Courtney Kube: So how did it go in Iraq? Can you tell me a little bit about what happened there?
General McKenzie: Sure, I went in, just in and out very quickly, to do the change of command and had an opportunity to do that as Pat White left and Paul Calvert came in and that was just a nice ceremony. I did the same thing last year. And we had the minister of defense in attendance and a couple of other Iraqi generals, which was very much appreciated. I did not stay on the ground long just because I needed to get on over here. But it was a good event. We had good international participation. Our ambassador was there, the U.K. ambassador was there and other representatives as well. So I thought it was a good ceremony and it did allow me to make a statement about going down to three thousand.
Courtney Kube: How did the Iraqis take the news of going down to three thousand, presumably they knew already?
General McKenzie: The important thing is I think people may think this is a sudden decision. We've been on this glide slope for a while, so this was not sprung on anybody inside the organization. This is not something we would come out in public and say without having had the opportunity to work with our coalition partners, with the Iraqis, all kinds of other agencies that are involved in this. The only thing that was simply the announcement, we've been well on our way to this for a while. And so just a good opportunity to say it and a great opportunity given that we're in the middle of a public ceremony, a change of command, I thought it was a good time to bring it out.
Courtney Kube: Is that why they've been consolidating the bases there, or was that more about the threat from the militia groups?
General McKenzie: So, what drove us to consolidate the bases, were two things. First of all, our numbers are getting smaller. So you want to gain efficiencies when you do that. And also with that, reducing the number of bases that you're at allows you to reduce your attack surface and it does allow you to defend yourself better against the rogue militia groups that are out there. So those are sort of things that go together. The both of them sort of came together. And the bottom line is, this is actually a success story. The Iraqis are doing better. And as a result of the Iraqis doing better, we're able to mentor them at a higher level, to interact with them at a higher level rather than accompanying them on all these operations. So, it's actually a good news story and is where you want to be, it's what you want to do in these kinds of campaigns. You eventually want to get smaller and smaller. And remember, the goal is the Iraqis are able to do these things for themselves.
Courtney Kube: How about the threat from the Shia militia groups? Where does that stand now and can you compare it to where it was about this time last year when there was an uptick starting around October?
General McKenzie: So actually, we have had more indirect fire attacks around our bases the first half of this year than we did the first half of last year. Those attacks have been higher. As you know, they have not been particularly lethal and that's a good thing. But they are continuing. And so you wonder how much of that is directed by Iran? How much of that is by proxies on the ground that they have imperfect command and control of? But the bottom line is, even if it's not directly ordered by Iran, they are using typically weapons that were provided them by Iran at some point in the process. So there's a certain moral ownership of this, even if Iran's not giving them instructions to do it. And Courtney, the other important point is I believe that for much of this year, Iran has pursued a policy of believing they would be able to get a political solution that would force us to leave Iraq. And it is now evident, at least to me, that that solution is not going to occur for them, that the government of Iraq sees the benefits of maintaining a long term security relationship with the United States, with NATO, with our coalition partners. It doesn't mean it's going to be a big one, but we are going to maintain a good security relationship with them. So going forward, I think, now Iran needs to decide, are they going to continue this political angle which has not worked for them or are they going to shift to other things and see how those things work? Only time will tell. But we are prepared for that. We brought in additional defensive capabilities. We brought in air defense systems. We've done the things we think we need to do to provide maximum protection to our forces. And there's always going to be an element of risk. So the last thing I would say on that is, the people that really need to protect us are the Iraqis. And the Iraqis have actually done a pretty good job of that. They have been responsive when people have threatened the bases. They've been responsive when people have fired rockets at us. They've gone out there to try to find them. So that's very much appreciated because we're there at their invitation and we will stay there at their invitation. And therefore, they have a responsibility to provide protection to us.
Courtney Kube: What is it about the attacks this year on the bases there that are not as lethal? What's the difference?
