Gen. Keane served in the U.S. Army for 37 years and was Army vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2004. Now retired, Keane presented the surge strategy to President Bush along with Frederick Kagan and visits Iraq periodically as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. Here, Keane explains the shortfalls in planning that led to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and why he's "cautiously optimistic" that the surge can still turn things around. This transcript is drawn from two interviews conducted on Feb. 8, 2007 and May 1, 2007.
[In the spring of 2006, what's going on in Iraq, after the bombing of the Shi'ite mosque in Samarra?]
I think what was happening was a change in strategy on the part of the Sunni insurgents. They had a meeting themselves after the October constitutional referendum, the December general election. They knew they were going to have a new government duly elected by the people, but not representative of them. They knew they were excluded. And they made a couple of commitments.
One is that they believe the only way they'll achieve their political objectives is to continue on violence. They believe they're winning, and they believe that since the fall of '04; no reason to stop it. But they had to undermine the government, and the basis for doing that would be to change the strategy and provoke the Shi'a militias to come out from behind their barricades. Thus, the bombing in February at the [Golden] Mosque enabled by Al Qaeda and the assassination squads that went into the Shi'a neighborhoods and started to kill people indiscriminately. And they got the overreaction they wanted on the part of the Shi'a militia: Drive the level of violence up into '06, higher than it had ever been, principally to undermine the government and bring it to a state where it would be fractured, start to fall apart, disintegrate. The United States has to leave under those kind of conditions, and they begin to achieve their political objectives, in their mind.
When you see that beginning to happen, what do you think needs to happen with our military presence and with our posture?
I started to have concerns in '05 but was continuing to support the strategy. But obviously in '06 the strategy had failed, the political strategy as well as the military strategy. They had both failed to bring down the level of violence, and it so escalated that it was beyond anything that the Iraqis could do to cope with that level of violence. It was beyond their capacity, and it would take years for them to deal with it.
So we had a couple of choices. One is to try to wipe this thing out and increase the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, which is, or was, the current strategy, and strengthen that in any way that we could with more advisers and better-trained and educated advisers. But that wouldn't solve the problem. The fact is the state would still go off the cliff, because we would never be able to get the Iraqi security forces, even with increased emphasis, up to the level of capacity to deal with the problem.
The other alternative, and the one that I thought had the only reasonable chance of working, was … to force that level of violence down. The only way we could do that is we had to increase the level of U.S. participation, aided by the Iraqis, and then in my judgment, we could bring the level of violence down. It would take us the better part of '07 to do it, but by doing that, you start to change the Sunni insurgents' political objectives in terms of their being able to achieve it through armed violence. I believe you'll be able to get the Shi'as back behind their barricades so they can stop the horrific mischief … and you begin to get at least the conditions to have a political solution. Without that, just flogging [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki to get a political solution is a waste of time. You have to change the conditions so that he has leverage so we can get a political solution.
Now, once you get security, then you have the precondition for political progress, which everybody wants, but also some economic progress and also some far-too-late social progress.
... Did you call Secretary [of Defense, 2001-2006, Donald] Rumsfeld and say: "Can I help? Can I suggest some things?" I know you had a relationship with him that, while it was honest and frank, he also admired you.
I talked to some people. I'm on his Defense Policy Board, so I talked to one other member of the board who had lots of influence with the secretary -- Newt Gingrich, [speaker of the House, 1994-1998]. Then I talked to somebody else who was also out of government, and so the secretary asked me to come in and speak to him. And I talked to him in September, on Sept. 19, as a matter of fact, about what was wrong, why it's wrong and what we needed to do to fix it. So we had that very frank discussion.
And what was his position? Could you tell?
I think it was typical of Secretary Rumsfeld. He was very attentive. He took dutiful notes, as he always does. He asked probing questions when he's not certain of what you're saying or doesn't understand it -- more having to do with what you're communicating, not so much his capacity to understand it. But I also thought that there was a sense of frustration that was not in his words, but in his body language, and a sense of also general resignation about things. So that sort of surprised me to a certain degree.
I don't know whether he knew at the time that he did not have that much more future in the government. If I believe what I read in the media, he did not know. But he certainly was getting it from many sides, and I think from people who he trusted, that things were just horrible, and by every indicator the strategy was failing. I think that's what he was indicating to me in body language. I don't want to read too much into it, but what he didn't say in words.
In your personal opinion, should he have resigned before that?
It probably would have been better, I think, in the spring or early summer. Once you realize that it's just not working, maybe the best thing to do is get a fresh set of eyes on this thing. After six years of the fatigue in exhausting positions -- even in peacetime, those are demanding positions. In wartime, if you added emotional and psychological stress that goes with it, it's pretty significant. ...
He's a man of great compassion, although he doesn't show it in a public way. But in a private, personal way, he's a very humane person, and I think that took its toll on him all the time, as you would expect after six years, and four years of that being at war. ... So yeah, the answer to that is yes. ...
Phil Zelikow [said to us] rather strongly: "There was no strategy. There never was a strategy. The biggest problem in the whole thing is there's no overarching military strategy and that it was a Baghdad-driven policy and that the White House was letting the generals kind of do their own thing." Is that what was happening?
