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General Kenneth F. McKenzie interview w/ Carla Babb, Katie Bo Williams: and Eric Schmitt: Sept. 9, 2020

Press Operations

Sept. 9, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Capt Urban: General McKenzie is on the call, ready to talk. Give me 30 minutes on the record, starting now.

General McKenzie: Good evening, everybody, it's Frank McKenzie. Why don't we start with Katie Bo, why don't we go with you, then we'll just go around.

Katie Bo Williams: Sure, that sounds good. Well General McKenzie thank you for doing this. If you could talk to us a little bit about the withdrawal decision and give us your current assessment of ISIS in Iraq right now. What has made this possible, how many fighters do you guys still anticipate are there, what kind of capabilities do you continue to see from them and how do you expect them to respond to this withdrawal?

General McKenzie: Sure. So we've actually been on a glide slope to go to this number for a little while. We're just releasing it publicly now for the first time. And again, we intend to reach a number about 3000 during the month of September, probably before the end of September. So this is not a change, this is just we're announcing the glide slope that we've been on. And really what it does is it reflects the increased capabilities of the Iraqis and their ability to carry out small level tactical operations where we can we can increasingly pull back. I think it's a good news story. This is what you want to see and we'll continue to evaluate. Now as to why we're here and what ISIS is like. ISIS remains a threat. It remains a threat in Iraq and it remains a threat in Syria. Our goal is to keep ISIS at a level where ultimately they'll be able to be handled by local security elements with minimal assistance from any other entity to include external entities like the coalition, NATO or us. We're a little ways away from that now, but we're certainly a lot closer than we were two or three years ago to realizing that goal. But you want to be able to keep them from holding ground. You want to be able to keep them from declaring any form of state holding mechanism, a caliphate, if you will. And at the same time, you want to do what you can to prevent them from developing connective tissue globally, be it corporeal, physical connective tissue; fighters flowing back and forth, money flowing back and forth, or cyber connectivity. So we fight in all those domains to continue pressure on ISIS. They do have an aspirational goal to attack the United States and our allies and partners. And what keeps them from doing that is the pressure that we keep on them now.

Katie Bo Williams: You had kind of acknowledged the last time you were speaking publicly, I think it was maybe last month, that part of the, sort of, pullback from a lot of different bases across Iraq is related to the threat from Iran-backed militias as well. Can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing there and also how the troop reduction is going to change that dynamic?

General McKenzie: Right. So we have closed bases. Part of it is due to our desire to harden ourselves, to reduce our attack surfaces to rogue militia elements that are in Iraq. That's part of it. Part of it is also, as we get smaller, it's more efficient to operate from a smaller number of bases. So those two are sort of taken together. I would tell you that we have not pulled back because of the threat from Iran. What we have done is we have re-postured ourselves to be more effective. The first priority I have is to protect the force. I want to make sure our men and women that are there are protected. And we work very closely with the government of Iraq to gain that measure of protection. We are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq. It is their responsibility to provide that protection to us first. And they've actually been very good at going after a lot of the people who want to attack us over the last few months, so we're very pleased with that. At the same time, as I noted, we are drawing down and we just don't need the infrastructure that we had before. So we have the opportunity to turn over [infrastructure] to the Iraqis as they get better, they can begin to use it. Again, I think it's pretty much a good news story. Let me go on to take the next question now.

Capt Urban: Carla Babb.

General McKenzie: Carla, we'll go to you next.

Carla Babb: Hey, thank you, sir. Wish I could be there. Are you in Iraq still or are you back on base?

General McKenzie: No, I am out of Iraq. I'm at another location in the theater right now.

Carla Babb: OK. Thank you, sir. There's two concerns with this. Of course, the capabilities that you're losing. So can you talk a little bit about that? Because, of course, Patriot ATacMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems), they all require troops to man them. So talk about the capabilities you're going to be losing in this situation and then, of course, the second concern is Iran and how that will affect the U.S. ability to keep their eyes on Iran and the regional stability. So can you talk about how the troop reduction will affect this?

