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MEI engagement with General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

Press Operations

June 11, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Paul Salem (MEI President) This morning stems from our commitment to engaging with CENTCOM and the Department of Defense, more broadly, our defense and security program is our primary vehicle for this engagement. It's led by my colleague Bilal Saab, whom I want to thank for working to bring this event about. Bilal actually served in the office of the secretary of defense as senior adviser for security cooperation in the Middle East during 2018, 2019, liaising closely with your J5 staff. I also want to mention that your predecessor, General Joe Votel, is a distinguished senior fellow with us at MEI. We're very lucky to receive his insight and guidance. And on June 23, we're going to be hosting Brigadier General Duke Pirak, who is currently the deputy director of strategy plans and policy with you at Central Command. Today, we have over 1000 people signed up from around the world, and that shows the level of interest in your remarks today. It also means, unfortunately, that we will not be able to have an audience Q&A. Too many people to do that. But I hope that the questions that I will engage the general in will cover most of the areas that audience members might have questions about. So let's get started. General McKenzie, again, thanks again for being with us. And before we really get started into the heart of the conversation, do you have any sort of opening sort of welcome or hello remarks that you want to make to our audience.  

 

General McKenzie Thanks very much, and I appreciate the opportunity to address this forum. I think it is now more important than ever to reach out, to be transparent and to transmit a clear understanding of what we're trying to do in the region. Forums like these are very important parts of that. So I very much appreciate the initiative of your institute moving forward. It is a difficult and very demanding time in the CENTCOM AOR. Now, perhaps more so than ever, particularly when coupled with the coronavirus and its impacts across the theater. And I know we'll have an opportunity to talk about that as we go forward. But I look forward to the dialogue we're about to enter into. And again, I thank you for inviting me. And I'm very pleased to be here today.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. And indeed, we will be talking about all that and more. Let let's get started by trying to set the scene for our audience. And let me start in a way, with a three part question, a broad question at three parts. Our first part, how do you define CENTCOM, define U.S. interests in the region? What are the main challenges or threats facing those interests pose? And what strategies does CENTCOM pursue to pursue the interest or to confront the threats to the interests?  

 

General McKenzie Thanks, Paul. And that's a very good way to break it out, it sort of mirrors the way we approach it. We look at what our interests are or the threats to those interests and how do we want to…how do we want to respond to that? I'm going to talk about that, but I'll begin by saying everything CENTCOM does is nested in a whole of government approach. So, you know my opinion (Inaudible). But there are other elements that are equally, in fact, far more important than what U.S. Central Command does. So we work with our Department of State colleagues across the theater. We work with the Interagency and also we work with states inside the AOR, as well as coalition and other alliance partners that have interests in the AOR. So, when we think about answering all of these, the sort of the hidden text, to everything I want to talk about is much broader than just U.S. Central Command. And while we are a key part of it, we are certainly not the only part. So let me actually just start with a discussion of interests. And I think that there are a lot of interests we have in our AOR. I'm going to sort of highlight two interests, which may be the most important interests. The first one was the maintaining and improving security and stability of the region, a key part of which is freedom of navigation. And I'll talk a little bit more about that in a minute. And second, eliminating the threat of terrorism from the region against our homeland, which has emanated from the region, and we've done a pretty good job of reducing over the past few years. So, those are a couple of the key interests that the United States has in the region. So, we have actually reduced our dependence on Middle East oil over the past few years, but there is still a significant requirement to secure the global supply of oil through the theater. Even as our dependence on it is great, it is not as great as it once was. So, it is in our interests and in the world's interest to ensure that freedom of navigation is available and that oil and other economic packages can move freely throughout the region. So we have an interest in that. And of course, two, really, three of the great strategic choke points of the world are in the Central Command AOR, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, and of course, the Suez Canal, which you're well familiar with. The second part of it is beginning really with the attacks that we're all familiar with in 2001. But even before that and since then, attacks have emanated from this region against the homeland of the United States over the past decade. Over the past years, there has been a substantial decline in the number and severity of those attacks. That's the result of relentless pressure. That's the result of the unceasing overwatch, and that's the result of a lot of activities and efforts by the men and women of CENTCOM, the nation and our partners and allies. So if I look at interests, that's where I would begin. So what are the threats? From where I sit today, the greatest threat to stability and security in the region is Iran – their funding of terrorism and terrorist organizations; their propping up the murderous Assad regime; providing advanced weapons to the Houthis in Yemen; their direct attacks on international oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, refineries in Saudi Arabia and U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran actively stokes instability and is intent on degrading security all over the region, ultimately for their own hegemonic purposes. Over time, the regime in Iran has taken a great portion of the country's wealth and prosperity and repeatedly invested it in instruments of instability and proxies. And they use violence, both state violence and proxy violence, to push other nations, other regimes in the area in the direction of their agenda. Beyond Iran, there are also other terrorist organizations in the region, ISIS, al Qaeda, that operate in the shadows of the region, the ungoverned spaces. And we still maintain strong, vigorous efforts against those terrorist organizations because we know they do retain the aspiration to attack the United States and our allies. It is only the result of direct pressure that prevents them from being able to do that. Lastly, we're beginning to see a resurgence, if you will, of great power competition in the Central Command AOR. As China and Russia began to find weaknesses and begin to move into Central Command, the Central Asian states and the Central Gulf region. In fact, all of Central Command is becoming a newly active area of engagement between us and other great powers as we compete on the global stage. So what's the strategy? How do we actually carry out and try to be effective against this very demanding regime. So against Iran, it's a whole of government approach. It's been led by the Department of State. As you're aware, that's known colloquially as the maximum pressure campaign. A variety of sanctions and other activities have been undertaken to pressure the government of Iran to do a variety of things. Renounce nuclear ambition, cease to work on ballistic missiles, cease in exporting terror and other things against their neighbors. So all of those are important things. And so we support indirectly the diplomatic and economic efforts that are part of the better part of the whole of government approach against Iran. It's important to note there's actually no military component of what's known as the maximum pressure campaign. Instead, what our responsibility is at U.S. Central Command is to deter Iran from taking actions either directly or indirectly against the United States or our allies and partners in the region to attempt to act against the maximum pressure campaign as it continues. So that's the principal way that we contribute to that. We actually do not directly contribute to the maximum pressure campaign, which, again, as I've noted, is principally a diplomatic and economic effort directed by the Department of State. So that moves forward and that's really one of the key strategic things that we've done. Across the region as we look at other things, we'll talk a little bit about terrorist threats emanating from the region. One of the key things we do is, first of all, apply direct CT pressure when necessary against those entities. But second, we work with our partners in the region to build up their capacity to allow them eventually to be able to undertake these actions. We do this by building institutional capacity. And we don't do it alone, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We have a broad international coalition that is marshaled against al Qaeda and ISIS in both countries. We will continue that. But we see the need to actually transfer abilities to our partners over time that would allow us to optimize our force posture in the region. While still keeping our eye on the ball, the ball being the inability of entities in the theater to develop attacks against the United States. I'll pause there.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. Let me ask about two aspects of what you mentioned. Iran on one hand and al Qaeda and ISIS on the other. On Iran last year was a year of great escalation, as we mentioned, with attacks to the shipping attacks (inaudible) in Saudi Arabia, attacks through proxies on the U.S. in Iraq, culminating with the killing of General Qasim Soleimani at the very beginning of this year. And what we've seen, correct me if I'm wrong, for most of 2020 is sort of much less direct escalation, a kind of high tension without major escalation. How would you currently describe sort of the risk situation between U.S. forces and Iran and its proxies? You know, a quiet tension, do you think 2020, will, you know, has major risks in it. Are you fairly... What's your sense there? Do you have any contact or deconflictions with any Iranian units, whether it's naval or otherwise, to avoid escalation by mistake?  

