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TRANSCRIPT | July 16, 2020

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

Capt Urban Sir, you are on the line with Steven Inskeep and Tom Bowman.

General McKenzie Hey Steve, Tom, how you guys doing?

Steven Inskeep Doing okay, having a good day. Thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it. And I will ask if Bill Urban is still on the line if you can just make sure to mute your headset or any other headset so we get the clearest signal on the general that we can.

Capt Urban Absolutely. I will shut down. It's going to be at 30 minutes on the record.

Steven Inskeep Great. Excellent. Thank you very much. General, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate talking to you. Even at a distance here. And maybe we can just begin by finding out where you're going, what you're doing.

General McKenzie Sure, Steve. Good morning. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. So as we talk today, I'm returning from the Central Command Theater. I've had an opportunity to visit 10 countries in about 13 days. So a great opportunity to make up for lost time during the coronavirus crisis. We had trouble traveling, but we're now back doing it. And I think people appreciated the fact that I was out there to see them. It let me talk to leaders and let me talk to military and civilian leaders and also let me visit our forces, our men and women that are out there forward deployed, and allowed me to deliver a message that we remain committed to security and stability in the Central Command region.

Steven Inskeep Again, this is a reminder that your job is part military, but also part diplomatic. Right. You're meeting with foreign officials as well as U.S. troops.

General McKenzie Well, it is. I'll give me an example. Today, I just finished in Qatar, where I'm leaving, coming home. I had an opportunity to meet with His Highness, the Emir, and also the Chief of Staff of the Qatari Armed forces. That's typically the kinds of meetings that we do. It gives me an opportunity to make sure our message is passed and understood by leadership.

Steven Inskeep Were you in Afghanistan this trip?

General McKenzie I sure was. I had an opportunity a couple of days ago to go into Afghanistan. And in addition to visiting our forces at the Resolute Support Headquarters, I had the opportunity to spend some time with President Ghani and we had a very good substantive meeting.

Steven Inskeep What's your impression of the situation in Afghanistan now?

General McKenzie So I think we have a narrow path to go forward. I think this path is still the only way to get to a negotiated peaceful end to the situation there. I know, I had a good exchange with President Ghani. I believe that the government of Afghanistan is trying to do everything it can to get ready to conduct intra-Afghan dialog, direct negotiations with the Taliban. And that's going to be an important thing as a precursor to that. You know, they're both working prisoner exchanges as sort of a confidence building measure and the Afghan government has committed to releasing prisoners.

Steven Inskeep OK. There we go. So if I can just ask you to finish that answer again. Forgive me. We lost you. You were saying something about the exchange of five thousand prisoners that's the last thing we heard.

General McKenzie Sure. So the Afghan government has committed to releasing 5000 prisoners and they're in the process of doing that now. They need to finish that release. That will be an important step. The Taliban needs to release 1000 prisoners that they hold of the Government of Afghanistan. Then we need to go to an inter-Afghan dialog where the parties are actually talking. As part of that, the level of violence is still too high. The Taliban is still attacking Afghan forces across the country. They have scrupulously avoided attacking U.S. and coalition forces, but the attacks continue against the Afghan government forces and at a far too high level. So those attacks need to come down and that will set the path going forward. We look for people to continue to undertake and complete the promises they made in good faith. And as people meet their obligations, so will the future government.

Steven Inskeep We've been following some of this violence as you've been in the region, General. There were some dramatic attacks. The Taliban fired rockets on an Afghan city of Ghazni where the Afghan President was at the time, for example. Why would they increase the violence at a moment when they're anticipating peace talks with the government?

General McKenzie Well, that's a very good question. And I would tell you that is not consistent with somebody negotiating in good faith. They need to reduce those attacks. They are not helpful. And I think the Afghans have actually done a very good job showing restraint. I believe they're not going to be able to show that restraint in responding forever. So there's a possibility we'll get into an escalatory spiral. And what the Taliban needs to do is ramp down those attacks.

Steven Inskeep One of our correspondents in the region, Diaa Hadid, has been monitoring this violence and says it is broadly seen as a move by the Taliban to strengthen their position ahead of these peace talks. Do you think they are trying to gain some kind of advantage with the violence?

