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General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. remarks as delivered to the National Council on US-Arab Relations

Press Operations

Nov. 19, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Ambassador Kiwar, thank you for that kind introduction. I deeply appreciate the close relationship our countries – and particularly our militaries – have. I think I can speak for many in the United States, Jordan, and across the Middle East, that we are fortunate your curiosity about the world turned you away from a degree in Biology and toward international relations. We all benefit from that decision. 

Doctor Anthony, distinguished guests and friends of the council, thank you for inviting me to speak today at the 29th annual United States-Arab policy conference. 

I applaud this organization for sponsoring the conference in a virtual format this year. It would have been easy to cancel it altogether due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, but this is a crucial time in history – especially across the Middle East – and continuing the discussions and broadening our collective understanding of the challenges and opportunities that surround us, all help us plot a meaningful way forward for everyone. 

Last year when I addressed this audience in person, I spoke about the implementation of the United States’ National Defense Strategy, what it meant to global security, and the potential impacts it might have on our posture in the Middle East, specifically in the United States Central Command area of responsibility. I also spoke at length about why CENTCOM needed to remain engaged with our partners in the Middle East in support of the National Defense Strategy. 

Today, I want to pick up where I left off a year ago, provide some context on key issues, and give you an update on United States military posture in the region. I’ll start by highlighting what I believe are two of the top interests from a United States National Security standpoint: maintaining stability in the region, and eliminating the threat of terrorism against our homeland, as well as threats to our friends and allies. 

First, let’s turn our attention to the issue of maintaining stability... There was once a time the argument used to be that the only reason the United States was in the Middle East was because we needed the oil. If you look at the facts today, the United States has significantly reduced its dependence on Middle East oil, in fact, we have even become a net exporter. 

While we have reduced our dependence on Middle East oil, there is no doubt that the price of oil is dependent on a secure global supply. And since more than a third of the world’s sea-traded oil transits the Strait of Hormuz every day, it is in the world's interest, not just the United States, to ensure that freedom of navigation is maintained and that oil and other commerce can move freely throughout the region to sustain this healthy and necessary global cycle of production, trade, and consumption. 

This cycle is absolutely critical to maintaining economic and political stability in the Middle East. But there is, and has been a long-standing threat to this stability – and it emanates from Iran. For more than 40 years, the Iranian regime has defied international norms by conducting malign activities which destabilize not only its neighbors in the region, but global security and commerce as well – all for its own hegemonic purposes. 

This is not just opinion, it is observable fact – impartially documented in the UN Secretary General’s latest report on implementing Security Council Resolution 2231. That report found that Iran continues to use its arsenal of conventional weapons to destabilize the Middle East and foment sectarian violence and terrorism across the region. 

For decades, the Iranian regime has funded and supported terrorism and terrorist organizations. Today it is actively propping up the murderous Assad regime… Providing advanced weapons to the Houthis in Yemen in a proxy war against Saudi Arabia… It has launched direct and indirect attacks on international oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz… and it conducted a remarkably brazen state-on-state attack on Aramco refineries in Saudi Arabia…  

I noted all of these destabilizing actions by Iran when I spoke with you last year, and not only have they continued, but they have increased in scope and severity. Shortly after I spoke with this group last November, Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Coalition bases in Erbil and Al-Assad, Iraq. And over the past year, Iranian-aligned proxies in Iraq have conducted more than 50 rocket attacks on Coalition bases as well as our embassy in Baghdad and more than 90 attacks on Coalition logistics convoys.  

In short, Iran is using Iraq as its proxy battleground against the United States, with Iran’s ultimate objective being to eject the United States and our forces from Iraq and the broader Middle East. 

And unfortunately, Iran continues these activities to the detriment of its own people. Over time, the Iranian regime has spent – and continues to spend – a great portion of the country's wealth and prosperity on instruments of instability and on proxies. Indeed, even during the Coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian regime has gone to great lengths to ensure its core military capabilities remain intact – while the Iranian people suffer some of the worst COVID conditions in the world. 

Which brings us up to today.  

Right now, we're in a period of what I call contested deterrence with Iran. Let me explain what I mean by the term, “contested deterrence.” As most of you know, the United States developed a whole of government approach, led by the Department of State that employs diplomatic and economic means to convince the Iranian regime to do a variety of things: renounce its nuclear ambition, cease work on ballistic missile production, and cease exporting terror. That United States approach is known as the maximum pressure campaign. Now… it is very important to note there's actually no component to the maximum pressure campaign. There is none. It is strictly a diplomatic and economic approach. 

