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Could and Should U.S. End Combat Role in Afghanistan Early?

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried Thursday to downplay Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remarks suggesting an early U.S. transition out of combat in Afghanistan. Judy Woodruff discusses a potential end to combat operations in 2013 with retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and Celeste Ward Gventer of the University of Texas.

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    Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane was Army vice chief of staff when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. He now has his own consulting firm. And Celeste Ward Gventer was a deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2006 and 2007. She's now at the University of Texas in Austin.

    We thank you both for being with us.

    Gen. Keane, to you first. You started — you just came back, I should say, from a trip to Afghanistan. What do you think it would mean if the U.S. and NATO were to accelerate this handover of security from NATO to Afghan forces early?

    GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, we're not ready to do that, frankly.

    What has happened in the south and southwest, which is Kandahar Province and Helmand Province, we have made significant gains, and we're solidifying those gains. I mean, in my judgment, the Taliban have been handed a stunning defeat there.

    Secondly, now in the east for the first time, the momentum has shifted to our favor. And that's where we need to apply these additional resources that we currently have. And we need all of the 2013 fighting season to continue that momentum but, most importantly, to solidify those gains.

    I think — while it's possible we could finish that task early, I think it's highly unlikely.


    Celeste Ward Gventer, how do you see — what would it mean if the transition were to happen a year earlier?

    CELESTE WARD GVENTER, University of Texas at Austin: Well, Judy, thank you so much for having me on.

    And I have a great respect for General Keane and his service to our nation, but I respectfully disagree with him on this. I think we need to step back and ask the question, fighting season to fight for what, and who are we fighting, and to what end?

    And I think the administration has still not satisfactorily answered that question. It's not clear who our enemy is or what another fighting season or two more fighting seasons or 10 more fighting seasons is really going to achieve, at the expense of American lives and treasure.


    What about that? What does another fighting season, or more, as she just put it, accomplish?


    Well, I mean, we're still asking a basic question, why are we in Afghanistan? I thought that question had been answered for the American people after the 9/11 attack.

    We're attempting to stabilize that country, so the Taliban do not return the power and we don't have to deal with the sanctuary again, which we would most likely have to deal with if they were permitted to return to power. So that is what we are preventing from occurring.

    And just as the surge made significant difference in Iraq through two fighting seasons, 2007, 2008 we brought the level of violence down 90 percent, and it was the within Iraqi security forces' capability of handling, while these countries are very different, the principles are absolutely the same.

    We're trying to bring the level of violence down with the Taliban to put it within the means of the Afghan national security forces to handle. We have done that in two major areas. And we need one other area to do that in, in R.C. East.


    Why isn't that a sufficient explanation, Celeste Ward Gventer?


    Well, Judy, I think we need to consider that 9/11 was over 10 years ago.

    The principal architect and organization responsible for the attack on the United States is gone. And what's happening in Afghanistan now has far less to do with 9/11 than it has to do with regional rivalries being played out on the stage of Afghanistan, which has happened many times in the history of Afghanistan.

    And the United States is right in the middle of it. And we need to start looking at what our fundamental strategic interests are. And if it's to prevent a sanctuary for terrorism, there's many ways to do that other than occupying Afghanistan in perpetuity.

    There's no real evidence that, even if the Taliban were to come back into power, that there would be nothing we could do to prevent it becoming a sanctuary again. And the 9/11 argument, I think, frankly, even with the American public is growing a bit stale, if you look at polls and the way that the American public is viewing this war now.


    How do you respond to that?


    Well . . .


    And, again, you have been talking to the military leaders over there. Why do they believe that staying a little bit longer is going to make a difference?


    Because it clearly does. Force has a quality all of its own.

    Killing and defeating Taliban and driving them out of the country is a military objective, that you can define that objective and you can define the results. And for the life of me, after we came to Afghanistan in 2001, we changed that regime out, in addition with the Northern Alliance tribes.

    I don't know how you walk away from the 30 million people and just turn them back into the Taliban and seventh century Talibanism, with the fanatical, brutal regime that they were. It seems to me that America, in terms of its character and its values, does have some obligation to those people, after we made that regime change.


    But under that argument, you would argue for staying indefinitely then?


    Oh, no.

    What I'm saying, what I'm arguing for is staying to a point where the Afghan security forces can begin to deal with the situation on their own. And that's all we have been interested. We're not an occupation force. And the only reason this thing is 10 years long is because we have an administration that prioritized Iraq over Afghanistan beginning in 2002, and this place was on a diet in terms of resources until 2010.


    Celeste Ward Gventer, if you could respond to that, and also this National Intelligence Estimate that we mentioned in the report a minute ago. It's been leaked to a news organization.

    It's essentially painting a more pessimistic picture than what the administration has been saying.


    Well, Judy, the NIE is discouraging, but not terribly surprising.

    I think we need to keep in mind that this is their country, and we are primarily fighting Afghans, whose country we are in. And, you know, we may have a moral obligation to people around the world to prevent atrocities and prevent terrible things from happening to them.

    But if that's the fundamental driver of American strategy in this world, we're going to be awfully busy, because there are lots of other terrible places where terrible things happen. We also have a moral obligation to the people of the United States, their tax dollars.

    And I know General Keane would agree with me that we have a moral obligation to our all-volunteer force and the tens of thousands of military families who've been experiencing nonstop deployments for over a decade now.

    And so strategy is all about balancing priorities and about figuring out what's important to you and managing risks. And there are no great solutions here, but what we're doing doesn't seem to be resulting in anything terribly good for the United States.


    How do you respond?


    Well, I certainly agree with the purpose and the strategy of stabilizing in Afghanistan. I think it will contribute to regional stability to a certain degree.

    I would agree with Celeste that, overall, we have not had a very good regional strategy, and that still persists to this day. But for the life of me, I don't see a destabilized Afghanistan, with the Taliban in control, as being anything but horrific for the region in terms of the rise of radical Islam.

    What it would portend for Pakistan in terms of their future destabilization, with a growing nuclear arsenal and an already raging insurgency inside that country, it would just add to that problem. So I think we've got to look at it in terms of what is the impact on Pakistan, and certainly what are our obligations to protect our own people from this place, when we know for a fact that the Taliban and the al-Qaida are collaborating today as we speak and clearly would reunify their efforts.


    Just quick final word from you, Celeste Ward Gventer, and do you believe the administration is going to accelerate this departure timetable?


    Well, I think they well might.

    And I would advise them in fact to do that, because the reality is, it's not free to continue the course that we're on. We always have to choose between not a perfect course and the other course that we're on or some other desirable course. We have to take what we're doing into account and other alternatives. And I think what we're doing has stopped making sense long — a long time ago.


    Celeste Ward Gventer, Gen. Jack Keane, we thank you both.


    Good seeing you.


    Thank you so much.