I think it's a little bit of an overstatement about there being no strategy. But in terms of the influence of the generals, I think that's probably a fair statement. The way I look at it, in '03, from the time we took the regime down to about the time Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez, [commander, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I), 2003-2004], left in the summer of '04, our strategy, by and large, military strategy, was wrapped around killing and capturing the insurgents, the thugs, the killers who were attacking us, and beginning to think about transitioning to and the growth of the Iraqi military. ... But there was no unified campaign plan. ...
So the division commanders, the two-stars, were pretty much doing what they thought were best in wherever their areas of responsibility were. That's why you have wide disparity of what Gen. [David] Petraeus is doing up north by comparison to what somebody else was doing in Baghdad or what Gen. [Raymond] Odierno was doing up in Tikrit. All of these are very different because we didn't have a unified campaign plan.
Enter [Gen.] George Casey, [commander, MNF-I, 2004-2007], and to his credit, in the summer of '04, after he arrived, he put together a campaign plan to get everybody on the same page. The centerpiece to that was that we were going to transition to the Iraqi security forces. … The political strategy was to stand up a representative democracy, a representative government, as quickly as possible. When you look back on that and analyze it, it's a short-war strategy. It's designed to get to a political objective, representative government, as quickly as possible, and secondly, transition to the Iraqi security forces so that they can cope with the insurgency.
Nowhere in there is a plan to defeat the insurgency, so we had no military strategy to defeat the insurgency. We were resting on a political strategy that would hopefully stem the violence because the Sunnis would come into the political process and therefore seek a political solution to the confrontation, no longer an armed solution. We overrelied on that. And then there was no forcing function, because we were not defeating the insurgents. ...
And a lot of it was banking on this political event, the election of 2005. It seems to me that's ... why Fallujah II happens, ... is to kind of clear the path for an election which presumably will hand off at least the political side of the problem to the Iraqis. Is that right?
Yeah. We overrelied on the political strategy; there's absolutely no doubt about it. What we failed to do militarily is secure the population in Baghdad and in all the major cities, which were being contested by the insurgents.
The nature of our operations would have been very different if we were securing the population. We would have been protecting that population and then also bringing in economic packages. And [that would begin] to isolate the insurgents. It takes time, but it's a proven counterinsurgency practice. ... [I]n every place where it has been a successful counterinsurgency, it's usually the centerpiece strategy. We had never adopted that as a military strategy, protecting the population. Even in those operations, in Fallujah or Samarra or Ramadi, we would go in there and clear the insurgents out, though we would never come back in and secure the population. So what would take place is the insurgents, thugs and killers also, would come back in to terrorize, to intimidate the population and in some cases assassinate those who were cooperating with us. ...
When we did not secure the population, the enemy realized that the population was fair game. We were not securing them. The Iraqis couldn't do it yet, so what did they do? All through '05 they exploited it. They began to kill people, take them on. They took us on certainly, but in ever-increasing numbers they began to kill more and more of the Iraqis, because that was a vulnerability. They were exposed. Our bases were very secure. They rarely ever attacked us. They attacked us when we were out on the roads, obviously, attacked us where and when they could, but it was advantageous to them. But the real vulnerability that they exploited was this soft spot that we had because we had made the decision not to secure that population.
To whose feet do you lay this strategy? How did we get to the short-war strategy? Is that White House-driven? Is that Rumsfeld-driven? Is that [CENTCOM Commander, 2003-2007, Gen. John] Abizaid-driven?
I think it's complex. It's a shared responsibility, let me say up front, between the national civilian leaders and senior military leaders. I think it's driven in part by my own failures when I was there as a senior military leader contributing to [CENTCOM Commander, 2000-2003] Gen. [Tommy] Franks' plan that we never even considered an insurgency as a reasonable option. We took down the regime and thought all we had to do then was occupy the country, stabilize it, and in a matter of a few months we could reduce the force, and then in a matter of a few years we should be able to be out of there.
Well, obviously that was wrong to begin with. And once members of the regime decided not to surrender and the insurgency began to grow, the strategy that evolved in '04 was a considerably more thoughtful strategy than the one we had in '03. It was a shared strategy among the generals who were participating -- Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid -- and obviously Secretary Rumsfeld.
Now, it's operating within an ideology ... that you use the minimal amount of force because you do not want the host nation to be overly dependent on you. ... They looked at Bosnia and Kosovo and rejected those models, because we had a very large footprint there, and we created, in their minds, an artificial dependency from the host country on us to establish a rule of law, to get basic government services going, and we were doing too much. As a result of that, you protract your stay. ... So the strategy develops out of that basic, I believe, administrative ideology in how you apply force and how you stabilize the country with the minimum amount of force. And it's out of that that the military leaders are also designing a military strategy to help stabilize Iraq, get it to be secure, and also have a representative democracy that's not a threat to its neighbors. ...
So the administration, I think, had a role to play here with influencing the military leaders in terms of their ideology. But military leaders bear responsibility here as well in crafting a military strategy that turns out not to have worked.