But Iran’s lack of effective diplomatic or economic levers to counter the United States maximum pressure campaign has caused it to pursue overt and covert – or another way of putting it, direct and indirect – military action against the United States and our partners to counter our diplomatic and economic pressure. The Iranian regime’s strategy seeks to undermine international and regional support for United States policies with attacks and threats against United States interests and those of our partners and allies – many of those attacks I mentioned previously. 

Our presence in the region sends a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities and, most importantly, the will to defend partners and United States national interests. This exemplifies the concept of deterrence – which is defined as the diplomatic and political construct obtained from the effect demonstrated capabilities have on the mind of a potential opponent.  

Today, I believe Iran has been largely deterred, because the regime now understands we possess both the capability and the will to respond. And while we have clearly and repeatedly stated we do not want a war with Iran – and I will state that again today – the regime knows we can bring significant forces to bear should we be pushed into that position. And while it is possible Iran could control the early steps of escalation in those circumstances, it is also abundantly clear who would control the final steps of escalation.  

This brings me full circle to my point about deterrence. I believe the Iranian regime recognizes if they get into an escalatory spiral with the United States, it will not end well for them, because we have demonstrated the will to act – forcefully if necessary – to safeguard our interests. And so that's why we've seen a recent decline in these tensions at sea, and attacks against us in Iraq and other places.  

Let me be clear though – while periods of decreased tension may provide the illusion of a return to normalcy, there is no question of the Iranian regime’s desire to continue malign operations that threaten lives, disrupt the internal matters of sovereign nations, and threaten freedom of navigation, regional commerce, global energy supplies, and the global economy.  

Perhaps most important though, is the regime’s aspirational goal to eject the United States from Iraq. One of the reasons the Iranian regime paused its attacks against us was based on the hope that we would be asked to leave Iraq through the Government of Iraq’s political process. 

And despite intense pressure from Iran’s supporters and allies in Iraq, the Government of Iraq has clearly indicated it wants to maintain its partnership with United States and coalition forces as we continue and finish the fight against ISIS. Because the Government of Iraq knows, as I know, that ISIS continues to pose a real threat. While ISIS no longer controls territory, a recent estimate by the UN reported as many as 10,000 ISIS fighters still remain in Iraq and Syria, and they still have the capability to carry out attacks and sow instability and fear in the country. 

I believe the strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq earlier this summer helped us develop a mutual understanding and vision for the future of Iraq, and how we can help Iraq’s leaders achieve that vision. And this really leads into the second point of interest I spoke of at the outset - eliminating the threat of terrorism against our homeland, and also against our friends and allies.  

We're all familiar with the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. But even before that, attacks emanated from this region against the United States homeland. Over the past decade, there has been a substantial decline in the number and severity of those types of attacks. That's the result of relentless pressure… That's the result of the unceasing overwatch… And that's the result of a lot of activities and efforts by the men and women of United States Central Command, our national capabilities, and those of our partners and allies.  

I will tell you in the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi Security Forces – also known as the ISF – have made great strides, and that is due in large part to the Global ISIS Coalition’s investment in training and equipping thousands of troops in Iraq and Syria – with many of those units now acting independently, with Coalition forces providing only advisory and enabling support.  

In fact, the progress of the Iraqi Security Forces has allowed the United States to reduce its force posture in Iraq. We have closed several bases and turned them over to Iraqi control, and we are moving forward with the president’s decision to reduce our forces in Iraq to 2,500. Given ISIS’ demonstrated tenacity and ability to reconstitute, we will retain a vigilant focus on the D-ISIS mission, understanding the territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean the organization’s complete elimination.  

ISIS is a learning, adaptable, and committed violent extremist organization. It has – to a large degree – gone to ground with the goals of first maintaining a global cyber presence, and second of building and retaining a small cellular structure which allows ISIS to carry out local attacks. Because its’ ultimate aspiration is to reestablish a physical caliphate, that remains a critical part of the ISIS ideology. The pressure that we've been able to apply to ISIS in Syria alongside our Syrian Democratic Forces – or SDF – partners up and down the Euphrates River Valley and in Iraq working with the ISF, we've been able to prevent ISIS from realizing its dreams of conducting external attacks.  

The years ahead will not be free of violence. Attacks may continue in the form of an insurgency, but our goal is to continue to develop and enable the ability of the ISF to contain and defeat ISIS without external assistance – and I believe we are on the correct path to that desired endstate. 

From a global perspective, I firmly believe there will never be a time when ISIS – or whatever follows ISIS – is going to be completely absent from the world stage. Even the brightest possible future will not be a bloodless future. But it can be a future in which local security forces are able to contain those extremist forces and groups without significant external help.  

