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General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. interview with VoA during a recent tour of the region

Press Operations

July 16, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Carla Babb You are officially going to be on the record, if that's okay with you unless you wanted to say anything off the record before we get started.

General McKenzie No I think Bill Urban's on. So 30 minutes on the record and Bill keep me honest on time. OK.

Capt Urban Yes, sir. 30 minutes on the record starts now.

Carla Babb Well, thank you, General Mckenzie, for speaking with Voice of America today. I hear that you are just leaving Egypt. Can you tell us a little bit about what was discussed there and what the Egyptians see as the biggest threat in the region?

General McKenzie Sure. So first of all, it was a very good visit with Egypt. You know, I had an opportunity to be with the minister of defense and with the chief of staff. And those were both very good meetings as well as an opportunity to meet with our ambassador very briefly. So unfortunately, the way we're doing these visits, I don't have a lot of time. COVID restrictions make it very difficult to have the lengthy discussions that we normally have. We were able to invest a couple of days in the country, but what we're able to talk about was just first of all assure Egypt that even through this period of Corona virus, which has affected them, even as this is affecting us, we were them. We understand the many things they're doing to help us, including expediting movement through the Suez Canal, assisting us with movements of forces among other things, we're all very appreciative of that. And it gave Egypt an opportunity--the Minister of Defense in particular--an opportunity to tell us what's on their mind. Clearly what's on their mind is Libya. And the GERD or the Greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam down south. So we had an opportunity to exchange views on all of those things. We talked about the importance of, you know, obviously coronavirus has put a lot of friction into much of the military training that we do with our friends and partners out here. Both they and we want to get that going as soon as we can. And we talked about ways to begin to do that as fast as possible. So they were very productive discussions with Egypt.

Carla Babb So let's move on to Syria. I also know that's when Abdi said that you met with him last week. Can you confirm that? And can you talk a little bit about what you discussed during your talks with him?

General McKenzie Sure. So I did have an opportunity to meet with General Mazloum in Syria last week as I moved up and down the eastern Euphrates River Valley. Not only General Mazloum, but also I had the opportunity to visit our forces as they were disposed out there. So, you know, what I conveyed to General Mazloum was we continue to partner with them. We have tasks that remain to be accomplished against ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley, particularly, we what concerns him a part there in Syria. And we look forward to continuing to work with them. We also talked about SDF management of the IDP and the prison population that's there. Carla, as you know, we do not directly manage that. We're not directly involved in that at all. But we are concerned about it and we're concerned from a security perspective and we're concerned from a humanitarian perspective. So I'm always interested in doing anything I can to assist the SDF as they work that effort, although it is largely an international effort to support them, particularly with the IDPs. The IDPs are a great source of concern to me simply because right now we don't have any evidence that we've got coronavirus penetration into those camps. But those are uniquely vulnerable populations and we're very concerned about the possible effects of an infection spreading in that camp. So we talked about all those things and it it was a very good engagement.

Carla Babb Is CENTCOM doing anything directly to relieve this burden on the SDF currently?

General McKenzie So we really have no direct way to do it. We're involved in some of the training of the forces that go there, but we have no real direct connection to either of those things. We work with our State Department partners. We work with USAID. We work with a variety of international relief agencies, particularly with the IDPs to help. But it's indirect help. I will tell you, we're doing everything we can to provide assistance and we will aggressively work with the interagency and the international community to do that.

Carla Babb And, sir, I know that the United States is very focused on the areas in Syria that are under SDF control. Can you talk a little bit about the developments, though, with ISIS in areas of Syria that are not only under the Russian control or the Syrian regime control?

General McKenzie Sure I can Carla. So here's the thing. The long term future for ISIS, particularly in Syria, is going to be related to our ability to establish local security organizations that can prevent ISIS from growing. There's always going to be a low level ISIS problem. I believe that's going to be endemic. I don't think it's going to go away. But what we want to do in areas where we can control with our SDF partners, is we want to ensure that local security organizations are put in place that can ensure that the responses will be local and they will not require external assistance. Think of it as local police. Really, that's kind of what you would like to establish. So we're working with our SDF partners in those areas east of the Euphrates River to get trained people in that can actually do that. People that will be responsive to local civilian authority. So let's move it out and we'll see how that works out. I'm optimistic about that. Now, in areas west of the Euphrates River, where you've got Russian and Syrian control, I am concerned because I don't believe they have any concept of stabilization as we know stabilization. They have no idea how to how to actually manage an area after you've cleared it militarily. So the conditions that that led to the rise of ISIS still persist out there in the West.

