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U.S. Plan on Iraq, Afghan Troop Levels Stirs Strategy Debate

September 9, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Bush said Tuesday that the U.S. would maintain Iraq troop levels until next year and increase resources for Afghanistan. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and Retired Brig. Gen. David McGinnis weigh the strategy.
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RAY SUAREZ: The president spoke at the National Defense University this morning. He said the size of the American military presence in Iraq will decrease only slightly during the remainder of his term. Mr. Bush said the drawdown comes as a result of security gains made in Iraq since the U.S. added nearly 30,000 new troops over the past 18 months, as part of the so-called surge.

GEORGE W. BUSH, president of the United States: Reduced levels of violence in Iraq have been sustained for several months. While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker report that there now appears to be a degree of durability to the gains we have made.

General Petraeus has just completed a review of the situation in Iraq, and he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that we move forward with additional force reductions. And I agree.

RAY SUAREZ: The American force will decrease by 8,000 personnel, including one Army combat brigade and a Marine battalion. That reduction will happen by early February of next year, after Mr. Bush has left office. There will still be 138,000 American troops in Iraq, more than were in Iraq before he ordered the troop increase in January 2007.

Progress on the stated goal of the surge — to foster political reconciliation — has been more halting. Provincial elections have been repeatedly delayed by internal ethnic and political wrangling in the Iraqi parliament. And Prime Minister Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has been reluctant to include Sunni paramilitary groups into the regular Iraqi security forces.

The president then focused on the war in Afghanistan, which began weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Violence has exploded there this year. Forty-three Americans and many other NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan over the last two months, while 40 have died during the same period in Iraq.

But the U.S. force of 31,000 in Afghanistan is just one-fifth the size of the U.S. deployment to Iraq. The NATO force in the Afghan theater, which the U.S. leads, has increased in size this year, but Mr. Bush said huge challenges remain.

GEORGE W. BUSH: This is a vast country. And unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an under-developed infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile. Its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world.

With their brutal attacks, the Taliban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people. And in the face of all these challenges, the Afghan people are naturally questioning what their future looks like.

RAY SUAREZ: In response to the deteriorating Afghan situation, the president announced what he called a quiet surge of U.S. troops to augment the NATO force.

GEORGE W. BUSH: As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security, and that requires more troops. I am announcing today additional American troop deployments to Afghanistan.

In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan. They will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush also spoke of the increasingly dire situation in Pakistan, as the Taliban and al-Qaida have regrouped in the wild frontier provinces. From that safe haven, they’re destabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush also sought to tie that fight to the Iraq struggle.

GEORGE W. BUSH: In all three places, extremists are using violence and terror in an attempt to impose their ideology on whole populations. They murder to impose their dark vision of the world.

In all three places, America is standing strongly with brave elected leaders and determined reformers and millions of ordinary citizens who seek a future of liberty, justice, and tolerance.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush pledged support to Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who took office today.

The accomplishments of the surge

Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.)
U.S. Army
All of us also who look at this situation also believe that we can make further reductions in 2009, not only because of an improving security situation, but also because of an improving political situation in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all of this, we get two views.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane was Army vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2003. He was a key player in the president's decision to go ahead with the surge, a role most recently documented in Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within." Gen. Keane has not endorsed any candidate in the presidential election.

Retired Brig. Gen. David McGinnis had a 29-year career in the Army and National Guard. He served as director of strategic plans and analysis for reserve affairs at the Pentagon. He has endorsed Barack Obama.

And, General McGinnis, what's your quick reaction to the president's proposal today to reduce by 8,000 by February?

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS (RET.), U.S. Army National Guard: Not surprising.

Some move had to be required, simply for political purposes. But my basic reaction is a concern over what the surge has accomplished and what we're trying to do in Afghanistan. There's a parallel there. Our troops have done a wonderful job in the surge.

And General Petraeus has got a good military approach to dealing with issues inside Iraq. The -- my concern is that I don't see a lot of activity from some other elements of national power that are needed to consolidate their success in Iraq. This is -- the parallel is the same thing we had in Afghanistan when we had an early success, and then there was no follow-up with other elements of national power to be able to consolidate that success. And now we're going back.

RAY SUAREZ: General Keane, same question. Your quick reaction to the move by the president today?

GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, I think the fact that he's not reducing any forces for the rest of 2008 and waiting for the significant reduction of a brigade combat team in February is all tied to the provincial elections.