 

General McKenzie Sure. So I would assess that. Right now, we're in a period of what I would call contested deterrence with Iran. And that really obtained from the January exchange where we struck Qasim Soleimani and they attacked our forces at Irbil and also at al-Assad Air Base. Proceeding from that I think the Iranians have had to recalculate because they did not believe that we would actually take that action. They had pushed for many years, I think to find a red line, and they found a red line and the United States responded vigorously. And so they were having to recalculate just what we're willing to do and what we're not willing to do. And I think that has had a significant effect in establishing and reestablishing a rough form of deterrence in the theater. And by deterrence, when I think of deterrence in the theater, I think of it in two domains, principally. I think of it in what I would call state-on-state deterrence, where attacks clearly, directly attributable to Iran are not being generated. As you know, and as you noted, in 2019, we saw state-on-state attacks generated from Iran against Saudi Arabia, the Aramco attack. And then we saw a state on state attack against us in early January in Iraq when they attacked the al-Assad air base. So I believe right now they are deterred from undertaking those activities because they have seen that we have both the capability and the will to respond. They have never actually doubted our capability because they know that we can bring significant forces to bear should the situation require. To use a term that I used in the Manama dialogue back in November, when I talked about this, it is possible that Iran can control the early steps of escalation in theater. It is also clear that we will control the final steps of escalation in theater. And so, I think they've always recognized that if they get into an escalatory spiral with us. What they have always doubted, though, is the other component of deterrence is will. And they have doubted that we would actually have the will to act. They now see that we actually do have the will to act. And so I think that has caused them to recalculate. And so that's why we've seen a decline in these tensions at sea, you know, in Iraq and in other places. I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, because that could change very quickly and we're not dealing with a regime in Iran that always makes purely rational calculations. Also beset by COVID and the effects of the coronavirus, which I think has had an effect on them. But nonetheless, you know, I think it is stepping back. And one of the other areas I’d just briefly like to touch on is in Iraq, where they view that as a principal battleground to operate against the United States and the coalition. It is an aspirational goal of Iran to eject the United States from Iraq. And I think that what we're seeing right now as a result of possibly what happened in January, but also other activities, I think we're going to begin, tomorrow actually, we're going to begin a strategic dialogue with the government of Iraq at the ministerial level, which is a very important negotiation going forward to establish the long term relationship we're going to have with the government of Iraq. It is my belief that the government of Iraq is going to want to retain U.S. and coalition forces. And as you know, from my perspective, we're in Iraq to finish the defeat of ISIS and to support Iraq as they finish that defeat and come to a final victory against it. In terms of holding ground the caliphate no longer holds ground, but they still have the capability to carry out attacks, and so we continue to work institutionally with Iraq. Their forces are much better. We will continue going forward. We will optimize our presence in Iraq, both to be the most effective we can be as Iraqi forces gain capability and become more direct in their actions against ISIS and other forces. But also, we have to take steps to protect ourselves against some Iranian presence in Iraq. Some of the Shia militant groups that would choose to attack us if given the ability to do so and attacks from Iran itself. So we've taken measures to harden ourselves in and to better posture ourselves. But that's only a small part of our total relationship with the government of Iraq, much of which will begin here in the next day during the ministerial dialogue. The last point you asked was direct contact with Iran. There's not much I can say about that. You know, at a very high level, those contacts may occur. I think we're very clear, though, you know, we operate at sea and in the air, there are international channels that we can communicate our intent on. So they know very clearly what we're doing. And generally, they're very respectful of that. Not always…there are you know, sometimes there are less than professional activities. There's activities that occur out there. But by and large, I think they know and respect our capabilities. Paul I'll pause there.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. I want to ask on the counterterrorism side, ISIS and al Qaeda, you say that is the concern to protect the homeland, U.S. itself. This is a threat that's been out there for 20, 30 years. And it mutates and it adapts to new conditions. No doubt that there has been a defeat of the physical caliphate, and that's a major achievement for the U.S. and for the countries of the region, and the entire coalition. But obviously, if this threat mutates, and doesn't go away from where you sit in CENTCOM, how do you see the map of ISIS and al Qaeda? Where are they, you know, redistributing themselves? How are they mutating? Obviously, they still exist in Syria to some degree in Iraq. Yemen, Afghanistan, North Africa, in this ongoing war with these particular types of terrorist groups, what keeps you up at night?  