General McKenzie And that's unfortunate. And I am worried about that. There's not much we can do about it. We don't have forces out there. The SDF doesn't operate out there. So, you know, we try to concentrate on areas where we do have control. And I think we have a path in areas where we do have control. There are a lot of obstacles down the road. But I think the key is, again, recognizing the future is not bloodless. There's always going to be some form of insurgency with its factories in this area. But what we want to do is we want to abolish local systems that will be able to handle it, so they won't need us to do it except with very, very little support.

Carla Babb Has there been a movement of ISIS fighters into those areas controlled by the Russian and Syrian regime? I know Baghdadi was found in one of those areas. Is that a trend that you've seen in recent months?

General McKenzie You know, obviously, Baghdadi being up in the extreme northwest part of Syria just tells you the complete failure of Islamic caliphate as a state, where the leader has to go and hide, really in an area where there wasn't a lot of sympathy for ISIS actually in where he was struck. Where the raid occurred actually was an area where there weren't a lot of ISIS on the ground. There were other radical militant groups there, but none of them were particularly friendly to ISIS. So we see some movement that back and forth. I would not be willing to say that we see, you know, large numbers of ISIS flowing that way. As we finished operations against the physical Caliphate last year and the year before, they actually had a plan to disperse some of their fighters. Some of it went into Iraq and we're operating against them now with our Iraqi partners. Some of them went to ground in different places across Syria. You know, when they come up and talk, we have an opportunity to see them and we have an opportunity to pursue them and we're pretty aggressive doing that through and with our SDF partners.

Carla Babb Sir, as you know, a Turkish Russian joint patrol was targeted this week in northeast Syria. Site Intelligence Group is saying that the Chechen Brigade Brigade has claimed responsibility for this attack on the M4 highway. What can you tell us about this group and these types of groups operating in Syria now?

General McKenzie So I would say out west, west of us, there is a hodgepodge of different groups. I have no particular information on the group you're talking about. But I know it's a pretty dangerous area out there. And I'm not sure that anything the Russians are doing and their Syrian partners particularly is doing anything to lower the temperature there. So I think we should look for these attacks to continue. And I think that's unfortunate. We deplore any attack of this nature.

Carla Babb And when you were in Syria, the U.S. has been negotiating or mediating, I should say, negotiations between the two Kurdish groups in Syria for months. Did you discuss any progress or any developments on this mediation when you were talking with General Mazloum?

General McKenzie That is one thing we did not discuss

Carla Babb Okay, I'd like to move on to Iraq, if I can. There is supposed to be a meeting slated in D.C. for late July. We are halfway through the month now. Is that going to be happening in person? And what do you hope to see come out of these talks?

General McKenzie Sure. So let me just back up and give you a little larger picture about Iraq. But I promise you, I'll get to the strategic dialog as part of that. So I had an opportunity last week to meet with the prime minister and had a very good engagement with him. I think where we are right now with the government of Iraq is I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the value that U.S., Coalition and NATO forces bring to them in their fight against Daesh. And I actually believe that as we continue through the strategic dialog, and as you know, the first strategic dialog happened and the second one is scheduled for later this month, I believe we're going to arrive at a solution going forward. That's going to be something negotiated between the government of Iraq, us, and our partners. Where they're going to want us to help and continue operations against Daesh. So I'm hopeful that is actually going to continue because I recognize they believe that we are value-added. I would also note, as an aside, this represents a setback for Iran. Iran has pursued a policy of trying to eject the United States from the theater, and from Iraq in particular, for some time. And I believe they feel very strongly they, the Iranians, felt that in the spring of this year they had the opportunity to achieve that objective through a political track in Iraq. And I believe that is now turning into a dead-end for them. And they're finding that the government of Iraq is not going to be completely beholden to them. Rather the government of Iraq is going to make decisions in its own best interests. And I don't mean to say that Iraq is not going to have a relationship with Iran because clearly they're neighbors. They share a lot more. There's a lot of reasons why they're going to continue to have a relationship. I'm merely saying that the government of Iraq realizes that we provide enormous value to them. We and our partners, as they continue to finish off Daesh within the borders of Iraq. So the strategic dialog is scheduled. The frictions with coronavirus, the dangers inherent with that - I do not know the status of if that's going to be a physical event, which I know we wanted it to be, or if it is going to be a virtual event or it's going to be a hybrid combination. Carla, I just don't know. As far as I know, it is scheduled, but I've been on the road and I just have not been updated with the latest status on that. Over.

