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Journalist details Iraq 'fiasco' -

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Journalist details Iraq 'fiasco'

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: And as President Bush's popularity stays low and public concern over Iraq continues
to grow, a new book has hit the US best-seller lists, called 'Fiasco: The American Military
Adventure in Iraq'.

Written by highly respected dual Pulitzer Prize-winner and Washington Post senior military
correspondent, Tom Ricks, it is, as the title suggests, a devastating critique of the Bush
Administration and most of the US military command over Iraq. It's based on interviews with a huge
bank of military personnel, including more than 100 senior officers, plus 30,000 pages of official
documents. I spoke with Tom Ricks at his Washington office earlier today.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Tom Ricks, if the war in Iraq really has been a fiasco, then what have been the
milestones to measure it by?

THOMAS RICKS, SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think the milestones of the fiasco you've had here
in Iraq are a lousy run-up to the war, a war plan that arguably was one of the worst in American
history that helped create the conditions that followed, the failure to recognise the insurgency in
the summer of 2003, especially by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and then a US military that was very
good at conventional operations, really was not prepared for the task at hand in Iraq of putting
down an insurgency.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Is it fair to say, as you assert, that America helped create the insurgency in the
first place by dissolving the Iraqi army, the police, the security - all 500,000 of them - and in
the process, creating - quote - "a vast pool of humiliated, antagonised and politicised men"?

THOMAS RICKS: That's a good question. There is actually no one document I can point to in which the
insurgency says, "This is what created us". But if you look historically at the Iraqi insurgency,
there are three things that any insurgency needs as it's coming together - recruiting, arms and
financing. In Iraq, the US military and US civilian officials took care, to a large extent, of
those three problems. Ambassador Bremer's decision to dissolve the military and to ban senior
members of the Baathist party from public life, created this pool of leaders and of armed and angry
men.

The second problem is arming, and there were not enough troops around Iraq to stop the large
weapons caches, some of them many square miles in size, from being protected. And because the Iraqi
army had been dissolved, they couldn't use those troops either. It also meant they couldn't seal
the border because they didn't have enough troops. One of the classic tenets of counter-insurgency
is close the borders, get control over the borders. The US didn't have enough troops to do this and
so financing, documents and leadership could go back and forth, especially from Baghdad up to
Syria.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Do you now understand better how the excessive force and torture by the US military
at Abu Ghraib prison came to happen and how damaging it's been?

THOMAS RICKS: When I started writing this book, I actually thought that Abu Ghraib, and indeed any
abuse had been overplayed by the media. One of the unhappy realisations for me as I did my research
was that abuse was far more extensive, even pervasive than I had realised, and it was a major
problem for US forces, especially in 2003-2004. It really showed the extent to which US forces
simply weren't trained, and when you put an untrained soldier in a situation, it's not his fault
that he's untrained; it's the fault of leadership. The US military consistently has tended to blame
low-ranking soldiers for detainee abuse, while not looking at the failures of generals that helped
create that situation. In the army, they call this different spanks for different ranks. The
problem is that when you don't look at the leadership failures, you never get to the root causes.
And one of the things that really struck me was the US military used the wrong tactics in the Fall
of 2003 - for example, using large cordon and sweep operations to round up tens of thousands of
military-aged males in areas they deemed hostile. They were humiliated in the course of being
arrested, frequently had boots put on their heads, disrespected in front of their families they
wore sandbags on the way to the prisons, weren't given water. They were tossed into prison, held
for 90 days sometimes without their families being told where they were, and were held in prison
cheek by jowl with hardcore Al Qaeda terrorists. And so almost certainly when they came out, they
were less pro-American than when they went into prison.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Colin Powell said years ago that the lesson from Vietnam was don't have a war unless
the objectives are clear and winnable. How does Iraq stack up in that context?