... [W]hen they describe it as a colonel's war, ... what does that mean? …
... I would suggest it's much more a captain's and a sergeant's war than it is a colonel's war, because it's very decentralized. It gets down to squads and platoons and companies where the fighting takes place and tragically, of course, where the dying takes place as well. They're making all the decisions also in terms of who lives and who dies in terms of the enemy. Colonels are really not involved, and certainly generals are not. What they do is set the conditions for these small-unit leaders to be successful, and only on a very rare occasion, like in Fallujah, do you get brigade commanders and general officers involved in actually prosecuting the fight. Most of the fighting that takes place is very decentralized, and it's done by junior leaders and senior sergeants.
Is there a downside to this?
Well, it's the only way you can prosecute a war like this. I don't think there is a downside of it. The risk you have to it manifests itself in, as you decentralize and you have smaller units out doing things, it puts much more of a premium on educating everybody as to how to do things. ...
It's much more difficult to supervise. It's not like an entire brigade is out doing one thing at the same time, and the generals are right there observing it; the entire chain of command is present. When you have a decentralized operation, the youngest of your people are in charge of the element that's doing the fighting. The platoon leaders and the company commanders, for the most part, they're in their 20s. But it is a young person's fight as well. And I'm not suggesting they're not qualified; they are.
But as you decentralize the operation, your risk goes up in terms of everybody being on the same page; in terms of their using the proper techniques, making certain that every operation is being conducted in concert with America's values, in terms of the values of services that are executing the mission and how strongly they feel about that. These operations, by nature, are not as supervised as when you're trying to feed an army.
Also, it lends itself to some of the abuses that we've seen, the tragic abuses that have been taking place when some of our young people's emotions really get out of hand and people aren't there to be able to check those emotions very quickly. If we were fighting another army, the likelihood of that, while it does happen sometimes, the likelihood of it happening is less, because the entire chain of command from private through general is on the same battlefield.
And I guess it's also why if you have a success like [Col. H.R.] McMaster in Tal Afar, you [couldn't] have imposed it theaterwide because something good happened at one place. It's hard to say: "OK, everybody do this thing. It seems to work in this town or this region."
What McMaster did in Tal Afar was certainly the right thing to do. But it was a sheer force of will on his part. The mission was not to secure the population, but he took it on anyway and fought to get the resources that you would need to do it. It requires more resources to clear the insurgents or Shi'a death squads or Al Qaeda terrorists out of neighborhoods. It takes weeks to do it, house by house, deliberate but very compassionate.
And then you'd have to put the protect force, or the hold force, in place. They stay 24/7, and they stay on the streets; they live in the neighborhoods; they eat their meals in the neighborhoods. They're right there so that when, as predicted, the thugs and killers come back and they try to terrorize and intimidate, we're there. That's the piece that was missing from all the other operations. He took this thing on himself because he knew it was the only way to be successful in his little piece of the counterinsurgency.
But it really was not the military strategy. In a sense he was fighting a much larger policy. The much larger policy was to transition to the Iraqi security forces and to kill and capture thugs and killers, but not to secure the population.
... How many forces would have been enough? When the president says he would ask the general[s], "Do you need more people? Whatever you need, whatever you need you can have," is he being disingenuous?
No. … I think he actually meant it, you know, within a fiber of his body. If the generals had asked for more, he would have given them more.
I had this conversation a number of times with Gen. Abizaid before I left the Army in '03 about the size of the force. And in fairness to John Abizaid and George Casey, they believed in what they were doing. And if John was here, he would make a persuasive argument that "Listen, the more Americans I bring into this battle, it isn't going to provide a solution, because they become more of an irritant than a solution; they're going to become more of a target than a solution. The real solution is the Iraqis, and we've got to get them trained and equipped properly so that they can take the lead and start doing this."
I think he was right about that. ... And in fairness to him, he stayed fairly consistent with that thought process all through '04 and '05, into '06. The problem with it is that, we have realized, the enemy exploited the population and raised the level of violence, raised the bar so high in terms of the cumulative effect of that violence, that the bar is too high for the Iraqis to reach it. ...
So the answer is it would have been much better if we had changed the strategy and then requested whatever the force levels were necessary to accommodate a change of strategy, which meant we would have secured the population. ...
We had evidence to believe in the fall of '04 ... that the Sunni insurgents believed that they were winning the war, and briefers thought that they were probably right because they were able to increase the level of violence rather considerably in '04 over '03.
In my own mind, I believe when that violence in '05, in the spring, summer and fall, when I look back on it now, I can remember having anxiety because it increased over what it was in '04. That should have given us considerable pause right there. And I think what we should have done is let's go back and challenge our assumptions; let's go back and look at our basic premises for the development of the strategy, and are there some alternatives here that may be a lot more useful than what we're doing? That was probably the time to do it.
But remember where we were in the spring, summer and fall. Despite the fact that the level of violence is going up every month, we were focused on the constitutional referendum that was coming that fall and the general election. …[T]here was so much success surrounding the Iraqis' desire to actually get out and vote. If you remember the emotion that was surrounding all of that -- and that's a good thing -- that was sort of pulling us along, but it was blinding us to the very harsh and stark reality of what the enemy was doing to us.
So we underestimated this enemy, in my judgment, right from the outset. And the evidence was there in '05 that we needed to [rethink] the strategy ...
... In the summer of '06 Operation Together Forward II is happening. Fifty-eight thousand new troops are brought in. [It's a kind of mini-surge.] Your critique of that effort?