And I think it's expressing a hope that the Iraqis very quickly, over the next week or two, will be able to declare an election law to have these provincial elections either in December or January. Everyone who has looked at this situation believes that our brigade combat teams are the glue that has held, not only the security situation together, but also a political landscape at the local level.

And we're the honest brokers for the Iraqis. And let's just be frank about it. We are, in terms of malign influences detracting that election from being an open and honest expression of the Iraqi people.

The brigade combat teams are fundamental to that. So, there's a thought -- and I believe -- and I agree with it -- that they should stay until those elections. And, hopefully, they will take place in a December/January time frame.

All of us also who look at this situation also believe that we can make further reductions in 2009, not only because of an improving security situation, but also because of an improving political situation in Iraq.

Security advancements in Iraq

Brig. Gen. David McGinnis (Ret.)
U.S. Army National Guard
I'm really concerned about the fact that we're relying so dramatically on our military to underwrite the political situation there.

RAY SUAREZ: From both the civilian and military leadership, you get the word that we're reaching -- the United States is reaching its objectives in Iraq, that the country is basically pacified, that more provinces can be handed over.

Wasn't there assurances at the beginning of all this that the drawdown would be faster and more significant?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, first of all, I think the accomplishment and the speed at which it has been achieved has stunned everybody, to include those of us who were advocates of it, in having accomplished something like that, which normally takes years to accomplish, in actually a number of months. So, that has been a stunning turnaround, in my view.

And what is in front of us is political progress to complement the security progress. And this is very seductive, because the numbers are dramatically different, the U.S. casualties, the -- the Iraqi civilian casualties, the level of violence. Those are significant things. And we should feel very good about that.

But, in the same respect, these brigade combat teams help ensure the progress towards the political reality of Iraq as well. And all of us believe that they have got to stay a little longer to do that.

Nonetheless, if this situation continues, as we believe it will, with a continued improved security situation, and also with continued political progress, we will be able to take forces out in 2009 and take other forces out in 2010. And I'm talking about the brigade combat forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. McGinnis, is it significant to you, that there will still be...

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: ... I hope...

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, sir.

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: I hope that my old colleague's forecast is a good one, but I'm really concerned about the fact that we're relying so dramatically on our military to underwrite the political situation there.

I mean, we have -- yes, we have reduced the violence. And we have done that very well, it appears. But I don't see the other elements of national power, when we talk about what's in country, we talk about unfilled positions, from the State Department, to law enforcement assistance, throughout the whole spectrum of putting a sound political organization together.

And I think that it's unfair to to place our military in that position, without augmenting them with all the other elements of national power. And that hasn't happened. And that translates to Afghanistan. My concerns with putting a brigade or battalion in Afghanistan, without having a strategy that is going to bring together both NATO and our elements of national power, beyond the military, is really concerning to me.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General, why don't you respond to General McGinnis? He's sort of wondering what the troops are for, and whether that is the appropriate expression, as he used the term, of our national power. What are the troops doing at this point, 138,000 -- well, right now, 146,000 of them, in an Iraq that is, by the administration's lights, pacified?

GEN. JACK KEANE: We don't believe Iraq is pacified yet.

We do believe that the security situation has dramatically improved. And the elements of national power are resident with the military. That's where we have the provincial reconstruction teams. They are plugged in to the brigade combat teams. They actually work with the brigade commander. They have access to reconstruction, in terms of engineer support, to helping to build local municipality governments, to assist with the -- the councils that are forming in all of these small towns.

There's a rising political class in Iraq that is remarkable. And there's 500-plus political parties in Iraq. And the people are enthusiastic about being involved in a fledgling democracy. And I have touched and felt it personally, myself, having seen some of these party leaders and their members.

So, the -- it's -- it's really wrong to state that it's just the soldiers with guns, and not understand the fact there's a very decentralized expression of national power in Iraq that was not resident in Iraq back a couple of years ago, but it is there now. And it clearly is -- is making a difference.

Setting a strategy in Afghanistan

Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.)
U.S. Army
Sanctuaries cannot be tolerated in counterinsurgencies, if we expect to have a reasonable end to the war in terms of time. That's a Pakistani solution, and also a U.S. solution, in my view.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General McGinnis, what are you saying is the alternative? Who should be there, if not 146,000 soldiers and airmen and Marines?

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Well, we need to -- we need to put -- those regional teams that the general mentioned are not fully manned. Many of them are still requiring resources.

That's the approach, to transition those teams and those types of people, and replace our military. It only began to move in that direction when General Petraeus took over. For years, we sat there and spun our wheels.

