Jack Keane against the cut and run from Afghanistan

A piece on today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page recycles the tired, yet increasingly popular case to skedaddle from Afghanistan. The added poignancy comes from the fact that the two authors were Marine combat advisers in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the honor their contribution deserves, the arguments are tried and untrue.

Recently, Marc Thiessen and I hosted General Jack Keane, one of the nation’s smartest and most thoughtful generals to talk through the argument. Here’s the tictoc — their case and Jack’s responses. Listen to the podcast in full here, or read the transcript. It’s an education in national security policy, not the fortune cookie claptrap we’re too often served by our nation’s political “leaders.”

March 10, 2020: General Jack Keane at the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to General Jack Keane. Via REUTERS (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)

Their case: People feared that the Taliban
would take advantage of partial US withdrawal in 2013 and inflict American
casualties. It didn’t, because “the Taliban chose to keep most of their powder
dry, conserving resources to fight their fellow Afghans rather than sacrificing
fighters in high-profile but tactically meaningless attacks against departing
foreigners.” So similar fears today are misplaced.


  • “We’re still there for the very reason we went there to
    begin with, and that is to make certain that the people that conducted 9/11
    don’t get the opportunity to do that again.”
  • “…if we pull out completely to zero, we’ll lose any
    leverage over the Taliban and also undercut the government of Afghanistan.”
  • “The other reason is that, resident in Afghanistan are
    Al Qaeda and ISIS, and there’s no demonstrable evidence whatsoever that the
    Taliban have the political will to do anything that would interfere with the Al
    Qaeda’s desire to rebuild a sanctuary in Afghanistan, nor do they have the
    capacity to eliminate the ISIS sanctuary that currently exists. And that’s
    based on US military analysis of Taliban’s limitations.”

Their case: Drawdown will go fine. The
Taliban “now control or contest nearly half the country. Civilian casualties in
October were the highest in more than a year. Continued civil war is likely to
be the next chapter of Afghanistan’s story, whether US forces stay or leave. Proponents
of leaving American troops in place remain unable to articulate a realistic,
coherent, and achievable end state for Afghanistan.”

General Keane explains that this isn’t about
an Afghan endstate:

  • “…we’ve always kept forces post-conflict, in Europe,
    Germany, Italy, in South Korea, in Japan — gee, we have 40,000 in Japan. And
    even in Eastern Europe, we still have forces there post peace settlement in
    Bosnia and Herzegovina. And we’ve done that to help to achieve a level of
  • “We’re in Afghanistan with a modest amount of forces,
    because we know for a fact that if Al Qaeda establishes sanctuary again — and
    they’re not that far away, they’re just across the border in Pakistan — they
    want to come back into Afghanistan because it’s the best place on the planet to
    put a terrorist organization up in the mountains and provide a geographic and
    topographical protection that is very hard to provide in other places.”

: “Members
of Congress, and America’s generally hawkish foreign policy establishment, need
to reject the comforting, now decades long illusion that if we stay just a
little longer, we can leave under better, cleaner circumstances.”

No one is arguing Afghanistan will be a better place. Just safer for American
interests. Those who want us out — Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban — will not
do nothing with the land they will control.

  • “I completely agree that Iran, who has the United
    States on their western border in Iraq, and the United States on their eastern
    border in Afghanistan, has always wanted, as a major objective, to get us out
    of there. They really cannot accomplish the domination, the control that they
    want to have of the region, as long as the United States is there.”

How did we get
here? In the past, we never put the effective numbers in: Obama-Biden
low-balled, even going below the low-ball recommendation, when they did their surge.

  • “…the Obama administration came in, they recognized that we needed to conduct counterinsurgency, they recognized the forces were inadequate. So McChrystal and Petraeus came forward, briefed the Obama administration at a National Security Council meeting, and gave them three options, which they wanted. 80, 60, and 40 thousand each. The 80 was no risk, the 60 had some risk, and the 40 was the minimum force required to succeed. Vice President Biden took exception to it, and he recommended 20. And the NSC compromised at 30, which was a 25% reduction in what the campaign called for to be successful.”

At the moment, the best analysis by the Army is that we need 4500 troops. 2500 is just an arbitrary figure pulled out of the air.

  • “Right now we’re pretty close down to 4,500. We’ve come down from 8,000. And the 4,500 is interesting. That is a number that General Scotty Miller, who is, by the way, one of our very best commanders that we’ve had in Afghanistan. He came up with that number himself, with no pressure from anybody else telling him what the number should be.”
  • “…the 4,500 was based on some very detailed analysis by General Miller and his command. And I was very impressed with it, because I thought the number would likely be larger than that, but he was adamant that he didn’t need the other forces to perform the essential missions.”
  • “…how did we get at 2,500? Well, that was just an arbitrary number, not based on any informed analysis from Afghanistan and the military commanders there. Arriving at 2,500, I’m speculating, to show the fact that while the President is not getting out of Afghanistan as he promised, he’s willing to further reduce our forces. And it would be far better if we just held at the 4,500, which is a very solid number in terms of what the capabilities are.”

Check out the whole podcast. It’s a master class from a general who served on the ground, and knows the enemy.

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