Peter Robinson: During his thirty-seven years in the United States Army, Jack Keane earned four stars. A paratrooper in Vietnam, General Keane served in engagements in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and he commanded both the 101st Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps. In his final post, he served as the Army’s vice chief of staff. General Keane retired from active duty in 2003. In 2006, he and military historian Frederick Kagan helped develop a new approach to the war in Iraq that would become known as the surge; in 2007 he served as an informal adviser to his Army colleague General David Petraeus in putting the surge into effect. General Keane, thanks for joining us.
General Jack Keane: I am delighted to be here.
Robinson: Let’s start with Iraq. You invade Iraq in March 2003. For three weeks, the war goes well. For four years, the war goes badly—and then, as the surge is put into effect, the war goes well once again, so well that in all of Iraq this March the number of U.S. casualties was six. Why did the war go sideways for so long?
Keane: Well, we made some fundamental mistakes. The first was we did not understand the nature and character of the war itself. Second, we did not truly understand the enemy. And these are things that strategists that we have all read for years tell us we have got to get right from the beginning. As a result, we had the wrong strategy. We had what I call a short-war strategy; it was designed to stand up a political representative government as quickly as possible, train the Iraqi security forces so they could deal with the insurgency, and get out. Problem one was the lack of Iraqi political maturity for that kind of representative government that quickly, and of course the Sunnis did not cooperate, so there was no reconciliation. Second, the Iraqi security forces were not ready to deal with the size and scale of that insurgency. And then the third thing that happened was the enemy: it exploited the vulnerabilities that we provided it. We were not protecting the people, a conscious decision on our part, and the Iraqis could not. That led to a continuous increase in violence year over year from 2003 all the way up to the crisis we had in 2006.
Robinson: OK. On the one hand, you could argue that we should have known better, that all the things you just mentioned now seem very obvious in retrospect. On the other hand, there is the argument by my friend here at the Hoover Institution, Victor Hanson, that war is war and a certain amount is unforeseeable: that in the Normandy landing, for example, the commanders had the details about the tide tables, they knew the first 100 yards extremely well, but they had completely forgotten about the hedgerows inland, where we lost thousands of men. That is the nature of war; you are going to get things wrong. How much do you, in retrospect, blame the military establishment you were a part of for failures in planning and failures to foresee the nature of the conflict? Or did they do the best they could and you must expect to learn as you go in any situation?
“We made some fundamental mistakes. The first was we did not understand the nature and character of the war itself. Second, we did not truly understand the enemy.”
Keane: In most of the wars that we have been engaged in—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam— we got off on the wrong foot. There are some exceptions. That is the nature of war, and it is also the history of American involvement in war. However, the American characterof war has always demonstrated a certain intellectual flexibility that translates into an operational adaptability. Churchill, paraphrased, said that these Americans exhaust all the alternatives, and then when they figure it out, they go right to the solution.
Keane: So we set off on the wrong strategy here, as we have in the past, and we were all contributing to it. I contributed to it when I was in uniform, and also I was on Secretary Rumsfeld’s defense policy board, so I was supporting that strategy for most of those years. I am part of that and I want to be frank about it. But the good news here is we were able to figure out what was wrong with the strategy and, even more important, what we needed to finally succeed.
Robinson: The surge: let’s discuss both the end and the means. As for the end, I quote here from an article you and Fred Kagan published in the Weekly Standardin December 2006: “The key to success is changing the military mission. Instead of preparing for transition to Iraqi control, that mission should be to bring security to the Iraqi people.” Explain that.
Keane: Our mission in the past had been training the Iraqi security forces, bringing them to an acceptable level so they could deal with the insurgency. When we were trying to change the strategy, I know one of the things that resonated with the president and vice president is when I said that we do not have a plan to defeat the insurgency. That is a pretty dramatic statement in itself, particularly when the leaders of our country are advocating victory, but I am not certain they truly understood. The proven practice of defeating an insurgency is to protect the population, and we were not doing that. Why? Because it would require an increased number of troops, a rather dramatic change in mission.
Robinson:From the same article, we can address the means: “A surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting eighteen months or so. Any other option is likely to fail.” At the time, December 2006, sending in 30,000 more troops seemed like a big deal. On the other hand, when you look back at the beginning of the war, General Eric Shinseki was saying we needed several hundred thousand. How was it you felt that you needed only 30,000 more to get the job done?
“The good news here is we were able to figure out what was wrong with the strategy, and, even more important, what we needed to finally succeed.”