General McKenzie I think they are, actually. I don't think that's going to be helpful because that's a very fine line. And the government of Afghanistan, they're not going to take their people being killed in this manner without ultimately being forced to respond. So I think this is a dangerous path that the Taliban appears to be going down. It is not helpful.

Steven Inskeep I've heard you refer to a 'narrow road', a 'dangerous path' and a 'fine line'. Is there a risk of this entire effort at a peace agreement falling apart?

General McKenzie I certainly think there's a risk of it. But I'll tell you, I also believe this is the closest we've been to a potential solution in all my time involved with this problem. So it is, in fact, a very difficult period. We need to press forward. We have an opportunity here. I believe the United States has done in good faith exactly what we said we would do. We have reduced our forces down to the 8,000 level. We have closed the bases. We've done what we said we would do. Now other people have to do what they said they would do, and that's the only way for us to go forward.

Steven Inskeep General, as you know very well, Americans were very interested in learning of intelligence reports suggesting that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops. I want to ask about that, but also asked more broadly about Russia. And let's start broadly first. What do you see Russia's interest in Afghanistan being? What do they want to do?

General McKenzie So I think we need to look at our history a little bit. You know, Russia was defeated in Afghanistan. They invaded Afghanistan and they had to leave Afghanistan. I think that weighs heavily in the Russian psyche. I also believe that Russia is concerned about the flow of militant Islam to the north. And they see that coming from Afghanistan. And that's actually a very reasonable thing to be concerned about. They should be concerned about it. By that, I'm talking about ISIS. I'm talking about al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups. So I think Russia actually has some genuine security concerns about that. I think Russia is also, I've said this publicly and I'll say it again now, they're not our friend and they don't wish us success anywhere. And where they have an opportunity to throw sand in our gears, I think they'll do that.

Steven Inskeep What is their known, definite involvement with the Taliban? They've been supplying arms for some years, right?

General McKenzie Sure. So I think they have. Provided moral support to them. I think it's possible they provided other support as well. What I have not been able to have proved to my satisfaction is that they put bounty on U.S. forces. I have received that briefing. It worried me. It worries me today because I take the safety of our men and women and our coalition partners in Afghanistan very seriously. So I sent my intel guys back to do more digging. We continue to look at that. It's not a closed issue. It's an open issue. We continue to try to find evidence. It just hasn't been proved to my satisfaction that that's the case. And we will continue to look at that.

Steven Inskeep Would you say that, whether that's true or not, that they're providing substantial support to the Taliban, an enemy of the United States?

General McKenzie I think they don't wish us well in Afghanistan and they're happy to do things that would make it harder for us to accomplish our mission there.

Steven Inskeep I do want to ask about the big picture, because as you note, Russia provokes the United States in many parts of the world. They hacked the 2016 election. The UK alleges that they hacked coronavirus vaccine trials. That's been revealed just in the last few days. They're busy in Syria, which you know very well, and they're doing everything that you describe in Afghanistan. What do you view their larger strategy toward the United States to be?

General McKenzie Where I really know most about it, most directly, of course, is in the theater that I command. So I watch them and I watch what they do in Syria. I watch what they do in in Afghanistan. And it's difficult to see a concerted strategic approach. Rather, it is a policy of reaction. They don't like what we're doing. They have no real friends. They have no real alternative to offer. So they're really a reactionary force. And that's really why I see it as difficult for me to see and understand a coherent Russian strategy going forward. Additionally, the fact of the matter is their economy is so reduced that it's difficult for them to sustain a large global strategy of any scope and scale.

Steven Inskeep What would be necessary to keep Russia from playing a counterproductive role in your part of the world?

General McKenzie That's a great question. And so I really confine myself to the military element of that. You know, in Syria, we think we've actually got a very straightforward deconfliction mechanism with them. So if we have problems with them, generally speaking, we're able to work those out. And with a respect where we are, we know and understand where they are and they know it. They certainly know and understand our capabilities. It's a little less clear in Afghanistan because Russian forces, uniform forces, aren't actually there. Anything that's Russian there is going to be covert and undercover. It is going to be much harder to detect. So I think I do believe they have an understanding of what our red lines are going to be. And I hope that they respect those.