 

General McKenzie Sure. So let me actually start with Iraq and Syria. And I'll talk ISIS presence there, although there is an al Qaeda presence in Syria as well. So we have completed, Joe Votel, one of the last things he did, as the commander of Central Command, was oversaw the completion of the physical destruction of the caliphate up and down the Euphrates River Valley. And that was a very effective operation. But what ISIS has done is they try to go to ground and try to maintain, first a global cyber presence, which they've been able to do intermittently, but they have been able to do. And also to go to a small cellular structure which allows them to carry out local attacks. I think they always have a desire, an aspiration to reestablish a physical caliphate. I think that's a critical part of their ideology. So I always think they will move in that direction. However, with the pressure that we've been able to put upon them in Syria through our SDF partners and with our support up and down the Euphrates River Valley and in Iraq proper, working largely with Iraqi security forces, we've been able to prevent them from realizing those external attack dreams that they have that they still promulgate and still want to work toward. Now, this threat is not going to go away. There's never going to be a time. I believe when either ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage to the future, even the brightest possible future is not a bloodless future. But it can be a future which we would define as, where local security forces are able to contain ISIS without significant external help. I'm not saying there wouldn't be some enabling support for them, but it should be able to be contained locally. And local security forces are the key. Local security forces that will be answerable to civilian leadership on the ground in these areas. That would then be able to have a human rights record that would stand scrutiny and be understood by all, because that's the other half of the equation. The cure should not be worse than the disease itself. And we're always mindful of that. We operate in Iraq and Syria, and that's an area where the Syrians west of the Euphrates River and the Russians are not mindful of that. So I think they will struggle actually to create long term conditions that will prevent a systemic rise of ISIS. So we will continue to operate against them. Also, there's an al Qaeda element out in northwest Syria that we see as sort of that pocket around Idlib, that witch's brew out there, that's under a variety of pressure, that little bit of a ceasefire are out there right now. They also maintain an aspirational desire to operate outside and generate external attacks. So let me just shift now to Afghanistan for a moment. As you know, the home of al Qaeda is in eastern Afghanistan, right up against the border. Very small presence there. But the global leader is there. He doesn’t have the ability to talk much. But he does, actually. We think he's probably physically up in that area somewhere. We think there's also a small ISIS presence there. Now, the Taliban have no friendship for ISIS and they have actually done a great deal of work to compress ISIS over the last year. It remains to be seen as they would have the ability to actually bring ISIS all the way down. Don't know. Down in southern Nangahar province, they have had success in reducing their ability to hold ground there. It is less clear to me, though, the Taliban's relationship with al Qaeda and we can talk about that here a little bit when we talk about Afghanistan. But the key thing I would tell you is these, and then down in the Arabian Peninsula, clearly small pockets remain there and we try to keep CT pressure on them there. You know, ongoing events in the Arabian Peninsula sometimes make it difficult to do that. All of these entities, though, want to think globally. They want to inspire. They want to direct if they can. You know, we talk about direction of action, enabling actions and inspiring action. Today they're limited to inspiring actions. That is radicalization typically via a cyber or other means of people in Western countries that are then motivated to go out and conduct lone wolf attacks or something like that. And we will work very hard to try to stop that. It is very hard for them now, though, to do enabled or directed attacks, because those mechanisms for the transfer of funds, for the transfer and movement of people and other things like that are very hard for them to do. It is a core aspirational goal of ISIS, certainly, and al Qaeda as well, to be able to renew those thick connective tissues, if you will, that links the homeland, which is my theater largely--but also to sub-Saharan Africa, U.S. AFRICOM out into the Southwest Pacific and other areas. That is their aspiration. One of the key things that we try to do in this theater and also in conjunction with U.S. Special Operations Command and the global coalition, is we try to prevent the reestablishment of that connective tissue. Again, we're not going to get to perfection on this. And I suspect no matter what we do, and as active as we're going to be, particularly in the cyber domain, there's always going to be the possibility of radicalization from a distance. And people that are just going to be inspired by the, you know, by the virulent message that these entities put forth. So that's always going to be a threat, but what we want to do is prevent organized, detailed planning. Because, you know, when you're running for your life up and down the Euphrates River Valley, listening to the noise of an MQ-9 overhead, it's hard to think about conducting attack planning against Detroit. So, you know, if you don't know where your next meal is coming from, it's hard to hold an organized meeting of the board of directors to talk about global planning. So that's sort of how we get after these things that we will continue to do that, Paul.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. You mentioned the great power competition in your, sort of, initial response to the general question. And certainly, the national defense strategy identifies great power competition with China, but also with Russia, as a very high concern of defense planning. I wish you'd unpack for us a little bit, how that translates in the Middle East. I mean as you were just describing, what you are focused on, mainly in the Middle East is ISIS and al Qaeda, containing or deterring Iran and maintaining the free flow of oil or energy. You didn't necessarily mention that, what keeps you up at night is what is the Chinese doing and what are the Russians doing? So how does that great power competition translate in the Middle East? I understand how it translates in the Pacific or translates maybe in Europe. When the Russians entered Syria, not to get into the politics, but the Obama administration didn’t seem fairly alarmed. This administration, President Trump, doesn't seem particularly alarmed about the Syrian, about the Russian presence in Syria, for example, and China so far, the Middle East is largely focused on economics and oil and trade, although they have, you know, they do have a base in the Red Sea. So when you talk about China and Russia at the CENTCOM level and geo-strategic concerns, what does it mean to you? What does that great power competition mean to you?  

