SEN. JAMES M. INHOFE, R-OKLA., CHAIRMAN: The meeting will come to order.
The committee meets today to receive the testimony of the United States Central Command. I'd like to welcome our witness, General Frank McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command.
I want to add that, immediately following this morning's open hearing, we'll move to SVC-217 (ph) in the Senate Visitor Center for a closed session, which will be an opportunity for General McKenzie to answer some of the questions. You might make a note of questions that come along that are not appropriately answered in this setting so that we can do it later.
I'd like to begin by recognizing the two, United States Marine Gunnery Sergeant Diego Pongo and Captain Moises A. Navas, who were killed earlier this week during a mission against the ISIS stronghold in Iraq.
I also want to recognize the two additional Americans who were killed yesterday, whose names have not yet been released. That was in a rocket attack in -- in Taji. Their loss is a painful reminder that, even where we've been successful, such as in destroying ISIS, the caliphate, we still have troops in harm's way, and -- and when Senator Rounds and I had the opportunity to meet with some of our troops, just two weeks ago, in visiting Iraq, we had a chance to really talk over some of the things like this with them.
General, later this month you'll be commemorating your one-year anniversary as CENTCOM commander. And I'm sure you'll agree it's been a -- been a tough ride. Since May of 2019 we've seen Iran and its terrorist proxies escalate their asymmetric aggression against the United States and our partners throughout the region.
In May they hit our partner's oil tankers. In June they downed the American drone. In September they attacked Saudi oil facilities, threatening the global energy supply. And throughout this up-tick, President Trump announced new sanctions on Iran, bolstering protection for our troops in the region. But he sought to avoid a military escalation and even offered to negotiate with -- with Tehran.
Then in December, Iran's proxies killed a U.S. citizen and attacked the -- the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. These actions crossed the president's red line, which we knew that, by his very nature, he's going to adhere to his own red lines and, like some others in the past, and the president responded by ordering a strike that ended up killing Soleimani.
Iran countered by firing ballistic missiles that thankfully missed our troops in Iraq, though over 100 soldiers sustained concussions. Since then, the situation seems to have -- seems to have de-escalated.
INHOFE: Iran countered by firing ballistic missiles and thankfully missing our troops and through -- over 100 -- though over 100 soldiers sustained concussions. After that attack, however, the situation appeared to be de-escalate.
Yet despite the deployment of approximately 14,000 new troops to the region to deter Iran, your written testimony says, and I'm quoting from your written testimony, General, quote, "Ample intelligence exists indicating that Iran's regime desired to -- to continue malign operations that threatened lives, and early media reports suggest that Iran-backed groups were responsible for yesterday's attack at Camp Taji." So if the deployment of approximately 14,000 troops in the region won't deter them, I'm -- I'm sure a good question would be, what will deter them? We'll have ample opportunity to respond to that question.
So I ask because this committee's top priority is effective implementation of the National Defense Strategy which says to focus on China and Russia as a central challenge to the U.S. prosperity and security, and as your -- you highlight in your written statement, to accept greater risk in the CENTCOM AOR. Countering Iran is an important aspect of American credibility in the Middle East and bolstering American credibility is vital to preventing our partners from looking toward China and -- and Russia for their security needs.
But every battalion that we send to the Middle East is a battalion that's not being sent and supporting someplace -- other priorities in Europe and in -- in the Pacific, and moreover, this ramp-up in the Middle East comes while other priorities such as counterterrorism and security cooperation in Africa are being undersourced.
So I hope you will address how these new deployments to the Middle East are changing Iran's behavior for the better and -- or if conflict with Iran remains likely in your view, we'd like to know -- you explain to us what these new deployments are achieving.
And with that, I'll turn to Senator Reed.
SEN. JACK REED, D-R.I., RANKING MEMBER: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and let me join you in welcoming General McKenzie back before the committee, and we look forward to your testimony and -- and our discussion. Thank you, General.
Let me also join the chairman in expressing my condolences for the loss of the three coalition personnel at Camp Taji last evening, and two of whom were reported to be American personnel, and the death of the two Marines conducting operations against ISIS in Iraq earlier this week. Our thoughts are with their families and those who were injured in those two incidents.
The agreement between the United States and the Taliban announced on February 29th was a notable step toward bringing our nation's longest war to a close. It is important to keep in mind, however, that is only a first step, and the path to long-term stability in Afghanistan will only be found through a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
With that in mind, I am concerned that we are not appropriately leveraging U.S. and coalition military presence to support a settlement that protects U.S. security interests primarily, and values, including the hard-fought gains on issues in Afghanistan like women's rights in education. By announcing a timetable for the complete withdrawal of U.S. and international forces before inter-Afghan negotiations have even begun, I am concerned that we are, in some respects, undermining the Afghan government and validating the Taliban's long-standing perception that they can wait us out.
Despite the specific timeline contained in the agreement, some in the administration have said that the 14-month timetable is aspirational, and that we will have ample time to assess the Taliban's intent and capability to uphold their security commitments.
REED: General McKenzie, I hope you will help us better understand how we intend to monitor and verify Taliban compliance. In particular, do you believe it will be possible for U.S. forces to conduct the rigorous monitoring and evaluation necessary to ensure that terrorist threats will not re-emerge in Afghanistan while simultaneously carrying out a full-scale withdrawal?
I would also like to hear more about the commitments we have made to our Afghan partners and how our efforts to build credible security forces and institutions will be sustained.
The Afghan Security Forces have been nearly completely built and funded by U.S. and coalition funds. Additionally, until the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Afghan Security Forces also received robust advising and enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces on the ground and in the air.
Even with the peace agreement, there is little to suggest that the Afghan economy will, with any foreseeable timeframe, provide enough revenue to fully fund the country's security forces.
Notably, the administration's Fiscal Year 2021 budget request contains funding for Afghan training and equipping programs that will extend well beyond the date of the planned departure of the last U.S. military personnel.
It is important for this committee to understand the plan to ensure those resources are invested in sustainable and responsible ways, especially given the likelihood of increased Taliban participation in the Afghan government.
Despite the focus of the National Defense Strategy on a more resource-sustainable approach to the national security challenges in CENTCOM, we have deployed more than 14,000 troops in the region since May in response to malign Iranian activity.
While I understand the need to ensure U.S. personnel facilities and key strategic interests are protected, I question the extent to which we can deter asymmetric attacks by Iran through the deployment of additional conventional U.S. military force to the region. Indeed, the rocket attack on Camp Taji in Iraq last night, reportedly carried out by Iranian-backed militia, which seemed to challenge the notion that we've re-established deterrence with respect to Iran.
Overall, I believe that the administration's so-called maximum pressure campaign has isolated us from our allies, given Iran a pretext to violate constraints placed on its nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and may in fact have increased the likelihood of conflict.
The killing of the leaders of ISIS and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was, at worst, significant counterterrorism operations and the administration should be commended for those operations. But the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, fallout from the killing of General Soleimani, and political unrest in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere have disrupted our efforts against ISIS.
I remain concerned about the long-term disposition of the more than 10,000 ISIS fighters being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as the unknown number of internally displaced people that retain an allegiance to ISIS.
General McKenzie, I look forward to an update on CENTCOM's operation to ensure these groups are unable to re-emerge.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, very much.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Reed.
General McKenzie, we'll recognize you for your opening statement. As you know, your entire statement will be made part of the record.
GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE, JR., USMC, COMMANDER, UNITED STATES CENTRAL COMMAND: Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Reed, distinguished members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to provide an operational update and testimony in support of the F.Y. '21 budget request pertaining to CENTCOM's area of responsibility.
My senior enlisted leader, Fleet Master Chief Jamie Herdel of the Navy, is also with me here today, seated immediately behind me.
I appreciate very much your remarks about the sacrifices of Captain Navas and Gunnery Sergeant Pongo as well as Corporal Zavala, a Marine who was killed in a vehicle rollover during an exercise in UAE just a couple of days ago. Additionally, the two U.S. servicemembers and the United Kingdom servicemember who died in the attack at Taji yesterday in Iraq. They will be remembered.
