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Thomas Ricks on the general shake-up in Afghanistan, and what Pelosi knew or didn’t know about waterboarding

Thursday, May 14, 2009
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HH: Right now, I’m talking with Thomas E. Ricks, who’s brand new book, The Gamble, has really turned a lot of heads. It’s a very, very detailed assessment of the last couple of years of the Bush Iraq strategy. Thomas Ricks, welcome back to the program.

TR: Thanks, great to be back.

HH: Now I’m curious what your reaction was to the change of command announced in Afghanistan this week.

TR: I thought of it being similar to what happened in Iraq in late ’06 when they fired General Casey and put in an entirely new strategy and a new set of commanders. Petraeus was sort of involved in that one behind the scenes, and I think as commander of the entire Mideast for the U.S. right now, he was involved in this one more explicitly.

HH: Now tell us what you know about General McChrystal.

TR: McChrystal is a Special Operator, specializing in direct action, counterterrorism, that is going at night to do these raids, to go and target al Qaeda and other extremists in Iraq, worked very closely with Petraeus over the last couple of years. People say well, he’s a terrorist guy, he’s not a counterinsurgent. But under Petraeus in Iraq, those two things really were hand in glove. One reason that the counterterrorism raids against the bad guys at night became so much more successful was because you had conventional troops out there in the streets during the day put out there by the surge, and that made it much harder for the terrorists to move around.

HH: And so what do you think he’s going to bring differently to Afghanistan than what we have seen there over the past eight plus years?

TR: I think you’ll probably see a more sophisticated, more targeted approach, less of a sense of hey, let’s just get boots out on the ground knocking around these valleys, and instead, let’s put troops here for this purpose, and if it doesn’t work, let’s try something else. I see McChrystal taking over the Afghan campaign, and I see Petraeus trying to oversee the joint Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

HH: Now in terms of the McChrystal approach, do you think that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan becomes less important in his approach to warfare than it has been under the previous approaches to Afghanistan?

TR: No, I think they’ll respect the border quite a lot. They know it’s an enormously sensitive political issue in Pakistan to have U.S. troops inside Pakistan. It doesn’t gain a lot for you if you wipe out a few al Qaeda guys and lose Pakistan in the process. In retrospect, what Tommy Franks did back in Tora Bora, pushing Taliban and al Qaeda into Pakistan, was not a real good idea. That was not victory. In fact, that made a worse problem moving al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

HH: What is your assessment of Pakistan right now, Thomas Ricks? Over at your blog at Foreign Policy, which is http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com, you have a caption – Pakistan: Have I Seen This Movie. What are you talking about?

TR: I’m talking about Algeria, commando raids that the French did in Algeria in the 1950s, which are captured in that movie, Battle Of Algiers, were tactically productive, but strategically counterproductive, that is they had some battlefield success, but it undercut the political will to do much there. And the French ended up losing the war. The Pakistan military strikes me as being very much on the same course, which is they don’t want to do counterinsurgency, they don’t know how to do it. Instead, they’re going in and whacking people in neighborhoods, they’re antagonizing the locals, they’re losing support, and increasing support for their enemy Taliban.

HH: Now in the Swat Valley, the New York Times and the Washington Post have both wrote, run long stories in the last couple of weeks, about how oppressive the Taliban have been since their occupation of Swat. Do you actually think the Pakistan military is going to be greeted with even less enthusiasm than the Taliban has been?

TR: Yes. In fact, I think we have seen that. Taliban is harsh, but the Pakistan military just going in and whacking villages with artillery, I think, is even less popular. By the way, I have hit the New York Times in the past because they are a competitor. You’ve hit them in the past because you’re a right wing nut and they’re a liberal media. But I’ve got to tell you, the New York Times in the last few weeks, its coverage, I think, has been excellent, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I saw this as someone, you know, who doesn’t say that a lot, especially C.J. Chivers of the New York Times. His coverage of the U.S. Army operations on the ground in eastern Afghanistan has been brilliant. And if he doesn’t get the Pulitzer Prize for it, it’s a crime.

HH: Well deserved praise, and I suppose you’re going to want to compliment me as well since you’re going to go compliment the left wing lunatics at the New York Times. You’re going to want to compliment the right wing nuts on the talk radio circuit.

TR: (laughing) Hey, I love going on your show.

HH: (laughing)

TR: If the rest of the Republican Party was as sane as you are, it wouldn’t have collapsed.

HH: Well, it’s not collapsed. We’re just in abeyance waiting for things to come back.

TR: It’s going into eternal exile, I guess.

HH: (laughing) What do you make of General Odierno and General Petraeus’ appeal to the President not to release these photos, Thomas Ricks?

TR: Well, it’s clear the President listened to them. General Odierno said look, you can release them at some point, I don’t have any objection to that. But the timing is bad for me, please don’t do it now. And Obama went along with it. Now this is the second time that basically Obama has gone along with the wishes of the U.S. military, and I think antagonized his base. And I think it’s really going to start cranking off a lot of the people who voted for Obama to see him going along with the generals like this. All I can think is he’s building up political capital with them so when he says fellows, I really need you to do this for me, they’ll do it.

HH: Now at your blog, you wrote look, he’s gotten rolled twice, I’m quoting Thomas Ricks now, rolled twice. That seems to imply that there’s, that what he did was the wrong decision made for the wrong reasons, as opposed to a deliberation that led him through a period of logic and reflection to the right decision.