General McKenzie: They're not hitting us. You can have conjecture or they’re just not as good. Now, we know they have very good weapons systems and they are not employing their high end weapons systems. They are employing things like 107 millimeter rockets and mortars, which are not as sophisticated as some of the other weapons systems that they have. But, for whatever reason, it may be by design. We don't know. They've just not been successful hitting anyone. And that's a blessing. And we're glad that's the case. I don't know how long we can count on that continuing.
Courtney Kube: Can you envision that, if in fact this were or we would get to a point, like last December at K1, where there was an American killed, do you think the U.S. would still respond in an appropriate way, like a commensurate way?
General McKenzie: I think the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces in Iraq. And I would just leave it at that, Courtney.
Courtney Kube: Can you say anything about, I don't know if this has been disclosed or not, but what air defense systems the U.S. had brought in to protect against these threats.
General McKenzie: We brought in Patriot systems and beyond that, Courtney, I'm not going to be able to give you any more information.
Courtney Kube: OK great. How do you characterize the larger threat, not just in Iraq, but the larger threat from Iran, right now? They've been hit pretty hard by COVID, their economy is really in the tank. Do you still see them as a large threat and how would you worry that could manifest?
General McKenzie: Sure. So, I still worry about Iran. I think Iran has gone to great lengths to protect their combat capabilities. And so, for example, they've embarked on a new major naval exercise, which we're seeing now. That's playing out in the Arabian Gulf. And so they have gone to great lengths to protect their capabilities. And I would characterize those capabilities as, first of all, their ballistic missile capability, their short range, long range ballistic missile capability, their navy, their FAC/FIACs and their other platforms. And, of course, the IRGC QUDS force. So Iran has pushed resources to those force elements, even when it has injured their ability to care for their citizens. So I think Iran has made a commitment to keeping those entities, if you will, those organizations up. And we've seen them maintain a level of readiness higher than any other part of the Iranian military throughout all of the coronavirus crisis. So I think Iran still actually poses a threat. I think Iran still has an aspirational goal to see us leave the theater. I think that's still very much their goal, to see that. But, you know, right now, I would assess that a certain deterrence operates against Iran. The term I use, Courtney, is contested deterrence. And what I mean by contested deterrence is this. The opponent, in this case Iran, recognizes that the object that he desires will be too painful for him to obtain based on our ability to respond or our ability to prevent him from getting to that objective in the first place. That puts cognitive doubt in the mind of the opponent. And so that is deterrence. At the same time, though, I believe Iran thinks they can still pursue other objectives by inflicting a level of pain below what they think our red line is. And that's very dangerous because I don't believe they have an appreciation for where our red line would be. And so, for example, they might believe that continuing to attack us with rockets and missiles in Iraq and we won't respond. And that would be a very dangerous thing for them to believe. The decision to respond is not a military decision. So I can't give it to you any further than that. That will ultimately be a decision by United States national leadership. But I'm confident that the danger here is that Iran will not understand how provocative some of the things that they're doing could be.
Courtney Kube: Okay great. The exercises that they've been doing right now, have you seen any new or disturbing capabilities out of that so far?
General McKenzie: No, not really. And we're still we're still assessing. They typically do these exercises every year. This one sort of brings them out of the winter of COVID, I would say. And they're more active than they've been in the past, but there's nothing there that's new or that we haven't seen before, at least not yet. Now the exercise isn't over. And as you know, we watch it closely and we'll see how that goes.
Courtney Kube: Okay great. I want to turn to Syria. Has there been any recent interactions between the Russians, we saw sort of an uptick over a couple of weeks between the Russians and the Americans on the ground?
General McKenzie: No. So, we had the incident a couple of weeks ago where really Russian misbehavior, Russian lack of professionalism on the ground and they're not adhering to agreed upon protocols, got us into a dangerous situation where Russian ground patrol actually came into the Eastern Syria Security Area, an area they were not authorized to be in, an area they were not clear to go in, and a movement that had not been coordinated. So the Russians exhibited very unprofessional behavior in that regard. Now, we're very lucky that our guys on the ground were able to keep them from turning into a larger incident. That was a concerning moment. And had it gone another way, we might have been in trouble there. And they might have been in trouble, too. But as a result of that, we use the de-confliction channels to express our concern over this incident to the Russians. We did it at our level, what I would call a tactical level. Lieutenant General Pat White reached out to his counterpart and the chairman and General Gerasimov had a discussion on this. Since then, their behavior has been better. I don't want to judge or project what it might be in the future. But I would simply tell you that we are ready for all eventualities in Syria and the force has what it needs to protect itself.