Carla Babb And since you mentioned Iran. I want to talk in greater detail later on Iran, but you had spoken with other reporters about Iran's threat and you mentioned how there had not been any maritime attacks since the International Maritime Security Construct noted drone attacks in Saudi since the U.S. helped them beef up their security there. But attacks have continued on bases in Iraq, housing U.S. troops. So what do you make of that?

General McKenzie So we'll start with Iraq. So, first of all, Iran realizes they're probably not going to be able to get us out politically. So they've got to make a decision. Do they want to attempt to move us out through the use of force? And that would be to the use of their proxy forces, the Shia militant groups that we know operate in Iraq and have actually been very well armed by their Iranian masters. And in fact, in past years have killed a lot of U.S. Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airman so very much aware of that. So the other point is the degree of Iranian control over the Shia militant groups is imperfect. It is even more imperfect after the death of Qasem Soleimani. So I think Iran is beginning to think about adjusting the boundaries of what they can get away with to cause pain to us. And we will watch it. We will watch that closely. Those attacks to date have been relatively minor, but we watch and could very quickly turn into a major, major followed and we will be ready to respond should that occur. But I think, they are driven at least partially by the fact that they were not able to get the solution they wanted politically in Iraq. So that's one of the reasons they're moving against us. Over.

Carla Babb So, sir, just so I understand you, I think what you may be trying to imply is that the attacks have continued, in part because Iran doesn't hold as much power over these proxy forces as they used to. Is that what you're saying?

General McKenzie I think there's a degree of that. But I think whether Iran is just telling them to attack or not, the weapons are enabled by Iran. So there's clear Iranian ownership, at least moral ownership with what these groups do. Even if they're not actually pulling the trigger and saying 'Attack this base tonight.' Do you see what I'm saying Carla?

Carla Babb I do see what you're saying. OK, so it's kind of unclear. It could be a myriad of things you don't want to assume one way or the other. Is that more like what you're saying?

General McKenzie It is and here's one good news story. The government of Iraq is reaching out and they're being very aggressive, very helpful in attempting to reduce these attacks. And I think because of that, we are seeing a lower number of attacks on U.S. bases than we would have otherwise seen over the last few weeks. I think the prime minister takes his responsibility very seriously to assist those who are in Iraq to help him. I think that's actually a good news story.

Carla Babb Sir, you mentioned last week also that you didn't know if the U.S. force presence in Iraq needs to be as big as it is now. So my question to you is, in the near term, is that your opinion on the overall international presence or is that taking into account that NATO will be expected to step up with additional training forces and whatnot to make room for some of the U.S. forces to leave?

General McKenzie Sure, Carla. So whatever future force level we arrive at in Iraq is going to be something that will be done in careful coordination with the government of Iraq. And it will also be done in a coordinated manner with our NATO and our other coalition partners that are there. So certainly we expect NATO to do some additional work in Iraq. I would tell you that we are very, very closely linked to the NATO and our coalition partners in what we do. We share enablers, we share other elements of support. So that's something that we would look at as a unitary whole going forward. But whatever the U.S. force level is, and it has not be determined. It will be based on close work with the government of Iraq.

Carla Babb Yes, sir. I guess what I'm saying is in Afghanistan, before there was an agreement to withdraw down to the eight thousand five hundred six hundred range of U.S. troops, there was a determination, a military determination, not just political, but a military determination that the U.S. could get the job done with that number of troops. So I guess my question is, how many troops do you need to get the job done? And if you don't want to be that specific. Can you get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq?

General McKenzie So the answer is yes, we can get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq. And the reduction would be done in close consultation with everyone. And I'm not ready to actually. Talk about the specific number, but I believe that we have the capability to, just as we've hardened ourselves and our bases in Iraq against Iranian attack. We still can do all the things we need to do by reducing the attack surface that presents itself against the Shia militant groups in Iraq. So I think we can do all those things and we're working through that problem right now.

Carla Babb OK, sir. And I'd also like to ask you since we were discussing Iran earlier. The Trump administration has officially said that Iran is especially vulnerable right now due to the maximum pressure campaign, due to sanctions, the pandemic, the aftermath of last year's massive protest? There's a lot of reasons being given. How do you personally measure Iran's strength at this time?

General McKenzie Sure. So I think Iran is under great pressure and I think that is a diplomatic and economic in nature. So I think that campaign, which you described is continuing. I think they are seeking ways to try to remove that pressure. The example of a political track that try to follow in Iraq is one example of that. I think they continuously examined kinetic things they can do that would throw us off our stride or make us back off of the campaign. Here's where U.S. Central Command and our friends and partners in the region come in. What we do is, it is our intent to deter Iran from undertaking direct or indirect attacks against us or our partners in the region in order to reset the terms of the maximum pressure campaign while that campaign continues. So it's classic deterrence theory. In the mind of the beholder, in the mind of the opponent, the cognitive process has got to be anything I can do to offset the maximum pressure campaign is ultimately going to result in an outcome for me that is more painful than the object that I desire. So that's what you try to do. That is the principle of deterrence. If that's what we try to establish with messaging, with a force posture in the theater, with sort of everything that we do out there, is we try to do that. We want to convince them that it is not in their best interest to attack us or our partners in the region, either directly or indirectly.

