Gen. Jack Keane Transcript
Taped July 29, 2014
Table of Contents
I: The Surge in Iraq 0:15 – 14:38
II: President Bush and His Generals 14:38 – 28:18
III: A Military Life 28:18 – 55:27
IV: 9/11 at the Pentagon 55:27 – 1:09:14
V: A Continuing Threat 1:09:14 – 1:30:37
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me today General Jack Keane, who retired in 2003 after a very distinguished 37-year career in the Army. Welcome, General Keane.
KEANE: Great to be here.
KRISTOL: So you retired in 2003, but then in late 2006, I think when we first met – maybe we met once before – but when we met and spent more time together, you were in the middle of planning a surge in Iraq. How did that happen three years after you had left behind your heavy duties after a very distinguished career?
KEANE: Well, everybody recognized we had a very successful invasion in Iraq in 2003, it just took actually a matter of weeks. And then very quickly, an insurgency developed and we developed a strategy to deal with that and frankly I was on active duty at the time and I knew that the Army, the Marine Corps, the ground forces in particular, were ill-prepared to deal with that kind of war. We hadn’t fought a war like that, going all the way back to Vietnam. And while we were successful in defeating the insurgency in Vietnam, given the way the war ended, I know the Army purged itself of the lexicon of everything to do with counterinsurgency.
So none of our officers and certainly none of our generals had any skill-sets to deal with counterinsurgency and that’s what was beginning to develop in 2003, it got worse in 2004, and by 2006, actually Iraq was heading towards a failed state; the new government was fractured before it got started. There is a bloodbath in Baghdad. Hundreds of people were being killed every week. In fact, there was hundreds of unclaimed bodies in Baghdad. The children were not going to school; no services rendered by the government; no one was working.
And it was a despicable situation. And I was watching testimony that summer of 2006 and General Abizaid and Secretary Rumsfeld were providing testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. I had been traveling so I couldn’t sleep when I got home, and I was roaming around the TV.
KRISTOL: And you’re a private citizen at this point? You’re doing some stuff in the private sector and whatever?
KEANE: That’s correct, yeah. And I’m watching it, and I noticed the senators were almost about to come over the table because they were so frustrated by the answers that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Abizaid were giving them. They kept telling them the strategy was working, that everything was okay. And obviously any casual observer of what was taking place in Iraq at the time knew it was not. So it occurred to me that they were not going to change their strategy, that they were going to let Iraq go off the cliff. This is Secretary Rumsfeld and General Abizaid, and that we would suffer a humiliating defeat. So I got up early that morning after a few hours of sleep, took out a long yellow tablet and wrote down what was wrong with the current strategy, what did we need to do to fix it and what really would be a new strategy.
And I called Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and read it to him. He was a – he knew me very well, and I gave him my thoughts – and Henry Kissinger and also Newt Gingrich. I called all of them that day. And I guess Dr. Kissinger wanted me – he said, “Well, we’ve got to bring this to the President.” And I said, “That’s not my lane.” I said, “I was a member of the Defense Policy Board, so we all worked for Secretary Rumsfeld.” So I said, “I’m going to bring this to Secretary Rumsfeld.” So it took me about a week –
KRISTOL: So the Defense Policy Board is a group of civilians and –
KEANE: People appointed by the President but really recommended to the President by the Secretary of Defense and –
KRISTOL: It’s a part-time. I mean, it’s occasional advisory.
KEANE: Yeah, it’s part-time and right. Advisory board and had some military people like me on and mostly some civilians who had, who brought special skills and background to the table. But I did see Secretary Rumsfeld, and I took him through the entire strategy. The meeting lasted for about an hour. And I told him what was wrong with the current strategy and what we needed to do to fix it. I told him that he had to remove the generals who were in charge and put new generals in charge of it.
And to accompany the strategy, we needed probably about five to eight additional brigades to go to Iraq. There was, he had a sense of resignation about what I was saying to him. He was not going to remove the generals but I knew he listened. He asked a lot of thoughtful questions. I think he was sort of frustrated with some of things I was telling him, to be frank about it.
But nothing happened as a result of it. I took the same briefing to Chairman Pace who was the Chairman of Joint Chiefs. He did put together a study group to take a look at the current strategy to see if it was working. That group—and I had recommended a couple of people to be on that. So I was pretty well-informed on what happened. They did validate that the strategy was not working. They did come up with some options but the Joint Chiefs made a decision not to make any changes.
And I thought it was over and then the week before the first week in December – this was September/October of 2006 – the White House called, and they said the President was going to have a meeting with some people who may have some alternative thoughts on what to do with Iraq. So I was one of five that went in there to do that. I called Newt Gingrich and told him, “Listen, I’m going into the Oval Office.” I’ve been there before and I had briefed, I had briefed President Bush before but I didn’t have a working relationship with him nor a familiarity with the Oval Office, only having been there a couple times.
And Gingrich gave me some good advice. He said, “Look, Jack. Most people go in the Oval Office, even people who go in there a lot, have a tendency in front of the President of the United States to always leave something on the table.” He said, “Don’t leave anything on the table.” He said, “You’re going to get about 15 minutes at best and put it all out there. And when you walk out of that room, feel good that you got it all out there.” So that was sound advice, and I did put it all out there.
Interesting enough, the other two generals did not agree with me but the two think-tank academicians who were in there did agree with me. And that night, I got a call saying that from someone who was in the meeting, he had his entire national security staff in there, to include his political advisor and communications chief, etc.
KRISTOL: But not the Pentagon leadership?
KEANE: No Pentagon leadership whatsoever. This was all his staff.
KRISTOL: That’s pretty unusual for a President to have a meeting like that with, with outside – He must have sensed very much that things had gone wrong.