General McKenzie: Certainly. Nothing we're pulling out is going to affect our ability to defend ourselves. And I won't go into the tactical details, but it will not affect Patriot capability or any other short range defense capability at any of our bases. All of those will remain. Nothing will be touched by this. We will still be able to protect our skills on the ground and execute what I consider appropriate force protection mechanisms. It's important to realize that we're not out there patrolling now. The Iraqis are doing that. So the posture you need when you're not doing the fighting yourself is very different from the posture that you need when you're enabling your partner to do that work. So we're just really transitioning to a new way forward. And we will continue to adjust as we go forward in concert with the government of Iraq and the Strategic Dialogue, some of which has been completed. I think there are elements of it still going to be continuing over the next few weeks, it’s an important part of that process. And we'll determine what our disposition looks like, what our relationship is going to be with the government of Iraq, as we go forward. As to the last part of your question, we have a variety of ways to look at Iran. Part of it is from Iraq. But there are also lots of other places in the theater where we continuously look at Iran. And they know that. I continue to believe that Iran has an objective of ejecting the United States from the theater, from the region. And they see Iraq as a principal battleground for that. And frankly, I think they've been thwarted in that goal. They've been thwarted politically, as you know. Their rogue militia groups continue low-level attacks against us. There have been no casualties in a while and thank goodness for that. But I cannot predict the future. But I think we have what we need to maintain a rough deterrent against Iran really across the theater. But we're not only limited to Iraq as we take a look at that problem. Let me pause there and I'll go to Eric.

Eric Schmitt: Thanks General.

Carla Babb: Sir, can I get one quick follow up on what you said?

General McKenzie: Absolutely. Please go ahead, I'm sorry.

Carla Babb: No worries. When you said that you continue to see Iran attacks. Can you give us that assessment? Are there more pro-Iranian attacks or are there fewer that you've seen in recent weeks?

General McKenzie: So when I say attacks, I want to be clear. These are typically 107 millimeter rockets, Katyusha rockets. We've been lucky that none of them have caused any U.S. casualties and no significant Iraqi casualties. Most of them have not fallen within our bases. So that continues. The trick is… is that a rogue element that is operating with direct command control back to Iran or not? We don't know that yet. We look very hard at it. We're continuing to assess. But I would tell you, there've been no effective attacks. That doesn't mean that couldn't change in the future. But we look very hard at that all the time, trying to determine attribution and responsibility. And so right now, what we're seeing, again, what I would characterize as low-level actions against us that could change in the future because there are certainly a lot of sophisticated weapons in Iraq that Iran has pushed in to their surrogates across the country. And that's always a possibility, we're just not seeing it right now. I'll go to Eric now. Eric, over to you.

Eric Schmitt: General. So two weeks ago, obviously, there was the incident in northeastern Syria, the altercation between the U.S. and Russian forces on the ground. It also happened during a week where there were aerial incidents in the Black Sea in the Baltic and also off the Alaska coast. Obviously, you're focused on north eastern Syria. Do you believe what has happened there is part of a larger Russian strategy to confront the U.S. and possibly its allies in multiple theaters, perhaps in the run up to the U.S. elections?

General McKenzie: Sure, Eric. I'm going to restrict my remarks to what happened in northeast Syria, because that's the one I'm most familiar about. We actually have a pretty effective de-confliction channel with the Russians. It operates at what I call a tactical level between our tactical command posts on the ground, between our air operations center and their headquarters. General White has an opportunity to talk to his counterpart there as well. And generally, the Russians are responsive to that. We were a little disturbed by the activity that occurred last week because it was manifestly unsafe. They were out of the area. They did not do any coordination with us. So, we went back to them pretty strongly on that and made our points. And we will continue to do that. And we'll take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that when we're out there patrolling our men and women are going to be safe and they're going to be able to do the task that they were sent there to do.

Eric Schmitt: Do you believe that incident was pre-planned on the part of the Russians? They had those two helicopters right there. No U.S. aircraft supporting the U.S. ground patrol.

General McKenzie: That's a great question, Eric and I just don't know the answer to it. I do know that they were in an area they were not supposed to be. They were not in an area that they had received permission to go to. And their actions were frankly reckless at the tactical level. And what saved the situation was the very good judgment of small unit U.S. Army commanders on the ground. And I'm just glad I got those kind of people out there making decisions. Why don't we go around again?

Capt Urban Katie.

Katie Bo Williams: OK. I would love to stay on the Derik incident, and I want to ask that question in a slightly different way. What do you see as Russia's strategy in Syria with regards to the United States specifically? Is the idea that they just want to harass us out of the country? From where you sit what is their plan, what is their strategy?

