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

Press Operations

July 16, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

David Ignatius General McKenzie, thank you so much for taking the call, I appreciate it.

General McKenzie Sure. It's good to talk to you. Would you like a brief overview segment for me to sort of put it in context, David, or do you want to go straight to questions. What works best for you?

David Ignatius So I know we have limited time. Why don’t we do it the other way around? Well, you put some time in the overview statement. Why don’t you go ahead with that, and then I’ll follow?

General McKenzie And I'll be very brief. The thing I would tell you is, I'm finishing up a trip and we've done 10 countries in 13 days. First trip into the region, really since February.

We've had to cancel several trips because of the coronavirus issue. So it's just a really important opportunity for me to reengage in person, to talk to leaders, military, civilian leaders at each of these countries and to visit our own formations. So I think it is a very important trip for me to make, one of reassurance, to let them know that even in these tough times, we remain a good, steady partner. And so it's been a very good trip. And that's really all I kind of wanted to say as a framer, David, then over to you.

David Ignatius Good. So that's useful. Let me begin with Afghanistan, where I gather that was your last destination.

Capt Urban To start, we are on the record, correct?

General McKenzie OK. We're on the record. I got it. Go ahead.

David Ignatius On the record. So let me ask about Afghanistan. I'm told by Pentagon sources here in Washington that a decision has been made now that we will not go to zero by Election Day, that that's just not possible. The number I'm hearing is something like 4000, probably, below the low bar. Is that accurate?

General McKenzie You'll have to go back to those sources, David. I'm not going to be able to give you any more information on that. I would tell you that, below the current level, the advice I give is conditions based. That information about further levels, probably most appropriately comes from the Pentagon and not from me here in the field. So that's really all I got for you on that one.

David Ignatius So just to follow it up a minute, so you'd say anything below where we are now and that number is usually estimated at 8600. Anything below that would be conditions based. So I need to ask you, are conditions now such that you could give military advice to further reduce?

General McKenzie So ultimately, you want to go to a very low force level in Afghanistan. Based on conditions that would not be susceptible to the return of al-Qaeda or ISIS-K in a way that could threaten the United States or our friends and allies. And if you get those conditions, you can go very low. And that would require a lot of activity from the Taliban. So going that low would require a number of things to be done. It is possible that we could go lower than our current number without seeing all those end-state conditions to be met. So it's a continuum and we're in the process of working that out right now.

David Ignatius List some of things that we'd need to see, again for your military advice as the CENTCOM commander, that you are comfortable lowering the number.

General McKenzie So sure, what you'd want to see is progress in the Inter-Afghan dialogue, that's coming up. There's opportunity for that. That's one of the things you'd like to see. You'd like to see a reduction in violence, which we're not seeing yet, right now.

You'd like to see that. So those are some of the things that you would like to see as you go forward. And you'd like to see firm commitment from the Taliban about al-Qaeda and ISIS. Those are examples of things that you'd want to see. But, David, we will continue to take a look at our posture and we can make some adjustments to harden our position and keep capabilities perhaps at a lower number without giving up any capability, without giving anything away. And without actually seeing concrete measures like I'm talking about happen. I'm just not at liberty right now to discuss future force levels.

David Ignatius OK. And two more quick questions about Afghanistan. What are our forces doing now with COVID and the state of tension over the peace talks? I'm told they don't get out of their bases much and that there's a level of offensive operations, even partnering operations is fairly low. Is that accurate?

General McKenzie So it is reduced right now and part of that is a reaction to the to the COVID crisis. We have to take care of our people as they meet under conditions that are appropriate to protect them. So that has slowed things down. I think we're still doing a lot of outreach with our Afghan partners. But the pace of operations has slowed a little bit.

Also the Afghans are continuing operations to defend themselves because the Taliban attacks have really continued to pace. What the Taliban has not done is strike U.S. or coalition forces. And of course, that's a good thing. That's not all the things we'd like to see them do. But it is a good thing. Our pace is slower right now. We still do some work with special operations forces there. And those operations continue when we get targets destroyed.

