Surge co-architect General Jack Keane on how Iraq is progressing after his recent trip there.
HH: Pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show now General Jack Keane. General, welcome, it’s good to have you on the program.
JK: Oh, I’m glad to be here, thank you.
HH: General, you’re credited along with Fred Kagan of being one of the architects of the surge. How’s it working out?
JK: Well, I just got back from an almost two week on the ground visit in Iraq, and it is definitely progressing. There’s no doubt about that. I was there in February for a couple of weeks, in May for a couple of weeks, and there’s considerable improvement since the May timeframe. Security is definitely improving in Baghdad, and also in the suburbs around Baghdad. And the most significant thing that’s happened, I think, is two-fold. One is that the al Qaeda have been severely hurt. They lost the sanctuary in Anbar Province, and we just took Baquba’s sanctuary away from them. And the second thing is that the Sunni, and particularly the Sunni insurgency, is converting to helping us, and to helping us to fight the al Qaeda. There’s got to be, just in rough numbers, I was adding up, I was going from one area to another, somewhere around thirty plus thousand Sunni insurgents now fighting alongside of us. And that’s absolutely truly remarkable.
HH: General, what do you estimate the size of the enemy to be, if we just talk about al Qaeda in Iraq at this point?
JK: There’s nobody that can give you a straight answer about that. I’ve asked that question since the ’03 timeframe. I think most people seem to think that the al Qaeda numbers, you know, in the low thousands, and the Sunni insurgency is always numbered in the tens of thousands.
HH: And of those low thousands, as they are killed or captured, are they being replaced effectively?
JK: Yes. Not necessarily effectively, but being replaced. Most of the foot soldiers in the al Qaeda are now Iraqis, where in the past they were foreign fighters. So that’s how they’ve been able to replace the foreign fighters that have been killed. Most of the leaders in the movement are foreign fighters. However, the replacement of the leaders that were there initially in ’03, ’04 and ’05, because we’ve killed so many of them, and how rapidly they’re being killed or captured, the leaders that are in place now are one, not as experience, and two, they’re judgment is clearly not as good. So they do, they make some awful mistakes, which certainly we welcome, and we’re able to exploit. So they are able to replace, not as quickly, but the quality isn’t the same it was at the beginning.
HH: Now General, you’re a combat veteran of Vietnam. I just finished reading the book Legacy of Ashes by Timothy Weiner. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read that yet.
JK: I’ve not.
HH: Well, it’s about, part of it’s about the history of the CIA, and part of it’s about Vietnam. And the North Vietnamese just kept them coming. They just kept coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail, and we never figured out how to interdict that. Does the United States military have a plan for interdicting the continued flow of al Qaeda replacements into Iraq?
JK: That’s a great question, and one that I’ve spoken to, to the appropriate leaders to include Central Intelligence Agency and other people about. The only thing I can talk about on the radio is that everybody is concerned about it, and there are some things that are going on to stop it. That’s all I could possibly talk about here now.
HH: And let me turn to the second half of our enemy over there, the Shiite militias. Today, Michael Totten from an embedded position in Iraq has filed a dispatch that suggests that a lot of the Iraqi Security Forces have been infiltrated by Sadr militants, and that they’re just biding their time. What’s your assessment of that report?
JK: I think there’s some truth to it. One of the challenges that remains in Iraq on the security side is with the Jaish al Mahdi, which is the extreme Shiia militia group, and they are actually killing more of the U.S. forces and maiming them than any other group to include al Qaeda or Sunni insurgents. That’s number one. And number two is they certainly have some influence in the government, in the ministries, particularly in the ministry of interior, and also among the police, particularly the national police, to a lesser degree, local police, and some of the elements of the Iraqi army as well. But it’s not pervasive in the army, it’s isolated, so that those are clearly issues. I don’t believe it’s a so-called war stopper issue, and many of us who have looked at this, one, we have to do what we are doing, and we’re killing and capturing the leaders that are involved in this aggressive militarism against us, and we’re helping to fragment the Jaish al Mahdi, which it is fragmented, and we’re helping to fragment it even further. And we’re working the OMS, or Sadr’s political organization in a political fashion.
HH: Is it possible that that organization can be turned in the way that the Sunni sheiks have been turned?
JK: Yeah, absolutely. And there is some indication, we’re encouraged by the fact that Sunni sheiks are being…there’s some indication that Shiia sheiks are moving not necessarily in the numbers of the Sunni sheiks, but some Shiia sheiks are starting to be turned. And I think the Sadrist issue, and his political arm is OMS, I think the appropriate lever there is a political one versus a military one, and obviously to exploit Sadr’s lack of leadership. He’s back in Iran again, frustrated with what’s taken place, and the more time he spends out of Iraq, obviously, the more influence he also loses.
HH: I haven’t heard the term before, General Keane, war stopper. What’s that mean?
JK: Okay, you know, a war stopper would mean a major issue, you know, in other words, that it rises to the level of a major crisis, and that’s what I was, the context I was using it.
HH: Now there was a couple of announcements this week that do rise pretty high up in the level of concern. One is that Basra is descending into something approaching chaos with the withdrawal of the British, and the other is that the Iranian arms shipment, the IED’s, have continued to flow despite these talks. Are either of those war stoppers? Or do we have to get Iran and Basra under control to see the surge succeed?