TR: Yeah, that’s what you say when you agree with it.

HH: It is.

TR: (laughing) I don’t know whether it was the right decision or not. What I do know for a fact is that twice now, he has had a position, the U.S. military has opposed it, and he’s ended up abandoning his position and going with the U.S. military.

HH: Well, I’m out on the road with Bill Bennett and Dennis Prager and Michael Medved. And in fact, we were talking in Minneapolis a couple of nights ago, this is a good thing. This is, to the center-right of the country, this appears to be Obama growing in office, confronted with the seriousness of the war, and perhaps pressured by Dick Cheney and others that he’s endangering the United States. I guess what I hear you saying, Thomas Ricks, is no this is a bad thing. He’s collapsing in the face of the what, the industrial military complex?

TR: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just telling you the fact of the matter is twice now, the military has confronted him and made him throw out existing positions that he has taken. He campaigned on getting a brigade out a month in Iraq, every month, for the first year he was in office. Almost the first thing he did when he began talking about Iraq was throw that campaign promise overboard. Now I’m not saying I agree with it or disagree with it. I’m just saying that a lot of people voted for him to do what he promised to do. It’s a bad thing, I think, if a guy gets elected on one thing and does another thing. On the other hand, I do think yeah, number one, Obama is a strategic thinker, and is willing to make short terms course corrections to achieve a long term goal. And second, I think he’s only now realizing just how screwed he is on Iraq, that this was the biggest mess in the history of American foreign policy, invading Iraq was the worst decision in the history of American foreign policy, and it’s going to take him years, and it’s going to take the president after him many more years to clean up the mess that George Bush made.

HH: Of course there’s a counterargument to that, but I’m running low on time. I saw some reporting that the Syrian pipeline has reopened, al Qaeda in Iraq is restocking. What’s your assessment of that? We’ve got thirty seconds to the break, Thomas Ricks.

TR: My assessment are the Syrians and the Iranians have both found ways to turn up the pressure on the Americans in Iraq – bombs from Iran and bombers from Syria. And what we’re seeing is fine tuning of that pressure.

– – – –

HH: Yes, I know, the e-mails are already coming in, I disagree with Thomas Ricks. I think the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, and I think it’s turning out pretty well, but that’s not the point of having him on to debate him. It’s to get his information. And I want to get your assessment, Thomas Ricks, of Nancy Pelosi’s amazing press conference today. What did she not know or what did she know, and when did she know it, in your opinion, concerning waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques?

TR: It just makes me want to throw up, the whole thing. Look, I am totally anti-torture, and this is something I’m really influenced by my friends in the military, is we don’t want our country to be associated with torture. You don’t want your troops thinking that torture is the right way to go. Torture always has two victims – the person it’s inflicted on and the person inflicting it. And you don’t want your soldiers coming back with their humanity destroyed by having become torturers. What did Nancy Pelosi know? I don’t even know if she knows at this point. But it’s pretty clear to me that the U.S. Congress knew that there was waterboarding going on, and went along with it when it was politically popular, and now is running away from it as fast as it can.

HH: Well, I agree with that. And so doesn’t that mean that either this whole thing has to shut down or Nancy Pelosi has to step down, because you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go after lawyers in the Department of Justice who wrote opinions when ranking Democrats and ranking Republicans all applaud and say yeah, go get them.

TR: I’m in violent agreement with you, which is it begins to look pretty smelly. I’ve always wondered why there was such hesitancy in the Democratic Party about a truth and reconciliation commission. Let’s get all the facts on the table. And this may be one reason that a lot of these people went along. I would like to know what everybody knew and when they knew it. I think making torture national policy was an enormous strategic mistake in this country, probably the second biggest mistake the Bush administration made, and one that we’ll be paying for, for many, many years to come as well.

HH: But of course when you say torture, you mean waterboarding, and there is a very vigorous debate that waterboarding is not torture. But I understand you’re on the position that it is.

TR: Well, whether it is or not I don’t know. What I’ll tell you is that 120 people have died in U.S. detention, 27 of them were ruled homicides. So 27 people died at the hands of somebody else. Whether they were beaten to death, waterboarded to death or whatever, I don’t know. But that certainly, when you kill somebody, that meets anybody’s quality of torture.

HH: Well, actually it doesn’t, Thomas Ricks, and you know, A) there’s no evidence whatsoever that anyone was waterboarded to death. But you could have all sorts of negligent or malicious homicides that aren’t involving torture. I mean, if you put a gun to someone’s head and pull it, that’s not torture. I mean, it’s still homicide, still needs to be punished, but it’s not torture.

TR: Okay, but it is cruel and unusual punishment, put it that way.

HH: Oh, agreed. That’s completely agreed, and those have been investigated. To your satisfaction, with less than a minute, do you think the American military has adequately investigated every instance of abuse at its hands?

TR: No.

HH: Interesting. Now why do you say that?

TR: Because I keep on being told that there were things that we haven’t heard about yet, especially at the detention center in Bagram. And it just makes me sick to my stomach. This is not something I ever thought I’d grow up in my country discussing.

HH: Are you investigating that, Thomas Ricks?

TR: I’d like to find out more, yeah.

HH: We will continue to watch your blog for news on that. Stay tuned. Thank you, Thomas Ricks, author of The Gamble.

End of interview.

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