David Ignatius One final question about Afghanistan. And it's the obvious one of value, I saw you gave a fairly detailed answer to Carla Babb of VoA. But I just want to ask the question again.

General McKenzie Sure.

David Ignatius You had expressed concern about this problem and said you were concerned about it since there were first reports back in January. Could you just describe that concern and then what steps you're taking, because it's important to the country, to establish whether it had...

Gen McKenzie Yeah. So I'm concerned any time there's evidence of someone, particularly targeting U.S. or our coalition partners or even our Afghan partners in Afghanistan. That kind of targeting, particularly concerns me. And it particularly concerns me if it's a third party that's actually doing that and paying the Taliban to do it. Now, David, the Taliban has been targeting us for a long time. So the method of attack is not going to change. I mean, it's still going to be a rocket, it's going to be a mortar, it's going to be indirect fire, or it's going to be some kind of IED. So the modality of attack is not going to be any different. But if someone is actually targeting us, then that's very concerning to me. And I was just not able to see in the intelligence, the level of confirmation that that would close the circuit for me. I look down through the years at a lot of these reports. This report worried me. I see lots of reports on the battlefield that worry me. This is one of those that does that we were not able to close. We were not able to actually get the finality that I would like. So what I did was I told my intel guys, let's go back and keep digging. I want to know. I want to know if there's anything there. That work continues. But that work continues on a broad variety of things, not just this thing. But as of now, I haven't seen anything that would cause me to change my initial judgments. It worries me. It troubles me. But I don't see anything there that makes me say that the loop is closed on it, if you will.

David Ignatius The loop may not be closed, but I think that you also haven't found anything that disproves, that shows that the original allegations and concerns were false.

General McKenzie I remain worried about it. I remain concerned about it. It's just not proven to me. But, that's the nature of battlefield intelligence. There's a wide variety of vectors that you have to deal with. This is something I hold in my mind as I look at the tactical situation in Afghanistan. I know that it's something that General Miller takes a look at and he does as well. The one thing I can tell you is we take force protection very seriously. And I'm confident we've done everything we can do to protect ourselves against it in Afghanistan.

David Ignatius And before we leave this subject, General Nicholson, General Miller's predecessor, had a piece in our paper several days ago in which he said that if these reports prove accurate, a significant American response is appropriate, just from a military standpoint, would you agree with that?

General McKenzie Well, David, I'm going to have to see exactly what the reports tell me. I would not want to speculate on that. I would tell you that we remain absolutely fixated on force protection and will continue to be.

David Ignatius So, let me switch to Iran, a subject you and I talked about often. And I'd be interested, first in your overall assessment of where the Iranians are in terms of their threat posture, whether, I would recall, way back last April, you talking about how the sanctions seem to have altered their calculus, the wait it out strategy, no longer prevail. And they were, increasing their risk taking, challenging shipping in the Gulf, etc. You know, that's way back in. In 2019. Where are they now on that continuum?

