Saturday, September 20, 2008

Gen. Jack Keane: the "Other General" who saved Iraq

Gen. Keane helped conceive the new Iraq war strategy and then sell it to the White House. He advised on its implementation, visiting Iraq often and reporting back to the president and vice president. As recounted in Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within," George W. Bush stiffed his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who opposed the surge, and made Gen. Keane his back channel to the Petraeus command in Baghdad. The Pentagon "almost presided over an American defeat in Iraq, and Jack Keane helped save the day," says Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Three months into the war, Gen. Keane visited Iraq as the Army's deputy chief of staff. "I felt we had a low-level insurgency on our hands and I had a long plane ride home as a result of it, because I thought my Army was ill-prepared to fight that kind of war and it would take time for us to figure it out." His was a lonely view at the time. Gen. Keane passed on a promotion to Army chief for personal reasons but kept up with Iraq.

For the next three years, Donald Rumsfeld and the senior generals pushed a "short-war" scenario, "which was to get a political solution quickly, transition to the Iraqis security quickly, and get out," says Gen. Keane. "It didn't work. And why didn't it work? Because the enemy voted and they took advantage. The fact that we did not adjust to what the enemy was doing to us and the Iraqis were not capable of standing by themselves -- that was our major failure. . . . It took us all a while to understand the war and [that] we had the wrong strategy to fight it. Where I parted from those leaders [at the Pentagon] is when we knew the facts -- and the facts were pretty evident in 2005 and compelling in 2006 -- and those facts were simply that we could not protect the population and the levels of violence were just out of control."

In late 2006, after the midterm election debacle for Republicans, pressure rose for a quick if dishonorable exit from Iraq. Gen. Keane met Frederick Kagan, who was putting together a report on an alternative strategy for Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. On Dec. 11, both men found themselves at the White House to push the plan. Congress, the Joint Chiefs, Iraq commander Gen. George Casey and the Iraq Study Group all wanted a fast drawdown. President Bush ignored their advice. Gen. Petraeus was sent out in February to oversee the new, risky and politically unpopular surge.

Even Gen. Keane didn't expect the new strategy to work so fast. "It's a stunning turnaround, and I think people will study it for years because it's unparalleled in counterinsurgency practice," he says. "All the gains we've achieved against al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency, the Iranians in the south are sustainable" -- a slight pause here -- "if we're smart about it and not let them regroup and get back into it."

Gen. Keane wants to make sure people understand why the surge worked. "I have a theory" about the unexpectedly fast turnaround, he says. "Whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, anyone who was being touched by that war after four years was fed up with it. And I think once a solution was being provided, once they saw the Americans were truly willing to take risks and die to protect their women and children and their way of life, they decided one, to protect the Americans, and two, to turn in the enemies that were around them who were intimidating and terrorizing them; that gave them the courage to do it."

He adds that the so-called Sunni Awakening, and the effective surrender of Shia radical Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army, depended upon the surge. "I'm not sure [the Sunni Awakening] would have spread to the other provinces without the U.S. [military] presence. We needed forces that we didn't previously have for the Sunnis to be able to rely on us to protect them." Sadr saw his lieutenants killed in the American push, and didn't want to share their fate.

Looking ahead, Gen. Keane still considers a robust American ground force "the secret to success" in Iraq. "It is a myth for people to assert that by pulling away from the Iraqis, by pulling away from the Iraqi political process, that somehow that becomes a catalyst to do things that they would not do because of our presence. That is fundamentally wrong. It is our presence that is helping Iraqis move forward."
Sectarian tensions remain a worry. [...] "It appears that Maliki is using the guise of security to enhance his political base and to diminish his political opponents," says Gen. Keane, citing the Baquba incident. "That is a danger and that is something we should not tolerate."

Another potential threat looms from Iran. Though Tehran and its surrogates were hammered in the Maliki government's successful spring offensive on Basra, "we know they're coming back," says Gen. Keane. Iran wants a weak Iraqi central government unaligned with America. "We know that they intend to come back on the kinetic side, attack U.S. forces exclusively with less attacks, but more spectacular. I don't believe for a minute they're going to be able to resurge and be successful as long as we stay on top of it, keep our head in the game, maintain our force presence in the south."

The surge turned things around on another difficult front, Washington. "Despite the fact that President Bush did preside over a strategy that was failing for three plus years, and he has been criticized for that," says Gen. Keane, "he also deserves a significant amount of credit because all around him people were advocating a failed strategy, particularly key leaders around him, and he had the wherewithal to make a tough decision that flew certainly in the face of political opposition even in his own party."
The U.S. came "within weeks or months" of defeat in Iraq in 2006, he says. The consequences of that were "unacceptable" for the region, "not to speak of an institution that I loved."
One of the positives of Iraq is that the Army now has greater knowledge of how to fight and succeed against an insurgency.

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