Katie Bo Williams Hi, everybody, and thank you for joining us today. I'm Katie Bo. I'm the senior national security correspondent here at Defense One, and it's my pleasure to welcome you back to the second event in this year's virtual edition of our annual Outlook Summit. This year's event looks a little different than last year's, not just because it's being streamed out of my living room and will feature a series of virtual one on one interviews with defense and global security leaders on the news of the day, what to expect in the year ahead and the future of defense acquisitions and technology. Before we get started, I just want to go over a couple of housekeeping items in the top right hand corner of your screen, you will find a message icon. That's where you can chat and interact with your fellow attendees or ask for technical assistance. And with that, I'm going to turn it over to General Frank McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, for some brief opening remarks. Thanks so much for being with us, General McKenzie.
General McKenzie Katie Bo, thanks. Thanks for having me. This is a great opportunity. I think it's very important for U.S. military leaders to engage with the media and in the public to explain our operations and our efforts to secure the nation. We are funded by and swear an oath to defend the citizens of this nation. And this makes events like this an essential part of providing American understanding of what the U.S. military is actually doing. So I'm going to begin and just make some brief remarks. I'm not going to talk about what CENTCOM is, where it is, because I believe everyone has a pretty good understanding of that. Instead, I'm going to talk about our interests in the U.S. Central Command region and my priorities. And then I'm going to talk briefly about one of those priorities. And it may not be the one you would expect me to emphasize, but the United States has two critical interests in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. First maintaining and improving security and stability of the region, including the freedom of navigation. And second, eliminating the terrorist threat to the homeland which emanates from the region. So under those high level interests, we operationalize what we do in the region by establishing priorities. Here are my five priorities. First, deterring Iranian aggression. Second, supporting the Afghan peace negotiations and achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan. Third, maintaining pressure on ISIS. Fourth, working with the wider Department of Defense community on counter unmanned aerial systems. And fifth, addressing the fate of refugees and displaced persons in the region. So I'm happy to talk about any of those as we get into the questions. But what I'd like to do is just spend a little bit of time talking about the fifth one, which is the IDP issue. And it's not a problem you'd particularly expect me to talk about. But I think the long term consequences of not tackling the problem of displaced persons and refugees is going to be what is going to have enormous long term negative ramifications for the region and not only the region, but actually global implications. Today across the CENTCOM region wherever you find conflict, you'll find internally displaced persons and you'll find refugees who fled violence. Wherever you find IDPs and refugees and I'll use IDPs as a shorthand term for internally displaced persons, you'll find distress and suffering. Local communities often bear the brunt of supporting IDPs and refugees, many times for years on end. And while coalition donors and international relief organizations provide tremendous support to large IDP and refugee populations in the region, long term solutions remain elusive. As long as the underlying conflicts remain. Beyond the suffering in the human soul, there's the potential for IDP and refugee camps to become fertile ground for the propagation of radical ideologies. Large camps in Syria in particular, have become areas of systemic indoctrination of IDPs and refugees who are hostages to the receipt of ISIS ideology. This is a larger strategic problem and it's not going to be addressed by military means. Instead, it requires global resources, along with regional and local government commitment to resolve the repatriation of foreign fighters and families and the reintegration of IDPs and refugees into their home communities is in the best interest of the international community, and it's vital to the interests of those people who are currently in the camps. Unless we find a way to do this, a way to repatriate and reintegrate into home communities and support reconciliation solutions for conflict victims, many of whom have been living in traumatic and challenging circumstances. We're buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road when these children grow up and become radicalized. If we don't address this now, we're never going to really defeat ISIS or the many other extremist ideologies in the region. The ideology will continue well into the next generation and we're going to have to do this all over again. And that's not a prospect that I'm actually comfortable with. I had a little bit more than I wanted to say there Katie Bo, but I'm going to stop there so we can get to the questions. But I just wanted to call that out as something that I think is very important. And it might be a little unusual to have a combatant commander talk about it, but I think it's something that we just we need to address and it won't be solved by this combatant command. It won't be solved by the Department of Defense, and it's not going to be solved by the United States alone. But we have a moment in time here where if we don't act, we're going to pay a heavy price down the road. Katie both thank you. And I'm ready to take your questions.