General McKenzie Sure. So I think we're in a period of what I would call contested deterrence with Iran right now. And how I would define that is this. I believe Iran still has a clear aspirational goal of ejecting the United States from the theater, they want us to leave. And they see the principal battleground for that being in Iraq. And I think early in 2020, they thought they had an opportunity to do that politically. I believe that avenue is now closed to them. I believe that when all is said and done, we're going to be able to work with our Iraqi hosts and partners and we're going to be able to find a way to keep a platform in Iraq that will help Iraqis finish Daesh off and do those things that they've asked us to do and we want to do with them. Now, we'll also include our NATO and coalition partners. So I think Iran has been thwarted in that regard. Now, I don't mean to say there won't be continued Iranian influence in Iraq. The two nations share a boundary. We recognize that. So I got all that and I completely understand it. But I think we're going to be able to keep a military platform in Iraq. So that's going to thwart a goal of Iran's going forward. So I think at the same time the maximum pressure campaign continues. And Iran is under considerable pressure as a result of that. So I think they're going to look and cast about for things that they can do that would throw that campaign off either by causing a split with our partners here or partners outside of the theater, something that would make it more difficult for that campaign to continue. I think right now what we're doing is we're deterring Iran from taking those actions. And so I think that there have not been operations against shipping. There have not been major attacks against us here in the theater. And so I think since January, they're just sort of recalculating. And so I think we have been effective in deterring them. You never know how long that deterrence is going to last. Because they have all kinds of ways that they can choose to attack us, either directly or indirectly. But the concept of deterrence is we want to message them very clearly that the possible gain they would get from that action will ultimately be outweighed by the pain that would be inflicted upon them should they choose to go down that path. It's just simple, classic deterrence theory. So I think that's where we are right now. And so I also think a factor is that the coronavirus has had an effect on them. I don't know that it has changed their decision making. It may have slowed their decision making as they find a way to go forward. So, we will maintain our posture, we'll continue to consult with all our friends out here, and we'll just sort of see what Iran wants to do going forward.

David Ignatius And give me your assessment of the new prime minister, Mustafa Al- Khadimi, in terms of his performance, specifically his willingness to authorize attacks on Kataib Hezbollah. But more generally, what kind of partner do we have here?

General McKenzie I think he's a good, loyal Iraqi in a tough job. I think he believes very strongly in Iraqi sovereignty. And I think he has shown great courage in his willingness to carry out his responsibilities and the Government of Iraq's responsibilities to protect those forces that are in Iraq, to actually help the government of Iraq and the Iraqi military carry on operations against Daesh. So I think he's been very courageous in that regard. I think at the same time, David, we need to recognize practical political realities and we need to give him room and patience to try to do the things he wants to do there. And I think we're going to give him that. I think we need to recognize that he lives in a tough neighborhood and he's got to make accommodations with a lot of different people. So the course might not be as straight and as quick as we would like. But I am pleased. I had a very good meeting with him. I hold him in high regard and I think he's doing a lot of things right. But we do need to give him patience as he does those things.

David Ignatius So specifically, you foresee a continued U.S. presence and platform in Iraq? We're typically talking about some numbers, over 5,000. I am hearing a number that may be half that. Does that seem like the right ballpark for us to think about?

General McKenzie David, yesterday I said I think we're going to get smaller in Iraq because I think we have changed our basing structure. We've hardened our basing structure. And what we want to do is we want to reduce our susceptibility to attacks. So we found we can do things more efficiently and still do a lot of things we want to do with a smaller number. And the numbers, I believe, are going to get smaller. Now, the exact number we're still in negotiations with and I don't want to comment on that, but I think we can get smaller and keep a good presence there and still do all the things that we want to do and still keep our NATO partners there and our Coalition partners there. And be able to protect ourselves better than we could several months ago at the same time.

David Ignatius And is my rough order of battle there, accurate? Or would you talk me out of that?

General McKenzie Yeah…no, I think I'm not going to comment on specific numbers, David, on the record going forward. And here's why. We want to work with the government of Iraq to determine what those numbers are. And we've got a strategic dialogue coming up with them here in the next few days, actually, depending on coronavirus. It may be physical. It may be virtual. I don't know exactly how that's going to happen now because I've been traveling here in theater and it'll go in Washington or it'll go virtually, but we're going to continue this dialogue with them because I think it's a sign of the health of the relationship that we're going forward and whatever numbers we arrive at are going to be arrived at in full consultation with the government of Iraq.

David Ignatius And are we going to have a Status of Forces Agreement or some equivalent that will provide appropriate safeguards for those, whatever number it is?

General McKenzie That will be negotiated as part of the strategic dialogue going forward. But I'm confident we'll have all the protections that we need for our forces.

David Ignatius So something equivalent to that?

General McKenzie David, I think so. But I would defer to the ongoing negotiations. And those details are still ahead of us right now, I think.