MCKENZIE: Today, there are nearly 90,000 men and women serving throughout the 20 nations comprising United States Central Command as well as our headquarters in Tampa. I am proud of their remarkable dedication and humbled by their personal sacrifice. And it's my honor to serve with them.
They are young Americans in the line of fire, working to prevent attacks on the homeland, counter destabilizing regional influence; prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and ensure the freedom of navigation through international waterways.
Your annual and timely passage of both the National Defense Authorization Act and the defense appropriations bills honors their courage and sacrifice. And I encourage you to maintain this tradition.
Keeping a pledge from my confirmation hearing before you here in December 2018, I appear now and offer you my best military advice.
While my written statement highlights several nations and areas of interests within the Central Command area of responsibility, my opening statement today will focus on Iran.
The National Defense Strategy directs us to work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and to neutralize Iranian malign influence. This is no easy task.
Iran's regime is persistent and resilient, growing its arsenal of ballistic missiles despite international condemnation. And Iran remains the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism.
Since May 2019 Iranian proxies and Shia militia groups in Iraq have increased attacks on U.S. interests and conducted scores of unmanned aerial system -- aerial unmanned system reconnaissance flights near U.S. and Iraqi security force bases.
The Iranian regime has attacked or seized foreign vessels in the Gulf, sponsored attacks by Houthi forces from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, continued the export of lethal aid to destabilizing groups throughout the region and, in September 2019, carried out an unprecedented cruise missile and UAS attack against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
In early January Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles in a deliberate attack against U.S. and coalition forces at two bases in Iraq. This state-sponsored missile strike crossed a threshold, compared to previous attacks, and has probably set a lower bar for future actions by the regime.
Yesterday hostile forces, most likely Shia militia groups, launched more than a dozen rockets at U.S. and coalition forces at Camp Taji in Iraq, killing two U.S. and one British servicemember, as well as wounding several more.
While we are still investigating the attack, I will note that the Iranian proxy group, Kataib Hezbollah, is the only group known to have previously conducted an indirect fire attack of this scale against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
While periods of decreased tension may provide the illusion of a return to normalcy, ample intelligence, and indeed yesterday's actions, indicate the Iranian regime's desire to continue malign activities that threaten lives, destabilize sovereign nations, threaten freedom of navigation and regional commerce, global energy supplies and the global economy itself.
At CENTCOM we recognize that, so long as the U.S. applies diplomatic and economic pressure, the joint force must be postured to deter Iran from deploying the military element of power to counter our actions.
Our presence sends a clear message about our capabilities and our will to defend partners and U.S. national interests. Going forward, it is CENTCOM's objective to posture forces in the region with the operational deputy to achieve a consistent state of deterrence against Iran and to be adaptable to future Iranian threats.
The department's F.Y. '21 budget supports CENTCOM's ability to keep our forces agile, lethal and adaptable. As we work with our partners to safeguard our mutual interests, we do so with the knowledge that we are stronger together. Key to building and maintaining regional partnerships is the authorization, funding and employment of security assistance programs.
Additionally, the National Guard's state partnership program cultivates relationships and improves interoperability with six nations across the CENTCOM AOR, with more applying for entry this year.
Again, the 2021 budget supports building new partnerships and enabling the formation of an enduring Middle East coalition. As CENTCOM continues ongoing operations, we appreciate the efforts of our DOD civilian leadership. We acknowledge the teamwork of the inter-agency. And we thank the members of Congress and your staffs, without whose consistent backing we would be unable to accomplish our mission.
In order for America's armed forces to sustain all-domain dominance, the department requires your support, as well as predictable, adequate and timely funding.
Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member and committee members, thank you again for all you do for our troops and families, and I look forward to your questions.
INHOFE: Thank you, General, very much.
And for any of the members who came in a little bit late, we announced that we're going to have a closed session immediately following this, down in SVC-217.
General McKenzie, I -- in the past year, in response to the Iranian provocations, we have deployed some 14,000 additional troops to the region. And you've indicated in your statement that more attacks from Iran are likely. And if so, in what sense are these new deployments to the Middle East deterring -- what level of deterrence do they provide?
And is there another form of deterrence that might work?
MCKENZIE: Chairman, I believe that deterrence is born of an appreciation in the mind of the adversary of both capability and will. And we, over the last few months, have demonstrated both of that.
And as a result of that, I believe we have re-established a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence, with Iran, at the level of state-on-state attacks.
By that, I'm referring to things like, obviously, attributable ballistic missile attacks from Iran launched against U.S. forces. We've seen they have stood their missiles down. They are no longer -- I don't think that's an imminent threat.
What has not been changed is their continuing desire to operate through their proxies indirectly against us. And that is a far more difficult area to -- to deter, because they believe they can generate a measure of non-attribution with those attacks. We would not agree because we believe eventually we'll be able to distill who is behind these attacks going forward.
So we're in a period where, state-on-state, I believe we have achieved deterrence. But with their proxy activities -- and while they're principal in Iraq, they are not limited to Iraq and there are other areas where they are active as well. That is the period that we're in now with Iran, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Um-hmm. Um-Hmm. Appreciate that.
The -- as it is right now, we have, kind of, a deal with -- with the Taliban that we're bringing our troop level down from 12,000 to 8,600, and they in turn have commitments to us. And my -- I'd have two questions. Are they keeping their commitments? Does it appear that they're keeping their commitments to us?
And if not, what would be the next step after our withdrawal down to 8.6?
MCKENZIE: So, Chairman, obviously, my answer will concentrate on the military equities, because that's what I'm knowledgeable about. But I would tell you, in terms of what we see the Taliban doing militarily, they are honoring some, not all, of their commitments. Let me give you an example.
Attacks continue. Attacks continue at an unacceptably high rate across the country. Those attacks, although at a high rate, are not delivered into city centers, urban areas or against coalition forces. Instead the attacks are largely generated against Afghanistan outposts, checkpoints and isolated combat units.
So those attacks continue. And I would say that that level of attack by the Taliban is not consistent with an organization that intends to keep its word going forward.
So -- however, in other areas, they have not attacked into the urban areas. They have not attacked coalition forces.
So we have a pretty good picture of what the Taliban is doing and is not doing. We have very good ways to measure it...
INHOFE: Well, we have the picture right now, but anticipating, let's say, they don't keep it, and they start going the other direction. What would be our action at that time?
MCKENZIE: Sir, so we are on a glide slope to go to 8,600 U.S. forces, with our NATO partners in the country, by the middle of the summer. At that level, we will still be able to pursue all of our objectives in Afghanistan.
INHOFE: So they do not, it becomes obvious they're not keeping their commitments, we have maintained 8.6 as opposed to going any lower?
MCKENZIE: Chairman, that would be not a military decision but a policy decision. But...
INHOFE: Well, yes.
MCKENZIE: But I -- but we believe that we're going to have ample opportunity to see if they're going to keep their word. Some -- in some areas they are, some areas they are not. I am troubled by these attacks that continue to occur.
And there are obviously some political things that have to -- to go forward, that I'm not the best person to talk about it in terms of the -- the Afghan government, prisoner releases and things like that. All of those things have to -- have to occur in order to find a path forward.
INHOFE: Yes, let's go into Barzani. We had the opportunity -- Senator Rounds and I had the opportunity to go through not just Iraq but Erbil, and go up and spend time with him.
Of course, there a lot of -- there's -- there's, kind of, two groups that they deal with -- the Kurds are dealing with there. And one of them, a lot of people are upset and maybe, I think, misunderstood what the president was doing, when he was talking about the Turks coming down into that area.
But as far as the senior, that'd be Masoud Barzani, he's one that a lot of people are saying -- or trying to project that he has past a lot of things to his son and to his -- I guess, his nephew. It's been my opinion that he's still in charge. And I know -- I'm not going to ask whether you agree or disagree with that.