Katie Bo Williams I want to thank you, General McKenzie. And certainly that's been the question of the IDP camps, particularly in Syria as well as the SDF run-prisons has been one of the most intractable problems sets that I Think both the DoD and the State Department have been working on for years now. I wanted to follow up a little bit I was hoping you could talk to me a little bit about the security situation with the prisons in particular. You mentioned obviously the efforts to get some of the foreign fighters repatriated. But at this point, is the SDF adequately resourced to safeguard some of these prisons, both for the foreign fighters and for the Syrian and Iraqi ISIS fighters, many of which are kind of these, jerry-rigged former schoolhouses and that kind of thing. So what is the current assessment of the security situation specifically?
General McKenzie Sure. I would say today our SDF partners in eastern Syria hold about 10,000 ISIS fighters at various detention facilities, including 2000 foreign fighters that we would categorize as hardcore foreign terrorist fighters. Many of these, of the 10000, are actually of Iraqi nationality that are held in these prisons. So we do not actually provide any direct control of these prisons. This is done by the SDF. We participated in training them in the past and a variety of other organizations also help us maintain it. Look, it's a tenuous control, but it is control. There have been revolts in these prisons. They have not been major outbreaks. I am concerned about it. The long term solution has to be repatriation. These people have to go back to the countries to which they have nationality and those countries need to claim them. And that has been a slow process to date. You know, we push it very hard. I know the Department of State works it very hard. The coronavirus concerns have slowed this down a little bit, but we need to continue aggressively pushing it. There's no long term good solution. By keeping them in Syria, they need to go back from whence they came. And we will you know, we'll do everything we can to support that solution.
Katie Bo Williams I'm hoping to come back to Syria if we have time here. But I'm going to sort of kick on with some other questions. We got a lot of different countries, a lot of different interests to cover in a short amount of time. So I want to start with Afghanistan. The U.S. is expected to draw down to 2500 troops by January 15th. And I'm hoping you can try to help us paint a little bit of a picture about what that might look like. So if you can talk to me a little bit about what capabilities are you going to lose at that level? You know, what are you not going to be able to do that we were doing before? And do you anticipate that the United States could go below that level and still achieve meaningful counterterrorism goals in Afghanistan?
General McKenzie Sure. So let me first of all, state very clearly, we're on a path to be at 2500 by the 15th of January and we will make that gate. We've been directed to do that by the president. So we're on a path to do that. And we'll have no trouble getting to that number. And we will also bring out equipment so that we don't have excess equipment in there at that time. Now, clearly, when you go to 2500, you're going to have to be careful and choose what you do and what you don't do. But one point I want to make is our NATO and coalition partners are going to be with us even as we go down. In fact, they will probably there will be more coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan than U.S. forces when we arrive at this number. So it's not just the United States that's going to be in Afghanistan. Rather, it's going to be a community of interest that sees the threat that could emanate from there. So we just need to bear that in mind as we think about what we're doing in Afghanistan. Now as to what we can and can't do, we will be able to continue our focus CT operations as necessary. We will also be able to support our Afghan partners and their focus CT operations when those are indicated through either ISR, through fires and through other things that we do to support them. We're just going to have to be very careful and focused when we do it. And I think that embodies sort of General Miller's approach. We will do focused advising at a higher level. And actually the Afghans are doing the fighting now. We're not doing the fighting now. So we will do it a higher level. We will have to be very careful and very smart how we pick and choose where we go and where we don't go. And the margins will be less. But we believe it still will enable us to carry out our core objective, which, as you know, is to prevent ISIS or al-Qaeda from basing in ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan and generating attacks against our homeland or the homeland of our allies and partners. And this will give us the capability to do that, even at a number of 2500.
Katie Bo Williams When this announcement was initially made, officials said publicly that the conditions were met on the ground to permit a safe drawdown 2500 troops. But we didn't really get a whole lot of details at the time about what exactly those conditions were. And so I'm hoping you can talk to us with as much specificity as you are able. What were the key indicators that you needed to see met in order to feel comfortable at the 2500 level?
