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The great guru writes…

Posted by Richard Friday, March 02, 2007 ,

This is John Keegan, who offers us an op-ed in The Telegraph today, telling us "why the US surge must defeat two enemies".

Before looking at this thesis in detail, though, we note that much of his elaborate analysis is based on observations of a General John Keane, described as "commander of US reinforcements to Iraq".

And here we have two problems. The first is slight: simply that, although there is a John Keane, he is more generally known as Jack, hence a search for the John reveals very little. But the more substantive point is that Keane most definitely is not the "commander of US reinforcements to Iraq". He is in fact former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army but he retired in 2003 and is now a defence analyst, working for, amongst others, ABC News.

Keane is also credited with being one of the architects of president Bush’s new Iraq policy, so he seems eminently qualified to pronounce upon it. But, as for Keegan, one wonders whether, if he cannot even get his basic facts right, how much we can rely on what he subsequently writes.

This is no small point. We are talking here about a respected military historian working for a national daily newspaper, with its ranks of fact-checkers, the statures of which convince us that we can rely on what we read. But, clearly, we cannot.

It is thus with more than a jaundiced eye that we approach Keegan's account of events which, even if it is true, may well be distorted by emphasis on one particular aspect of Keane's observations.

Taking Keegan at face value for the moment, though, we are told that Keane was in London on Wednesday to talk about the progress of the counter-insurgency campaign and its prospects.

That you would expect, but it appears from Keegan's account that the former Vice Chief's main concern was that the United States had adopted the wrong strategy to deal with the disorders at the outset. Thus reads the account:

It tried to solve the problem by conventional military methods, using force against force in an attempt to defeat the insurgency by killing those who were waging it, when what was needed was something more like police action, providing Iraqi cities with security, so that citizens could resume their normal lives with a reasonable assurance that they would not be murdered.
That and much more can be read in the original piece but, without troubling with the working out, we can go straight to Keegan's conclusion that, if Iraq is ever to be stabilised, "it remains essential to get on top of the destructive violence". That is the object of the surge, her writes, the reinforcement of the American presence with another 20,000 troops or five brigades of combat units. Keegan then continues with his own analysis, speculating on how best the new troops can be used.

They should certainly not be dissipated in penny packets about the country and, says Keegan, Gen Keane holds strongly to the belief that the pacification of Baghdad is the key to the military problem. It is Keegan who then continues in his own words, venturing that success of the surge will be measured by the extent to which the new troops and their commanders end ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings. On the other hand, he says, full-scale offensives to tackle the militias in their home areas can only cause more civilian death and suffering - thus exacerbating the security situation. From this, he concludes:

The prospects for the US defence establishment are not heartening. While US forces do not face defeat, they are confronted with the unappetising possibility of their general war-fighting capability being eroded by years of anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency involvement at a time when the security situation of the United States world-wide is under increasing threat and the willingness of the American public to support a long drawn out and apparently profitless campaign is weakening.

Iraq is not Vietnam. The casualties are not comparable and US forces have suffered no setback such as the Tet offensive, but the atmosphere is dispiriting. What started so well has become a depressing backstreet quarrel among a people who show no gratitude for being rescued from a brutal dictatorship. The surge may achieve a transformation but no one would bet on it. Let us hope that it does not result in the need for another surge in six months' time.
All this sounds very plausible, but does it actually represent what Keane said, or even believes?

Looking at some of his more recent statements on the issue, from instance from April 2005, we see a man who was warning that insurgents may be planning spectacular large-scale attacks to slow the momentum of recent military and political gains – possibly targeting the Iraqi security forces, which would undermine the Iraqi people's confidence in the policies of the government and the coalition.”

At that time, he expressed his main concern in this sentiment: "The worst thing we could do, now that we have truly achieved some success and momentum appears to be on our side, would be to rush to get out of the country at a time when the Iraqi security forces are not ready for that level of responsibility."

Interestingly, he then noted that the length of typical counterinsurgency wars in the 20th century "has been about 12 years. But we’re already beginning to see some success in Iraq after only two years."

By January of this year, Keane is then adding that "Defeat is unacceptable", declaring that he supported the strategy in Iraq until last year when he said he realised "we are failing." The right thing, according to Keane was "the right amount of forces and the right mission." He wanted five brigades to be moved in as quickly as possible.

Keane believed the facts on the ground have to be changed. He says members of the Sunni minority believe they are winning the war and they see the erosion of public support in America for the war. "We have underestimated this enemy. This political culture is not ready for representative government," Keane says.

We then get Keane again in late February, just returned from an 11-day visit to Iraq. He expresses the view that "the situation has gotten considerably more dire," but is confident that the security crackdown can have an effect, long term, on sectarian violence. "There's no doubt in my mind," he says, "we'll bring the violence down, not just a little bit, but significantly," but predicting that, "It'll probably take into the fall to secure Baghdad."

Crucially, we then get in another piece the rationale for the "surge" with Keane describing that, this time, troops would stay in the neighbourhoods to keep them safe. "We've never had enough troops to hold those neighbourhoods," he says. "But this time, the operation and the mission will be to secure the population… We will put a force in 24/7 that stays in the neighbourhoods, does not go back to its bases, and it protects the people."

Sen. Joe Biden, then calls the troop surge plan a recipe for disaster, dismiised by Keane as statements "based on ignorance." "You're telling me that there's a capital city in the world that the foremost military in the world cannot secure the population in a given city?" Keane says. "That's just rubbish."

Readers can, of course, form their own views, but the treatment Keegan affords to the situation in Iraq does not seem to gel fully with what Keane says in his own name. Keegan seems unremittingly negative about the American effort. Keane, by contrast, is frank about past failures but bullish for the future.

What is perhaps most revealing, however, is Keegan's comments about the south. "Despite the British contingent's troubles in the south, Basra is reasonably orderly," he writes. So there you have it – British good, American bad. This is just good old, sneery anti-Americanism of that upper-class establishment kind that dresses it up as analysis and friendly concern.

Would that Keegan could address himself to the failures of our own forces in Basra – if he can stop long enough to get his facts right. Then he might have less cause to be so superior.

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