I followed it very closely, and I was in some periodic discussions with Gen. [Peter] Chiarelli, [Multi-National Corps-Iraq, 2005-2006], who's the operational commander working for Gen. Casey. ... Then I also kept track of it as a result of the Defense Policy Board and intel briefings that we had, and I knew that once we had made up our minds that we were going to clear, but we didn't have enough resources to hold, I knew the operation would fail.
So we had two bites of this apple in Baghdad, and we failed both times because we never made a commitment to secure the population, and we never had enough resources to do it. I knew that our chances to succeed in Iraq were just slipping past us, and how much opportunity did we truly have left? And I knew that the Iraqis would not be able to do this by themselves. It would take them years to develop the capability to do it. So in my own mind, we needed to change the strategy, or else this thing was going to go off the cliff. ...
So at what point do you connect with [American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident scholar and military historian Frederick] Kagan]? …
In August I thought through the problem, and in my own mind, the only realistic solution to bringing the level of violence down so you could make some political progress is you had to change the strategy, secure the population, and to do that you had to increase the force level of U.S. forces. They were central for the strategy to be successful. ... Strengthening the advisory program is something we have to do, but just relying on that to assist the Iraqis wouldn't be enough either.
So that offered the only solution, and I started to shop that around with certain leaders, and that's how I also wound up talking to Secretary Rumsfeld about it and also Gen. [Peter] Pace, [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2005-2007], about it in September, and then some other leaders after that time frame.
In November I believe it was, Chris DeMuth from AEI called me, ... and he asked me if I would participate with a group that's looking at trying to educate people on the realism of a military strategy as still an option in Iraq. ... I said, "Well, who's doing this effort?," and he said, "A guy by the name of Fred Kagan." I'd read some things that Fred had written, but I'd never met him. And they said they were going to bring some military guys in over the weekend, both active and retired guys, to give them some practical experience with some of the resident AEI scholars, and would I be willing to participate in that, which I did. I was glad to do it.
Out of that came the report "Choosing Victory," which reflected my thought process, but obviously what they were able to put in the report was considerably more comprehensive than what I was working on just by myself. ...
So you've got that going; the Baker-Hamilton [commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group (ISG)] is underway. The White House in September initiates a kind of review. [National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley goes back and forth to Iraq, writes the memo that we've all read in The New York Times. ... All of it seems to be reaching a kind of critical mass.
It was obvious to the American people in the summer of '06, obvious to the people in the administration, that things were not working. I think the other value of the Iraq Study Group -- and I believe it may be the most significant value that they provided, in my mind -- is that they became a catalyst for the administration and others to take a hard look at this thing themselves, because there seemed to be so much support for what the Iraq Study Group was going to do, and people seemed to be gratified that at last somebody's going to take a look at this thing.
The administration, I believe by that point, saw the evidence themselves and had a general skepticism about whether this current strategy was working or not. So you see the State Department relooking. You see the NSC [National Security Council] under Steve Hadley relooking, and you see the Pentagon under Gen. Pace relooking [at] the issue. And all of that at some point culminates into the president's decision to change the strategy, increase the forces. ...
What happens to the idea of the new strategy and your involvement on it starting in late November/December/January?
I got called in November, and I met with the AEI folks over a weekend in early December. ... And on Friday before that, I got called by the White House to come see the president on Monday and to give him my views, with others, in terms of the way ahead in Iraq.
So I met with the AEI folks over the weekend, and their views were very similar to where I was on this thing. Of course they were able to do the analysis on what the numbers were, and I was able to put my judgment on that with some other people that were there, and that analysis was very solid based on what I know. So I met with the president on that Monday and then also with the vice president after that.
What was the meeting with the president like? ...
Well, it was Oval Office, five of us making recommendations, about eight or nine note takers from the chief of staff all the way down to include all his key White House advisers. I think the vice president was there as well. He was very attentive, and he asked, not surprisingly, good questions when he didn't understand things, wanted clarification on points. I think he was supportive of the people who were providing differing views. ...
I was convinced he was going to do something. I didn't know for sure what he was going to do, but I knew that he was not going to stay with the status quo. He was going to make a change, and he was looking for something that would help him make a difference, because I sensed that he believed that where we were, we were heading toward disaster, and something had to be done.
What I said? Yeah, I do. Yes, very much so. I told him that we were in a crisis, that time was running out, and that what I'm going to tell you is based on that assumption that there truly is a crisis, and the time is a variable here and a condition that we have to deal with, and if you accept that, other strategies will not work. Status quo doesn't work; strengthening the Iraqi security forces by themselves doesn't work; any timetable of withdrawal doesn't work; immediate withdrawal doesn't work. So you literally -- time, we're out of time.
I said the only thing that can work is to bring the level of violence down. The way to do that is to secure the population, and we don't have enough forces to do it, and we have to surge forces to do it. There should be an economic package with it as well.
Then I got into a little bit of detail, because I wanted him to have a sense [of] how doable this is from a military perspective. ... I wanted to give him some insight as to how an operation like this would look and how the character of the operation would be different than what we had done in the past. So I contrasted that against what we had done in the past and tried to explain to him what it would look like tactically on the street.