But I got a very clear message when we spent some -- really, a whole -- most of a day with him up in Erbil. And he is very satisfied that we're keeping our commitments now. And I believe -- I really believe he's in -- I think we need to keep reminding people how many Kurds have lost their lives working with us.
And so would you agree that he is still -- he is now in pretty good shape with the United States in terms of we've -- we're -- of our keeping our commitments to him?
MCKENZIE: Sir, I -- I -- I couldn't agree with you more. I believe that is the case. And as you know, we have a vision of a unified single Iraq...
MCKENZIE: ... going forward and support that. And we believe he is a key element in that -- in that equation going forward.
INHOFE: And we're talking about the senior Barzani.
MCKENZIE: Sir, we are.
INHOFE: I agree with you. Thank you.
REED: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. Just to clarify a point the -- the chairman has raised is the number that publicly has been released about the increase in forces at CENTCOM since approximately last May is about 14,000. Is that accurate?
MCKENZIE: Sir, it's a little less than that. And it varies as carriers come in...
MCKENZIE: You know, when a carrier comes in, you're -- you're bringing 5000 people in. Today, I have actually two aircraft carriers in the theater, so the numbers are officially (ph) a little higher. The number goes up and down.
REED: But within a range of, say, a thousand personal?
MCKENZIE: I'd say it's over 10,000.
REED: Thank you, sir. Have -- I know you're working on attribution of the attack last evening at Camp Taji. Have you finished that attribution?
MCKENZIE: We are working on it very hard right now in my headquarters as we speak now.
REED: Thank you. With respect to the agreement between the Taliban and the United States, looking at the public documents that are available, there's no reference to a prohibition of violence by the Taliban against the Afghan government. And there is at least an interpretation that what they're doing now, attacks against personnel -- Afghan personnel in or outside cities, is with -- within the scope of the agreement that we would continue to go forward. Is that accurate?
MCKENZIE: So when I have an opportunity to give advice on the subject -- and I do have an opportunity to advise on this -- I would not consider what the Taliban is doing as consistent with any path to going forward to come to a final end-state agreement with the current government of Afghanistan. Those attacks are going to have to come off considerably.
We're never going to be a bloodless state in Afghanistan. As you know, there are pockets in Afghanistan that probably still think the Russians are there. So it's going to be -- it's never going to be perfect, but we need to get way below where we are now.
REED: If there is though a possibility that they could, at least until we withdraw, maintain their C.T. commitments by continue active operations against the Afghan government. In fact, it could escalate to what would be either a major or a significant civil war in the country. Would we still be in the position or still predisposed to depart?
MCKENZIE: Sir, just speaking -- looking at the military equity, it is difficult to see how, if the Taliban is still pursuing large-scale operations against the Afghan government -- against Afghan government forces, it would be impossible for us to maintain a C.T. platform there without a significant presence. It's just hard to see how you'd get to that -- how you'd get to that level.
Going smaller requires integration. It requires intra-Afghan dialogue and some way forward involving both parties.
REED: And implicit in what's been discussed by the administration about the arrangement is that the final departure will be conditions-based, but those conditions have not yet been specified. And would -- would you decide the conditions or how can -- how will those conditions be established?
MCKENZIE: So what would happen is General Miller, through me, we would report the military conditions on the ground and that would be an input into the larger element of that. But for -- for military conditions, I think -- again, we've got a very clear vision of what's happening there. Attacks against -- Taliban attacks against the government would have to go down to a far lower level than there are now. That would be probably the principal thing.
Intra-Afghan dialogue should ideally lead to some condition where the Taliban can enter or be part of some future Afghan military. That would be a matter for the Afghans, not for us. But it's hard to see how they -- how you can go forward without some intra-Afghan dialogue that takes you to that.
REED: Well, just one point is that it takes two sides to have a dialogue, and the current government of Afghanistan is in some disarray. You have two individuals claiming that they're president, you have dual inaugurations. Slightly outside your lane, but that is a complicating factor, I think.
MCKENZIE: Sir, it is.
REED: And with respect to our involvement, even with an intra-Afghan dialogue and what -- even a sort of optimistic thing -- you would assume that if there is that dialogue there'll be some jointness in the -- in the government, Taliban elements coming into the government. It comes down to sustainability over the long run.
And as you well know, their defense budget's about $6 billion a year, we and our coalition partners provide $4.5 billion a year. If we were to pull that money or decrease it significantly, their ability just to function as a military and police force in the nation would probably be gutted. Is that fair?
MCKENZIE: Sir, I would -- I would agree with that assessment.
REED: And so, we're going to be faced -- and this is the best scenario -- with a government that might be Taliban, et cetera with -- not fully consistent with -- with all of our values and views, and we'd still be asked and -- and need to provide billions of dollars. Is that a fair?
MCKENZIE: Sir, it would. But in my advice -- and obviously, many of those things are outside of my competence...
REED: It's all right.
MCKENZIE: ... my advice would be, are we able to do the thing we're there to do, which is to prevent the generation of attacks against the United States and our homeland, those of our allies, from ISIS and Al Qaida typically in eastern Afghanistan. Is that -- is that -- what you have described going to yield that result? And that would be the basis for any advice that I would give.
REED: Thank you very much, General. Thank you for your service.
INHOFE: Senator Cotton?
SEN. TOM COTTON, R-ARK.: General, thanks for coming back. It's the first appearance since your troops killed Qasem Soleimani. I want to commend you for your role and their role in removing the world's worst terrorist mastermind from the face of the Earth. Is it fair to say that Iran's leaders were somewhat chastened by the killing of Qasem Soleimani?
MCKENZIE: I think it is. I -- just a little earlier, we talked about capability and will. They've never doubted our capability; they often doubted our will and I think that gave them something to think about.
COTTON: Back in the day in the 2000s, Qasem Soleimani traveled with extreme operational security. Is that correct?
MCKENZIE: That is correct.
COTTON: During much of the 20-teens, did he shed that operational security and travel more openly to the point of posting pictures of himself on social media?
MCKENZIE: Well, I think he was a -- he communicated a lot to a lot of different people. I'd just leave it at that. He was active in...
COTTON: Suggesting that he felt a degree of impunity, to travel around and wreak havoc against the United States, impunity that he maybe didn't have after all.
Let's stay on Iran and let's talk about coronavirus in particular. We obviously know that it's impacted some of the senior leaders and their regime. We've seen it on television news. Do you have an assessment of just how extensive it is among Iran's leadership?
MCKENZIE: Certainly. You know, we've seen public admissions of various senior leaders that are ill, and a couple that have actually died. I think it is having an effect on how they made decisions. I think it slows them down.
I think there are a couple pressures on Iranian leadership right now. One is the outrage after the shoot-down of the aircraft, after their attack on al-Assad. That -- that coupled with their inability to effectively respond to the coronavirus is, I think, inducing pressure on and inside the leadership.
And we're -- we -- of course, we watch that very closely, it's a very opaque state, very hard for us to see in there. But I believe the numbers are probably significantly underreported in terms of coronavirus victims in Iran. So we -- you know, we look at that pretty hard, going forward, because the permeability and porousness of the borders, Iran sits in the middle of a theater, so their ability to pass that infection to other states is very worrisome.
COTTON: I suspect it actually may be the worst outbreak anywhere in the world, contrary to what Iranian media would say. Does that, presumably, apply to Iran's troops as well, both their regular military and IRGC troops, if their society is facing this wide-scale outbreak? Do you assess it their troops are as well?
MCKENZIE: I would say it's going to have some effect on the military instrument. We look at it, it's hard -- we could talk a little bit more about this in closed session, sir, and I'd like to do that, but we watch that very closely.
COTTON: OK. What do you assess to be the impact of the oil price collapse over the last four days, on Iran's government and its military capabilities?
MCKENZIE: I think it probably hurts them. They're under great pressure right now through a variety of economic instruments that are -- you know, the sanctions that are applied against them. I don't think this particularly helps in any way. I think, you know, they have an active policy of trying to find ways to swap tankers around and do that, which is moderate -- marginally successful.