Carla Babb Sir, is that the same way you assess the threat? And since Iran, you assess has been weakened, has the threat toward the United States from Iran also weakened?

General McKenzie So I think Iran has gone to great lengths to ensure that, what they hold is their critical capabilities, retain the ability to act. And by that I would mean, their ballistic missile force, their strategic air defense forces, the IRGC and other elements. I think they have made sacrifices of under a larger population in order to ensure that these elements, which they hold to be so important, receive preferential treatment and are ready to respond. So, I think Iran still retains very significant capabilities. I think the penetration of the coronavirus in Iran is very disturbing because I do not think they've they've been particularly effective in treating it across the country. I think the penetration among senior leaders is worrisome as well. That could always lead to unpredictable behavior. You know, we're prepared for that. That's one of the things that we look at all the time is, what can Iran do? We look at Iranian capabilities all the time and we're capabilities focused. But we consider it a threat. So I would say I don't consider Iran any less threatening right now than they were several months ago.

Carla Babb Thank you, sir. I'd like to switch to Afghanistan for the final part of this conversation, if you don't mind. You had said to reporters last week, and General Milley has actually echoed similar information, that you had asked your team to further dig into the matter of Russian bounties being offered to the Taliban in exchange for the deaths of U.S. service members. Have your people found any more evidence to back up that initial report?

General McKenzie So, Carla, I asked that question back in January when I first received the report. And if so, we are continuing to dig. I have found nothing yet that would make me change my judgment that it is very worrisome. It's very concerning. But it's not proven to my satisfaction that that actually occurred. Look, and I would go a little further, Carla. I take every death of every U.S. man or woman in Afghanistan, very seriously, whether, it was the three Marines, we happen to be talking about in this case or anybody else that dies. We look at all those things very hard. Because we want to know, because that young man or woman represents someones son or daughter that's gone out there. We owe it to the family and everybody else to know what happened. So we look hard at all these cases. But because of the particular ramifications of this one, we've really looked hard, as we continue to look at a broad variety of things. But I've got nothing back yet that would change my judgment on it. But I keep an open mind and I'm always ready to look at new information, Carla.

Carla Babb You know. General, I was in Afghanistan with General Nicholson back in 2017 when he was telling reporters that the U.S. had continued to get reports of the Russians arming the Taliban. Can you tell our audience what makes the idea of offering bounties so different than arming the Taliban to fight against U.S. forces?

General McKenzie Sure. I think it's the human connection that you tie it to. If you wanted to kill a specific kind of person, a specific American or a specific Afghan, I think that's what makes it, frankly, morally abhorrent. And against the Western way of war. I find it particularly distasteful to even consider that. Look, we know Russia does not mean us well. We know that. They are not our friends. I've said this before. They have no interest in our success in Afghanistan or a lot of other places as well. So, it should not surprise us and it does not surprise me that they'd work against us. That's just a given. Would you consider the nature of the battlefield there. But bounties is another thing and I do appreciate that.

Carla Babb General, where do you currently see the bulk of Russian efforts to counter U.S. interests in Afghanistan?

General McKenzie Oh, I think they undoubtedly do maintain contact with the Taliban. I think it's probably there. I think they have an opportunity to speak out against this. They do it, there are a variety of ways that they could do it. But, I wouldn't care to go into any further detail on that right now, Carla.

Carla Babb OK, understood. So let's shift to the peace agreement that we are trying to form, that we are trying to help form between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We're now more than a hundred and thirty five days into this. The United States just mentioned that it had kept up all of its commitments. The Pentagon issued a statement yesterday. Has the Taliban kept up their commitments, in your opinion.