And then we had to do it in two places at the same time, which is something we'd never really done before: one in Baghdad, which could be the main effort, and then the other one in Al Anbar province -- that's a supporting effort -- so that so much concentration of the enemy is there that they would not be able to undermine the Baghdad operation. So you had to keep a lid on what they were doing or could do at Al Anbar.
The other thing I believe that had some usefulness was explaining what it would look like on the ground for the troops themselves in terms of how the operation would unfold in the neighborhoods, and that you didn't have to deal with the entire 6 million population of Baghdad.
People are throwing up their hands, because how do you secure 6 million people? Well, the fact is the United States military, if it wants to secure any population center in the world, can do it; it has the wherewithal to do it. It is a definable military objective which you can measure yourself against, so that the thought that it's too hard from the military's perspective is unreasonable to me. It's a solvable problem. It's the question of the strategy you use and the level of force and resources that you have to apply to the problem. But it is a definable military problem.
But in Iraq you don't have to deal with 6 million people. The Sunni enclave to the west does not have a lot of violence in it. Put minimum force there, economic packages, 2 million people there. So now we're down to 4 [million]. And Sadr City -- 2 million, densely populated -- 60, 000, 70,000 militias you would have to deal with in Sadr City. Could we put that on hold and try to resolve it politically? Our thought was we could.
But so you begin with the Shi'a-Sunni neighborhoods in the center of Baghdad. If you draw a circle around Baghdad, draw a big circle and say that's Baghdad City, and then draw a line down the middle, that's the Tigris River, and then draw a circle inside the larger circle of Baghdad, on the east side of the Tigris River within the circle are Sunni-Shi'a neighborhoods. On the west side of the river are also Sunni-Shi'a mixed neighborhoods. The mission would be to go in and secure those neighborhoods initially, 1.8 million people. It gives you an opportunity to realize that that circle within the larger circle is in fact key terrain, and that key terrain affords you the opportunity to protect the Shi'as and the Sunnis, both evenhandedly, at the same time.
And that gives you great political leverage, because ... Shi'a-dominated government is demonstrating its capacity to protect the Sunnis as well as the Shi'as at the same time. By doing that, Maliki now for the first time has political leverage. He has none right now. So we know for a fact that when Maliki talks to his militia leaders they're blowing him off, because they waited two years for the Iraqi government to protect the Shi'a population, and they didn't do it. And the United States chose not to do it.
After the February bombing in the mosque [in Samarra] and the assassination squads that followed it, that violence went off the top. So the Shi'as came out from behind their barricades and inflicted a compatible level of violence on the Sunnis. Now, Maliki -- once we protect the Shi'a in those mixed neighborhoods as well as the Sunnis, ... they'll know whether they're secure or not. Those leaders will know that. In my judgment they will be. And now he can use that influence over Shi'a militia leaders to pull them back behind their barricades so we do not have to go into Sadr City.
If they refuse to do it, then we'll have to go into Sadr City. It's feasible to go in there. All I'm suggesting is if we can resolve it politically, let's try. And if we just have to wait a few weeks and months to do that, let's give that a try. That's a much better answer than having to go in there. ...
It's really probably the first time that the president has heard anybody credible say: "We can win; we should win. We can fight; we should fight. We haven't fought yet." Am I right?
This is an interesting question: How much did the administration leaders really know about the character of the military operation in Iraq in terms of what was taking place on the ground? I don't really know the answer to that, but here's the reason why I pose the question: Because the rhetoric that the president was evidencing in his remarks almost consistently for three years, he would use terms like "win," "We're going to defeat the insurgents," "victory." That all would lend itself to a military strategy whose purpose was to defeat the insurgency. We never had that as a mission in Iraq. And I don't know if the president, through all those three years, truly understood that. He knows that we had 150,000 forces there, and the Brits and others are helping us, and the forces are carrying weapons, and we're shooting at bad guys, and therefore military operations are being conducted. And the assumption is that the purpose of those military operations is to win; the purpose of those military operations are to defeat the insurgents.
But when you get down to what are the forces actually doing, the purpose of those military operations [was] to help train the Iraqi security forces, to transition to them so that they could defeat the insurgency, not us. And I think the people who crafted the strategy believed that to take that mission on would mean more troops; it would take too long. We would eventually evaporate the American people's will in any event, and in the process we would run the Army and Marine Corps into the ground.
So the president of the United States is pitching victory, and the military of the United States is in an exit strategy?
It's not a short-war strategy to transition to the Iraqis so that they can handle the problem. I don't want to overdo it, but I have this intuition that this is like ships in the night, and we're not on the same page. That may be one of the glaring tragedies of this whole lash-up in Iraq in terms of what was the strategy and what was the military objectives in support of that, and who clearly understood what those were and what those limitations were.
But these are fellows that can read a newspaper and listen to a news program, and they know when the president's saying "victory," he probably means "victory." Certainly Secretary Rumsfeld knows. He's been sitting in meetings with the president who says, "We will stay the course; we will win" … Here's the guy that's at the fulcrum; how can he miss both sides of the equation? …
Rumsfeld was absolutely committed to the strategy that he crafted with the military generals. And in his mind, I believe -- I don't want to speak for him here, but I think in his mind, it does lead to victory. It's just that the Iraqis will achieve it eventually. We set the political process so that they can achieve victory with their military forces when they have the capacity to defeat the insurgents. ...
