General: Insurgents in Iraq planning attacks

A retired Army general just back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq has warned the U.S.-led multinational coalition that insurgents may be planning spectacular large-scale attacks to slow the momentum of recent military and political gains there.

“The insurgency is viable and resilient and has the capacity to achieve significant surprise,” Gen. John Keane told The Hill this week. “We can expect more attacks. They have the capacity to plan a coherent operation for large-scale effect.”
Patrick g. Ryan
Gen. John Keane: “The insurgency is viable ... and has the capacity to achieve significant surprise.”

Keane, who spent about a week in Iraq late last month at the request of Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said the insurgents “know the political and psychological momentum is shifting” on the heels of the successful Jan. 30 nationwide elections.

“They are going to try to change that momentum. The way they do that is to increase the scale and magnitude of their attacks and maybe their target as well, which would undermine the Iraqi people’s confidence in the policies of the government and the coalition.”

Keane said the targets for such surprise attacks include fixed bases such as the coalition headquarters at Camp Liberty near the Baghdad International Airport, military and civilian convoys operating from those bases, and Iraqi army and security forces.

“More than likely, the attacks probably would be against Iraqi security forces in order to undermine confidence in them,” he said. “And also, they probably are more vulnerable.”

Keane said the insurgents’ effort “to slow the political and psychological momentum is very important. It’s less important when you’re fighting an army, but more important when you’re fighting an insurgency, which is much more decentralized.”

However, Keane, who retired as Army vice chief of staff in 2003 after 37 years of service and is now a Washington-based business consultant, said he was encouraged by the progress of Iraqi security forces since he made a similar trip to Iraq last summer.

“Their ability to protect their people in the January elections has done a lot for their confidence,” he said. “There were eight suicide car bombing attempts and 132 attacks in all, and they stopped all of them. I’m impressed by their confidence.”

Keane, who was in the Pentagon when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, said he was impressed by “the sheer numbers” of Iraqi security forces, estimated at about 140,000. “You can’t go anywhere without finding them, unlike last July and August, and some are operating independently.”

While unwilling to go into detail about the report he delivered to Vines, Keane made it clear that Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to replace coalition forces, a goal of Vines and Gen. George Casey Jr., the top Army general in Iraq.

“I think their performance will continue to be mixed. I’m not Pollyannaish, but it’s still a positive situation,” he said, adding, “I think it will take well into 2006 before that will happen.”

Keane said the number of insurgent attacks, which averages between 40 and 50 a day throughout the country, “has gone down to what they were about a year ago, but the fact is that the insurgents still have the capacity to maintain a level of attacks, which creates a non-permissive environment.”

He added, “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.”

Keane 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.”

Asked if he thinks the American public will continue to support the Bush administration’s effort to implant democracy in Iraq, Keane said, “As long as there is genuine progress being shown and casualties go down and we see the beginning of a transition of forces, I think the American people will have the patience to support this.”