So I don't think -- I don't think it means anything good for them. Aside from that, I'd just like a little more time to take a look at it, but I don't think it's a good thing for Iran.
COTTON: There's been some talk around the world about providing more humanitarian aid to Iran. Secretary Pompeo recently called for Iran to release all foreign national prisoners before our nation provides them humanitarian aid. Do you think that's a reasonable step?
MCKENZIE: I'd defer to the secretary of state on that one, sir.
COTTON: What about coronavirus among our troops, what steps are we taking there?
MCKENZIE: So we -- in the theater right now, we have a -- we have one contractor with symptoms, we have another person who actually picked it up at the airport after he returned from a trip outside the theater, who is in quarantine as well. So we watch that very, very closely.
Right now, we have -- we believe we have good precautions in place. We've cut back significantly on intratheater travel.
For example, someone in -- pick a place -- Kuwait who wanted to go to UAE, maybe for a weekend of elective liberty, we don't do that anymore. So that travel is mission-essential only. We have also, just today -- yesterday, we put some restrictions on going into Bahrain, as well, from outside the theater.
So what we're trying to do is maintain isolation so that we protect the critical functions that we have to do. There's some -- some things where we just cannot accept the risk of an infection...
MCKENZIE: ... So we look very hard at those things and try to maintain good physical separation.
COTTON: One final question. You say on page 9 of your written testimony that unmanned aircraft systems are, quote, "The most concerning tactical development in the CENTCOM area of operations since the rise of the Improvised Explosive Device." Anyone who knows what those Improvised Explosive Devices did to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would find that a very troubling statement.
We've spent billions of dollars in the Department of Defense on counter drone systems. I'm concerned that we're still under grave threat to them. But I'm also encouraged to see that your command has been experimenting with so many new and more effective counter drone systems.
I'm worried that they're not widely fielded yet. So I'm just wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about whether you're needs are being met and what this committee could do to be more effective on counter drone systems.
MCKENZIE: Sir, the Department is working very hard. As you know, executive -- executive sponsorship for this program has gone to the Army, which I think is a -- is good, it will focus it and be -- and be even more responsive to our requirements.
I think the key thing is right now we're simply at a stage in the development of systems, and you see it in the back and forth of warfare, where the advantage is with the operator and with the offense. We will catch up; it's going to take us a little time to do that.
And really, it's what we would call the Group 1 and Group 2s that concern me the most; the small ones that you can go and buy at Costco -- you know, duct tape a grenade or a mortar bomb to and fly, and fly it into an objective.
The larger ones, we have ways to deal with them because they're like aircraft in a traditional way; although, they're still very concerning.
So we have not yet integrated a solution to this. The Army has a lot of great ideas and there are a variety of other good things out there that are working. We just haven't yet managed to bring it all together and we work at this every day. And I believe the energy is there but we're still solving the dynamic.
COTTON: Thank you.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-CONN.: Thanks, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for being here, General, and thank you for your service over many, many years.
You haven't been here, as has been remarked, since the hearing on December 4th, 2018, so we're very glad to have you back. A lot has happened and unfortunately a lot of the information that this committee receives is behind closed doors in a classified setting, reference was just made to it by the chairman to follow this meeting.
I am very concerned that the American people as well as service members and military families are lacking the kind of transparency and accountability that they really deserve. And that is necessary for the American people to assess how we're doing in CENTCOM and other places around the world.
And I don't know whether you have any comments on that, but the over-classification, the excessive secrecy denies the American the opportunity to know about the brave and dedicated service of the troops in your command and what they've accomplished, as well as the challenges going forward.
I might just also say that your testimony today, at 15 pages, is considerably shorter than the more than 40 pages of written testimony that your predecessor, General Votel, provided. I'm not judging the quality by the quantity of pages, but I wonder whether you have any plans to submit additional comments or background that would elaborate on some of the conclusions, particularly as to the issue that Senator Cotton just raised, which I think is very important, unmanned aerial aircraft and the threat they pose analogous to the IEDs, which were easy to make, proliferated in the region, caused more than 50 percent of the deaths, and major part of our casualties and I can see the same happening with these off-the-shelf kind of items that similarly pose a threat of many repeated small-scale attacks on our troops or the Afghanistans (ph).
Let me just ask you on the issue of transparency, I'm at a loss to know why the annexes to our agreement have not been made public. Obviously they're known to the Taliban. Is there any reason why we can't make them public so the American people can see them?
MCKENZIE: Sir, I'm going to defer that to the Department of State. They -- they're actually the declassifying authority in this case, so I would -- I would defer to them.
BLUMENTHAL: In your military opinion, just from a military standpoint -- I realize there may be other factors -- do you see any obstacle to making them public?
MCKENZIE: Sir, obviously as I work the military side of the problem, I have visibility with the annexes. They're useful for me to have, but I would defer on a question of wire publication (ph) to the Secretary of State.
BLUMENTHAL: I know you're deferring the ultimate decision, and I apologize for belaboring this point, but strictly from the readiness, the preparedness, the effectiveness, and the ability to accomplish missions in the field, I -- I'm at a loss to see any reason why they can't be made public.
MCKENZIE: So from a purely military perspective, that's correct. But there are other issues beyond the military that need to be considered, and I would not be competent (ph) to pass judgment on that.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Let me ask you, in terms of COVID-19 and its impact on Iran, is it likely that the crippling effect of this disease on certainly the political structure, the economy, and possibly the military are delaying any reprisals for the shooting down of -- for the -- for the killing of Soleimani?
MCKENZIE: Sir, we spent a lot of time talking about that very point, and it's -- and the short answer is I just don't know. I would tell you that totalitarian, authoritarian regimes, when they're under extreme pressure, typically react by looking to an external threat. There's very little evidence in the history of warfare of a regime that has a crippling internal problem that decides to focus on solving the crippling internal problem that's the source of their -- all their problems, but rather they're looking for something to unify the masses of its people against an external target.
So I'm informed by that view, and that, I think, is a possibility. They are fractured now and they're having difficulty dealing with a number of things. So I think it probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous. But that's just my assessment. They're competing views from smarter people than me on Iran.
BLUMENTHAL: Well I thank you for that very well-informed assessment, and appreciate your being here. Thank you, General.
MCKENZIE: Yes, sir (ph).
BLUMENTHAL: Thanks. Mr. Chair?
SEN. JOSH HAWLEY, R-MO.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General, thank you for being here. Thank you for your service. I want to take this opportunity at the outset to send -- extend again my sincerest condolences to the families of those four American heroes, and I think a British ally, have given their lives in Iraq since last Sunday, and thank you for all that you're doing.
Can I come back to this question of deterrence that the chairman and Senator Reed both raised with you? You mentioned that we're having some issue with establishing deterrence against asymmetric aggression, so can I just ask you about the strategy for deterring Iranian asymmetric aggression? What is your thinking on that to date and where are we with it, strategically?
MCKENZIE: So ultimately you want to convince the ultimate source of the aggression that the object they pursue is more -- is too costly to pursue. So when you think about that, you think about going to the source. So you really look to Iran. Iran needs to understand that we hold them ultimately responsible for SMG attacks in Iraq. There is a relationship. These -- the Shia militia groups in Iraq and other proxies across the region, and there are other places across the region where they're active -- they don't -- they're not entities unto themselves. They all have some form of causal relationship with Iran.
And so I think the best way to convince those -- convince Iran to cease giving orders to those activities is to convey to them that it's not going to get them what they want and may in fact have significant consequences for them.
But there's one element that -- the command and control between Iran and their Shia militia groups in Iraq in particular, but others as well -- it's not perfect. It's not 1.0. It's not like our chain of command where I'm pretty confident if I give an order it's going to be followed. That's not the way it works, as you know, with those groups. There's a degree of -- there's a degree -- there's a gap there between intent and execution. So it's not perfect control.