General McKenzie: From where I sit, I think Russia wants to be recognized as a Great Power. This is their opportunity to dabble in it. Russia has very few client states abroad. Syria is one of them, maybe just about the only one. Something that is very important for them is maintaining their naval base in the eastern Mediterranean. So they kill a couple of birds with one stone there. And at the same time, I don't think you can overemphasize the fact it gives them an opportunity to sort of throw sand in our gears. Even if they try to assert themselves as a powerful member of the family of nations, it's the opportunity to make it more difficult for us and our partners to get after our goals in Syria. To me, it's not necessarily that they have a positive plan going forward, rather they're opportunistic. They react to what they saw as an opportunity to accomplish a couple of objectives. But I'm not sure they have a viable plan to actually go forward, because in the long run, if they're planning to stay in Syria, they're going have to start talking about stabilization. They're going to have to start talking about correcting some of the root causes that allowed ISIS to come forward in the first place. And I don't believe the Russians or the Syrians have any idea at all or the resources to effect those changes that are going to be necessary. If you got a follow up I'll take it.

Katie Bo Williams: Yeah. Just quickly, can you talk a little bit about how they actually use that? You've described the de-confliction channel as pretty effective. But I've heard stuff from sources on the ground that also the Russians will kind of try to game it, like throw a lot of junk requests in there. Is that a fair characterization? Can you talk a little bit about how they actually use that channel?

General McKenzie: So I think some of that is true. They're intensely bureaucratic in their approach to some of these things. We've got people that will stay with the problem and continue to work it with them down at the tactical level and at the three-star level [such as] Lieutenant General Pat White, who just left today and his relief Lieutenant General Paul Calvert. So I think we can match up with them pretty well. They do some things that are irritating to us. It's possible we do things that are irritating to them. I don't know. I think we're pretty straight forward and pretty clear on the things we ask of them. I think they understood this was a problem when we reached out to them on the de-confliction channel on this latest incident. That would be my observation.

Carla Babb: Hi, sir. I know everybody also wants to talk about Afghanistan, but I have a couple of questions to follow up on Syria and Iraq. What about troop numbers in Syria? President Trump had said recently that the U.S. was getting out of Iraq and the U.S. was getting out of Syria. He specifically mentioned those two countries. Is the U.S. going to have forces in Syria still? Is a complete withdrawal imminent in Iraq or do you not see that happening any time soon?

General McKenzie: Sure, so let me talk Syria. We're in two positions in Syria. We're at the An Tanf Garrison down in the south. And we're in [the] Eastern Syria Security Area. And in the Eastern Syria Security Area, we got more than 500 people that are working that area. And we've got a couple hundred down in the An Tanf Garrison. So those positions are there. Those numbers fluctuate from time to time. They're not a fixed number. We bring people out, we bring people in so those numbers rotate. We're not doing any fighting in there. We are in there to support our SDF partners and the military objective we're in there is to finish the final defeat of ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley, working through our partners there. At the same time, we're there to assist the SDF and holding the oil fields that are there as well to prevent ISIS from recapturing those oil fields and allow the SDF ultimately perhaps to recoup some of the benefits of those oil fields to fund themselves and other things that would be actually helpful for them. So I've been given no instructions to get out of Syria. I think in the long term, we're going to go down in Syria. I think that’s clear and inevitable and we're prepared to do that when so directed. That is not a military decision, that's a decision that will get made and I will execute that decision. I do know this, as long as we are in Syria, we're going to continue to prosecute the fight against ISIS. And we're having some success in that. Also east of the Euphrates River, we're trying to get stabilization solutions in place that will allow for [doing] away with the conditions that allow ISIS to arise in the first place. That is a complex problem that requires a lot more than military forces to work it, but we're trying to do that. And I come back to establishment of the local security forces that we talked about that prevent the rise of ISIS. That's what we would like to do east of the Euphrates River. West of the Euphrates River, they've got no idea how to do that. They have no concept of that and so those underlying conditions are never going to be addressed. We have a possibility, perhaps, to address those east of the Euphrates River. And as long as we're there we will continue to do that. Let me take the second half of your question. We've just announced going down to 3000 again in the works for some time, just announcing it now. I think there's a place for us in Iraq. I don't know what that level will be. That level will be something that'll be worked out between U.S. civilian leadership and the civil leadership of Iraq. And then we will execute that decision. And that process is going forward, but we're prepared to do whatever we're asked to do if that's the part, then we'll be ready to do that. I've not been directed to do that at this time.

Carla Babb: I guess to follow, sir, would you recommend a complete withdrawal from Iraq?

General McKenzie: I've been pretty clear in public statements up to this point that I think the Iraqis want a U.S. coalition, NATO military presence. The size, character, tasks of that, are things that are still to be negotiated ahead of us. We've come down significantly from where we were two or three years ago, and we will continue to adjust those numbers based on the Iraqi desire for us to stay and help them. But those are things that will be negotiated at the political level not at the military level. But I've been very clear that I think, in my judgment, from a purely military point of view, there's a role for us to play here, and that role needs to get smaller over time. We want to get smaller over time. I need to be absolutely clear on that. We never said anything different. We don't want to be there at perpetual high numbers. We want to get as small as we can and still accomplish the mission that we have jointly agreed with our Iraqi partners that we want to pursue. Thank you. Let's go to Eric.

