful figure in the government we installed. ...

What's Condoleezza Rice's standing in 2005?

It's unusual. In '04 Rumsfeld had intruded so much into the area of the secretary of state that what Rice begins to do in '05 is intrude into the area of the secretary of defense. It's unusual for secretary of state to be obtaining his or her own military assessment of events. But that's what you've got when Zelikow goes out and starts knocking around Iraq. He goes up to Tal Afar; he sits down with Col. H.R. McMaster, and he actually picks up that phrase, "clear, hold, build." He says, "Oh, actually there is a strategy that's working out here; it's just not anything that anybody in the Pentagon seems to be aware of." He brings it back, and she unrolls it in front of Congress and uses that phrase. ...

I can only surmise, because I haven't talked to either one of them, that Rumsfeld and Casey were not thrilled that the secretary of state was unrolling an idea called clear, hold, build at that time?

Well, it was a way of pushing the ball forward. The interesting thing is the Army caught up with it. It was people in the Army who were striking out on their own effectively. ... What H.R. McMaster did with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar then becomes the template for the Baghdad security plan that we're now seeing unfold in the spring and summer of 2007. ...

How connected do you think, pre-summer '06, the president himself was? ...

There were people well before '06 who went into President Bush's office and said, "You are not winning this war." He didn't want to hear it; he tended not to believe it. ...

Finally in late '06 the president kind of wakes up and says, "You know, this isn't going that well." He actually gives a speech, I think, where he says the present course is failing.

What I'm told [is] they essentially decided at the end of '06, "OK, we really do need a new course, and we need a new cast of characters." And that's where you get this wholesale changeover that not a lot of people noticed. Casey, Khalilzad, Abizaid and [Gen. Peter] Chiarelli, [commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), 2005-2006] are all moved out, and Petraeus, [Gen. William J.] Fallon, [Ambassador] Ryan Crocker, and [Gen. Raymond] Odierno are moved in as their replacements. It was the biggest change in the people on the ground in Iraq you had since the summer of '03. And the reason was, I was told, was the White House wanted not only a new strategy, but new people to implement that strategy. ...

Help me understand, if you can, the role, the sway of the vice president, especially in the '06 deliberations and decisions.

Dick Cheney is the Moby Dick of the Bush administration. You're never really sure what he's doing. Every reporter is out there trying to figure out, what is Cheney's influence? Where does it come from? How is it exercised? And it's all very mysterious, and it only occurs between him and President Bush. You talk to people who have been in meetings with him; he says very little in the meetings. But you get a sense that as soon as the meeting's over, he sits down with the president and says, "OK, here's what you need to take away from this." But that's just sort of secondhand, thirdhand stuff I've heard. So it's very hard to actually nail down Cheney's role in anything in the U.S. government, but especially in deliberations on Iraq. ...

First week of November, the [Robert M.] Gates secret meeting with the president at his ranch before the election -- what's the background of that?

I think that the president, through his political advisers, had a very good sense of where that election was going, and that they would have to make a change at the Pentagon for his own party.

Gates was in the interesting position of being steeped in national security issues, but especially of having spent several months on the Iraq Study Group looking at Iraq issues, and so had received a very thorough critique of operations out there, was familiar with the players, had met with the Iraqis, had met with American officers, and I think had some very strong conclusions. Whether he's able to implement those conclusions remains to be seen.

Is it possible that Gates would be in favor of leaving Iraq and hope that by having access to power, he could tell this truth often enough? It doesn't seem that Petraeus, Fallon and Odierno are of that same appetite.

I think the commonality in the new crew is the willingness to take one last shot at this. At the same time, there's an element of realism that runs through them. Petraeus wrote his Ph.D. at Princeton on the French in Vietnam, and Gates himself I believe has a Ph.D., and has studied Soviet politics in the Third World.

So I think while they also take this last, best shot in Iraq, they're also thinking about, what happens if it doesn't work? I was struck when I was following Secretary Gates in Iraq in December '06 that he made the comment about Iran, that the United States will maintain a long-term presence here. And he said, "By 'here' I mean in the Persian Gulf region."

I interpreted that to mean, to the Iranians, the message was: "Look, don't mess with us in Iraq, because even if we somehow pull out of here, we're going to be in the neighborhood. And once we're out of Iraq we'll have far more maneuverability to deal with you than we do while we're here. So this is your time to make nice to us, because if we leave Iraq, we're not going to have a lot of patience with you." ...

Who is Gen. [Jack] Keane, and what role did he play in this saga?

Gen. Keane is really highly admired across the Army. He's kind of a soldier's soldier. He has this kind of bearlike demeanor, kind of a growl in his voice. He always reminded me of a New York City cop you might not want to be messing with, maybe from the 1930s. There's a military intellectual underneath that exterior, a very bright guy, able to think outside the limits of his service and to think more broadly and more strategically, who I think from early on, summer of 2003, recognized the reality, that Iraq was not going well and certainly wasn't going as well as officialdom was portraying it. ...

What did Keane and Frederick Kagan, [military historian and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar], propose?

The Keane and Kagan thing is a nice piece of military theory, which is, if you wanted to do this right, how might you do it? The problem is, the number of troops needed really don't exist to do that. You would really screw up the U.S. military.

Now what they're saying is it's important enough to do it. Let's throw everything we have at this, double down. It's a very risky approach, though, and I don't think it's going to happen. I think you're going to have a much smaller surge.

Interestingly, it's pretty much where a fairly obscure study group has come out, which is the group of smart colonels convened by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Iraq to look at Iraq strategy and policy. This group is so murky, it doesn't even have an official name. But we know the names of those involved. They're people like H.R. McMaster, Col. Pete Mansoor, a Marine colonel named [Thomas C.] Greenwood -- very smart, savvy guys.

They looked at three options, which they labeled "Go Big," "Go Long," "Go Home." Go Big they said was interesting in theory, but undoable in practice simply because there aren't the number of troops available to go big in the way you'd need to go big.

How big would you have to go?

Many hundreds of thousands of troops. Go Home they rejected as strategically undesirable, because if you pulled out of Iraq precipitously the consequences for the region would be horrible for the world probably, that you'd probably have a regional war.

So they looked at Go Long, which is, how do you change a U.S. troop presence in such a way that the American people and