Steven Inskeep To the extent that you're able to say in public, what are the red lines?

General McKenzie Well, I think certainly bounties on U.S. forces would be something dramatic and significant. I just would tell you that I haven't seen that proved to my satisfaction. And it's not for lack of looking. And it's not for lack of continued examination of the problem. And I got a lot of intel people that are looking at that very hard every day.

Steven Inskeep So you're dealing with the Taliban. You're trying to get them into peace talks. They have support from Russia. And then there's the question of al Qaeda, which, of course, was based in Afghanistan. And one of your desires is to make sure that everybody in Afghanistan is not cooperating with al Qaeda. Is the Taliban cooperating with al Qaeda at this time?

General McKenzie So one of the things the Taliban is going to have to demonstrate to us is that al Qaeda is not going to be able to launch attacks, what we call external attacks, attacks against the homeland of the United States or those of our allies and partners from a base in Afghanistan. And it is not yet clear to me that is going to be something the Taliban is going to be able to deliver on. We still have time for that to happen. So I'm not saying there's no chance of it. I'm just saying, first of all, I believe it is a very hard thing for them to do. Second, they've actually got to prove. Actually prove. No kidding. They're serious about it. And those are steps, I think, effectively that are still ahead of us. But you know what? When I look at where we want to be at the end state for this, the military equity of this problem is we need to be able to guarantee that attacks against the United States aren't going to come from Afghanistan. And look, those attacks aren't going to come from the Taliban. They have no aspiration to do that. Those attacks are going to come from either al Qaeda or ISIS-K, those entities in Afghanistan, which do have both a history and an aspiration to attack the United States and our partners and allies as well.

Steven Inskeep Well, you're saying that they're not preventing al Qaeda yet from having that kind of capability to strike. I'm trying to figure out why it is they aren't gone.

General McKenzie So, first of all, I would tell you that, on the other hand, the Taliban has operated very effectively against ISIS. So we have seen them do that. We've seen them shrink ISIS down in the east, particularly in Nangarhar province. But in other areas as well, where it's very difficult for ISIS to hold ground. And that's good work that they've done. But there are ideological and theological reasons why they do that, they need to demonstrate the same thing against al Qaeda. And at least to my level of satisfaction that has not occurred yet.

Perhaps it will occur. It just has not occurred yet. I don't want to say that it's not going to happen because I want to leave that door open. And there's still time ahead as we move down this continuum for them to take these steps.

Steven Inskeep Do they actively collaborate with al Qaeda, though? Do they bring al Qaeda into their various military operations for example?

General McKenzie So I would say that they do not do that. I would say that they typically do not do that

Steven Inskeep So what you're saying is they simply have failed to crack down. They had failed to drive this group to the margins or destroy it or pin it down or whatever it is that would need to be done.

General McKenzie Steve, you're right. And, you know, it's a very complex problem in different parts of the country. It operates in different areas. But I think what we need to see is demonstrated resolve to fulfill that part of the agreement. And we just aren’t at that point yet.

Steven Inskeep So I want to figure out what the implications of that are. The United States has made its agreement for now with the Taliban. The United States is encouraging the Afghan government to make an agreement with the Taliban. Would you go so far as to say that this peace deal is not going to work? The United States is not going to do what's necessary to complete it unless the United States gets what it needs regarding al Qaeda.

General McKenzie So, obviously, Steve, that's going to be a political, not a military decision. But here's the thing. We would like to go to smaller, lower force levels in Afghanistan. That's good for everybody to do that. Our ability to go to those lower force levels is going to be based on the security situation in the country. And a key part of the security situation in the country is going to be what we just talked about. We're going to have to know that al Qaeda and ISIS are not going to be able to operate there. If you have a future government that is actively committed to suppressing them, preventing them from carrying out those attacks, then certainly you could go to a much lower U.S. force level in the future. If not, it's going to require decisions made in the United States about how we're going to proceed. And those are not going to be military decisions.

Steven Inskeep Understood. You've got eighty six hundred troops there now, I believe. If the situation--the political situation--does not change, is that the number you're going to have to stick with for some time?