But I think the key thing is if you want to operate in the -- if you want to stop attacks in the grey zone, you need to convince the ultimate person behind those attacks that it's not in their long-term interest to continue them.
HAWLY: Let me come back to this question about the pretty sizable conventional force buildup that we've had at CENTCOM since last May. If that has, so far, not succeeded in deterring these asymmetrical attacks, what in (ph) your judgment is it going to take? Are we -- do we need additional, in your judgment, conventional forces? I mean, how do we go about practically reaching this asymmetrical deterrence question?
MCKENZIE: So you may ultimately with a low level of proxy attacks in the region. You may not be able to completely do away with that. I would tell you certainly -- or, I would believe a red line for the United States is going to be the death of U.S. service members or those of our partners and allies. So that -- that's a red line.
As you know, there have been a variety of attacks over the last month where we had no casualties. Small, low-level attacks. Of course the attack yesterday is a tragedy. But again, I believe that the way to actually deter those in the long term is to convince the source of those attacks that they're not going to reach their object through those attacks.
Like -- let me give you an example. In Iran -- in Iraq, I think an Iranian goal is to eject the United States from Iraq as part of a larger view that they want us to leave the theater. Iraq's a good place to start because there are certain political -- certain political constructs in place there that would aid them. So they were fairly quiet for a while as they pursued the political track.
Now I only can talk about the military side of it, but I believe ultimately we're going to be able to reach a situation with the government of Iraq where we remain and will not leave. That's my judgment, I could be wrong, and again, it's ultimately not a -- not a military decision.
So I think when Iran realizes that, and maybe they have, then their attacks will begin to -- they've sort of laid their attacks low, now they'll begin to pick up a little bit.
HAWLY: If we are going to have to live with some continuing asymmetrical threat, if that's just part of what it means to be in the theater, let's talk about the 14,000 troops or so -- you said maybe it's closer to 10,000 -- who have been sent to theater since May.
How long -- in your judgment, how long should we expect that troop buildup to need to last in theater? Is this something you think is going to need to continue on a relatively permanent basis? Give me your assessment about that.
MCKENZIE: Senator, I think so long as we continue a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that places diplomatic and economic pressure against them, it is in our best interest to convince Iran that activities they carry out in the military domain, because that's really the only way they have to operate, they have no really effective way to operate against us diplomatically or economically.
Therefore, their response, almost by definition, has to be in the military domain, it is what these forces do, and what CENTCOM's objective is, is to convince Iran it is not in their best interest to act out either directly or indirectly, through proxies or by state actions, against us to try to reset the balance of the maximum pressure campaign. So that's get to your question of how long. My answer would be so long as the maximum pressure campaign continues.
HAWLEY: Talk to us about the trade-offs involved here from a National Defense Strategy perspective, where we think about, as again the chairman mentioned, about the shift Indo-Pacom was the pacing (ph) theater, we have this threaded CENTCOM, I mean, what's this going to mean, if we have to sustain the conventional troop buildup in CENTCOM, what will this mean for other NDS priorities?
MCKENZIE: Sir, actually, the conventional troop buildup in CENTCOM include the ships and airplanes, is a fairly small fraction of the total United States military. I was, in my last job, I was the director of the joint staff, and before that I was the director of strategic plans and policy, so I'm intimately familiar with the NDS and I am a believer in the NDS.
I recognize that the line in the long term, we need to be postured against China, and we need to be postured against Russia. However, being a global power requires you to be able to do several things at once and these are not binary choices.
So, again, we have chosen to execute a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, that was not in the NDS, that came long after the NDS was written. The NDS actually, I believe, is analytically broad enough to accommodate what we're doing against Iran, while maintaining pressure against the -- the real existential threats that we face.
HAWLEY: Thank you, general. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. TIM KAINE, D-VA.: Thank you, Mr. Chair, thanks General McKenzie. Just to follow up on a point with Senator Hawley. Did I -- did I understand your point to be that Iran really does not believe it has a response to the maximum pressure campaign, other than a military response, they don't really have diplomatic pressure levers, and they don't have an economic pressure lever of any kind?
MCKENZIE: Sir, from where I sit, that -- that is my judgment.
KAINE: Yes, so the -- the Iranian activities that are military in nature are directly connected to the maximum pressure campaign, I would agree with you on that. One of the activities that interested me was the joint naval drill by Iran, Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman recently. Had Iran, Russia, and China done joint exercises of that kind together in the past as far as you know?
MCKENZIE: They've done bilateral exercises; I think it's the first time they've done an exercise of that nature. Although senator, I would tell you it's not an exercise in the way that we would do an exercise with NATO, or with -- or we would do an exercise in the theater.
KAINE: Not -- not as full-scale?
MCKENZIE: Yes, sir. That would be an understatement, actually.
KAINE: Yes, but -- but in CENTCOM and more generally, we should be very, very attentive to instances where our adversaries are doing anything in combination.
MCKENZIE: Senator, you're -- you're absolutely right.
KAINE: Many of us on the committee are concerned about the ability to handle the mining of the Straits of Hormuz. A couple years ago, on the NDAA, we had an amendment that required the Navy to halt decommissioning of older avenger class minesweepers because we are worried about this. What is your view of our current capacity to handle the mining of the Straits or to stop scuttling of ships that would block freedom of navigation through the straits?
MCKENZIE: Sir, today we have four minesweepers in the AOR, the Brit's -- the British, our coalition partners, have four minesweepers in the AOR, and I have four minesweeping helicopters, and there are a variety of other things that we can employ as well. It would -- should the straits be mined, it would take us a while to clear that -- to clear that channel.
It would depend on, are we -- were we clearing them under conditions of drifting minds that were placed out there, which is the least attributable and probably most likely way around you might choose to act in that waterway or would it be as a condition of a larger war, in which case we would not begin to do that clearing until we can guarantee the safety of these vessels, which are not really capable of defending themselves.
So that would be, so we have the capability to clear the strait, the time it would take would be dependent on the Iranian action that was the precursor for.
KAINE: I see, I see. A question about Afghanistan -- well, one more question about Iran, I have not seen the answer to this. Is their assessment that the coronavirus spike in Iran is driven by like a lot of back-and-forth travel between Iran and China, or what is the assessment about why Iran has become an epicenter, say, along with Italy outside of China?
MCKENZIE: There is a lot of travel between Iran and China, but I -- but I wouldn't go beyond that, I'm just not enough of an expert to tell you.
KAINE: Right, got it, ok. A question on Afghanistan. What is your current assessment of, kind of in the mill to mill space, the helpfulness of the Pakistan in us doing the work we need to do in Afghanistan?
MCKENZIE: Sure, so I maintain a close relationship with General Bajwa, chief of Army staff, we talked frequently, I've been to visit him a couple of times in the -- in Pakistan. Their support has been very important in directing the Taliban to come to negotiations and their continued support is going to be very important as we go through this difficult period of deciding that is the Taliban actually serious about this, or are they going to live up to their commitments.
KAINE: Do you see that level of -- of U.S. and Pakistan cooperation on the mill to mill side with the Afghanistan mission sort of it's getting better, it's always been good, I mean, how would you assess it kind of historically?
MCKENZIE: So, we have always had in U.S. Central command and I have about 10 years of experience in this organization.
MCKENZIE: We have always seen a relationship with Pakistan is critical, whether, you know, at the political level there's turmoil, we -- we up and down, we always seek to keep that political -- the military channel open. There are good reasons to do that, to prevent fratricide (ph), to prevent miscalculation and things like that. So we worked very hard to keep that channel open.
KAINE: Let me ask one last question, and it seems like it's currently outside of your area of authority, it's about Venezuela. So, but it deals with a partner in CENTCOM, the UAE, we do a lot of work together with UAE, but the UAE together with India, Turkey, Russia have assisted the Maduro regime in avoiding U.S. sanctions. Have you ever interacted with UAE about their interaction with the Maduro regime in Venezuela?
MCKENZIE: Senator, I have not.