 

General McKenzie Sure. So I was actually on the joint staff as the director of strategy plans and policy. And then the director of the joint staff when the NDS came to be. So I was present at the creation of that document. And the fact of the matter is, for almost 20 years, our focus has been on Central Command, globally--particularly at the military level. We've looked to fight campaigns in Afghanistan. We've looked to fight campaigns in Iraq and across the theater. And so we optimize the force for that, at the cost of certain other things. Meanwhile, we were being studied by China and Russia and most dangerously, China, I would argue. And so they have gained a march on us. And in studying our strengths and weaknesses and preparing for a long term competition for us, we have adapted to that. And the department, realizing that we need to turn to where the greatest threats are and the threat of near-peer competitors lies in China and Russia, does not lie in the CENTCOM AOR. So you have to shift a couple of things. You've got to shift resources. And we have shifted resources from the U.S. Central Command AOR to go, principally to INDOPACOM but also to EUCOM, where we can more directly confront those threats at a military level. That is global force management on a daily basis. That's what you use to fight tonight or next week. But more important, actually, are the longer term commitments we've made to force design and other things that will allow us to compete and prevail, if necessary, militarily against those great power competitors in INDOPACOM and in U.S. European Command. So I'm completely on board with all of that. Now, the trick, though, is it's not a binary thing or you have a global power and we are the definition of a global power, indeed, a global superpower. You have to think in terms of a globe. You don't have the luxury of focusing on any one theater. We have seen the bad effects of focusing on the single theater. When we focused at CENTCOM for too long. As we go forward, we need to take a nuanced view of this. But clearly we need to focus on China and we need to focus on Russia. And I believe resourcing in the department is properly moving in that direction. And I think we are beginning to do the things we need to do in order to provide for the whole of government, the military element of national power and what it needs to do. Now, bringing it back a little bit in CENTCOM. Competition among the global powers does not occur in neatly designated AORs. In fact, I would argue that one of the Wild West, if you will, areas of global competition is actually the CENTCOM AOR where we see China moving, and as you noted, principally economically, but not completely, but principally economically, to establish a beachhead that other things will follow over time. Because the fact of the matter is China gets over 50 percent of their oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, there are vast mineral and other deposits in the theater that China would certainly like to have access to. And they would prefer to do it under somebody else's security auspices. But who knows what they'll think, what their design will be in the long term. But I think this is a significant factor that we need to confront. So as I think of China, and actually I do worry about China quite a bit because it is one of my core taskings. So, you know, we think about how we assure our partners in the region that we're going to be around, that we're going to be dependable partners, that the FMS sales, the military sales that we make to them, are the best possible choice for them. We don't want them turning to China. We don't want them turning to Russia to buy those systems, because if they buy with us, they'll get a good system and then we will also have a measure of control over how those systems are used. As you know, the Chinese and the Russians, there's no end-user control at all on those. And so I think that as nations accept that, given the quality of our systems and also given the assurance of the United States, it stands behind those systems. So that's one of the principal things I do in the region to counter the growing encroachment of China into the region. Now, let me just talk a little bit about Russia. So, yes, we do see Russia. Russia doesn't have the economic resources to come into the region in the way that China is. We do see them. You know where they are, though it's pretty high intensity. We see them in Syria, as you noted. And they're just a fact of life in Syria. Perhaps had we made decisions in the past, we might be in a better place with them right now. I am not one of those people who thinks the Russians are master chess players and see four or five or six moves ahead. And therefore they know what to do. I think going into Syria was opportunism. I think staying in Syria is opportunism and it brings together a certain number of very predictable threads in Russian foreign policy. They want a warm water port. They want to maintain a relationship with one of their painfully few foreign client states, and so that means Assad. And it gives them an opportunity to do that. It also gives them an opportunity to throw sand in our gears and to make it harder for us. And it gives them, in a fairly low cost of entry, the opportunity to at least appear to be a player on the global stage when it comes to Middle Eastern issues. So I think all of those things sort of drive Russia. So we see more Russian military hardware in the theater, albeit in a very circumscribed part of the theater, you know, principally in Syria. We don't see them much at sea, you know, either in the Arabian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman or in the Red Sea. So we don't see much of that. I know they're in the eastern Mediterranean and I talk to, frequently, to my friend [Gen.] Todd Walters at U.S. European Command about that. But this is a new fact of life and we have to come to grips with it. And again, the best way we come to grips with it is through continued outreach with our partners, continued demonstration of U.S. resolve in the theater. So our partners know that we're a steady security partner going forward. I'll pause there.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you. Thanks, General. Let me pivot to what's on everybody's mind. COVID-19. You are a massive global organization. You are managing part of it with thousands of officers and troops and a lot of challenges of movement and operations and so on. So my question is sort of two part on COVID. First of all, how has it affected you, CENTCOM, the operations of the military? Does it make it harder to work, harder to operate? And secondly, how it has affected, both your partners in the region and your aggressors in the region? Is there less threats because of COVID, more threat? Does it slow down ISIS? Does it slow down your Gulf partners?  

