Editor’s note: The troop surge in Iraq is going “better than we had expected,” reports retired three-star Army general John M. Keane. General Keane is senior managing director and co-founder of Keane Advisors, LLC, and a Defense department adviser on Iraq. In an interview with National Review editor Rich Lowry, General Keane describes some of the military and political progress there.
Rich Lowry: How’s the surge going?
General Jack Keane: Well I think it’s going better than we had expected, particularly as it pertains to the security operation. The success that the security operation is achieving is, in my judgment, very definable. What I have done is, in my first visit in February since the operation began, I went into neighborhoods in Baghdad and then returned 90 days later to make a comparison. And I will do the same in August.
And remember, flashback to ’06. What happened is the al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents provoked a predictable response from the Shia militia by the Samarra mosque bombing and the assassination plots killing Shias. There was an overpowering response from the Shia militia into the Sunni neighborhoods where hundreds and then thousands of Sunnis and Shia were killed as the result of that. The city was in flames. No schools were operating, no government services were being provided. Marketplaces were shut down and people were shut into their homes, afraid to go out on the street. And this lasted through most of ‘06 and it was at its height in the summer.
Despite two military operations that the United States led, Together Forward One and Together Forward Two, we were not able to stop the level of violence. And then a counter offensive began in earnest in February and finally culminated with all forces in play in June. And what you see is a stark contrast to ‘06 in those neighborhoods.
Because all the schools are open. The markets are teaming with people. Some operating at full capacity; some not quite there because of the level of violence in their neighborhood and some of the construction that was being done, but nonetheless a steady improvement. Government services are being administrated in the neighborhoods and again some of that is uneven because of the nature of the government of itself, but nonetheless there is an attempt to provide essential services to the population where in ‘06 there were none.
And so those atmospherics are real, and I have spoken to hundreds of Iraqis in those neighborhoods and almost to a person they believe the security situation is improving. They want Americans to stay with the Iraqis to help protect them, and in the neighborhoods where the violence took place in ’06. They almost tremble at the thought of that ‘06 violence. You can hear it in their voices when they talk about what that meant to them and their children.
Lowry: How much of a worry is it when you look at the numbers that some of the sectarian killings are bouncing back up somewhat?
Gen. Keane: What has happened is the al Qaeda are trying to provoke the same response in ‘07 that they achieved in ‘06 by killing Shia at unacceptable levels to the Shia and the Shia militias. The fact is that they have been unsuccessful at provoking that kind of response that they got in ‘06, and there are three reasons for that in my view. Number one is we are protecting the Sunni population and to come after that Sunni population from the Shia perspective, they would have to come through us. Two, the Shia themselves summarily reject what al Qaeda is doing and know that it is not in the long term interest of the country. And thirdly, we are successfully protecting millions of Shia with American and Iraqi lives and we are losing our own lives while doing it, and that is not lost on them in terms of what’s taken place in ‘07 compared to ‘06.
Lowry: How about the Sunnis?
Gen. Keane: What offers us so much promise is that the Sunnis themselves have broken, not all of them, but many of them have broken with the al Qaeda and have aligned themselves with us. Not only in Anbar province, essentially almost stable, which is a remarkable story in itself, given the fact that a year ago the Marines that were in charge there believed it was lost and now it’s relatively secure; but what’s instructive is as we move into Diyala province, Ninewa, Saladin and also Babil province, those other four provinces, we now have Sunnis cooperating with us against the al Qaeda. And we also have some Shia tribal leaders cooperating with us against the Shia militia.
This is very significant and some Intel analysts who are looking at this in ‘07 believe that when we look back on ‘07 that not only will it be a turning point in what we did to secure Baghdad and the people. They believe that ‘07 will be looked through the prism of ‘08 or 9 or 10 as the beginning of the defeat of al Qaeda because what is happening to them is they’re losing their Sunni infrastructure support.
Lowry: Why are the Sunnis turning against al Qaeda?
Gen. Keane: Al Qaeda has overplayed their hand. What the al Qaeda do when they go into a town, or village or a neighborhood inside a major city is they get a stranglehold on the people themselves. They force the men to wear beards and the women to be properly costumed and essentially completely covered up. Men cannot smoke or drink, and obviously women can’t do the same. They actually even change their diet, and they force compliance. They change the curricula in the schools to their version of shari’ah law and radical Islamic fundamentalism.
And they get such a strong hold on the day-in, day-out lives of the people that they use power and intimidation to do it. They normally immediately kill a leader or two who is respected in the neighborhood to strike fear and intimation in the hearts of the people. What has happened after four years of this is the people themselves who are under this kind of a formidable net and where all the aspects of their lives are controlled are so repulsed by this — they don’t want their children to grow up in this — that they are willing to take more risk to get rid of it than they were initially. They are fed up with it, and what that did is it moved their leaders. The leaders just didn’t decide by themselves. It came from the people as well, pushing them that “we gotta do something to stop this.”
