Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of the U.S. Central Command. General McKenzie will discuss the safe and deliberate withdrawal from Afghanistan, deterring Iran’s destabilizing activities, China and Russia’s influence in the region, and the Defeat ISIS Campaign in Iraq and Syria. After his opening remarks, General McKenzie will then take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to General McKenzie for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
General McKenzie: Thank you, Sam. It’s a pleasure to speak with all of you today. I want to thank the State Department for putting this engagement together, and I want to thank all of you who are participating in the call despite the early-evening start time, I know, out in the Middle East. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with you because I know how important you are for communicating to the people of this region. And so today I’m going to provide an update on some of my priorities as they relate to security and stability in the region.
First, we are continuing to execute a safe and deliberate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the direction of our President, and in concert with our NATO allies and partners. We’ve completed about half of the entire retrograde process, and we will meet the September deadline to complete the full withdrawal from Afghanistan. We’re still going to maintain an embassy there and we will be continuing to support the Afghan security forces and we will continue to conduct counterterrorism operations from over the horizon.
The Afghan withdrawal remains one of our main efforts, but of course it’s not our only focus. I recently traveled to Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, I had a great meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. We discussed the enduring defeat of ISIS, implementing security sector reforms, and other dynamics that affect regional stability. Our support to the Iraqi security forces continues to evolve as they expand their ability to plan and conduct operations independently.
Today we have a relatively small U.S. footprint in Iraq – all at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, all focused on advising, equipping, and assisting the Iraqi security forces.
During my visit to Syria I met with our men and women who are helping the Syrian Defense Forces, or SDF, continue the fight against Daesh. We’ve crushed the caliphate. They no longer hold ground, but we don’t want to take the pressure off now. ISIS still has an aspirational – an aspiration to hold territory and spread its violent ideology. We want to prevent that from happening. In the long run, the goal is to ensure that local security forces can continue to do this work without us.
Another priority is deterring Iran’s destabilizing activities, which remains the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East. I believe that our posture in the region has had a deterrent effect on Iran and made it more difficult for them to deny attribution for their malign activities. We have achieved that with a robust force posture that includes ships, airpower, and ballistic missile defense capabilities, and of course there are many more things we do in concert with our friends in the region that contribute to that end as well.
It is evident that China and Russia are seeking greater influence and stronger ties to nations in the region. Both nations try to exploit any perceived decline in U.S. engagement to opportunistically establish and strengthen relationships.
China engaged with nearly every country in the region in 2020, using exploitative debt traps, the Belt and Road Initiative, and medical diplomacy with their vaccine, which has dubious efficacy, to try to expand its influence.
Russia is equally disruptive in the region, and their engagements are largely opportunistic and transactional. Russia seeks ways to position itself as an alternative to the West by offering to mediate regional conflicts, selling arms, offering military expertise, and participating in regional and multilateral organizations to advance their interests.
Despite many challenges, the United States remains well positioned with its many partners and allies in the region. In my experience, nearly every country in the region continues to regard the U.S. as its preferred partner. This is true even among the states of Central Asia, where Russia and China have the benefit of proximity to support their efforts to expand their influence.
Before we open the call for questions, I would like to discuss the 20 million displaced people spread across the Middle East and Central Asian region who have fled their homes to avoid conflict and who represent nearly one-fourth of the 80 million people that are displaced globally. Millions have sought refuge in neighboring countries, many of which struggle with their own economic and social challenges. These men, women, and children mostly inhabit large refugee camps, they struggle to find daily sustenance, and they’re almost exclusively dependent on international charitable organizations for their needs. This extremely vulnerable population is ripe for exploitation, and in some cases, subjected to harsh recruiting efforts by extremists, which has the potential to become a much greater problem in the future. This problem has no military solution and it requires an international effort that will be very dependent on nations from the region if it’s to be effective.
With that, I’m now ready to – Sam, ready to take questions.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question is a pre-submitted question from Samira Frimeche from Kuwait’s Al Nahar newspaper, and she asks, “Sir, how do you evaluate the troop withdrawal process in Afghanistan and what is the impact on their mission to combat terrorism?” Over to you, sir.
General McKenzie: Sure. I’m not going to be able to go into details on how that withdrawal is going. I would refer to my earlier statement: we’re about halfway finished with it; we are on pace and it’s continuing very smoothly. It is our intention to continue to be able to go after al-Qaida and ISIS from over the horizon, from other locations in the theater, and we’re working now with friends in the region to establish that capability as we go forward. Thank you.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live queue and it goes to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: Your line is open. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking my question. General, I want to ask about Afghanistan. Now, you said you will open an embassy there, but we had an interview in my outlet with the official representative of the political office of Taliban, and he said in an interview that the Islamic Emirate is the only legitimate representative of the Afghan people and the current Kabul administration is a creation of the occupation. I wonder if there’s a full withdrawal for all the international troops, would you be able to have a mission there? Would any foreign mission be able to operate there in Afghanistan after the withdrawal?