General McKenzie So I would not say that they have yet. Here's why I would say that. So we expected to see a reduction in violence. And while the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces. In fact, the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while. It's one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we've seen today. Average lethality is down just a little bit. But the number of enemy initiated attacks is, in fact, very worrisome. We need to get to intra-Afghan dialog. It is uncertain that we're going to get to that, at any time soon. That's really the next critical thing that needs to happen in order to move forward. Because what's going to happen is that the Afghans have got to talk to each other to determine how they're going to formulate a path forward. And that's what leads us to the long term conditions that would allow us to actually see a future where there's far less U.S. or coalition presence in the country. And those conditions are just not met yet. But, you know, the biggest conditions, of course, are that we need to be assured that ISIS and al-Qaeda do not have the opportunity to be hosted in Afghanistan and develop attacks against the West. And Carla, right now it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps in those areas. They still may get to it, and time is not out. But I just haven't seen that actually develop yet. So I think we're coming up on a pretty important time in this process.

Capt Urban Last two, Carla.

Carla Babb Last two. Okay, understood. I might give you a couple of dual parters, sir. How confident, General Mackenzie, are you, this far into the deal that a peaceful resolution can stem from this? Or are we on the verge of a reset?

General McKenzie So, Carla, hope is not an effective way to consider the problem. I told people, we don't need to believe in the Taliban. We don't need to like or dislike the Taliban. We need to study and observe the Taliban and see if they keep their commitments and move forward. And that will tell us whether or not there's a path to go to peace. And at best, they've only partially done some of those things. So that's how I create my perspective of the future. What are they doing? Not what are they saying, not what do we hope that they would do, not what we think they might do. What is it that they are doing? I think, honestly, the government of Afghanistan is trying very hard to do what they've undertaken to do as part of the agreement. I think right now the Taliban is not in the same place. And so that's how I draw my assessment of what the future is.

Carla Babb So if I understand you correctly, just to recap, you are not very confident at this point that a peaceful resolution is going to stem from these actions that we have taken over the last few months.

General McKenzie I wouldnt say that I'm confident or not confident. I would say that I look at the indicators and that lets me know how people are living up to their obligations under the agreement that we made. And the Taliban has not lived up to some of the obligations they have made. They still have time to change. I don't know that they will. I don't know that they won't. I do know that we're going to watch them very closely. It will be indicated by actions that they take.

Carla Babb And sir, if I may ask you about the U.S. goals in Afghanistan. For years, we've heard that the United States wanted to double the special forces in the Afghan military. They wanted to increase the air superiority by 2022. Is that still the standard that the U.S. is using when they're building the Afghan military and the Afghan security forces or is there more that needs to be done to give them the upper hand in negotiations with the Taliban?

General McKenzie So, look, as we go forward, what we do to support our Afghan partners is going to be related to security conditions in the country. If we get an agreement, if the intra-Afghan dialogue yields some form of an agreement with a reduction in violence, obviously the Afghan force that we would see going forward would be different then the Afghan force we see going forward if we are unable to achieve those things. So let's say we're at the point now where what we do going forward needs to be guided by what is going to be yielded with the current set of negotiations. But more importantly, what are we going to be shown by Taliban actions on the ground. That will inform what we want going forward. Carla, what we want, and the bottom line is the military equity for me as the CENTCOM commander is, we want to prevent the ability for al-Qaeda and ISIS, or any other violent extremist groups of their ilk, to be able to move freely in Afghanistan and generate external attacks against us or other partners from those areas. That's happened once, we don't want it to happen again. That is actually the ultimate long term, military equity that I am focused on as the military commander.

Carla Babb So if I understand--the special forces goal, the air superiority goal--that has continued despite these negotiations, because that's still important to keep al-Qaeda and ISIS and other terror groups from infiltrating and using Afghanistan as a launch pad. So it's safe to report that those goals have continued?

General McKenzie Those goals have continued, they could be adjusted based on developments on the ground. We need to be very clear on that.

Capt Urban That's it Carla.

General McKenzie Go ahead Carla.

Carla Babb This is my last question, sir.

Carla Babb What's the repercussions to the Taliban if they're not being helpful, if they're not allowing the U.S. to move forward on this peace negotiation with the Afghan government and the Taliban? What does the U.S. military plan to do if they're not helpful and they're not keeping up their commitments?

General McKenzie So, Carla, that ultimately is going to be a political, not a military decision. But if the Taliban envision a future where there is very little or no foreign presence in Afghanistan, then they have to create the conditions for that. The conditions for that would be an agreement with the existing government of Afghanistan, a way forward that has a significant reduction in violence and absolute promises that are verifiable to ensure that al-Qaeda and ISIS have no safe haven in Afghanistan.

General McKenzie Thank you, General. Thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America. Thank you for discussing your area of responsibility and giving us more insight into how the U.S. military is trying to make that a more stable region.

General McKenzie Carla, thanks a lot. I look forward to getting you out here on a trip sometime.

Carla Babb Thank you, sir.

General McKenzie Alright, bye bye.

Carla Babb Bye bye.