There are other terrorist organizations that operate in the shadows and ungoverned spaces in the region besides ISIS.  

There's an al-Qaida element out in northwest Syria in the pocket around Idlib that also maintains an aspirational desire to generate external attacks.  

There also are violent extremist organization pockets down in the Arabian Peninsula which think globally and want to inspire action against us and our allies. In fact, the last actual attack against the United States was generated by al-Qaeda coming out of the Arabian Peninsula – an entity we know as AQAP. They are down now, but if we are unable to maintain constant pressure on them, they could achieve a resurgence. 

We look at these violent extremist organizations as falling into categories of increasing involvement. They either inspire action, enable action or direct action. Today they're relatively limited to inspiring action – typically via cyber radicalization of people around the world who are then motivated to go out and conduct lone wolf attacks. That’s easier for the violent extremist organizations, entails less risk, and is generally harder for us to stop. And while they would like to enable or direct attacks, those are more difficult and hold greater risk, because the mechanisms for the transfer of funds, for the transfer and movement of people and things associated with that are easier for us to monitor, attribute, and sometimes interdict.  

But it remains a core aspirational goal of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their respective off-shoots to renew their connective tissue – throughout the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, out into the Southwest Pacific and other areas. One of the key things we try to do in CENTCOM, and in conjunction with United States Special Operations Command and the global coalition, is to try to prevent the reestablishment of that connective tissue.  

Again, we're not going to get to perfection on this. And I suspect no matter how active we are, there’s always going to be potential for cyber-radicalization – the inspiring action if you will. While that will always remain a threat, what we want to focus on is preventing the organized enabling, or detailed planning. Because when you're running for your life up and down the Euphrates River Valley, listening to the noise of an armed MQ-9 drone overhead, it's hard to think about conducting attack planning against Detroit. 

So we maintain strong, vigorous efforts against those terrorist organizations because we know they retain the aspiration to attack the United States and our allies. And it is only the result of direct, relentless pressure that prevents them the capability or opportunity to do that. 

Now, I can tell you while maintaining that tactical military pressure is crucial, there is a larger strategic problem that cannot be addressed or solved by military means, and it requires the international community to solve. And that is the repatriation of foreign fighters, and accounting for the internally displaced persons – IDPs – and refugees who remain at risk across the theater as an unfortunate byproduct of these conflicts, and the ambassador spoke very eloquently about that a moment ago 

Today, across vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, the systematic indoctrination of IDP and refugee camp populations who are hostages to the receipt of ISIS ideology is an alarming development with potentially generational implications. 

Unless the international community finds a way to repatriate, reintegrate into home communities, and support locally-grown reconciliation programming of these people – many of whom have been living in challenging circumstances, displaced from their homes and with little economic opportunity – we are buying ourselves a strategic problem ten years down the road when these children grow up radicalized.  

If we don’t address this now, we’re never really going to defeat ISIS. The ideology will continue well into the next generation… and we're going to have to do this all over again. That is a prospect I am not comfortable with. 

This is a hard problem, one that requires cooperation among diplomatic, security, and humanitarian channels. There is no known, successful methodology of de-radicalization for hard-core ISIS believers – at least not at scale. And this radicalized population currently numbers in the thousands and preys on the disenfranchised and weak IDP and refugee populations who are already highly susceptible to extremist indoctrination. The longer IDPs and refugees remain displaced, the more likely they are to be influenced by malign actors. 

While there is no security solution for de-radicalization, military and local security forces can help set the conditions for stability and security necessary for these populations to return to their home communities and begin the process of regaining power over their own lives. But the sheer number and humanitarian needs of IDPs and refugees presents a challenge to the timeline along which necessary levels of long-term stabilization can take root. 

For the radicalized populations, I believe any sort of de-radicalization solution needs to be embedded in the culture. It can’t be a Western solution… it needs to be a local solution supported by local governments, organizations, and communities from which the radicalized individuals came from, they are best-placed to support and reintegrate individuals into these societies.  

One thing is clear: These are tough, global problems that require global resources channeled toward regional and local solutions. These issues will not go away by ignoring them. They have to be addressed head on by the international community, and we have to work together, accepting our shared responsibilities. 

So, I just wanted to spend a few moments discussing two key issues we are working through right now at United States Central Command – achieving stability in the Middle East by deterring Iran, and addressing the threat of terrorism against the homeland and our allies.  

We know we don’t have all the answers to these problems. And as we prosecute these missions, we remain thankful for the depth and breadth of our partnerships across the Middle East, and respectful of their contributions we all address these issues together. 

Thank you.