KAINE: Ok, alright. I appreciate it, thank you, sir.
SEN. JONI ERNST, R-IOWA: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and General McKenzie, thank you so much for your service to our nation and I echo the thoughts and prayers from the rest of my colleagues on the losses that we've had in the recent weeks, so, please extend that to those families, if you would sir.
I do take very seriously Congress's role in authorizing the use of military force and we have to ensure that our troops have the correct authorities to do the missions that we ask them to do. Now there has been a lot of debate, not just within this committee, but with a number of our -- our colleagues outside this committee about repealing an AUMF, and maybe putting a new one in place.
Can you tell us what the operational impact would be of repealing either the 2001 or 2002 AUMF, and in your view, do you believe a new authorization for the use of military force is necessary to adequately cover down and conduct operations in your AO?
MCKENZIE: Ma'am, many of those questions are above my level of competence, but I would tell you that I believe I have the authorities I need now to execute operations at CENTCOM.
ERNST: So utilizing the -- the current AUMF.
MCKENZIE: Yes ma'am
ERNST: You are able to operate.
ERNST: Ok. Well I appreciate that, again, the debate that we have has been pretty extensive on what we could do with or without that AUMF, so thank you for that feedback. That's a debate for us, but we do need that input to know whether you're able to adequately operate. Moving on to a different topic with our special operators.
The Washington Post had a -- an article on the 5th of March that stated "a new network of special operations forces will serve as the backbone of a smaller U.S. military mission in Afghanistan." Of course, the purpose of our special operations network is to continue rooting out ISIS in that area and apply pressure to the Taliban if they fail to live up to the -- their end to the peace agreement. So what can you tell us about this new special operations network?
MCKENZIE: Ma'am, I begin by saying, I don't think it's actually new. I think it's the way we've done business quite a while in Afghanistan. We have embedded CT forces that operate against that specific mission, done it for many years, and it would be the way that we would go forward.
It's important to understand that for special operations forces to be most effective, they need to operate within a -- a conventional force structure, and that provides the ecosystem that they use to move around, if they get in trouble, there's someone that can come to help him, so we always tend to think in that way, not only there, but, you know, in other places across the theater as well. Special operations forces are vitally important to us, but they exist best when they're flourished within a network of (a) U.S. conventional forces and then a host nation force as well.
ERNST: Ok, are -- which -- yes, was going to be my next question about the conventional forces, so I was just trying to understand within this article what was new about what -- what they were being required to do.
MCKENZIE: Well ma'am, I often support The Washington Post articles, but understand exactly what it is they are saying, in this case, I -- I don't see anything particularly new.
ERNST: Okay, outstanding. And of course then, our special operators, will they need to maintain different strategic locations then -- then where they are now or will they largely remain in place?
MCKENZIE: So, it -- it will depend on if we go to the force level that I've been told to go to, 8600, we have a good lay down for that. Going below that level would require guidance to me, and it would depend on the permissiveness of the environment. If you go lower and go to fewer bases, typically you're going to do it because the security situation is permissive. You don't have to defend yourself against Taliban attacks even as your executing operations against ISIS and -- and Al Qaeda, so it would be strictly dependent on the overall permissiveness of the situation, and those days are still ahead of us and we -- we have a variety of ways for looking at that we will look at that very closely as we go ahead.
ERNST: Wonderful. A number of us did travel to Afghanistan prior to Thanksgiving, and we were able to visit some of the commando training with the Afghan forces, and do you feel that they are now getting to a point where they will be able to nest, with great capability, with our special operators on the grounds?
MCKENZIE: We make great strides with the commando forces in Afghanistan, your sense is exactly right.
ERNST: Ok. Thank you very much sir, I appreciate it. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
SEN. ANGUS KING, I-MAINE: Thank you, Mr. Chair. I've realized that the questions I am about to embark upon are more policy in the church I was executing policy, but I -- I just want to get some of your thoughts.
In your testimonial page four, you said since May 2019, Iran supported groups of Iraq -- in Iraq have attacked U.S. interest dozens of times, conducted scores of U.S. -- unmanned aerial system reconnaissance flights, they have attacked and seized foreign vessels in the Gulf, you go on to list all the things that Iran is doing, and I think you testified in -- in response to Senator Hawley's question that -- that they are not being deterred in the asymmetric area in the -- in the proxy area.
Before -- they -- it's always been a proxy war, i mean that's what it's always been. Here's -- here's my -- my problem. In 2017, we left the -- the JCPOA, which was -- which they were abiding by, all intelligence, unequivocally said that Iran was in compliance with all of the provisions of the JCPOA.
We put on the maximum pressure campaign, but as you've testified, it doesn't seem to be working because they're still doing what they were doing before. The major difference today is and I don't want to get into classified material, but Iran is significantly closer to break out to a bomb than they were when we left the agreement in 2000, I think it was 2018. I don't get it.
We -- we -- it's exactly what -- what many of us were worried about before the JCPOA, you got an Iran -- a malign Iran acting irresponsibly throughout the region, getting close to a nuclear weapon. Help me out here, I -- it just -- I don't really understand it, they're still doing and we probably will find out that the attack last night was a Shia Militia -- Militia supported by Iran, I mean, I think that's probably where the evidence is going to head, I don't have any intelligence on that, but I'm speculating. Give me some thoughts?
MCKENZIE: Senator, so the maximum pressure campaign, I would -- in terms of its effect on the Iranian economy, there are other people that need it.
KING: There's no question it's had an effect on the Iranian economy, but it hasn't had any effect on the activity we were hoping to deter, you've testified to that.
MCKENZIE: Sir, I would argue actually as a result of the -- the buildup in Iranian activity over the course of the summer. The establishment of the international Maritime security construct actually ships in (inaudible) straits of Hormuz are no longer harassed, they're passing without any problem at all back and forth, not because we're taking actions aimed directly at Iran, but rather because we, an international coalition, for shining the spotlight when that activity occurs, so the activities not occurring, so traffic (inaudible).
KING: Interesting, you mentioned the international coalition. I completely agree with you, which we blew up when we left the JCPOA, the international coalition that put that agreement in place didn't agree with our decision, we've took it unilaterally, but that's another discussion. But, again, do you believe that they're being deterred from their proxy attacks through -- throughout the region?
MCKENZIE: I believe that we are deterring them from state on state attacks.
KING: But that's not the issue, we've never had -- we -- it's not been a state on state situation, the attacks have always been through proxies.
MCKENZIE: Sir, actually in January 7th, we had a clear state on state attack.
KING: After we killed Soleimani, correct? Well that was the -- that was the missile attack.
MCKENZIE: That's the missile attack.
KING: Yes, ok. But that was, we killed Soleimani, and then they responded. But historically, the -- the attacks have always been through proxies, and my point is they're still doing it. The only difference is, they're also headed toward a nuclear weapon and -- and I don't get how that's in the -- in the best interest of the United States or the region.
MCKENZIE: Sir, I -- I understand your argument, many of those issues are not CENTCOM issues. I would tell you, that I come back to what I think my military task is. As the maximum pressure campaign continues, my military task is to prevent Iran from taking actions, directly or indirectly, that would challenge the activities that are ongoing.
KING: I appreciate -- I appreciate that, and I -- and you're doing an excellent job and -- and it's -- it's a tragedy what happened yesterday and in the last week to our troops. I think everyone here recognizes that. Just in a -- a few seconds left. Is there a plan B if the -- if the Taliban doesn't abide by this agreement in Afghanistan? In other words, where -- are -- do they believe that we're going to leave, come hell or high water, or do they still have some worry that we're going to stay there if they don't act right, because as you testified, they're doing plenty of attacks right now, I worry that after 17, 18, 19 years, we're going to end up exactly where we were in 2001 with the Taliban in charge of the country, and open season for terrorists.
MCKENZIE: Senator, I had the opportunity to give advice on the plan that we're executing now, and my advice was to proceed with it. And the principal reason that I supported it was the conditionality that's inherent in it. So we're going to have an opportunity to see what the Taliban do.