JK: I think the operation can continue to be successful without it, but it would be more successful, particularly with the Iranian influence…and the Iranian influence comes in this fashion. One, they are training Iraqis in Iran to shoot rockets and to shoot mortars and to use the so-called EFP’s, which is an advanced technology-based IED, or improved explosive device. And that’s number one. Number two is they’re bringing into the country advisors on the ground. And you know, we’ve got 72 Iranians in detention, you know, in our facilities. And number three is the Iranians are obviously providing money as well, you know, to this organization. And then there’s also political support. In terms of all of that, I believe strongly that you know, we need to stop that. And certainly, General Petraeus and the people in the command believe that strongly. And so, certainly, our United States government and its allies have got to work this issue pretty hard.
HH: Now obviously, the military won’t speak about political issues, as they shouldn’t. But you’re retired. Can we tolerate Iran killing American soldiers like this without any kind of strike back at them?
JK: Well, it’s pretty shocking, I think, how we have tolerated it since 1980, some almost three decades of it, that they have been killing us, you know, going all the way back to the Marine bombing in Lebanon. The architecture of that was Iran, the executor was the Hezbollah. And the things that they’ve been doing to us since that timeframe, it’s always been quite shocking to me how we’ve kind of always kept this thing below the radar, so to speak. Now we’re in a war, so it gets more of a spotlight. And I don’t believe we should tolerate it, absolutely not. I mean, it is an act of war against us, for sure, and as were all the others, in my own view. But this is a war, and that is an act of war, and an act of aggression against the United States and its coalition partners. And we have certain rights here that we could use to execute, that’s for sure.
HH: Now I talked to John Burns of the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and Mr. Burns was of the opinion that the American military does not want another shooting front in this war, and that they’re not in any sense in support of retaliation against Iran. Do you share his assessment of the American military’s assessment of Iran’s meddling?
JK: Well, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment that the…I think if we went off and bombed bases, which we could do with ease, and take out some training facilities, which would probably have, you know, marginal long term impact, that would give them complete provocation to use considerably more weapons against all of our bases in Iraq, and also to lead at least a rocket assault against, a missile assault against our closest ally in the region, Israel. Yeah, so that all becomes very problematic quickly. But we haven’t even begun to exhaust the other ways that we can get a stranglehold on Iran. I mean, their issue is their economy. And whatever we would do to tighten the grip on them economically would get their attention.
HH: Okay, a few more questions, General, and you’ve been very generous with your time. How are the Iraqi Security Forces doing in terms of their ability to stand up after we begin to draw down?
JK: Well, it’s always been steady progress. And they’re not there yet. Some units are. But we’ve got more work to be done, they’re better in ’07 than they were last year. Some units could easily stand on their feet. Now despite that, they don’t have a logistics infrastructure. We would still have to provide that, and that’s…and there’s still some other enablers that we would have to provide them, at least for the near term as we start to transition. I see us starting to transition to some of this in ’08, and I think the military commanders will do it very deliberately, very methodically, and do it based on two reasons, one, what is the enemy’s situation in that area, and two, what is the quality of the Iraqi Security Forces to meet that responsibility. The army is in pretty good shape, the local police have a ways to go, and the national police, nobody has any confidence in them, and something needs to be done about them.
HH: All right, this is Max Boot writing in a new article in Commentary. “The strain on U.S. forces, especially the Army, is great. Nevertheless, the current force level can be maintained through at least the spring of next year. Thereafter, we could begin to draw down troops at a rate of one brigade a month until August, when we would be down to a pre-surge force of 15 brigade combat teams, or about 140,000 troops. This, assuming we stick with the current schedule of 15 month tours of duty, could then be maintained through 2009 with adjustments up or down at the recommendation of General Petraeus.” Do you agree with that assessment, General Keane?
JK: Yeah, I absolutely do.
HH: Is that what you think is going to happen?
JK: I do believe that’s what’s going to happen.
HH: What about the political situation in Iraq? You must have heard about the concern that the Maliki government’s just simply not hitting its benchmarks.
JK: That’s true, and I don’t think it’s as critical as people make it out to be, and I never have, and because the political schedule and timetable in Iraq is different than what we are imposing on them. And what we’re imposing on them politically is somewhat unrealistic. The political schedule moves slower than the security one, and we always felt…look, one of the problems we had right from the beginning is we never accepted the premise that you had to have security before you could make political progress and economic development. Now we have accepted that as a premise. So security is finally starting to take hold. We have to cement those gains. And in my judgment, this government will start to make some progress. And it certainly has an opportunity at the local level in the provinces right now to make political gains, and they are moving slowly, much slower than we would like, in that direction. And I think eventually, they’ll make some progress at the national level, though clearly, right now, they’re in gridlock. But we also had very unrealistic expectations of what they should be doing.
HH: Last two questions, General Keane, and thanks for the time. The morale of the American troops that you saw when you were visiting, and the confidence you have that General Petraeus will give a report that’s absolutely candid.
JK: Well, first of all, there’s no doubt in my mind that Dave Petraeus will lay it out, and what’s working, and what’s not working, and what his recommendations are. And he’ll be very clear and very unequivocal about it. And secondly, the performance, as well as the morale of the troops is extraordinary. It has always been good, right from Day One. It is actually even better now, because look, they believe they’ve been given a winning hand. They’ve got an offensive strategy for the first time that they see is working. And it’s happening right before their eyes, because of what’s happening to the al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents that are converting, who are now helping them by the thousands, and the impact that’s had on the people. So they are very encouraged, because they think they’ve got a winning hand. Morale is very good.
HH: General Jack Keane, thanks for debriefing us on your trip, and I look forward to having you back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
JK: Yeah, take care.
HH: Thank you, General.
JK: Bye bye.