My primary concern, though, is, as we move our forces to Iraq -- to Afghanistan from Iraq, I don't see any evidence that we have even learned from that process, as we work with our NATO allies, to reorient our forces against the terrorists in Afghanistan, which is the center of our -- should be the center of our strategy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today, the president announced that brigades originally headed for Iraq are going to Afghanistan instead.

You heard, Jack, McGinnis question whether we have learned the lessons of Iraq and will apply them in Afghanistan. What do you think?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, my confidence about learning the lessons in Iraq are resident in Gen. Dave Petraeus, who, within a matter of weeks, will take over the command of Central Command, which oversees the war, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan.

And, certainly, Gen. Dave Petraeus understands the realities of Iraq. And he's not seduced by the fact to think that the war in Afghanistan is the same as it is in Iraq.

I think General Petraeus, the first thing he will do, will look at the strategy in Afghanistan to see if it's correct, and he will adjust that strategy as need be. And he will bring some of the best minds around him to help do that.

He also knows that the solution in Afghanistan is not just about troops. He's very much aware of that, I'm confident. He also knows that the solution in Afghanistan has to pass through Pakistan to do that. And, by that, I mean is that the Afghan sanctuary in Pakistan, where Afghans are operating out of those bases and conducting operations directly against the government of Karzai and NATO forces, that has to be removed.

We cannot be successful, no matter how many troops we throw against the problem in Afghanistan, if we do not remove sanctuaries. Sanctuaries cannot be tolerated in counterinsurgencies, if we expect to have a reasonable end to the war in terms of time. That's a Pakistani solution, and also a U.S. solution, in my view.

I think, hopefully, we will be able to take advantage of the new government that's just come into power. Hopefully, they will realize that the United States' national interests are resident in Afghanistan, and they will no longer hedge their bet, which they have been doing under Musharraf.

And, by that, I mean, by hedging their bet, what they have been saying is, they're not sure the United States will stay in Afghanistan. Therefore, they have been turning their head and permitting the Taliban to operate on their soil and conduct operations in Afghanistan fully with their knowledge, with a level of detail about what they're doing.

I believe we're at a point where that has got to change.

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Ray?

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, General McGinnis.

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Ray, I think that, you know, Dave Petraeus is a real smart individual. And I have known him for most of my life. And he's going to do exactly what -- what the general said.

But it's not his -- it's not only his job to solve the problems in Afghanistan. Dave Petraeus is one person. We have an entire federal government. We have a State Department. We have a Treasury Department. We have an intelligence community.

And my point is, we need to bring all these elements of national power there to support his military operation and to allow his military operation to bring about a political solution, because a political solution will not occur at the point of a gun.

A troop surge in Afghanistan?

Brig. Gen. David McGinnis (Ret.)
U.S. Army National Guard
I think the forces required from both the United States and our allies in Afghanistan should be commensurate with the overall strategic plan that General Petraeus and our political leaders put together to deal with that issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you anticipate, General McGinnis, that there will be a large-scale increase in American forces in Afghanistan starting next year?

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: I think the forces required from both the United States and our allies in Afghanistan should be commensurate with the overall strategic plan that General Petraeus and our political leaders put together to deal with that issue.

It's about five years too late, but we need to approach it in that manner now. We just can't -- it's not a question of putting the military in or passing the baton to General Petraeus and say, you have got it, Dave. You know, you handle it.

That's not the way it needs to happen. It needs to happen with the commander in chief, the secretary of defense, secretary of state approaching this thing with a holistic view of U.S. power.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, before we go, you mentioned your eye is on the provincial elections in Iraq. If we continue to draw down there, do you anticipate increases in Afghanistan during the same time?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Yes, absolutely.

Afghanistan needs more resources. And the Joint Chiefs are very much aware of that. The operational commanders are aware of that. And those resources will become available.

What's happening to us, the primary effort has been Iraq, in terms of our national strategic interests. Regardless of how people feel about why we got into the war, we could not lose that war. Afghanistan, by definition, became a secondary effort.

We're going to transition now from primary effort in Iraq -- it's going to happen right before our eyes in 2009 -- to primary effort in Afghanistan. And Iraq will become a secondary effort, in terms of the application of national powers General McGinnis is talking about, and also it will begin to transition, in terms of new forces coming into the -- into the theater.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Keane, Gen. McGinnis, thank you both.

GEN. JACK KEANE: You're welcome.

GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Thank you, Ray.