General McKenzie: Well, first of all, thank you for your question. Let me just note that the protection of any diplomatic mission in any country is first and foremost the responsibility of the host nation. So we won’t be there unless we – unless we’re invited to be there. We recognize the Government of Afghanistan as the existing Government of Afghanistan, and I would leave further discussion on the definition between what the Taliban seeks or doesn’t seek and their relationship to the Government of Afghanistan probably better with the Department of State than myself. But I would just close by noting, again, we do plan to have an embassy in Afghanistan, it will be at the invitation of the Government of Afghanistan, and it will be first – and most important – their responsibility to protect that embassy, although we will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect our diplomats in any embassy anywhere in the world. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is a pre-submitted question from Kareem Chehayeb from Al Jazeera, and he asks, “What is the United States’ current goals in northern Syria? Is it to eliminate the remaining traces of ISIS? Are there concerns related to the Assad government reclaiming those territories if U.S. troops withdrew?” Over to you, sir.
General McKenzie: Sure. So our presence in Syria is directly related to finishing ISIS, and that’s important because ISIS still maintains aspirations to attack the United States, our homeland, and the homelands of our allies. And what we have found is direct pressure on them has made it very hard for them to plan. Now, that direct pressure is not coming from the United States; rather, it’s coming from our SDF partners. We enable them, we support them. We’re not out there actually doing the fighting. Instead, our SDF partners are the people that are out there actually doing the fighting.
But as I’ve said before in a couple of different venues, if you’re scrambling up and down the Euphrates River Valley listening to aircraft overhead and worrying if you’re going to survive the night, it’s hard to plan an attack on someone else’s homeland.
Now, let me go a step further and say in the long term, we’d like to transition this to local security organizations that are going to be able to provide this kind of security without a significant investment and international support. That’s still in the future, but that is ultimately the direction that we would like to move. Thank you.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the live queue and goes to Wafaa Jibai from Al Hurra. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Thank you, General, for doing this. My question is about Iraq. What’s your assessment today for the situation in Iraq, and how concerned are you about the excessive use of drones in attacks on Iraqi bases recently? And do you see this as a new tactic from Iran and its proxies in Iraq?
General McKenzie: Sure. So the U.S. force presence in Iraq is there at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, and our focus remains on completing the final destruction of Daesh, and that is actually a good-news story: we are moving forward. The Iraqi security forces are maturing. They’re getting better. And in fact, we are not conducting combat operations in Iraq right now; the Iraqis are conducting those combat operations and our forces are there largely in a train/advise/assist mentoring role, which is exactly the way you would like the campaign to develop. So I’m very pleased with the way that’s going.
We are seeing pressure from Iranian-affiliated militant groups that want to push us out of Iraq, and the latest manifestation of that has been the use of small unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Some of them are very small, some are a little bit larger – all can be very lethal. And they are resorting to this technique because they have been unable to force the Government of Iraq to require that we leave. So political pressure has not worked for them; now they’re turning to a kinetic approach. And that is very concerning to me. As always, we have a variety of measures there that we can defend ourselves, but just as in Afghanistan, the primary responsibility for defense of us – for defense of our forces and our NATO partners and everyone else who’s in there – the primary responsibility for that defense is with the Government of Iraq. And they have done a number of things that have been very helpful to reduce the threat. Nonetheless, the threat is concerning and we will take whatever measures are necessary to defend ourselves. Thank you.
Moderator: Great. Thank you, sir. Our next question is from the live queue and goes to Monalisa Freiha from Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Hello. Thank you, General. Just I want to ask you about Lebanon. Is there any changes in the U.S. military assistance to Lebanese – to the Lebanese army?
General McKenzie: Sure. We remain committed to supporting the Lebanese armed forces. They’re one of the elements of the Government of Lebanon that actually functions very well, and we believe they should continue to be the sole expression of military power of the state in Lebanon. I had a good visit there a couple of months ago where I met with the chief of defense. It was a very good meeting, and we will continue to support them in every way that we can. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Muath Alamri from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: Your line is open. Go ahead.
Question: Hi, good morning. Good morning. Thank you so much. I have a very quick question. The U.S. had seized a weapons shipment in north of Arab Sea a month ago, and I remember the Fifth Fleet said it’s under investigation, and some people suspected that shipment was coming from Iran. My question, General McKenzie: What do you think about it and what is the result of that investigation? And if you could tell us more about “Tiger Team” that will help Saudi Arabia. Thank you.