Eric Schmitt: General, shifting to Afghanistan. You've said in the last couple of months that you have your folks looking into these reports of Russian bounties on American Soldiers in Afghanistan. What's the latest on that? And more generally, what assistance do you see the Russians or the Iranians providing the Taliban now?

General McKenzie: We continue to dig there to try to find any concrete evidence that would link the Russians to bounty payments for U.S. Soldiers or Marines that had been killed in Afghanistan. And I have yet to see evidence that's compelling to me. As I've said before, Eric, the evidence is worrisome. I'm confident the Russians don't mean us well in Afghanistan. But I cannot find a specific link to a discrete event that would tell me, at a very high level of certainty that they paid money to cause this specific event to occur. And I continue to look. Here's the thing, whether there's evidence there or not, force protection measures are still very, very high in Afghanistan because even if they were paid to do it, there's only so many ways [they can] come at you to do it. And those are the ways we protect against all the time. So we have a very high force protection posture in Afghanistan and that force protection posture is going to remain at a very high level. General Miller and I talk about it all the time. I asked my Intel guys to keep going back and dig into it. Because if it's there, I want to know it, Eric, I want to know that because that would be very, very concerning to me. I just haven't been able to make that connection. And I've looked at a lot of battlefield reporting in my life and the connection just wasn't there at a level that I was confident enough about it. So at the same time, I'm certain that Iran does not wish us well in Afghanistan and I'm sure they would like to see us come to harm there as well. So I think philosophically, both Russia and Iran, they don't mean us well in Afghanistan. Can I link them to specific events, specific payments, a specific attack? Not really at this time. We continue to look at that and I look at it very hard, quite frequently.

Eric Schmitt: What about just in general assistance, not the specificity? Do you see any kind of training, any kind of weaponry, anything going on between one or both countries in Afghanistan, as they've done in the past?

General McKenzie: Yeah. I think that there's certainly a desire to assist there. I couldn't point to any specific weapon or training that either side has received that I could link to either of them.

Capt Urban All right. We've basically ten minutes for one round of questions. So you've got one more question, one more follow up.

General McKenzie: Yeah, we'll go back around one more time.

Katie Bo Williams: Alright sounds good, thank you. Two quick follow ups from what we just talked about, first of all, with Afghanistan. The White House has often kind of teased that there might be another troop withdrawal announcement coming, and i'm hoping you can kind of give us a sense of what they're talking about there. What we can expect. And then also on Iraq, you had said, you still want things to go down, and you still have work to do, essentially, to feel that the Iraqis are able to handle the problem locally? What specifically do you still need to see to be comfortable from a military perspective and in your judgment, Iraqis ready to handle the threat by themselves?

General McKenzie: We're saying we're going to go to 4500 and I've received no orders to go below that at this time. So that's all I can tell you. We're in execution of a plan to go to that level. General Miller and I, we talk about it frequently, maintaining very good awareness of that going forward. So I've got nothing more on that, and I saw that reporting too. I would just tell you what we're actually doing here. What you would like to see is the Iraqis continue to get better at the logistical support of their units, get better at the things that enable a unit to be effective on the ground. You know, they're actually fighting fairly effectively on the ground. But in order to be able to stay completely alone, you want to be able to go through the whole chain. You want to be able to produce units from your fourth generation capacity. You want to be able to feed them intelligence on the ground to direct them to where the target is you want to hit. You want to be able to supply them in combat. You want to be able to treat them medically. All those things, what I call the higher level, the higher echelons of war. That's where we still have more work to do, not so much at the tactical level anymore because that work has been done. That's why it actually takes fewer people to do it. It will take perhaps some more specialized people as we go forward with that.

Carla Babb: Thank you, sir. Can I follow up on Afghanistan? I want to understand the thought process there. Four thousand five hundred to me is a greatly reduced U.S. presence. And when we last spoke in July, you said before there could be a greatly reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan, inter-Afghan dialogue needed to start. The U.S. would need to be confident that the Taliban would not host Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorist groups, potentially allowing them to carry out attacks in the West. And at that point in July, you said you were not confident that the Taliban was living up to its commitments and you were not confident that they would break from al-Qaida. So what's the change that's happened from July to now?