General McKenzie So we will look at what the what the best level of forces is and we'll make adjustments in consultation with the Afghan government, with our NATO partners and with our other coalition partners to get the right level forces there to continue to do the missions that we need to do. And beyond that, I would just not comment on further potential force levels.

Steven Inskeep General, I want to ask about Iraq, which, of course, is another part of your area of responsibility. In Iraq, Iranian-supported militias have continued firing rockets at the U.S. embassy compound and other U.S. targets, U.S. bases in Iraq. How are you defending U.S. interests there?

General McKenzie So actually, I think we begin with the fact that the Iraqi government is actually taking a far more active role in attempting to prevent those attacks. You know, I had an opportunity to visit Iraq. I had an opportunity to spend time with the prime minister several days ago. And we had a very good meeting. And I am very impressed and pleased that he's undertaking actions as the government of Iraq is required to do and should do to protect the forces that are there to assist Iraq in fighting Daesh from attacks by these militant groups. Yes, some of these attacks have continued but the government of Iraq has actually been able to prevent some of these attacks from continuing. You know, they've carried out great operations against known Kataib Hezbollah operatives. And so those are all very good signs going forward. And so I believe ultimately that first of all we've got a good partner with the Iraqi government. We're going to continue to work for them. It is not going to be a perfect relationship. They are not going to be able to stop all attacks. And I believe that the fact that we're seeing these attacks springs from this fact: earlier this year, Iran felt they had a very good opportunity to push the United States out of Iraq through a political process by control of the Iraqi political machinery. They failed to do that.

Steven Inskeep Sure, they tried to vote out U.S. troops. The parliament voted to. They certainly did something.

General McKenzie That's right. The council of representatives in a non-binding resolution voted that. But the government of Iraq, the current government of Iraq, is in serious negotiations with the United States and with our other partners about the platform we're going to have going forward and I believe we're going to stay in Iraq. I believe we're going to leave a CT [counterterrorism] platform there that is going to be capable of operating against Daesh. It is going to be at the level of strength that's mutually agreed upon between representatives of the United States and representatives of the Iraqi government. And so I think that's a good news story. And so I think what we will see now that Iran realizes that through their proxies in Iraq, since they cannot achieve the ejection of the Coalition through political means, they will now attempt to shift to other means. And by that I mean violent means. And so it's possible that we will see attacks ramp up. I think it's very possible, yes.

Steven Inskeep I'll just define a term. You said a CT platform or post was talking about counterterrorism capabilities there.

General McKenzie That is counterterrorism in particular. Yes.

Steven Inskeep And so you're telling me that Iraq's parliament, in its non-binding resolution voted for U.S. troops to go. But when you yourself were meeting with the prime minister just the other day, it wasn't a discussion about how to go. It was a discussion about in what form you would stay?

General McKenzie What form we would stay--look, we're going to get smaller in Iraq. That's going to happen. We needed to get smaller in Iraq because we presented a significant surface target--a surface area as we would we call in our terms--that could be attacked. So what we have done is we have we have reduced our basing. We've adjusted our basing. We brought in significant additional things, Patriot missiles and other things, to defend ourselves against potential attack from Iran and also against other short range attacks of rockets and missiles and mortars inside Iraq. So we have hardened ourselves. We're in the process of right-sizing our forces. Yes, we're going to get smaller because we need to get smaller. We don't need the size of force we had a couple of months ago there. But I think I'm confident we're going to end up with a force that's going to be able to continue to assist the Iraqis in the prime reason we are they are, which is finishing the campaign against Daesh in Iraq--wherever they are.

Steven Inskeep Do you think that the average person on the street in Iraq wants U.S. troops in the country?

General McKenzie So, you know, I think since you bring up polling data, I would say that we never polled very high in Iraq. But, you know, for the first time, actually, and you've got to be careful with polling data, we're polling higher than Iran because I think a lot of Iraqis realize the pain and hardship that Iran has brought to their country. And Iran's polling numbers are very, very low. Ours are qualitatively better than theirs, but still not very high. I think Iraqis are a proud people and they're never happy with anybody in their country. And I think that's true of many countries. And so, you know, what we've got to do is we've got to demonstrate that we're there for a reason. We've got to work carefully with the Iraqi government. We've got to respect their concept of sovereignty. And we're trying to do all those things. And in return for that, it is incumbent upon the government of Iraq to do all they can to protect those forces that we have there at their request to conduct operations against ISIS.