Lowry: Can the Sunnis and the central government reach an accommodation?
Gen. Keane: Some of the members of the central government always will question the motivations of the Sunnis. Their concern is that as we continue to arm more and more Sunnis and they continue to work with us — in other words, they become policemen, more of them become part of the security forces in general and as they begin to get more authority and power — that the Sunnis long-term motivation is simply returning to power, and this now is the means to do it. They couldn’t by armed violence. They can do it by getting considerably more powerful in terms of their influence both politically and in the region so that at some point they would return to armed violence.
I think that may be in fact, plausible. I think what we have to do is ask what is the reality that we are dealing with on the ground. It’s going to be very hard to get into what people’s motivations are. We have to deal with what their behavior is. And I think we can be cautious in dealing with Sunnis who are turning, flipping to us and are now willing to work with us against the al Qaeda. Take advantage of that, but at the same time be cautious of it in terms of where are they going. To not advantage ourselves from the Sunnis change of heart would be a huge mistake on our part.
Lowry: How do we factor into the Sunnis’ calculations?
Gen. Keane: They are very versed on the fact that the United States right now is in the most powerful situation it’s been since the initial removal of the regime. Because we have the POTUS completely committed to a positive resolution and he’s using military power to help him attain that solution, his level of commitment to it isn’t lost on Iraqis, particularly those who are looking at the political landscape. And what they see is an American president and an American government–and now an Ambassador and a general as their instruments–as having a considerable influence over the Shia-dominated government, as weak as it is. They know that America is really flexing its muscle here and what they want to do while we are in this position of strength — and strength is defined simply by the number of troops we have in Iraq and the influence we have over the Iraqi government — they want to use us to get the best political deal possible from the Shia-dominated government while we have this increased influence over it.
Now, this surge operation, this counter offensive, has really made an impact on them. It wasn’t the catalyst, but it definitely made an impact on the Sunnis flipping to assisting us and seeking political accommodation because it’s from that position of strength. At the end of the day, the Iraqis want to be on the winning side. They see things turning, and they want to make sure that as those things turn they get the best possible deal for their own people — I’m talking about the Sunnis.
Lowry: How important are the political benchmarks everyone is talking about in Washington?
Gen. Keane: I think we make these things far more important than what they truly are. On the surface of it, certainly they all seem very reasonable, but when you get down to the practicality of it, some of them are clearly not executable at this time because this fledging government, 18 months into its existence, is not capable of making some of these major changes. We are asking them to pass five or six major laws that deal with the very survivability of the state, and we are asking them to do that in an almost six-month time frame. That is unrealistic, particularly in view of the political clock that ticks in Baghdad and the fact that none of the people who are operating there are skilled politicians. They do not have the art of compromise as central to their political framework. The truth is their political framework is very weak in terms of supporting a representative democracy. But we are where we are in terms of, there is a fledgling representative democracy, inadequate in the sense that it doesn’t enfranchise the Sunnis, and it’s what we have to deal with.
Lowry: Conventional wisdom is that no matter how well the surge is going by the spring of next year, the president will have to start drawing down. Gen. Keane: The surge, or the counter offensive as I like to describe it, was recommended to be a temporary operation, and for the people who were implementing it, they knew it was a temporary operation. Those of us who have looked at it quite a bit in the preliminary discussions, we believe that this was always a temporary operation that was going to last 12-18 months. And that sometime in ’08, late ‘08 at the very latest, we would probably be reducing back to pre-surge levels.
As Gen. Petraeus told me on the phone just over the weekend, the speed of which things are moving in terms of achieving more security and stability has surprised him, because of the cumulative affect of the application of military force in all these areas, all at the same time. So as we continue to get this result, what I see happening is that the more successful you are, the sooner you start to leave.
Lowry: How do you think Iraq will looks in a year or two?
Gen. Keane: I think Baghdad will be stable except for an occasional car bomb by the al Qaeda. Anbar province will be stable. Diyala province will be stable and many of the provinces around Baghdad will be almost as stable. And I see us, from a security perspective, having made some very significant gains, particularly in comparison from ‘06 and from a political perspective, I absolutely see the change that is taking place from the grassroots level in the Sunni and Shia wanting change.
I see that having more and more impact on this government and it may be the most successful thing that is happening in this country because the people themselves want the change. They are fed up with the violence. They want their government to start moving toward a form of reconciliation and I think that will push this government in that direction. I truly believe that in a year or so, for sure, we will have taken some very practical steps along the lines of reconciliation with the Sunnis in terms of some of the benchmarks, but even some other things that are equally substantive to them.