Courtney Kube: Because of those incidents, is there any change that you can talk about in how the U.S. troops are operating there or is there now going to have to be mandatory air cover or anything like that just for the time being?
General McKenzie: Courtney, so on some of those things, I am not going to be able to talk about it. I would tell you this. We constantly evaluate and reevaluate the tactical position. And we make adjustments to posture designed to give the troops on the ground what they need to be protected as they carry out their mission. That's all I can really say about it right now.
Courtney Kube: Understood. Since you've announced this drawdown in Iraq, should we expect any kind of a drawdown in Syria, or a change in the footprint there?
General McKenzie: Yes, I think we're good where we are right now in Syria. I wouldn't want to go into it further beyond that.
Courtney Kube: Can you characterize at all, sort of the OPTEMPO there. I mean, what are the troops there doing? Are they accompanying the SDF still, or going after ISIS? Or are they more patrolling the territory?
General McKenzie: So really what we do is we enable the SDF to do the actual fighting, the actual operations. So they're actually the ones out there bearing the lion's share of the tactical operations that we carry out. We provide them enabling support. We assist them. We make sure that they have what they need to execute those operations. There may be times when we do a, against a very high value target, when we might be directly associated with it. But by and large, SDF on the ground is what's going on. Now up north where the incident just happened with the Russians, we do conduct security patrols. But those patrols are always conducted with our SDF partners. You'll never see a U.S. element out there moving alone. It will always have SDF affiliated with it when they move. And that OPTEMPO is pretty high up there and they're pretty active. But at the same time, the actual fighting is, generally speaking, being done by the SDF.
Courtney Kube: You know, the Wagner group that the U.S. had engaged in 2017--I might have that year wrong.
General McKenzie: I think its 2018 Courtney.
Courtney Kube: I know that was a very different situation here. But you could argue that the provocation a week or two ago with the vehicles was potentially as dangerous. Do you think the U.S. is going to do anything to respond here to the Russians? Besides the phone calls? Is there a potential kinetic response coming?
General McKenzie: I'm just going to leave that question alone, Courtney, because that talks about future operations. Again, I would simply emphasize to you that for our forces in Syria, we believe we give them what they need to execute the missions they've got. And we pay keen attention to force protection as they do that.
Courtney Kube: OK. Have you noticed anything change about the Russian footprint there that you can talk about like a big increase, or have they brought in any new weapons systems or anything like that that would potentially indicate that they're preparing for a new offensive or that they might be doing something new or different there?
General McKenzie: No, not really Courtney. They bring stuff in and out all the time. We look at it. They also like using it as a lily pad to move stuff down to Libya. So there's all kinds of stuff that goes through there. But I haven't seen anything particularly that has increased there.
Courtney Kube: OK, great. I want to go back to go to Afghanistan now, and I believe you talked about this yesterday or the day before about Afghanistan, and the U.S. will be down to about forty-five hundred roughly by the end of October, early November. Is that right?
General McKenzie: That is correct, Courtney.
Courtney Kube: OK. We've seen so many countries where the U.S. has drawn down or increased the footprint there--how big of a hurdle is this logistically? I mean, the GLOCs are open. I believe the U.S. are using them. But is this going to be one of those drawdowns that includes not just the thousands of individuals, but we're talking big equipment, potentially base closures? Anything about that you can share?
General McKenzie: Sure. Courtney, so obviously my guidance that has been given to me and then I pass on to General Miller is we're going to draw down in a responsible manner, which means that we're going to bring out sensitive equipment. Some of the equipment we can turn over to our Afghan partners, and we will do that. But we're committed to bringing out as much equipment as we can. And as you know, there a couple different ways to do that. You can do that on the ground lines of communication and you can do that through airlift. And we will use all those means. So we've really got a pretty large operation going on now to begin to draw down these forces. And again, the key word is we want to draw down responsibly. We're not going to leave anything behind that somebody could use against us in another time and another place. So that's actually a huge logistics effort and it is continuing now.