Keane: It’s a good question. What we actually needed were about eight to ten brigades. There were only five brigades available. So we had a finite availability of troops to deal with: 3,000 to 5,000 per brigade, depending on the type. And then there are enablers that come with it—aviation, logistics, and other things. But another point: from January 2007 to December 2007 we put 125,000 Iraqi security forces on the street who were not there the year before. This has never received the kind of attention it deserves because it also was a very dramatic surge in Iraqisecurity forces, which certainly added to what the Americans and the coalition forces already had. What we had exceeded 200,000 troops.
Robinson: So that piece of the Casey and Abizaid plan worked. That is, they have set the infrastructure in place to train up the Iraqi security forces, and from January to December 2007, 125,000 Iraqis were trained and deployed in addition to the 30,000 Americans in the surge.
Keane:The problem with the old strategy, as it pertains to the Iraqi security forces, is it was moving much too slow and we were turning over provinces to Iraqi control prematurely.
Robinson: All right.
Keane: They just were not ready for it. That strategy was taking far too long, and we were losing political will in the United States and with our coalition allies, which is the way of most insurgencies. When you do not win this kind of insurgency war, it is usually because your population has given up on the protracted nature of the war, both the time that you involved in it and the casualties that you have.
Robinson: So the surge was not just an increase in the number of troops; it was a change in the military mission. It is described usually as providing security for the Iraqi people, but really it was a means of achieving at least a limited defeat of the insurgents.
Keane: Yes. You had to defeat the insurgency, make no mistake about that, and the means of doing it was to protect the population. Put another way, if you give those 30,000-plus troops the old strategy, we still fail.
Keane: It was the change in strategy on the ground and the mission that provided the decisive difference, and we needed additional forces to do that.
“It also was a very dramatic surge in Iraqisecurity forces, which certainly added to what the Americans and the coalition forces already had. What we had exceeded 200,000 troops.”
Robinson: Now, about Iraq today. In March, President Obama announced the new Iraq policy. The American combat mission will officially end by April 2010, and of the 142,000 American troops now in Iraq, about 100,000 will be withdrawn pretty quickly. Up to 50,000 will be left in Iraq to advise Iraqi forces until 2011, but by the end of 2011, at the latest, virtually all American troops will come home. General Petraeus, President George W. Bush, and others used to oppose announcing any timetable for withdrawal. The new commander in chief has just done so. What is your view?
Keane: None of us really wanted a timetable, for the obvious reason that you do not want your enemy to be able to keep track of what you are doing. But nonetheless there is a status-of-forces agreement between the United States government and the Iraqi government. It is a timetable, obviously, but what we did not have in the past was exactly how many forces would be leaving each year. We wanted that to be in the hands of the commanders. But overall I think the president’s decision, which he has made in concert with the generals, is a good decision.
Robinson: You do?
Keane: I do. And I support him. I would rather not see the timetable in there, but I understand why it is there.
Robinson: And the Iraqis are asking for it. Pretty hard to resist that, right?
Keane: Well, we will have sufficient forces in 2009; that is what the commanders were concerned about. Do not do a precipitous withdrawal in 2009 before we finish these other political events. District and subdistrict elections are coming and a national election at the end of the year. We just had an election in January, we are going to attempt to resolve the Kurdish dispute over boundaries and oil, and then there is going to be a status-of-forces agreement referendum that people will vote on this summer. There are a lot of major political hurdles to overcome. The U.S. force presence provides a glue to assist with that. The commanders also wanted to make certain that in 2011 there was a sizable force presence there, and the president has granted them that, some 50,000. It is pretty close to the status-of-forces agreement.
Robinson: All right. So it is good enough.
Keane: It is.
Robinson: This war is won.
Keane: Yes it is.
“None of us really wanted a timetable, for the obvious reason that you do not want your enemy to be able to keep track of what you are doing. . . . I would rather not see the timetable in there, but I understand why it is there.”
Robinson: To quote Professor Fouad Ajami: as President Obama “does battle in the wider theater of the greater Middle East, he will have to draw the proper lessons of the Iraq campaign.” General, what are the proper lessons to draw from our experience in Iraq?
Keane: First of all, we went to Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence. Admittedly there were other intelligence agencies that contributed to this, but it was fundamentally flawed intelligence. A number of mechanisms have been put in place to try to make sure that we do not make that kind of mistake again.
Robinson: Do you believe the American intelligence operations are better today than they were in 2003 when we invaded?
Keane: I do not know. I do not have the view of it to be frank about it. I want it to be, certainly. We have been putting enough emphasis on it.
Robinson:Are you a little worried that there is no real substantive change in the intelligence operations?
Keane: Certainly I am, but I also know there has been some dramatic improvement, particularly in the National Security Agency under Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, and some of the results that he has been able to achieve have been significant in the breakthrough technology that he used and cannot talk much about.