KEANE: Yeah, I think so. I mean I think most people in the country knew there was something terribly wrong in Iraq at that time, and there was a clarion call from Senator McCain and others, “We need to put more troops in there.”
But putting more troops was really not the issue; the issues was the strategy was wrong, and if you gave General Abizaid and General Casey more troops, we’d continue to fail because the strategy was flawed. So what we had to do was change our strategy, which did require more troops.
And so the President, I got a call that night from somebody who was there and they said that, “We believe the President is going to do this, and you, in fact, may get a call from one of the two principals who were there.” Now, the two principals were the President and the Vice President. So the next night, I got a call from Vice President Cheney, and he asked me if I’d be willing to put my uniform on and go fight this war.
And I had left the Army because my wife had contracted Parkinson’s and the situation was more exacerbated, and I told him I really couldn’t do it. And then he said, “Well, would you come into the White House and oversee both wars full-time?” And I had this unbelievable sense of frustration, and then I told him just, I said, “Mr. Vice President, this is the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had, other than a loss of life of people that I love.” I said, “You’re asking me, one, to fight a war, and, two, to help oversee a war, based on some confidence you have on recommendations I made to you, and I’m stiffing you.” And I said, “I really can’t do it full-time but I could do it more than part-time and if you accept the recommendation that we made that General Petraeus should be your man, and there’s reason to go to a retired guy, anyway – it’s kind of an act of desperation – I’d be more that willing to help him.”
So I did go into the White House, I did help them put together the plan and how to execute it and then General Petraeus in a few weeks moved over to Iraq and he asked me to come over and begin to help him, and I did that for about two years on and off.
KRISTOL: And you knew Petraeus well from –
KEANE: Yeah, he worked for me three times, and we had a great relationship, and he got shot accidentally, standing right next to me, and I had to fight to save his life. He had a hole about the size of a quarter in his back and is gushing with blood, and we stopped the bleeding and got him on a helicopter and got him to a surgeon and so we were sort of bonded ever since that time.
KRISTOL: I can imagine, I can imagine. That was an accident, right? That was not –
KEANE: Yeah, it was a soldier, a training accident. When Petraeus tells the story now that he actually, this soldier was actually – the Petraeus version of it. The soldier was aiming at me, and Petraeus saw that and jumped in front of the soldier and saved my life. That’s the story he tells.
KRISTOL: I like that. That’s very good. As I recall, while you were on this track of moving the White House so effectively, Fred Kagan and his team here at AEI were trying to work out in consultation with some people who had worked for you and for Petraeus of how that surge might work. And at some point, you and Fred linked up. The very end of December or early –
KEANE: It was the weekend prior to the briefing to the President, and I had not met Fred but I knew Chris DeMuth who ran AEI and he said, “Would you come over and take a look and see what these guys are doing?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And I was absolutely stunned because I had been thinking about it quite a bit, and our thinking was so similar, even though we had never spoken.
And they had incredible resolution on what the enemy was doing. I had resolution of what the enemy was doing because I had classified briefings on a regular basis. I had all my top-secret clearances. They had none of that but they had remarkable resolution and also what to do about it.
So as we moved towards that week where I was going to go see the President, the day before that, the Vice President called and asked for Fred Kagan and myself to come over and talk to him on the same day I was going to see the President. His office did not know about the President’s meeting yet, it had not made his schedule. So after we finished the meeting with the President that day, I met Fred in a waiting room and we both went to see the Vice President and we gave him a very detailed briefing.
Actually, Fred gave him a very briefing very well done on what the strategy would look like and how we would implement it. The Vice President was very interested in it and asked a lot of questions, and I think that certainly made a contribution. And a report came out that Fred wrote that was widely circulated in the government that reflected that recommendation and why we were failing, and also, I know for a fact it was widely read over in Iraq by the principals who were there as well.
KRISTOL: Yeah, I remember those months pretty well and I had tried to push in my very limited way for a surge of troops without really having any knowledge or understanding of what the exact strategy would be but Fred was advising me.
And of course, I think Cheney was a key player because he was so close to Rumsfeld and it was a big – and Rumsfeld was pretty much, pretty resolutely not interested in this, it seemed to me. And then when the President fired Rumsfeld, I guess the day after the election, right, in November of 2006, I had the feeling the Vice President felt he no longer had to sort of defend his old friend, the Secretary of Defense, and was more open to fresh thinking.
But there were people in the White House who were thinking about it even in September/October, I suppose?
KEANE: Oh, I think so. I think that summer, there were a number of people who were thinking that there’s something wrong here – what could we do? And certainly there were thoughtful people in the White House who had that view. I think the only thing that I really brought to the table is I operationalized it from a military perspective so that the President could actually see what this would look like on the ground.
What we had done in the past is we operated from behind from these very walled forward operating basis we had with towers and protection, and we would run patrols out of there in Humvees on a regular basis. And of course these patrols would get attacked quite a bit by IEDs, and we had a lot of soldiers wounded and killed in doing that.
And what the new strategy called for was to bring everybody outside those walls and have put them in neighborhoods and have them live in the neighborhoods in platoons and company size.
A platoon is about 40 people; a company is about 130. And then they would patrol mostly on foot day and night and protect the people. So this is classic urban counterinsurgency doctrine where you protect the population as job one. You don’t run after the enemy as job one, you protect the population as job one. And then in time as the population sees that you’re willing to risk your life to protect them, they actually give you the enemy. They begin to tell you where is the enemies’ weapons, where is the enemy hiding. When you run the enemy out and he comes back in, which was always a problem we had in Iraq, they would immediately tell us because it was in their interest to get rid of these terrorists who were so intimidating their lives and where the children had no quality of life whatsoever.
So that was the psychology of it and the military principle involved. And within a matter of months, it began to work.
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