Courtney Kube: Do you anticipate closing any of the any of the larger bases or even some of the smaller ones?
General McKenzie: We will. So, we closed some when we went down to 8,600. We made a commitment to do that. And those bases are out in the public domain. I don't have their names here in front of me, but we did agree to do that. And we will look at closing other bases as part of the withdrawal down to 4,500. At this time, I would not want to share the location of those bases with you. And you'll understand why.
Courtney Kube: Yeah. Understood. Is it fair to say that the remaining 4,500 or so will be focused primarily on CT or is there any component to that will be involved in training at all?
General McKenzie: We will have a CT capability, but we will also be involved in advising at a higher level with our Afghan partners. And so that will continue, it'll just be at a higher level and we'll have to be smart and focus about where we do that. I think General Miller has a very good plan to do that at a level of 4,500.
Courtney Kube: Do you know the breakdown roughly how many CT versus advisers?
General McKenzie: I do not have that Courtney. I do not know that. And I actually, I don't know that we would want to share that information actually.
Courtney Kube: Do you anticipate as part of that, bringing in any more civilians, like, will we see more civilian contractors support as the number of uniforms goes down?
General McKenzie: No, I don't think so. I don't think you're going to see that. In fact, you know, what we've done is sort of, first of all, associated with the drawdown, but also associated with the coronavirus crisis, is we're trying to draw down that population as well. And so I don't think you're going to see us bring in people to do jobs that soldiers or Marines were once doing just in order to keep the numbers down. That will not happen.
Courtney Kube: You said a few weeks ago that I think it was a congressional testimony, or a briefing, I can't remember which, that the Taliban still wasn't really upholding their end of the peace agreement, that they were still inflicting violence on the Afghan people, on the security forces. Is that still your assessment?
General McKenzie: Absolutely it is. So what we see, the Taliban has been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan. They have, however, continued to attack government security forces at a fairly high rate. And that's very concerning. And so the government has to take actions to protect itself and its citizens. So you get into a back and forth there. And so that is not helpful. And, so the way ahead would seem to be we need to get to the inter-Afghan dialog, the inter-Afghan negotiations. And I believe we may be on the cusp of that as they work through the final few issues here on prisoner exchanges. And if they can get into that, then potentially you might see a path forward to a generalized reduction in violence across the country. And that's an important thing. And we have not yet seen that. And so that's something that is concerning to me. The other thing that continues to worry me is, are the Taliban actually going to take concrete, understandable steps so that the country of Afghanistan, can be used as a base for Al Qaeda or ISIS? We have ample evidence that the Taliban is no friend of ISIS. I understand that. But what we need to see is that they're not going to allow Al Qaeda to base there. And that has just not yet been demonstrated to my satisfaction. Perhaps it will be brought out in the days ahead, but it's going to need to be brought out and demonstrated.
Capt Urban: Courtney, you have 10 minutes left.
Courtney Kube: Thanks. How could they even do that, though? Do you envision a scenario, and I know that there have been times in the past where the U.S. has sort of did a kind of a wink, wink, nod, nod told the Taliban, hey, by the way, to come out about ISIS guys across that valley or whatever. But do you envision a scenario where the U.S. actually may be working with the Taliban to help them potentially go after Al-Qaeda or ISIS?
General McKenzie: Well, so they have demonstrated a very good ability to go after ISIS and they've done a very good job on that. I think emotionally, culturally and for a variety of reasons, it's much harder for them to do that to Al Qaeda. So that's just going to be if they choose to do it, they could do it. The question is, will they make that decision to do it? And what are they going to offer to actually show they're serious about it? And I don't know what those things are. So that's why I am going to have to see those things, it's going to have to be demonstrated to me. And we're just not at that level yet where I have that confidence.