[After your meeting with President Bush, you and Frederick Kagan meet with Vice President Cheney.] What can you tell us about what happened in that meeting?
... What we did for about an hour or so is flushed out the details of what I provided in conceptual form to the president with great specificity to it and what the logic and analysis was behind the details. That took the better part of an hour. And the vice president and some of his assistants asked questions, as you would expect, and we gave answers to those questions. I think it was a good session, at least from our perspective. We got to explain what we thought and why we thought it and how we arrived at these conclusions. So it was a productive session for us.
Did he seem engaged in the sense that he was looking for something and that this was the thing he was looking for?
He seemed very engaged. Whenever I have spoken to him about Iraq, he has always been focused and engaged. He's an extraordinarily good listener; doesn't miss anything. ... Does not ask a lot of questions, but they are all excellent, the ones he does ask. And there's no doubt about it, his interest and his commitment. ...
... Do you think he has a stance? Is he pro-surge?...
I don't have a sense of what the inside politics are inside the White House in terms of who's on what side and where it is. Most of it is because I don't get involved in that. ...
So you had a real good sense after the first meeting with the president, then the vice president, then Hadley, that your idea was the idea?
The thing that made it conclusive to me was that evening, one of the vice president's advisers called me and said that the meeting in the White House with the president was decisive, and as a result of that, this operation is probably going to go forward.
How did you feel about that?
There was no sense of elation about it. It was just sobering. There's so much at stake here. You don't truly know if you're right anyway, to be honest about it; I think we should be honest. You put your mind on it; you analyze it as best you can; you put forward what you believe needs to be done. You know it's challenging, and you're not certain of any outcome here. In my judgment, and I still stand by it, I think it is the only answer at this point in terms of where we are. ...
When do Baker-Hamilton and everybody show up in the Oval Office? Is it before that meeting where you went into the Oval Office, or was it after?
The ISG Report had been published and had been announced and briefed and dialogued on with the president as well as the Congress before we spent that weekend looking at what we thought we could do. …
I think he accepted what they had to say. What level of support he has for that, I don't know. Again, I don't have firsthand knowledge of it, but what I've heard is that he didn't think that highly of it in terms of practical solutions. ...
When he gives that speech that night where he kind of outlines the new plan and everybody's paying real close attention, where are you when he's doing it? And what did you think? …
Yeah, I listened to it. … I think it was straight from the shoulder. He made a significantly profound statement when he owned up to the American people that the current strategy was failing, and I think that was about the words he was using. And that's a tough, straight-from-the-shoulder dialogue with the American people. ...
[F]rom a style perspective, I think it could have been better. But from a substance perspective, I thought it was a B-plus for sure, at least, or an A. I just would have liked a little bit more on the other parts of the strategy -- political, economic and diplomatic. ...
Editor's Note: The following is drawn from a May 1, 2007 interview, after Gen. Keane returned from a visit to Iraq.
... What did you see that was different? … Had it been a while since you'd been there when you went last time?
It had been a while. The most dramatic difference that I saw, on a negative side certainly, was the fact that some of the Sunni neighborhoods had been purged of Sunnis and there was nobody living there, literally, and it had a sort of naked ghost-town look to it, right in the center of a major metropolis like Baghdad, and that had a certain stunning effect to it to me.
But a second thing, more on a positive side, in places where we had the troops who had arrived, and we were conducting military operations in concert with the president's plan at Gen. Petraeus' direction, those troops were living outside their forward operating bases [FOBs]; they were living in the neighborhoods with the Iraqis, and the amount of information they were receiving was beyond their capacity to cope with it, ... because they were finally protecting the people, and they were getting so much information from the people. We were just anxious to want to get the rest of the troops over here so we could bring this whole operation to a completeness, and we can't do that until June. We cannot get all the troops there until June.
When you and Kagan had your original plan that you talked about at the White House, I think the number was 40,000 to 45,000 would be necessary. The president talked about 20-some thousand with Petraeus having the option to go more here and there. Were there enough? …
We were always counting everything, the combat troops as well as what the military likes to call its enablers: the support troops, the communications support, engineer support, aviation support and the rest of it. ... So our numbers were always higher. But the fact is, the combat brigades that we had recommended to the administration are the same number of brigades that are being executed.
Our difference in terms of combat organizations deals with [the fact that] we had recommended two Marine regiments for Al Anbar province, and there was going to be two Marine battalions, which are now there. Having looked at that, given the significant progress that's made in Anbar province, Gen. Odierno and then subsequently Gen. Petraeus felt that they didn't really need those additional troops. So our numbers in terms of the combat units are the same. And I think there was in hindsight, probably the Pentagon just should have added it all up in terms of what the combat forces were, the brigades involved, added the enablers and put it together as one number and given that number initially to the media. I think it would have saved some of this discussion about it's not enough or it's different than the initial proposal.
And they didn't do that, presumably because the number would have been higher?
I don't know why. I mean, it's no secret [as] to what the number is. It didn't make any sense to me. It was a disconnect inside the Pentagon, and an oversight. Those troops were always going, and they were just so preoccupied with the combat brigades that they should have added in the other enablers as well.