 

General McKenzie Let me begin by just describing how we deal with it. We met frequently with the secretary of defense to talk about the department's response to COVID-19. So this is one that he has very clearly taken direct leadership on. He and the chairman have been very clear and we have great discussions back and forth several times a week on how the department is responding to the threat of COVID. So a couple of things. The principal thing I want to do when I talk about COVID is I want to ensure the safety and health of our personnel and our families that are, you know, in the U.S. Central Command region. That's a very high priority for me. The second thing I need to be able to do is I need to be able to continue operations. And so we do that. The third thing that I want to be able to do is I want to be able to assure our partners in the region. How do I assure our partners in the region? I make sure that we have elaborate mechanisms in place. As you know, U.S. Central Command has no forces that are permanently assigned. So people that come in and out of CENTCOM rotate in and out. Either as individuals or in unit movements. Either on ships or in large aircraft that bring in people hundreds at a time. So what we do is, we make sure when they come into the theater, these people are clean. They've done a restriction of movement, period. They've been tested. So when our U.S. service members come into the theater, they're clean. And so I can tell with confidence our partners in the region that, look, we're not bringing COVID in. We're bringing clean people into the theater. At the same time, we negotiate with our partners. Some of them have 14 day restriction periods themselves. If we can demonstrate that we do it in the United States, often that meets the requirement. But what we want to do is make sure that we are sensitive to their requirements here in the theater. So we work that on a daily basis. Forces coming in. Additionally, what we've done is I've been well stocked with what I need to protect the force. And by the force, I mean not only U.S. forces, but our coalition partners that are here in the theater as well. With everything from surgical masks, hospital gowns to ventilators to the capability to do high end medicine as well as, you know, medicine for the moderately ill. Additionally, we have procedures in place to aeromedically evacuate people if we need to take them out of the theater. So we've got a really extremely well-developed approach to how we handle the coronavirus in the theater. I'm briefed every day on new cases. I'm briefed every day on the status of personnel, how we move people back and forth. So we look at that all the time. So the net result of it is, it has not had a significant impact on our ability to conduct operations. Let me give you one example. We have an aircraft carrier in the theater. The U.S. Navy goes to exquisite lengths to ensure that that carrier is COVID free. There's some remarkably good ideas and some remarkable thinking that's going on from our Navy component and from the chief of naval operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, and the entire Department of the Navy to make sure that our ships at sea are not affected by this, because they're a couple of things that, as you would recognize, are particularly important. We can't have ships at sea affected and we can't have flight crews affected. So we go to great lengths to make sure that those personnel are particularly well protected. But we have great protection for everyone else as well. And we look at it every day. So we have the capability to continue all our missions with very minimal degradation. It does affect some of the operational things we do, particularly in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We're now very mindful of how we do outreach with our partners, because while both those countries are trying to do the best they can and they do not have the resources or the capability to get after the coronavirus in the way that we do. Nonetheless, we still have an obligation to talk and meet with our people. We try to do it in a variety of ways as we get to it. Social distancing. Sometimes we do it by teleconference, as you and I are doing today. And sometimes, you know, you just have to go out and see them and you've got to accept a little bit of risk and you do the best you can with face masks and other things to protect yourself. But we are very mindful of that. So I'm comfortable in our ability to carry out our mission. And the other thing that we do that is very important is, you know, China, Russia and Iran have a very large disinformation campaign active against the United States as a source and exporter of COVID. It's just simply nonsense. And the great lengths to which we go in the theater to protect ourselves and protect our partners in the theater is ample evidence for this. And so we also invest a lot of time making sure the correct narrative is out there because that other narrative is simply flawed. So what does it mean then to our friends in the region? They're grappling with it. You know, I think penetration of the coronavirus in Afghanistan is significant. They have a very nice public health organization. We work with them to try to help them on that. But I remain concerned about penetration in Afghanistan. I also remain concerned about penetration in Iraq because those are areas, first of all, where the populations are vulnerable. But also I have a significant number of distributed U.S. personnel. In Saudi Arabia or in UAE or in Qatar as an example, I can isolate U.S. personnel. They're, a little more distributed in those two countries. So they are a little more vulnerable to this kind of thing. So we worked very hard to try to help our partners in those areas. But it remains a concern. Some of the other GCC countries have actually, they're taking very aggressive steps of monitoring at medical treatment. So we're working closely with them. I think it does have an effect. It does have an effect on them. And it is difficult sometimes to know exactly where the peak of the virus penetration has occurred yet. We're right in the middle of it right now I assess in the region. Could be still ahead of us in a couple of countries. They're actually working that. Let me take the third part of your question, which is what does it mean to adversaries and potential adversaries? I think the Taliban is significantly penetrated by it. I think it's no different than the population of Afghanistan. That's an unfortunate thing, because I think anything that tends to destabilize decision making at a critical period of time is inherently not good. And so I think that's a bad thing. But I do think it is affecting them. I think they still try to carry out operations. And I think at the tactical level, they're still very active as a result of that. You know, in Iraq, we see we see KH also affected by it as well. And I believe it may have slowed the tempo of their operations. Although they are also, I believe, deterred and under direction not to attack us right now. And we'll see how long that's able to actually be carried out. Let me sort of turn to the country in the middle of the AOR, that may be the worst affected of all. And that, of course, is Iran. So we believe, by a variety of very poor decisions about how to actually address the coronavirus, decisions about just power through it, ignore it. I think there is significant penetration in Iran. And I think that penetration has extended even to senior leadership. And I think it's also something that you see the in IRGC and in other entities, and I think they have not been completely straightforward with their people. And as a result of that, the distrust that you begin to see in Iran against leadership is perhaps magnified. Some of that comes from the shoot down of the jet over Tehran back in January. All that feeds into a narrative that the government is not particularly effective. Also because the border of Iran and Iraq is, to say it's porous would be a minimalist description of it. People go back and forth. So it's a net exporter of the virus in the theater. The same thing in Afghanistan, in the east. So, I think that I had an opportunity back in March to get my opinion to Congress and actually about whether I thought this would--what the effect would be. I'm not certain, the last point was, we do believe Iran has made great sacrifices to ensure that what they would consider to be their core capabilities remain intact. And I would define those as their ballistic missile force, their Strategic Air Defense Force, some of their Navy elements, as well as the IRGC. We believe they've gone to great lengths to try to protect those forces to moderate degrees of success. But I assess today they are still very capable in those areas. But I think as I as a government writ large, they are struggling. I am not certain that it makes them less dangerous. It's a very opaque problem, we look at it very hard. That's about the best I can do, Paul, over.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. You've talked a fair amount about Iraq and the beginning of a strategic dialogue there. We talked about Iran and as sort of the tentative deterrence that we described. Let me ask you about two big theaters, one bigger than the other, Afghanistan and Syria, and ask you about how you see the path ahead for CENTCOM or U.S. forces in both areas. Obviously in Afghanistan, there has been negotiations with the Taliban. There is a political process there, and yet there is no victory over the Taliban. Do you see the path ahead in Afghanistan as one where the U.S. will simply remain there fairly indefinitely in sort of a supportive role and so on while the Taliban continues to exist? Or do you see a potential for an actual U.S. withdrawal? And in Syria, the presence is obviously much more limited in terms of space and personnel. Now, President Trump several times has said he wanted to leave, but so far that's not the case. Where do you see this scenario in months or a couple of years ahead in Syria?  