But we missed the nature and character of the war that followed the invasion, and that is certainly a major lesson learned. You have to make up your mind what kind of war you are fighting, and then what are you trying to achieve with it, which has direct application to what we are doing in Afghanistan.
Robinson:Let me give you the question of questions. From March 2003 to March 2009: six years of war in Iraq, bitter divisions in the United States, a death toll of more than 4,000 Americans and some 100,000 Iraqis. All in all, was the war in Iraq worth it?
Keane: The straight answer is absolutely yes. Among the Arab or Muslim countries in the region, Iraq is the only one that elects its government and is able to hold its government accountable. That is significant and it will forever change the region itself. The Iranians are big losers here, significant strategic losers, and Iraq does not want to be aligned with Iran. Iraq wants a long-term political, economic, cultural, and military relationship with the United States of America. It will be a buffer against the Iranians.
The other response involves the Sunni Arab states surrounding Iraq and on the Arabian Peninsula. By and large, they are absolute monarchies where the people cannot hold those regimes accountable. Those Sunni Arab countries are going to be affected by this Arab Muslim democracy in Iraq as it prospers and grows and takes hold of itself, and I believe it will have positive political ramifications in the region. Therefore, the region is more secure as a result of an independent fledgling democracy in Iraq, the United States is more secure as a result of that stability in the region, and it is absolutely worth what was expended to achieve those kinds of results.
Robinson: You are quoted as saying that wars break armies, that they have to be rebuilt, and that when you go into a war you know you are going to have to rebuild afterward. So, what should our force structure look like now and in the coming years? Have we become preoccupied with the threat of terrorism and insurgency? Are we ignoring more conventional threats like the growth of China, or is the Army doing about what it ought to be doing?
Keane: We do have some serious issues in terms of our focus. Obviously, we are fighting a war and we did not select the kind of war. Our opponent did that, and that will continue for some years because our opponents rec- ognize that for the most pre-eminent conventional military that has ever been established, one of its vulnerabilities is fighting decentralized people who have rifles, machine guns, and explosive devices and who fight at a time of their choosing. It disarms your technology, so we are going to see this again.
“Among the Arab or Muslim countries in the region, Iraq is the only one that elects its government and is able to hold its government accountable. That is significant and it will forever change the region itself.”
Our ground forces are pretty occupied with the two wars that we are involved in, and it is true that they have not had the opportunity to maintain their conventional skills, the skills to be able to defeat other armies. However, the Air Force and the Navy, while participating in this war with some forces, are largely not involved in the war, so their skill sets toward conventional operations are still there and honed to a razor’s edge. Why can’t we do this war and also be ready for a conventional war? The ground forces are too small. We dug deep into the muscle after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and that cutting into the muscle was finished about 1998. We should be able to fight wars of this size, which are not particularly large. It is not World War II.
Robinson: General, a couple of final questions here. You began your service at the height of the Cold War. You retired the year we invaded Iraq. Is the United States safer or in greater danger today than it was back when you were a paratrooper jumping out of perfectly good airplanes?
Keane: I think it is probably a more dangerous world for us now, dealing with the radicals that are in the world and their propensity to want to use weapons of mass destruction against the people of the United States as their number one strategic objective. They have firm beliefs about that and are not a nation-state; therefore you cannot use the influence of other countries in a NATO alliance as we did post–World War II to keep in check a modernizing Soviet Union that did not want its own country destroyed.
Robinson: Watching this program somewhere is an eighteen-year-old wondering whether to join the armed forces of the United States. At this moment, when we are in combat in two wars, when the resources are strained as you just mentioned, what do you say to that young man or young woman?
Keane: The military we have on the battlefield today is just so extraordinary. It has been in combat since 9/11. That means that all of our senior captains and new majors know nothing but war. We have been deploying since 1989 on an average of every eighteen months; our colonels have been on operational deployment for almost twenty years. In the Army that I was in, in my formative years, we went fifteen years and did nothing—and that was a good thing. Look at the resiliency of the officers, the noncommissioned officers, and the career force and what they have been dealing with—it is enormous. Their morale is sky high.
Robinson: Because we got Iraq right finally?
Keane: Because they have a sense of purpose about what they are doing, and they respond to a call to duty and have strong feelings about it. As they get into the culture of the military, the team that comes out of that is fascinating to watch in terms of its sense of purpose and mission and the desire to do it right and get it right.
But also, after 9/11 it became all about America for the first time, all about the American people for the first time. The soldiers and their leaders actually verbalized that. In their minds, being overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting the kinds of enemies that we are fighting, they believe they are directly influencing the security of their loved ones in the United States and the treasures that we have back here. It enriches their lives, making a sacrifice for a greater good and a greater home. Who would not want to be a part of something like that and your sense of worthiness as a human being?
Robinson: General Jack Keane, thank you very much.