General McKenzie: Well, I would tell you that the Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they're going to break with al-Qaida. As you know, they have been very consistent on not attacking us and the coalition. However, they have continued to go after the Afghan security forces at a pretty high tempo. And there's some pretty stiff fighting going on as you know, as a result of that. What I would tell you is at forty-five hundred, we can still pursue the task that we need to do in Afghanistan. Our first task in Afghanistan is making sure that neither al-Qaida nor ISIS [have] the ability to generate in ungoverned spaces attacks against the homeland of the United States or those of our allies and partners. So we assess that the number we're at right now, General Miller and I both assess we can carry out those missions. We can continue to do that at the number and troop level we've got now. It is still my assessment that if you want to keep going down then, will you see some contrary things from the Taliban? We need to see them generally commit to and execute an interim Afghan dialog. We would like to see a broader reduction in violence going forward that we have not yet seen. So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban's either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal. I can tell you this, you know, we have done our part. We have certainly been good partners in this and also our Afghan partners, have been good partners in this. But now everybody needs to do what they obligated themselves to do and to the terms of the agreement. And I just think it's time for the Taliban to begin to do that. I'll give you a follow up.

Carla Babb: Thank you, sir. Now, my last follow up for you, sir, in multipart or so. So I want to follow up and say, so why reduce now before the things that you say need to occur have occurred? Can you explain why now? Can you also say that this will be this reduction of forty five hundred will be by November, as Esper hinted a few days ago? And then I guess my final question on that is while our effort to go out sometime. Go ahead.

General McKenzie: So what I can tell you is we're not at 4,500 today, and I don't want to give you that impression. We're on a glide slope to be at 4,500 by the November timeframe, October, late October, November timeframe. And exactly when we get to that number will be based on a variety of things: the ability to responsibly draw down, the ability to move equipment out, the ability to reposition. So I'm not going to tie General Miller's hands to a specific day. We do have a specific day in mind. I'm just not going to be able to share that with you. But I think, again, I'll go back to the point that at 4,500, we're still going to be able to accomplish the core tasks that we want to accomplish. And we've shown more than ample goodwill and our willingness to demonstrate that we don't want to be an occupying force in this country, but we do have strategic interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities, such as al-Qaida and ISIS can't be guests there to attack the United States. Thanks. I'll go to Eric for the last question.

Eric Schmitt: Yes, General, there's been there's been some comments in Washington this week that U.S. military brass are beholden to defense contractors, the defense military industrial complex, especially in fueling what the President has called endless wars. Do you believe that?

General McKenzie: You know, Eric, I'm a combat commander. I'm out here drawing down in Iraq, drawing down in Afghanistan, answering the orders that I've been given. So that's all I know. That's all I see. So that's really all I can say on that Eric. You've got a follow up?

Eric Schmitt: Yeah. Just follow up. You probably read my colleague's--Helene Cooper's--good piece on Colonel Tony Anderson, a decorated combat officer, law degree and all. And the question becomes, if somebody like Tony, Tony Henderson can't make general officer, who can in today's Marine Corps? As a senior Marine Corps officer I'm wondering if you had thoughts on that.

General McKenzie: Well, as you know, Helene quoted me in that article where I said, I do believe the Marine Corps needs to do better on this. And so what you've got to do, though, is you've got to start at the beginning. You've got to start with where you assign officers, where you mentor officers to go. If the Marine Corps is going to continue to produce most of its generals like me from the combat arms pool and from the infantry pool, then it is incumbent upon us to mentor junior officers to go into those Military Occupational Specialties, because I think the Marine Corps is probably going to continue to do that. So we need to put measures in place that will help assist officers of any background to go into those Specialties. The Marine Corps is a combat-oriented organization. And if you're going to be at the very top of it, you're going to have to have significant combat [experience] and you're going to have to establish those credentials. Unfortunately, you can't do that 20 or 22 years into a career, it's really got to be at the very beginning. So look, I have every confidence that General Dave Burger, the Commandant, is looking hard at that problem. But I'm not going to give it to you with rose-colored glasses. It is a problem. I believe it is a problem. I think the senior leadership of the Marine Corps recognizes it's a problem. Unfortunately, if you're going to do it right, it's not a problem you can solve overnight. But it's something that we've got to be committed to. And I thought it was a very reasonable article and I thought it uncovered some truths.

Eric Schmitt: Do you see the day for a 4-star African-American general?

General McKenzie: I'm sure there will be, or another Admiral. I'm certain that will happen. It is probably not going to be as fast as we would want, but I think that there's no reason why that cannot and should not happen. Absolutely. Hey look, I've got to drop. But thanks for joining me today. I look forward to seeing all of you face to face at some undefined point in the future.