 

General McKenzie Let me begin with Syria. So today we work with our SDF partners in what we call the Eastern Syria security area. Generally, it's an area east of the Euphrates River that includes east of Deir ez-Zor and then we also have a pocket down at Al Tanf. Our primary purpose for being in Syria is to conduct operations against ISIS. And we do that through our partner, the SDF that is there. Additionally, we're there to assist the SDF in the maintenance of the oil facilities for their use to help them generate income, which then could be used for a variety of things, some of which would be to continue operations against ISIS in the area. So, you know, the decision on the long term way forward, Paul, is going to be ultimately a political decision. We still have work to do there. We are firmly focused on ISIS as the principal reason at the Department of Defense, military level for why we're there. The U.S. government has larger things in Syria, but from the guidance I've given my force, that's where we are. Now what we're seeing is over time, Bashar Assad is going to probably turn to the east and he's probably going to increase pressure on us and we'll deal with that as it happens. But the one thing that I would also note and I alluded to a little bit earlier in our conversation, west of the Euphrates River, in areas where the Syrians have cleared and where, you know, with their Russian partners and their support and the Iranians operate a little bit. None of the things that have brought ISIS to life originally have been fixed. None of the basic human things that need to happen to answer basic human requirements are being fixed. And in any plan that does not give you a route to that is a plan for failure west of the Euphrates River. East of the Euphrates River, our SDF partners will be trying to put local stability forces in. They will try to build to that end in the long term. I do not know how long we're going to remain in Syria. Clearly, we're not going to stay in there forever, at some point, we're going to come out and that's a political decision and we'll be ready to execute those orders when that time comes. But so long as we are there, we're going continue to operate against ISIS, we're going to continue to help our partners hold on to their infrastructure in the area, and we're going to continue to support the SDF as they build the local forces that will be necessary to provide the kind of local security ultimately that's there. Additionally, you know, Paul, one other thing is, SDF sits on prisons in the eastern Syria security area where there's over 10000 ISIS detainees. Including two thousand we would characterize as hardcore foreign fighters. That's an issue that we need to think about as we go forward. We do not provide direct security for that. The security is actually indirect. Additionally, there you know, there's a significant humanitarian issue in Syria as well. There’s well over a million refugees in Syria. The sort of—the poster child is the Al Hol refugee camp, where there are about, depending on the day, sixty five, seventy thousand people, generally women and young children. And that is an area that is of great concern to me going forward for two reasons. First of all, while I think there's a minimal quality of life, we are unable to actually affect what radicalization may be occurring there. So I worry about COVID penetration into that environment where it would spread very rapidly. It would be an incubator for it. And I also worry that unless we come up with a long term solution to de-radicalization and really that long term solution needs to be something embedded in the region. It's not going to be able to be exported from the United States or from Europe despite our desire and our best efforts to do so. We're actually building the next generation that's going to affect us ten or fifteen years from now. And that worries me a lot, as I look at Syria because we don't have good answers to those problems yet. I know that our Department of State, which actually works these problems, is aggressively working, for example, with foreign fighters. What we'd like to do is repatriate, but nations have to agree to take them. And not all nations will agree to take them. You know, the efforts of our diplomats is very important, and I know they're continuing that. And we fully support them going forward. Additionally, we support the other elements in our government, USAID, among others that are helping to provide resources to the refugee camps that are there. And Al Hol is just the largest number. So Syria is a very difficult problem. And we'll continue our operations against ISIS. Ultimately, the decision will be a political decision which will be immediately responsive. Let me just turn to the east a little bit and talk about Afghanistan, sort of the second half of your question. So the long term goal for us in Afghanistan is the prevention of attacks against the homeland and against the homelands of our coalition partners that we know have emanated from that area before. So as I look at it from a military commander, that's the equity that I have in it. And that's the degree which I'm interested in how things go forward. We are at a very critical time now. We are on the cusp, perhaps, of intra-Afghan negotiations. That's not a military issue so I won't comment on it, except to say that we may be coming up on that. And I think that will be very important to get that dialogue started because that dialogue might offer the opportunity to get to a ceasefire. We are not in a ceasefire now. The Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking United States or our coalition partners. They have, however, continued to aggressively operate against the Afghan military forces and Afghan security forces, typically not in the cities. While there have been attacks in the