General McKenzie: Sure. So let me begin by talking about the ship. Yes, we seized a ship. It had a lot – seized the ship and a large number of weapons on it in very suspicious circumstances. We are still finalizing attribution for this because we want to be very careful before we go public with who we believe is associated with it. But at some point we will certainly come out with that and we will do that in concert with our regional partners. The time is just not ready to do that, and we’ll come out with it as soon as we can. So there’s a lot of evidence of what these shipments are and where they’re going, but I’ll just leave it at that.
As for assistance to Saudi Arabia, if what you mean is – we are continuing to work with the Saudis on improvement of their integrated air and missile defense. That’s a very high priority for us, as it is with Saudi Arabia, because they are subjected to really an unceasing bombardment from the Houthis in Yemen through ballistic missiles, small drones, and land-attack cruise missiles. And these attacks are not helpful; they’re certainly not helpful to try to find an end to the conflict in Yemen. And so we work very hard with the Saudis to enable them to defend themselves, so that work is going on and I’m pleased with the results that we’ve made. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is a pre-submitted question and comes from Subhi Franjieh from al-Arabi al-Jadeed, and this journalist asks, “Recently there have been more movements by Iranian militias in Raqqa and the Euphrates, right next to areas controlled by the SDF in Deir ez-Zor. Does this affect the mission of the coalition forces in Syria or does it even make the coalition worried?” Over to you, sir.
General McKenzie: Sure. So we monitor force movements all the time with their – with the possibility of attacking us or attacking our Iraqi main – our Iraqi friends. So I – without going into further detail on this, I would tell you we track all of these things very closely and we’re always concerned about movements of this nature, but I’ll just leave it there. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the live queue and comes from Ibrahim Badawy from Qatar’s Lusail newspaper. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Hello, thank you for the opportunity. My question is, what is your assessment of Qatar-U.S. strategic cooperation in fighting terrorism, and if there is any update on USA’s expansion project and also the coordination in the Afghanistan complicated peace process, especially with concern of massive chaos post-U.S. withdrawal? Thank you.
General McKenzie: Sure. So Qatar is a very important relationship for the United States and for Central Command in particular. As I’m sure you’re aware, my forward headquarters is actually located in Qatar, and we are very – we’ve been very pleased and very happy with the significant efforts that Qatar has put into increasing and improving the infrastructure at that very critical base, and that is very appreciated by all Americans and particularly by those who live out there in Qatar and amongst the wonderful Qatari people. So that is very much – that is very much appreciated.
We also very much appreciate the fact that Qatar has hosted round after round of intra-Afghan negotiations and has contributed significantly towards finding a way forward for what’s going on in Afghanistan. I would say that it is critical that the parties come together. I believe the Government of Afghanistan is ready to talk. I think the Taliban need to show an equal commitment to talking very honestly and in a straightforward way to try to find a political solution as we go forward. I agree with you: as we pull out, there needs to be something political that’s left in place. I think the Government of Afghanistan is willing to do that. I’m not sure the Taliban is willing to do that. Now is the time, and unfortunately, time is now becoming very short. Thank you for the question.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Chris Hamill-Stewart from Arab News. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Hello, General. Thank you for hosting the briefing. My question is on the Houthi assault on Marib in Yemen. What’s the American perspective on that, which is – it seems to be escalating? And how does it affect calculations vis-à-vis the Saudi-proposed peace plan for Yemen?
General McKenzie: Sure. So I think we’re at a point in the crisis in Yemen where I am personally convinced the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks a responsible political end to the conflict. I am convinced they’re willing to take significant steps to make that happen. Unfortunately, I do not believe the Houthis are ready to seize the moment, and they have an opportunity here to enter good-faith negotiations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to bring an end to this conflict, which is genuinely tragic because it traps so many millions of people under conditions of indescribable poverty, food insecurity, and a lot of other things that we’re all very much familiar with.
So where I am on it is I believe the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ready to negotiate. The Houthis need also to be ready to negotiate. But I will tell you, their constant bombardment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as I’ve already noted, with a combination of cruise missiles, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, and land-attack cruise missiles is not helpful, and their continuing – their continued pressure to take the town of Marib in northwest Yemen is not helpful either. And so I believe we’re at a point where if the Houthis will just see that they have an opportunity to perhaps get into a political negotiation here, then they have an opportunity. I hope that their pride and their desire to seek a purely military solution to this conflict is not going to overcome the opportunity that we now have in front of us. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Tony Mrad from Lebanon-based LBCI. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Yes, hello. So my question is: lifting of the sanctions relating to ballistic missiles and Iranian presence in the region, what hinders the announcement of an agreement between Washington and Tehran in Vienna?