Cautiously optimistic. ... I'm optimistic that we can bring the level of sectarian violence down, and that has already begun. Sectarian murders were as high as 1,200 around the January time frame, and now they're down to 400 to 500. I also believe that the success in Anbar is significant. It's underreported to the degree that the Sunnis have turned in Al Anbar province and how they're willing to work with us, hopeful that we can negotiate on behalf of them and deal with the Shi'a-dominated government. That's what they're trying to get. But they have moved away from Al Qaeda -- very significant.
The other thing is the Shi'a militia are still behind their barricades, and they have not come out in any sizable force in reacting to the provocation of these horrific attacks that the Al Qaeda have conducted. And that is good news, and that's got to give you some optimism in terms of the political situation down the road. Maliki is trying to do the right thing. We weren't sure if he really wanted to do the right thing. I'm convinced he does. That's news to me.
Secondly, he has huge problems in being able to execute it because his coalition is fragile. They cannot agree, and this is going to be the biggest challenge we face. ...
[The last time we spoke, you said that the political time and the military time surrounding this operation may not match up.] Gen. Petraeus may need 18 months, two years to do something. He may have six, eight months political time in trying to get those two closer together, is one of the challenges. How do you feel about that time continuum now?
Time certainly is an issue, politically here in the United States, first and foremost, and also to a lesser degree in Iraq in terms of the Maliki government and people's support for it in terms of it getting something done. In my own mind, the issue comes down to progress. If we're able to show some progress by the end of the summer that this operation has brought down the level of violence and the Maliki government has something to show for itself in terms of moving toward a political solution, I believe that will buy time, both for the Maliki government and itself in Iraq, very important, and also back here politically in the United States.
I spoke to Sen. [Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] about this, Sen. [Joe] Lieberman [ID-Conn.] about it, and Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] about it, and certainly the one that was most noteworthy in this was Sen. Clinton. She indicated that if there is genuine progress here, particularly political progress, then the timetable will probably change somewhat in this country. In other words, it would give Petraeus more time to get done what he needs to do because progress is being made. ...
[What are the demands facing Gen. Petraeus?] How difficult is [it] for an acting general in the field at this moment to have to play a role in the politics of all of this? And is that what is happening to him?
… It's as demanding, I think, a position we placed a general in, in my understanding of our history -- his rucksack is very, very heavy, to be sure. And that's the truth of it. He's got military functions to perform in the theater, significant political functions in assisting Prime Minister Maliki and Ambassador [to Iraq as of 2007 Ryan C.] Crocker, and also obligations back here to keep the American people informed, and specifically the Congress of the United States. He walks a difficult line not only here, but also in Iraq itself. It's very challenging; it's complex; it's hard. But, as he likes to say, it's not hopeless. And he's up to the task. I found him to be extraordinary in the way he's dealing with this thing. Watched him very closely. I'm biased, obviously, because I've known Petraeus for years. But even all the talents I knew he had, watching what he is doing over there is remarkable. He is clearly the best that we have available to do this job.
Was he your choice?
Oh, hands down, absolutely. And others felt the same way.
Somebody ask you?
No, but others. Some who work for him and people in the Pentagon as well.
And he was your first call?
Yeah. I think he was a consensus choice, to be frank about it. I had strong feelings about it, but so did many others.
Why did he do it? You talk about a thankless -- as you say, the heaviest rucksack. Why does a guy do that?
He's on active duty; he's in uniform. The country asks him to do something, his first instincts are to answer the call, because that's what a soldier always does: He answers to call, and he doesn't question whether it's a good call or not. When you can't do that, then you should probably stop being a soldier, because at its essence, that's what being a soldier is all about. And though he [may] be a general, he is at his core a soldier, and he's just answering the call to duty. ...
So is the, as some people have tried to describe it to us, is the Keane-Kagan plan, for lack of a better, more precise term, is it "clear, hold, build"? ...
It's definitely clear; it's definitely hold; and the build part of it is probably the weakest part of it, which is the economic and reconstruction packages. We still have some concerns about that: the ability of one, the Maliki government, to execute its budget and distribute its funds to get things done. ... Iraq, fortunately, has money. Their problem is in their ministries being able to distribute it effectively to get results. Petraeus is working very hard on that, and there's been some progress, but we still have some concerns about it.
Then the whole reconstruction effort that we are doing in the United States government still is not what it should be, and there's new energy in the mission in Iraq in terms of the embassy with Ambassador Crocker. I know he's focused on it, and his staff is focused on it, and hopefully we'll be able to get some results. There's a very important part of the operation, because as you secure the population, you want to provide some tangible benefit to them in terms of raising up the quality of their life experience so they start to get connected to this government and have some confidence in it. Security is important; it is the condition for political progress and economic progress. But we have to deliver on the economic progress, and we also have to deliver on the political progress once we get the security.
Can we hold?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. We can do that.
No. We have to do it with the Iraqis. In the first two plans, to be frank about it, first two operations in Baghdad, Together Forward I and II, we overrelied on the Iraqis. This plan has lots of U.S. forces to compensate for some of the Iraqis in terms of their numbers. But the good news here is ... Maliki has delivered the number of troops and in the quantities that we expected and on time. That's the first time that happened, so that's a good sign as well.