cities, those have generally been ISIS. There have been other attacks, significant attacks, really ever since the agreement's been signed. It went down a little bit over the Eid, which we were thankful for, but now it's beginning to ramp back up. So the government of Afghanistan is beginning, I think, to coalesce around a potential bargaining position that will allow them to go into negotiations. I think the Taliban needs to demonstrate that they're going to be faithful partners, too. And, you know, again, I said in testimony earlier this year, we don't have to like the Taliban. We don't have to believe the Taliban. What we need to do is watch the Taliban and see what they do. And that's all we need to see. And it is unclear to me yet that they are fully embracing this and are ready to move forward. We'll know more in the days ahead. And again, this opportunity for dialogue is going to be absolutely vital. We're in the process of executing our obligation under this agreement. We're coming down to mid-8000s. We're going to be ahead of the timeline that we signed up to do that. So we'll be at those numbers. And then eventually as you know, we also agreed that we'd go to May of 2021, if conditions will allow, we're prepared to go to zero. However, the important phrase is “if conditions will allow.” Those conditions would be, you know, can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there? And as of right now, frankly, if I were asked my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met. So we'll continue to work that. We're engaged in a very robust dialog across the Interagency and with our NATO and coalition partners as we evaluate the way forward. But, you know, one last thing I would say, and I think everybody listening at this conference certainly realizes it, the threat to the United States is not the Taliban. It's never been the Taliban. It's the entities that they allow to live in Afghanistan that threaten us. And really, we're talking about ISIS and we're talking about al Qaeda. And as I've noted earlier, we believe the Taliban actually are no friends of ISIS and work against them. It is less clear to me that they will take the same action against al Qaeda. And only time will tell. And we will know that by observation, not by things that they say, but rather things that they do. And those are the things I believe that should actually inform our actions going forward.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you. Let me ask you about another part of the region which has gone through a horrific civil war and a lot of pain and suffering, which is Yemen. There is not a large U.S. presence there unlike Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. But I wanted to ask you a couple of things. What are the main concerns when you look at, Yemen, certainly there is a counterterrorism aspect to it. There is, as you mentioned earlier, a security of the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb. And there's also a regional presence, proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and so on. So when you look at Yemen as CENTCOM and I know, you know, White House, State Department engage politically and with the UN to try to resolve some of these issues. But what does Yemen mean to you? What is the level of engagement, whether it's counterterrorism or naval security?  

 

General McKenzie So let me just start at the broadest possible level. It's my judgment based on dialogue, mil-to-mil dialogue within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and meetings I've had there, that Saudi Arabia genuinely seeks a negotiated end to the conflict in Yemen. I believe they are now at a point where that is what they desire. They're willing to negotiate and I believe are negotiating in good faith, to try to come to that end. The Houthis have an opportunity here, actually, I think to come to an agreement that would give them a lot of the things that they want. Unfortunately, there's a third party to these negotiations and that third party is Iran. And Iran has no interest in this war being over. In fact, there's nothing better for them than for Saudi to continue to bleed out, for the Houthis to continue to launch attacks into Saudi Arabia, and for this to continue to go on as something they can use to further embarrass the kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the international stage. So I think if we could reduce the Iranian patronage, if you will, for the Houthis we might be able to get to an ultimate solution there. And that would allow other things to happen. Look, our interest in this is primarily as we've spoken before, is primarily CT counterterrorism. The last actual attack against the United States was generated by AQAP coming out of the Arabian Peninsula. They are down now. But if we were unable to continue to focus on them and pressure is not kept constant, it is possible that they will come back. It's in all our interests, and interests of all the parties in Yemen. And I believe all the parties in Saudi Arabia as well to come to a negotiated settlement in Yemen. And I think the UAE also, would sign up for that. The only party that's not interested in that happening, actually is Iran. It's a bleeding ulcer that they can they can continue to encourage at a relatively small investment that embarrasses their opponents in the region and allows them to continue to dig against Saudi Arabia. So, you know, Martin Griffiths in the UN, his work there has been very, very helpful. It continues. I think there's still pressure on the Houthis, some of which we see, some of which is not completely open and evident to us that prevents them from actually grasping the opportunities that they have right now. Because I think they have some good opportunities, because I believe the Saudis are genuinely interested in trying to come to closure on this. 