General McKenzie: Sure. A very good question. I am not the guy that can answer that question, though, and I would actually defer those questions to the Department of State and they would be far better postured to answer those questions. As you know, our U.S. envoy, Special Envoy Mr. Rob Malley, has been very active in this regard. I know that our diplomats are working very hard to get to a solution here that would not only incorporate JCPOA but look to broader issues as well. But again, I’m just not the guy that would be the best source of information on that. Thank you for the question.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. We have time for just a few more questions. The next question is also from the live queue and goes to Idrees Ali from Reuters. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Thank you. Yeah, General, I just had a question about Afghanistan, and obviously you’ll be hearing from lawmakers about the need to help interpreters and others who helped the U.S. over the past 20 years in Afghanistan. And the question for you is, as you’re working for the options on how the U.S. military can sort of help the interpreters, is there a point at which you need a decision to maybe start evacuating interpreters? Or can you do that even after September?
General McKenzie: We will have the capability to exercise whatever orders were given. Clearly, it’s easier at some times than others. But the United States military has remarkable capabilities for this type of thing. We can do whatever is going to be necessary whenever it would be necessary. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Jared Szuba from Al-Monitor. Operator, please open the line.
Question: Hi, sir. Thank you for doing this. Just wondering if I could follow up on the previous question about the Lebanese armed forces. I’m wondering if you could tell us about the latest U.S. involvement in initiatives to support the LAF. Beyond providing patrol boats, what are we planning to do to ensure the LAF will remain a stable pillar for the country there?
General McKenzie: Sure. So we work very hard with the LAF to provide on-the-ground training with both resident and mobile training teams. So I think the most – equipment is good, equipment is nice, and of course you need the equipment. But what is actually of more significance are the training opportunities that we have with the Lebanese armed forces, and we work very hard to work with them on the ground. We work with not only the ground part of the LAF but also the aviation part of the LAF and, as you noted, elements of the navy. And all of those domains, all of those specialties, we work to train alongside them, to help them when we can. And I think that is probably, ultimately, far more important in the long run than the very important equipment that we do give them. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Operator, can you just confirm that last line was – which line was that?
Operator: One moment, please. That would have been Jared Szuba.
Moderator: Okay. All right. Let’s go ahead and take one – we have time for just one last question, so let’s go ahead and go to Karen DeYoung from the Washington Post, please.
Question: Thank you. This is also following up on some previous questions about Afghanistan. As you noted, there needs to be some kind of political something in place before the final departure, and that the time is becoming very short for that. As I’m sure you know, a number of the allies are concerned about plans for, for example, protection of the airport, protection of the hospital, the means of access if they keep their embassies open. Can you tell us what the plans are for that and if you’ve come up with a plan yet, if you are certain that there will be a means of access that the airport can be protected, that aid workers for this stepped-up U.S. effort, let alone other efforts, will be able to go out into the countryside as opposed to just sitting in the Green Zone?
General McKenzie: Karen, first of all, thanks for the question. Our plans are very far advanced on what our posture is going to look like after we complete the withdrawal of USFOR-A and of course our NATO and other partners that are there. And I’m not going to be able to go into any details on that right now because we just – it’s not an appropriate time to share that information because those are tactical questions which could give advantage to those who would attack us. And at some point we’ll be able to share more of that with you, but I’m afraid right now I’m just not going to be able to give you any more information on that.
The one point I would tell you is we are completely integrated with our NATO partners and our other partners there. You’ve heard us say we’re going to go in together, we’re going to come out together. We are completely integrated in that approach as we go forward. And also, we are completely integrated with the Department of State. We meet frequently with our Department of State colleagues on this, and so at every level. I meet at my level, and of course the secretaries meet. So we have very good department-to-department planning on this as we go forward.
I wish I could give you more on this, Karen. I recognize it’s a subject of abiding interest to many people, but I just don’t have anything else I can share with you right now. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And now, General McKenzie, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
General McKenzie: All right. So thanks, Sam, and thanks, everybody, for participating. I actually enjoy these. I think they’re useful. I think it is important for us to tell you what we can share. Of course, I’m never going to be able to share as much as you would like to know, and I do appreciate that as well, and there’s a certain tension there. But I will always be as forthright with you as I can be and give you anything I can. So thanks very much and again, Sam, I really appreciate the Department of State for setting this up. I look forward to doing it again in the future. And for all our colleagues in the world of journalism that are out there, thanks very much for joining me today and this evening. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. That concludes today’s call. Again, apologies to all of you on the line that were trying to get a question in. We only had a certain limited amount of time and lots and lots of questions. I would like to thank U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.