THOMAS RICKS: You're right. The United States went to this war, I think, in a remarkably murky way,
without a clear strategy and with goals that weren't supported by the means that they committed to
them. So the United States went in with these notion that it would transform Iraq into a democracy
and that would lead to the transformation of the Middle East. That's one of the biggest ambitions
any country has ever put out there. Certainly equivalent to the ambitions of the Marshall Plan for
Europe after World War II, yet the commitment of force and resources to this was relatively tiny.
They wanted a small military, they planned to get out quickly. The original US war plan had us down
to 30,000 troops by the late summer of 2003. Here we are three years later with 130,000 troops
still on the ground in Iraq. And also, the actual aid commitment was rather small. Remember, Deputy
Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz argued before the war that Iraq could finance its own reconstruction
through oil sales. As a matter of fact, now the war has cost well in excess of $200 billion, with
no end in sight.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The opening sentence in your book is a bold one - that "President Bush's decision to
invade Iraq may be ultimately seen as the most profligate actions in the history of American
foreign policy." Can you really justify that claim?

THOMAS RICKS: I think President Bush's part in this almost certainly will come to be seen as
profligate. And I meant that in a very particular way; I think there may have been bigger mistakes
in the history of the United States, such as the failure to do better with Eastern Europe after
World War II. But in many ways, those were sins of omission, of not doing more. This was a sin of
commission in the sense that the United States did not have to invade Iraq, it was a war of choice.
And in that sense it was a profligate, in that it was a war of choice that was undertaken rather
recklessly, without bringing along the American people, without proper attention to possible
consequences. So I think President Bush probably will not be treated well by history in this,
because if Iraq does come out well, it likely will be attributed to President Bush's successor, the
next president rather than to the current president.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There's been a lot of debate about whether Iraq has really descended into civil war
or not. In your view, has it?

THOMAS RICKS: I think anybody on the ground in Baghdad knows that Iraq is right now in a low-level
civil war. To call it sectarian violence is to say six of one, half a dozen of the other. In some
ways, though, the unspoken US policy in Iraq, the purpose of the military mission at this point, is
to keep a lid on that low-level civil war and prevent it from becoming a full-blown civil war,
which would be a far worse situation. A full-blown high-intensity civil war could probably cost the
deaths of tens of thousands of people rather than a few thousand a month and could easily wash over
the borders of Iraq and spark a regional war. A regional war in the Middle East probably also would
interrupt oil supplies and drive the price of gasoline upwards around the world and might even
cause a global economic shock. So there are far worse things than the situation you have in Iraq
right now.

KERRY O'BRIEN: In exploring the range of possible outcomes, you come up with a worst-case scenario
that's rather frightening - the emergence of a new strongman?

THOMAS RICKS: My big worry is that if we keep on messing this up long enough, that Iraqis
eventually will just get sick of us and say, "Let's get rid of these Americans, lets find ourselves
new Saddam Hussein, but a younger, more vicious, more powerful Saddam Hussein to unite this
country, to harness its great resources." Iraq's the only Arab country that has the three great
resources of oil, water and people. And uses that oil money to buy himself a few nuclear weapons
and take his revenge on the West, maybe giving, slipping to terrorist allies who could knock off
New York, Washington DC and Tel Aviv.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What do you think is the most likely outcome in Iraq?

THOMAS RICKS: The most likely outcome, I think probably is similar to what we have there now, where
the US military tries to keep a lid on the civil war, tries to be the bulwark against a total
meltdown that some people fear could happen there and gradually brings down its troop levels to the
point of about 30,000, 40,000 troops, which the US military could really do without breaking a
sweat. And if you bring down the casualty level to two or three a month, which I think the American
people could live with, then you could have an indefinitely sustainable presence that would allow
the Iraqis the time they need to stand up a new government and a new security forces. That is
probably the best-case scenario at this point.

Equally probable, I think, is a long-term occupation that is not as successful, somewhat like the
Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, or the French war in Algeria in the 1950s, in which the
invading power ultimately leaves. It doesn't have a lot to show for it, but on the other hand,
doesn't have its national security damaged by that withdrawal. In that sense, defeat deferred is a
form of victory.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Tom Ricks, thanks for talking with us.

THOMAS RICKS: Thank you very much for having me.