David Ignatius Let's just cycle back for a moment to Iran. One of the noteworthy things in recent weeks has been a series of, I want to say, partially explained or explained with a wink, attacks on various Iranian facilities at the missile base, explosions there that have caused more damage than the Iranians initially believed. And that an unnamed Middle Eastern country has said that it may be involved. Saying it could be Israel in most of those accounts. Some news accounts, Israel and the United States. The question I have is how the Iranians are reacting to this series of significant setbacks in two areas that are crucial enrichment and missile development. Any indication of what they may be doing to respond?

General McKenzie So my experience with Iran, David, tells me they will respond. And so beyond that, we have nothing firm on it. But my experience tells me they'll choose to respond and they'll do that at a time and place of their own choosing. But I've got nothing more on that than that observation.

David Ignatius You saw my friend, General Mazloum, how's he doing? How's the SDF doing facing the Turkish backed problems on their northern front? And what's the status of our forces there and our assistance? And again, my sense from what I read hear is that there is no plan to take our forces in Syria down to zero before the election.

General McKenzie So, David, I've been given no orders to adjust our presence in Syria. We continue to work with General Mazloum and our SDF partners. There's good work to be done. Continuing to finish the remnants of ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley. We continue to assist them in maintaining the security around the oil installations that they control east of the Euphrates River. Additionally, we continue to work with them to maintain security on the prisons. That's not a U.S. responsibility and we're not directly involved in that. But, we certainly try to help SDF in that. And also the significant detainee population, which is frankly a matter of great concern to me. The Al Hol camp, among other camps, Al Hol, is just the largest and the most visible of that. That concerns me. I'm worried about that in a couple of ways. First of all, it's a young population that is very vulnerable and is very vulnerable to contagious diseases of all kinds, would be particularly vulnerable to COVID if it occurred. Additionally, I'm concerned about the radicalization that occurs in that camp. And we've got to find a way to do de-radicalization on scale. And it needs to be a regional solution. It's not a solution we're going to be able to offer because it needs to come from within the culture, which means it needs to come regionally. And so I think that's something that really is very important. So he and I talked about that. We talked about the other initiatives that we've got. Because, David, going forward east of the Euphrates River, I would argue that the key to security there is the establishment of local security mechanisms that can prevent the rise of ISIS. It's not going to be a bloodless future. I mean, there's always going to be low level skirmishing up in that area because it's an ideology. We're never going to be able to completely do away with it. But what you want to do is you want to be able to keep it at a level where those local forces can deal with it without it metastasizing drawing linkages and connective tissue, getting larger and eventually growing to the size where it holds ground. That's what we want to do and that's our aspiration moving forward.

Capt Urban David, I got five minutes left.

David Ignatius Let me just finish out on Syria. I assume that there's no plan to change our garrison at Al Tanf, that's likely to continue.

General McKenzie I had an opportunity to visit them. And we have no instructions to change that down there. I had a very good visit with our forces down there.

David Ignatius OK. And time is fleeting. Let me ask you briefly about Saudi Arabia, a never ending subject of interest for me. Our military support, and I hope you were able to read the last thing I wrote about it (inaudible). Our military support for the Saudis is somewhat less than it was in terms of Patriot deployments. That's been said publicly. How would you characterize the situation? It seems that we're gradually reducing the numbers of U.S. personnel and forces in the kingdom. Does that seem right?

General McKenzie Right. So David obviously I talked to my counterpart, the Saudi chief of defense--not my counterpart--but I've talked to the Saudi chief of defense frequently on this. And they understand that when it comes to particularly exquisite capabilities like air defense systems, the United States has global responsibilities. And so we have to move them around. We cannot afford and we don't have the luxury of having enough of them to keep them in a fixed posture everywhere and give everybody what they want all the time.