Steven Inskeep General Mackenzie, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

General McKenzie Thank you very much. You have a good day. Take care. Bye bye.

Steven Inskeep We're over a couple of minutes, but I wanted to reserve a couple of minutes for Tom Bowman.

Tom Bowman Just a couple of quick questions, General. I want to return back to Afghanistan. It appears that the recent U.S. airstrikes there--I'm told around eight or so--and also the Taliban put out a statement today on Twitter say U.S. forces have violated the agreement by carrying out multiple drone strikes in non-combat areas in Helmand, Ghazni, and Zabul, which is unacceptable to the Islamic Emirate and we condemn it. If U.S. is mounting airstrikes, and it seems like that's fairly new, and the Taliban's increasing violence, doesn't all of that make peace talks less likely?

General McKenzie I would say increased violence--and the increased violence let's be clear--began with the Taliban. I think all of that is not good for peace talks. And I agree with that. And so that's why it's important that people adhere to the terms of the agreement. But, you know, you can't expect the government of Afghanistan to be a punching bag for the Taliban and to take these continued attacks lying down. At some point, they're going to respond. The president of Afghanistan has to respond. So I think for a long time, the government of Afghanistan has actually shown restraint against a fairly high level of Taliban attacks. And, you know, we had a high profile attack here recently as well that you have referred to. And that is also new. Most of these attacks have been out in the hinterland against checkpoints, against isolated positions. But the tempo has stayed high, higher than it was this time last year. And so that's very concerning and I think none of that is good for prospects for peace.

Tom Bowman What about U.S. airstrikes? Have you mounted U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan?

General McKenzie So I've been traveling today so I'm not a position to tell you what's happened in the last 12 or 18 hours. There have been times when we have supported Afghan forces. Yes.

Tom Bowman With U.S. airstrikes, drones and other war planes.

General McKenzie Yes, with U.S. airstrikes. I could not characterize the nature of those strikes.

Tom Bowman OK, just one other thing too. Getting back to the conditions for peace talks, reducing violence, you know, starting talks with the Afghan government also publicly renouncing al Qaeda. I think it was last year Afghan troops rolled up some al Qaeda in Helmand province. I remember well, we were there last fall in Jalalabad. I believe the special operators here told us that there was evidence that al Qaeda was with the Taliban out there in the east. So the question is, if there are like small numbers of al Qaeda in places like Helmand or the eastern part of the country, I mean, is that much of a threat to the United States where they have to completely break with al Qaeda? What's your sense of that?

General McKenzie Yeah, I think we're going to look for demonstrable, irreversible evidence that they have done that. And look, it's a large country. And as you know, it is uniquely local. And the conditions in one part of the country could be very different from conditions in another part of the country. And that's what generates part of the complexity of the battlespace there. And I think what we're looking for is no kidding, it's got to be very clear. And it can't be what they say. It's got to be what they do. So we're going to look, you know, we’ve got to look for actions here and, you know, demonstrated actions that are verifiable, trust but verify, you know, and actually just verify would probably be a more accurate description.

Tom Bowman And again, if they don't do that, you'd want to keep a troop level at 8,600. That would be your recommendation, correct?

General McKenzie Well, I would want to look at whatever troop level we're going to be at. I'm not wedded to any particular number. It would just be, the recommendation I would make at that time, my military advice, it would be based on the situation. It might be 8,600. It might be another number. And I just don't want to get into specific numbers.

Tom Bowman Sure. Got it. OK. General, thanks so much. Really appreciate the time.

Steven Inskeep Yeah. General, thank you. I've enjoyed this. Please travel safely.

General McKenzie OK. Roger that. I'll hopefully be home in about 18 hours. Listen, you guys take care. I'll look forward to talking to you again soon. Okay.

Steven Inskeep Thanks so much, General. Bye. Take care. Bye bye.