Courtney Kube: Can you update me on the bounty story? Is CENTCOM still looking at attacks to determine if there's any way that they may have had incentive payments by the Taliban. Is that an ongoing investigation or is it something that is an active ongoing investigation more of an open investigation that if the information comes in? Like how would you characterize that?
General McKenzie: So, when I got briefed on this, and I said this publicly, first I'll restate what I said before. I found what they presented to me very concerning, very worrisome. I just couldn't see the final connection. So I sent my guys back and said, look, keep digging. So we have continued to dig and because this involves potential threats to U.S. forces it's open. We always look at this. So we continue to look for this. We continue to parse that. We continue to sift through it. So that's still out there. But I just haven't seen anything that closes that gap yet with me, Courtney. And as you would expect, nobody is more concerned about this than me. There's been no pressure placed on me up or down to do anything about it except to find out the facts. So we continue to dig there. And the final thing I would tell you is, look, regardless of who commissioned the Taliban to attack us, their attacks are going to have to come in certain ways, IED rockets, mortars, things like that. The measures we take to protect ourselves don't change. But we have a very high force protection level in Afghanistan right now and that continues. And General Miller and I talk all the time about making adjustments based on the tactical situation where he thinks he needs to do that. So I think we've got a very good force protection posture in Afghanistan. Yes, we continue to look for that evidence. I just haven't seen it yet. But we will always and it's always in the back of your mind as you examine it. And it's not a closed issue. It's just because there's all kinds of threat streams out there. It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me. That's a long answer, Courtney. But it's the sort of where it is.
Courtney Kube: No, that's helpful. I mean, I'll be honest with you, it's one of those stories that I spent days and days and days and called in like a lot of favors, asking people and called people who were there at the time and trying to really get a sense of what was the deal with this story. There's so much conflicting information coming out. I still don't really have a good sense of why there is this discrepancy between what seems to be the intel community and maybe the military about the certainty of this information. And I don't know. I mean, is there any more light on that? Why there was.
General McKenzie: Well, so I would say the discrepancy is, people get emotional about this. People that are involved in it get very emotional about it. I can't afford to be emotional about it. I've got to step back and look at the totality of the picture. So I'm not sure. I mean, there is conflicting information out there. That's what you get on the battlefield, and so often you're never going to get closure. You're never going to get certainty. And we will continue to dig on that because the safety and well-being of our forces in Afghanistan is very high on my list of priorities. And if somebody is trying to kill them, I want to know because I won't hesitate to take action if that's the case. I just haven't seen it. There's a lot of conflicting information out there, but nothing was out there that I could grasp that connect together in a pattern that I would consider actionable.
Courtney Kube: Great. Is there anything new about Iran's involvement in Afghanistan that we're missing? Are they digging in? They were digging in further in the south at one point. Anything that we should be digging on that?
General McKenzie: Well, I think Iran doesn't wish us well in Afghanistan. And certainly I think if we got into a major exchange with them, we'd see that they would try to hurt us in Afghanistan if they're able to do it. But nothing particularly new right now, Courtney, except I again, I emphasize, they don't wish us well there and they're not our friends there.
Capt Urban: Last two.
Courtney Kube: Have you seen any involvement between the Taliban and Iran? Are they working together at all?
General McKenzie: Nothing specific that I'd go to the mat on.
Courtney Kube: I mean, is there is there anything, Taliban aside, is there an Al Qaeda or an ISIS component in Afghanistan that you're watching and saying 'this could get bad, it could get worse, that would drag the U.S. back in.'
General McKenzie: No, we assess that we've got about what we need in there right now to operate against Al Qaeda and ISIS. If things turned rosy, we could go to lower numbers in Afghanistan, which you'd want to do. You know that if they're able to fashion an agreement and go forward with a government and actually live up to the obligations they make, you could go considerably lower. And we will all will want that to be the future, you know.
General McKenzie: Courtney, thanks! I'll give you one more one more question. What you got?
Courtney Kube: That's OK. I'll make my last question how are you doing?
General McKenzie: I'm good. Thanks Courtney!