As a commander, I'd love to have more all the time. But these things ebb and flow. And so right now, we have pulled some out. We would have the capability to put some back in if the secretary chose to do that. The Saudis are very much aware of that. But the numbers are going to flex based on the United States' global posture. And we believe we have enough in there to show the Saudis that we're with them. We want to help them in every way that we can. But, David, what is sort of beneath the waterline... So when we think about helping the Saudis, we think, well, how many U.S. Patriots are there? A better way to think about the problem would be, we're providing a lot of ongoing help and technical expertise with the Saudis to upgrade the capabilities of their numerous Patriot batteries.

And by that, I mean the ability to develop a common operational picture. The ability to share information so that you actually have a single integrated picture for defense of the kingdom. And so that activity has been going on for many months. And I would tell you that the Saudis are much better than they used to be at this. And so we're working together with them to maximize their capabilities and they actually do have significant air defense capabilities.

David Ignatius Maybe a last question, and it's an overarching one. And please, if there are other broad themes fit that in here. We had comments from the State Department warning about a significant Russian attempt to project greater power in the region. You just toured the region. What do you think? How worried are you about the Russians in the Mediterranean and in the Near East?

General McKenzie Sure. So I worry about the Russians. I am confident we remain the partner of choice. The Russian platform is very narrow. It's very one sided. Given a choice, people want to partner with us. They want to partner with us for a couple of reasons. The main reason is because we're the United States and we bring the entirety of the United States and all that the United States has to offer behind us. The second thing, though, is, and I actually said this in Lebanon, you get what you pay for. Our stuff's better. It's better. It's the best in the world. So if you want to get good stuff, you get ours. Now, the problem is, if you get our stuff, there are end user agreements where. You're going to have to employ those systems in concert with the laws of war. With the Russians, they don't care. On the other hand, you're not getting a system that's as good. So I think, David, I think we remain the partner of choice. People hedge, in this region, it's always a negotiating environment. So people will hold that out. But, after my tour through the theater, I am confident of the primacy of... I'm confident that people prefer to use United States things when they have the opportunity to do so. And they prefer to be partnered with the United States when they have the opportunity to do so.

David Ignatius And is there a couple of examples you can cite that reinforce that? I'm assuming from our conversation, Lebanon will be one, Iraq will be one, that Saudi would be one. When you finish this trip, I'd just love some examples, because the Russians, supposed Russian gains are a story that's out there. If it ain't true, just give me two or three examples where you saw it isn't true.

General McKenzie Yeah. So I would cite the IMSC, the International Maritime Security Construct that we have operational. It shows that there are not a whole lot of nations that are involved in that, but there are a number of nations that are actively supporting it. It's an example. It is something that is very carefully nuanced because, here's the thing. It's actually, and this is important, it is not part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Rather, it is designed to bring Like-Minded Nations together to ensure the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-El-Mandeb. There is no real kinetic component to it. Rather, it is designed to share information and put a spotlight on malign activities. The United States pulled that together. And we've been very effective doing that, working with a number of friends in the region. And we will continue to do that. And that is not targeted against any nation. Rather, it's a bit designed to ensure, as I noted, the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-El-Mandeb, And we do that through a variety of ways. The intelligence, architecture that we bring. The ships are there too. But the ships are probably less important than the leadership that the U.S. Navy, the backbone that the U.S. Navy provides for it. Although ultimately we'd like to become an increasingly smaller part of that. And we just have to take the long view on that. I think the IMSC will continue to grow over time. It's certainly off to a good start.

David Ignatius That's probably near the end. Is there anything that I've left out that as you finish this terrific trip that's just top of mind for you that you'd want me to include?

General McKenzie No. I'll tell you, I'm going to fly back home tonight, physically tired, but I'm mentally recharged. You know, in many ways, the United States remains the indispensable partner for a lot of the people in this region. And they are heartened when

we come out and see them, they are heartened when we get out there. They recognize the operational risk that you take traveling in a time of coronavirus. And so they really appreciate it. So I've actually--it's been a very buoying trip for me, actually, David, coming out here.

David Ignatius Thanks for taking the time. And I'm looking forward--I hope--to traveling with you in August and I'm glad the trip went so well.