KING: Do we know what the conditions are?
MCKENZIE: Sir, I -- I -- on the military side, I know very clearly what the conditions are.
KING: Do we -- does American public know?
MCKENZIE: Sir, I would -- I'm not sure that I would be the one to answer that.
KING: Alright, well, thank you for your testimony, I appreciate it. And again, I understand your job is to execute policy, but you're the nearest thing we have to a policymaker on this issue here this morning, and I appreciate your candid answers to my question.
MCKENZIE: Thank you sir.
KING: Thank you.
SEN. KEVIN CRAMER, R-N.D.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, thank you general, for your service and for being here, and I to express my condolences to you and -- and to the families for the loss of your -- our two soldiers, and, of course, our friend from the United Kingdom. General, this year, of course, the Air Force is asking us in their budget proposal to divest in critical ISR assets in an -- in a way that allow for more room to invest in new technologies and in future ISR assets.
And I'm very aware -- aware of the critical role that these ISR assets of these -- these legacy assets have played in cent -- in CENTCOM, including some from my home state of North Dakota, and I'm just -- I'd like your take on, first of all, what the Department of Defense and/or the Air Force have told you to expect with regards to meeting your ISR obligations or requirements, if this FY '21 budget is enacted?
MCKENZIE: Thank you sir. I actually possessed most of the ISR assets the department has, and I -- I'm cognizant of that. At the same time, as I -- we were talking just a few minutes ago, as the former director of the joint staff in the J5, I'm very much aware of the need to prepare and turn to face the threats from China and the threat from Russia.
Those are existential threats and we to -- we need to capitalize, we need to invest, we need to move in that direction. For me, it actually comes down to a platform, and that platform is the MQ9, that is the platform which rolls (ph) in the CENTCOM AOR, it is a platform that can gather intelligence, it can strike, it can do all kinds of things, it's a jack of all trades. And I would prefer that the Air Force not divest of that resource right now to the degree that they're doing.
I acknowledge that we -- the Air Force has some tough decisions to make as they take a look at, you know, the future -- the future of the -- of the China threat, and the MQ9 is not necessarily a platform that's useful in a dense air defense environment, I recognize that, but -- but for right now, and for the threats that, to me, are much closer actually than the longer-term threats of China, that are -- that are deeper and graver. I -- I favor retaining those assets as long as possible.
CRAMER: I appreciate your answer and I agree, the MQ9 is really quite a remarkable asset, and we're just trying to assess the risk and -- and whether the risk is worth it and how we transition, because I also agree that we need to get to another place, and with that in mind, I want to transition then, in the discussion, to the -- to the space force.
And of course, we understand that many of the new technologies we're talking about would be space assets, and I'm just wondering how, first of all, are you expecting to get some -- some benefit in CENTCOM from space, ISR assets, I would expect the answer would be yes, but -- but then the question becomes, the gap between here and there and the risk in the middle of it, are we -- are we preparing to adequately mitigate that risk?
MCKENZIE: Senator, I use space assets every day, every hour, in U.S. Central Command, and they provide unique capabilities. The total ISR picture is best built when it's complemented by airbreathing platforms as well, but I am a, for all of my life and particularly in U.S. Central Command, we can't survive without space assets.
CRAMER: I think you've answered my questions, including a couple that I haven't asked yet, so I appreciate that, and appreciate the time and happy to yield back some time.
SEN. MAZIE K. HIRONO, D-HAWAII: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General, as long as we're on the subject of ISR, are -- are your general ISR requirements being met?
MCKENZIE: Yes they are.
HIRONO: Now are you able to leverage the ISR capacity of partners and allies in the region?
MCKENZIE: I am able to leverage both partners in the region and partners and allies out of the region that deploy into the region.
HIRONO: So regarding the peace agreement with the Taliban, you -- you had testified on March 10th, not too long ago, and before the House Armed Services Committee that -- that the U.S. had not developed military plans for the full withdrawal, and based on what you testified today and -- and also how you testified before that you didn't think that, you didn't have much confidence, that the Taliban would honor his commitments. So at this rate, are we ever going to meet the timeline of complete withdrawal by the end of the year?
MCKENZIE: Senator, that will be a conviction (ph).
HIRONO: Or by the end of the year.
MCKENZIE: That will be, that will be.
HIRONO: Or pretty much in the -- in the foreseeable future?
MCKENZIE: So I'm confident we're going to go to 8600 by the middle of summer. I think a decision to go below that level is a political and not a military decision. I'll have an opportunity to give a recommendation on that and then we'll be directed what to do.
HIRONO: Both, there aren't very many indications that the Taliban is going to stop doing -- pursuing his attack, so, you know as you say, they would have to decrease those attacks against Afghan -- Afghan forces, but substantially before we go much below the 8600 troops, so it's -- it seems to me that we're going to be in Afghanistan a long, long time.
We certainly can't predict when we're going to be out of there and -- and this war has already cost us 2 trillion, killed more than 3500 Americans and coalition troops, so this is a really troubling area of the world, the entire Middle East is, so you would agree the stability, such as it can be in the Middle East, is a good thing for the United States?
MCKENZIE: Senator, I would agree.
HIRONO: Yes, and so meanwhile, as Senator King had pointed out that Iran is pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and that they could very well have a nuclear weapon, wouldn't that -- wouldn't Iran having a nuclear weapon add to the instability of the region, wouldn't it encourage other countries in the region to also develop nuclear weapons that would end up at being an even more unstable region then we currently have?
MCKENZIE: Senator, it's my understanding, the object of our policy is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
HIRONO: Well, they're going ahead with it, from -- from what we can see, and our departure from JCPOA has only hastened that situation. I think all around, the impact of our -- our withdrawal from the JCPOA is -- is certainly being manifested. I have a question about China and Russia. As they continue to make significant investments in the area of your responsibilities, so they're cultivating relationships and providing financial support, and in particular China has invested an estimated 200 billion, 200 billion in the Middle East in the past 15 years.
And both Russia and China continue to develop relationships with leaders in the region such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. What risk does the United States race as Russia and China increase investments and influence in your area of responsibility knowing full well that Russia and our near peer competitors?
MCKENZIE: Senator, I think the -- the greatest risk, all thought it's in the future, is from China. And you noted very correctly the -- they're leading with their economics. Although they have established a significant military presence in Djibouti.
Their military presence throughout the rest of the theater is actually quite small but I think we're seeing the leading edge of economic in roads. I think Russia is a little more complicated. They're not spending as much money. We see more Russian military deployments but I think it's harder for them to sustain, with the exception of Syria.
HIRONO: So what can we do? What are we doing because China really employs a whole of government approach to what they're doing not only in this area of the world but clearly in the Indo-Pacific area. So what are -- what -- what are we doing? Are we pursuing a whole of government approach to counter particularly China's activities in both regions?
MCKENZIE: So Senator, again, this is not an area of my particular expertise. But I believe we are looking at whole of government responses to China in the AOR and in the bridge really between CENTCOM and USAFRICOM, which is where their road actually take them as well.
HIRONO: That may sound reassuring but you know I -- I -- I really question whether or not we are pursuing the kind of whole of government approach that China is. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. GARY PETERS, D-MICH.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And General, thank you for being here and your testimony here today. And I would like to join in my colleagues in offering my sincere condolences to the loved ones and families of -- of those members who we lost recently.
You have command in a very dangerous region. Over the past several months our -- our service members and installations have suffered several rocket attacks. I'm concerned about the serious miscommunication to the American people and quite frankly to the men in uniform and their families about the damage assessment following an attack in January that we have against our facilities.
We were initially told that there were no injuries. Then we were told about a dozen soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries. Then several dozen -- the latest report show that more than 100 troops have been diagnosed with a brain injury from this attack. Many of whom were transferred out of the country for -- for treatment.
So my question to you, sir, is how did this miscommunication occur. Was CENTCOM forced to give a rushed assessment or did the White House make an announcement without having any facts?