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you. Let me ask you about Lebanon, General. I know that CENTCOM has a good relationship with the Lebanese armed forces and that continuing cooperation continues. Also, Lebanon obviously is a very complicated country. Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, has a lot of power and presence there. How do you describe CENTCOM's relationships in Lebanon? How do you look at the country? How do you look at your cooperation with the Lebanese army?  

 

General McKenzie Sure. So, first of all, Lebanon is a bewilderingly, complex country with an extremely complex constitutional system that's designed to provide a multi-sectarian government. Provide, representational opportunities for different elements in the government. So right now, they're under significant economic pressure and I think that's had an effect on governance and stability in the region as well. And clearly, you know, Lebanese Hezbollah, they want to have a role in the government, and yet they don't want all the responsibility for it. And we worry about their relationship to Iran, although I do not think that the Lebanese Hezbollah necessarily answers immediately when Iran calls. I do think they have a strong and powerful relationship. Look, the counterbalance for us is the LAF, the Lebanese armed forces. Not a perfect relationship and not a perfect organization by any means, but one that we should view, aspirationally, as ultimately the expression of state security in Lebanon. It should be the LAF, it shouldn't be anybody else. And I know that people occasionally get frustrated with the LAF and we talk about cutting on and off funding. I support continued funding to the LAF because, look, in U.S. Central Command, we live in the land of less-than-perfect choices, and I believe that they offer the best opportunity to provide security and sovereignty for Lebanon. And while that will never be perfect, nonetheless, it's the best that we can do under very difficult circumstances.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you, General. Our time is almost up. I want to ask you a sort of over the horizon question. Former secretary of defense said there's no knowns, and known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. COVID I would say a known unknown, everybody has noted pandemics happen. We don't know where or when. My question is, when you look at today or over the horizon, what are different types of threats other than the conventional, you know, a terrorist group using certain means, whether that is cybersecurity issues and cybersecurity concerns that are real to you and that you have to fight in combat on a daily presence, obviously space security and satellite security has become a big issue with Chinese capacity there and the US establishing a Space Force. Beyond sort of the traditional or conventional way of looking at your security or the issues that keep you up at night. What is over the horizon that might hit you in the face like COVID did? What are the black swans or white swans that you worry about?  

 

General McKenzie Sure. This is more of a white swan, because I think when we see the contours of it now, but I'll begin by it. It is the proliferation of small unmanned aerial platforms in the theater. I argue all the time with my Air Force friends that the future of flight is vertical and it's unmanned. And I believe we are seeing it now. And I'm not talking about large unmanned platforms which are the size of a conventional fighter jet that we can see and deal with, as we would any other platform. I'm talking about the one you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars, four quad, rotorcraft or something like that that can be launched and flown. And with very simple modifications, it can make made into something that can drop a weapon like a hand grenade or something else. Right now, the fact of the matter is we're on the wrong side of that equation. We're working very hard to fix it. It concerns me. We have a variety of systems at CENTCOM AOR. I know that it has the direct attention of the Secretary of Defense and other people within the department. And we just made the Army the executive agent for counter UAS. All of those are good things. And I know the Army will focus on it directly. But it worries me because I think what we're seeing is the emergence of, really, it's not a new form of warfare, but it's a new component of warfare. And eventually, I think you're going to see manned aircraft that are going to be supported by unmanned aircraft flying as parts of that system. This could be a system of systems. But on the ground right now, I worry about our ability to protect against swarms of those craft. And, you know, a lot of people are working that. And right now it's the cost imposition curve against us. It's harder to defend against it than it is to create those things. So I think at an operational level, that's a worrisome thing. The second thing is, you know, you sort of talked on it, Paul. For all of my career, well actually, the first 10 years of my career, we're trained to fight the Russians. And I was trained to not expect to be able to communicate in that tactical environment. As an infantryman we just did not expect to be able to use our radios. Then over 20 or 30 years that followed, we became addicted to communications and particularly to the wideband dissemination of information and exploitation that satellites bring. That era is drawing to an end. And space is no longer an uncontested domain. And we're back sort of to where I began my career where you're no longer going to be able to count on all that gigabytes of data that's going to flow down to you. And in fact, if you transmit and emanate, you're probably going to be targeted and hit. Either kinetically or perhaps just as lethally, in terms of operations, non-kinetically by some form of cyber operation. So that's worries me quite a bit. Things that we have depended on for a long time that are now going away. Those two things worry me as much as coronavirus or even more going forward, Paul.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Now, General McKenzie, this has really been a very fascinating and rich discussion. Really, thank you again for taking the time. Many more issues I would have liked to ask about and I'm sure the audience would have liked to hear about. But that concludes our session for the day. Let me mention in closing that the next episode in this series will be with will feature Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy. That will be on June 16. And you can find details of that at MEI.edu/events. And as I mentioned earlier, on this broadcast on June 23, we'll be hosting Brigadier General Duke Pirak, deputy director of strategy plans and policy at U.S. Central Command. General McKenzie, thanks for taking the time, and sharing all these analysis, insights and thoughts. Hope to see you in person when travel becomes easier and all the best to you and to the all of the audience that has been following us online. Thank you.  

 

General McKenzie Paul, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure. And you're lucky to get Michele Flournoy, I am a product of Michele Flournoy, I spent a year and a half working as a fellow for her. She's one of the most remarkable leaders in government or out of government that I've ever had the pleasure to work for. I know she'll be a great person to have. Thanks so much. I've enjoyed our time today. I look forward to seeing you. Thank you very much.  

 

Paul Salem (MEI President) Thank you. Goodbye. Goodbye, everybody.