Somebody told me ... that we'll know we're making some progress when the number of U.S. casualties begins to go up, because it means we're engaging the enemy. ... Is that a kind of truism of the cost of doing this business?
We certainly knew that the casualties had potential to rise as we decentralize our operations, move out into these neighborhoods. ... So what happens is you're making more contact with people that don't want you to be there. ... So you're running down more enemy; you're making more contact; there's more firefights. And as a result of that, casualties are going to go up.
The second thing is that the enemy has a vote here. And if there's one constant theme that I think we've had for the last four years it's that we have underestimated this enemy, and everybody is trying not to do that here. We know the enemy has a vote. We know they're going to try to derail this operation. Certainly the Al Qaeda has already voted. They're going to conduct horrific, mass-casualty attacks to undermine this government and to weaken the political and moral will of the American people. And the Sunni insurgents certainly have a vote here as well. So the fact that casualties are going up among the United States forces is not surprising, because the contact with the enemy has gone up, and that is casualty-producing. The intent is that over time here the casualties will go down, and actually go down dramatically. …
Do you think the president's going to stick with it, be able to stick with it?
I think that the president's commitment and determination to see this through and to try to get this government in Iraq to be able to stand on its own two feet and be able to eventually protect its people, have some stability, I think he's committed to that to the end of his presidency. ...
And clearly the vice president is there, from what you can tell?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. ...
So your capacity is what now for them ...?
What I'm doing is providing assistance to Gen. Petraeus as he sees fit. So I'm heading back to Iraq tomorrow night, and I'll spend a couple of weeks there for my second visit since we began to execute the new strategy, to assist in any way that I can Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno on the ground and provide some insight if I can, and also take what I've learned there and use that information back here in Washington to educate and inform as well. ...
... [I]s there a Plan B?
I would assume there's an alternative. I haven't been in any shape or form involved in it. But knowing the military as I do, there's always alternatives to what's being conducted. ...
Do you worry about regional conflict, regional war? ...
I think so, yes. I always thought so, and I'm certainly more convinced of that belief based on the Brookings [Institution] findings that they did led by Ken Pollack. They came to that conclusion; that not only would you have a civil war in Iraq in event of our pullout, but it would lead to a regional conflict. ... So you'd have a much larger conflict with considerably more at stake in terms of our national interests for the United States, because now you have Sunni Arabs clashing with Shi'as in Iraq and the Iranians involved as well, and that is something I would assume would be in our national interest to stop. So the place to prevent that from happening is here and now so it doesn't lead to that problem.
... We'll get the effects of all the five brigades and the two additional Marine battalions and the Marine Expeditionary Unit [MEU] that's also arriving in June. We'll start to feel those effects in July. I believe during the summer we should start to see some progress taking place, much more so than we have now in terms of bringing down the level of violence.
At the same time, what we're cautiously hoping is that the Maliki government will be able to strengthen its coalition so he can get the oil law passed and the de-Baathification program modified to accommodate the Sunnis. That is a real challenge, and we're hoping it will have made some progress by then on that, certainly by the end of the summer. If we have not made any political progress whatsoever, then we do have a challenge on our hands. I think the message is clear that this particular coalition that Maliki has is incapable of making the political solution that we're all looking for.
... Is it still 23 neighborhoods or so that we're [trying to stabilize]? That was what you and Kagan were talking about.
Well, they redistricted, so they're working in 10 now. But essentially it's the same area we were talking about. They just use a different geographic and numbering system.
… [What if we get to September], but Maliki hasn't pulled off his part of it? What happens next?
I'm not sure. But this much I do know: If Maliki has done some of it and he's still well-intentioned in terms of getting the others done, if he's been able to get the oil law passed -- and he's admittedly on a different timeline than the one we have, and that's one of the realities that we have come to recognize; that our political timetable is not the same as theirs -- but if he's made some progress, then I think he'll get some more time from us, and the American people will give the president more time as well, because progress is being made and the security situation has improved.
If the security situation has just improved and Maliki still isn't able to make progress, I think people will have to take a close look at whether this coalition that he has can continue, not in the sense that Maliki's government would need to be dissolved or anything, but some of the key players in that coalition, should they continue to be a part of that coalition? Are there other people that would better represent the totality of the views in the country who are more interested in getting a political solution? And I'm sure people would talk to Maliki about trying to influence changing some of the players, which is already taking place, as you're aware of, so that he can get a better coalition to work with to get this peace that everybody wants.
How long can Petraeus hold the lid down [and secure Baghdad before it starts to unravel]?
Well, in terms of security, we can provide security in Baghdad and keep that level of violence down once we get all the troops there well into '08 to enable a political solution. I think what Gen. Petraeus will look at is by September, what is the security situation? Has it improved along with our expectations? Yes or no? What is the role of the Al Qaeda? How disruptive are they? How successful are they in undermining the government, in undermining the political will back here in the United States? And then the third thing he'll take a hard look at: What is the political progress of the Maliki government?
And while we're optimistic about all of that, we may in fact be challenged in some of those areas, particularly in the political area based on where we are right now, because it certainly is moving slower than any of us would want it to be. ...