MCKENZIE: Senator, thank you for the question. I actually would like to talk about that. I'm solely and completely responsible for the first notification that there were no casualties. I am the officer who gave that report based on my assessment of what happened at Al Asad.
There was no pressure on me to give that report. That was what we thought in the immediate hours after the attack because it was not evident to us that there had been concussion injuries.
You know maybe if we were smarter we would have picked up on that but there were not kinetic injuries, no one was bleeding, no bones were broken. So it was our assessment and the assessment of my commanders on the ground but I am the single person who passed that report. So I bare total responsibility for that with no one else.
So therefore, after that, concussions presented themselves. TDI presented itself. And as you know, Senator, that is not an injury like a broken arm or broken leg that can be immediately diagnosed on the spot. These injuries come back and forth, sometimes they manifest themselves overtime.
Sometimes it takes months to do that. Two things I can tell you; I was never under any pressure from anyone at any time to -- to -- to show you this reporting. Secretary of Defense never said anything to me about it. The Chairman never said anything to me about it. And the President never said anything to me about it.
We were driven solely by medical diagnosis on scene. So that's one point. The second point is I'm completely confident that every American service man or woman that was at Al Asad got the very best medical treatment that really our system can provide.
And -- and so the numbers changed. So they did as people were presented, as people were evaluated. I took to the trouble to actually dig into what's called a mace 2 (ph), which is the clinical tool that's given on site to develop some of the initial indications of are you concussed and what is it. It's a pretty good tool.
And so I wanted to make sure I understood it fully and the difficulty of administering. And you're right, 110 people were diagnosed. We evacuated 35 of them out of the theater to Landstuhl. A further 28 have come back to the United States. Some people have gone back to duty.
We continue to take a look at that. I would never minimize the significance of traumatic brain injury. I mean just the description of the injury itself is concerning. And we still have a lot to learn about it but I believe that people that were injured and received injuries of that nature at Al Asad have gotten very good medical treatment as a result of it.
PETERS: Well, thank you for that answer. And -- and you've answered some of my next question. The President said that -- I think he said quote; they had headaches, a couple of other things but I would say and I can report it is not very serious. End of quote. That's what we heard from the president today. Had headaches.
Question to you, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. military veterans that are suffering from TBI as you're well aware. Do you agree that those injuries are serious and not merely headaches?
MCKENZIE: I believe any injury to the brain is a serious injury.
PETERS: Thank you. The -- and general in your written statement you assert despite the -- the death of Baghdadi in October, ISIS remains a threat in Syria and most of its activities focus on reestablishing networks, assassinating and intimidating local leaders and security forces, and extending its influence in rural areas throughout Syria and Iraq.
(Inaudible) Afghanistan, most of the U.S. intelligence community predicts that without sustained pressure, ISIS has the potential to reconstitute itself in both Iraq and Syria. The President seems to have a different view and says that basically -- well, he takes credit for 100 percent defeat of ISIS and used that as justification to withdraw troops from Syria back in October of 2019.
So my question to you as commander, because there's two -- there's inconsistent here in what we're hearing from the President and from you. How do you navigate between the Department of Defense and the ICEs (ph) very ominous assessment of the ISIS threat with the President's more optimistic assessment?
MCKENZIE: I would tell you based on guidance that I've been given, which came from the secretary of defense, we have repositioned ourselves in Eastern Syria. What we call the Eastern Syria security area where we're carrying on operations against ISIS with our SDF partners.
And those operations are actually very effective. And I think as long as we maintain pressure on them, we will be at a place where it's going to be difficult for them to generate and deliver external attack plotting. External attack plotting meaning attacks against the United States or -- or Europe.
As long as we have the ability to do that and we do have the ability to do that now but with the forces that are there and the positions that we're in, we're going to be able to keep that pressure on.
PETERS: Thank you.
SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN, R-TENN.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And General, thank you for being here. And I join with others in expressing our condolences for those or to those last night, the two Americans and the Brit that we lost in -- in the attacks.
Just to be sure that we've got our notes right. It's not 14,000 troops that were added it was 10,000 this year?
MCKENZIE: The number goes up and down based on forces flowing out of the theater all the time. I would say the numbers closer to 10,000 but it's difficult to put a single figure on it. And when a carrier comes in; 5,000 people come in. So and then it leaves. So the -- it -- we -- that's roughly correct. I wouldn't want to give you a single number.
BLACKBURN: All right. That's fair. Let's talk a little bit about what you're doing to -- to deter gray zone attacks. I -- I think that that's -- we need to hear a little bit from you on that, if you will.
MCKENZIE: Sure. So, as the maximum pressure campaign against Iran continues, they see that they are unable to really respond economically or diplomatically. The two channels that we're using to place pressure on them. As they seek to find a way to respond, the only way that's left is the military component, and the military component they can do it one of two ways.
They can do it directly, a state attack, and they have done that with the attack on Al-Assad, or they can do it indirectly, which the proxy attacks, as you asked gray zone (ph) attacks as you indicated there. There's -- there is evidence over the course of the summer and the fall that Iran wanted to pursue those gray zone activities in order to force us to reconsider the maximum pressure campaign, in order to make us back off from that.
And so, where we are right now is, we believe, as a result of the ballistic missile attack on Al-Assad, in the wake of that, rough state on state deterrence has been reestablished, and that Iran does not seem to want to engage in another exchange of that nature, because that would ultimately be a very bad outcome for them, and I think they -- they recognize that.
However, they are still of the opinion that they can pursue their objectives through attacks that they would hope would either be unattributable, or be below the level where we will respond, and that poses very grave danger for them because I'm not certain they do have an exact understanding of what our redlines are, and where we're not going to be pushed.
So we -- we see that in Iraq, we also see it in other places in the theater, but we see it principally in Iraq, because Iran is pursuing a dream of American ejection from the theater and they'd like for that to begin in Iraq, so that's where we see it most -- most readily.
BLACKBURN: Ok, then let me ask you this, when we're talking about Iran, do you think they are more bold or less bold than they were a year ago?
MCKENZIE: So they were very bold in the spring -- late spring, early summer of 2019, and they were bold because they have never doubted our capability, but they doubt our will. So, additionally, in the spring and summer of 2019, the theater had been significantly drawn down in terms of capability so they can observe the CENTCOM then not possess the forces that it had had in the past.
So a confluence of judgment about our will and a judgment about our capability led them in my, to answer your question to be pretty bold, I believe they are less bold now, probably most significantly impacted by the death of Qasem Soleimani.
BLACKBURN: Alright, so then as we talk about their presence in Iraq and their goal of ejecting us from that theater, then outside of adding personnel, which I think it's fair to say you don't have the personnel to add, then what can we do in Iraq that is going to end up enhancing our force protection? How do we do that so that we keep Iran in a diminishing posture, instead of a bolder posture?
MCKENZIE: So, first of all, you look to the source, if the source is Iran, you -- what you do is reestablish deterrence, you want to establish the idea in the mind of the opponent that the object they seek will be more painful than its attainment. So it -- it's more painful to get there than it is to actually hold it, and so you do that by being very clear to them about things that we're going to tolerate and things that we're going to not tolerate, so that's one path. The other path at the same time.
BLACKBURN: So, in other words, they have to see our will.
MCKENZIE: They have to share our.
BLACKBURN: Or as my kids would say, put the hurt on them.
MCKENZIE: That's a very good way to state it ma'am.
BLACKBURN: Yes, ok.
MCKENZIE: So meanwhile, in Iraq, we are in -- In Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi government has responsibilities to provide protection for us and actually, practically, the best way to get at this problem is to continue to work with our Iraqi hosts and partners to get after the SMG thread, because it threatens them as well.
BLACKBURN: Ok. Yield back.
INHOFE: General McKenzie, excellent testimony, we appreciate it very much as we stated at the beginning of this hearing that we're going to go now down to, where are were going, SVC 217, for a closed session, we'll see who shows up, alright?
INHOFE: I think we are adjourned.