Retired Army General Sounds Off On Iraq Plan Gen. Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff, oversaw military operations in Iraq during the U.S. invasion. He talks about President-elect Barack Obama's plan to end the war. Keane says the focus now should be on achieving the goal of the mission.

Retired Army General Sounds Off On Iraq Plan

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This week we're asking some observers about what might be next for Iraq when Barack Obama becomes president. Yesterday we heard from Kenneth Adelman, a conservative Republican who had advocated going to war in Iraq and ended up endorsing Senator Obama. Adelman said he had hoped that Iraq would develop impressively into a Middle East democracy.

Ambassador KENNETH ADELMAN (Diplomat; Political Writer; Policy Analyst): I guess right now it'll be sloppier than that. It may be with a strong man like in Egypt. But I think Iraq will end up better than Egypt under Mubarak. Probably like Jordan today. Not exactly a democracy, but a not-bad place to live.

SIEGEL: Well, our guest today, Jack Keane, is a retired army general, former vice chief of staff, who was an advocate of the surge of troops in Iraq. President-elect Obama, General Keane, campaigned on a 16-month schedule of troop withdrawals. Yesterday Ken Adelman said 16-month withdrawal shouldn't be too hard. If the Iraqi government says it's OK with them, it should be OK for us. What do you think?

General JACK KEANE (Former Army Vice Chief of Staff): Well, I think come January the 20th and maybe during President-elect Obama's transition briefings, I think he'll find that Iraq is really an opportunity to truly meet our strategic objectives. We're on the cusp of achieving them right now. And that is a fledgling democracy. In January the Sunnis will participate in the provincial elections along with the Shias and the Kurds. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-plus percent is what all the pre-surveys are indicating.

SIEGEL: You mean, participation in the election?

General KEANE: Participation in the provincial elections. And what that'll mean, then, is for the first time, the Iraqis will have true representation that represents the people in Iraq, be they Kurds, Sunnis, or Shia. And that's a huge step forward. And yes, we are going to reduce our forces in 2009, and certainly in 2010. And if there has to be some adjustment of the timetable by a few months, I would suspect the president, come January 20, would be willing to accommodate that, given the enormous opportunity that we have to have a stable government in Iraq, friendly to the United States and not aligned with the Iranians.

SIEGEL: As U.S. troops are, in fact, withdrawn, are Iraqi forces up to the task of maintaining security in the country?

General KEANE: Well, obviously if we felt they were, we would be gone. The Iraqi security forces have been making significant progress. We have turned the overwhelming majority of the provinces over to them. But they're not ready to take it all over right now. That's the issue.

SIEGEL: You were co-author of an article in The Weekly Standard in late September that included this statement. "There is never a glide path in war. As long as the outcome remains in doubt, we must never imagine that the situation is under control and we can put it on autopilot and ignore it." Is the outcome in Iraq actually still in doubt?

General KEANE: In my mind, it's not. I do believe that the momentum that we have achieved is not reversible, because the al-Qaeda is operationally defeated. The mainstream Sunni insurgents are in the political process, as opposed to using armed violence. And the Iranians, who were causing all sorts of mischief in the south, have suffered a major setback. They haven't given up yet. And we're much more in a peacekeeping operation now than we are in a counterinsurgency operation. And despite the fact of a failed strategy for three years, every indication we have is we will have a positive outcome in Iraq.

SIEGEL: What then should the next president, or for that matter his defense secretary, how should they react to what might continue to be the regular reporting of explosions, sabotage, suicide bombings, things that obviously are much less frequent now than they were a couple of years ago, but they're still there?

General KEANE: The fact that there are occasional terrorist acts in Iraq does not require U.S. troops. What we need U.S. troops to do is, along with the Iraqis, make sure that we have an open and fair election in January and also have sufficient forces with the Iraqis to have an open and fair election at the national level at the end of 2009, currently scheduled for December. Iraq 10 years from now could have an occasional car bomb going off. That would not require the presence of U.S. forces because the effort that they have is so fragmented, they don't have the infrastructure - this is the al-Qaeda or the insurgency - to threaten the legitimacy of the regime.

SIEGEL: As for the idea, though, of a 16-month timetable: a rigidity of thinking that should not guide the next president, or a reasonable timeframe which, with variations, could be followed?

General KEANE: Well, while we may have some plans, and everybody does have plans - not all of them, obviously, have been made public because we don't want to share them with the enemy. But the point is, is that whatever timetable we have has to have some flexibility in it, so that if the enemy reasserts itself, that we have the capability to deal with that.

SIEGEL: But the situation right now in Iraq strikes you, if I'm hearing you right, as at least the plausible beginning of a 16-month schedule. Other things could eventuate, but right now that doesn't seem far-fetched to you from what I'm hearing you say.

General KEANE: No, it doesn't. I mean, I think - my own judgment, if you put General Odierno's plan on a table and Prime Minister Maliki and our new president and Ryan Crocker's, there's probably just a few months that would be separating them, I suspect. And I know the people in the theater would prefer to have some conditions associated with it so that the schedule isn't absolute.

SIEGEL: Well, General Keane, thank you, and happy Veterans Day.

General KEANE: OK. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's General Jack Keane, former army vice chief of staff, who was a major advocate of the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.

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