General McKenzie So, Katie, what we really need to see and some of these things are still developing I want to be very clear. We need to see inter-Afghan negotiations or the 'APN' Afghan peace negotiations is I think the term of art that we're using now. We needed to see that go forward. And perhaps it is going forward, I don't want to be overly optimistic on this. They're meeting in Doha. They've agreed on, as you know, a terms of reference for continued negotiations. It took a while to get to that point, perhaps longer than it should have. But we have it now. And I believe the parties are now in negotiations and that needs to be an Afghan to Afghan dialog, and that is continuing. So that's a good sign that. The Taliban has not conducted attacks against United States or coalition forces. That's a good sign. What they have done, though, is they have continued to attack Afghan security forces. And that's not a good sign. And that needs to they need to find a way to that, presumably through the dialog that's going on right now where that process can be changed and that violence can go down but the violence is still there and it is still a matter of great concern to me. We need to see understandable, auditable intentions from the Taliban that they are not going to allow ISIS or al-Qaeda to operate within the territory that they control. And that is still a process that's going forward and we don't have a final solution on that either. So, you know, there are some good news here. There are certainly some things that give us a small amount of optimism. There are things that are very concerning as we go forward.
Katie Bo Williams You know, I was going to bring up the Taliban-Al Qaeda relationship because obviously Taliban announcing al-Qaeda was one of the key precepts of the February deal that the United States made with the Taliban. But, you know, this withdrawal has continued pace of the planning for the withdrawal has continued. You know, are we not signaling to the Taliban and to Afghanistan generally that we're out no matter what, no matter what conditions are like on the ground?
Katie Bo, that's not a military question. You know, I would tell you this. We're on it. We're going to go to 2500 and we'll get further guidance of that at that point in time. I would tell you this, and you do make a very good point. The Taliban may believe they're on the cusp of a military victory. I read a lot of intelligence. I look at it. We believe, though, that our Afghan partners, with our support and our funding of the ASAF, the Afghan Security Assistance Fund, and with our NATO and coalition partners, they can maintain a defense against the Taliban. Even if we are at 2500 at a lower level. We believe that is a practical way forward. Might not be where you want to be. But I think it is a practical way forward, I think is something that's very defensible.
Katie Bo Williams I want to follow up on you on something that you said in a congressional testimony in the House in March. You told the House Armed Services lawmakers that the United States was providing, quote, very limited support to the Taliban in the fight against ISIS. Can you give us any details about what kind of support we're talking about here? Was there any coordination on a given strike? What did that look like?
General McKenzie Yeah, I would tell you this without going into too much detail. This is several months ago. The Taliban and ISIS, as you know, have a theological dispute. They are intractable enemies and whatever the Taliban does or doesn't do with al-Qaeda, they will actually pressure ISIS. And we have seen evidence of that going forward. So at some times in the past, when the Taliban was conducting operations in eastern Afghanistan against ISIS, we had the opportunity to take a strike against ISIS formations. We would take that strike. We did not do it in coordination with the Taliban. And it would be too large a use of the word to say that we had coordinated with the Taliban on that. But it was a common enemy. It was an opportunity to strike someone who is an implacable foe of the United States. We did it. It probably helped the Taliban, and that would be the way I would describe it.
Katie Bo Williams Is there any kind of ongoing activities that are similar to that now or was that kind of a one-off?
General McKenzie The situation was unique then in that what you had was ISIS holding ground in Nangarhar and in eastern Afghanistan. So when they hold ground, it's very easy to do those kinds of strikes. Now, ISIS is not able to hold ground, so those conditions don't exist anymore. So I would say that's not what's happening now.
Katie Bo Williams One other sort of long term story that I wanted to follow up on is the latest we heard from you, I believe in September, you said that you have still not seen evidence to establish that Russia had paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Congress obviously still carries the NDAA that just passed in the House (Inaudible) yearly reporting provision on this matter. Is that investigation still ongoing or has it been closed? And if so, what were the findings?
General McKenzie Sure. So it is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces. Nothing has changed since my position of last September. We just have not been able to prove it. We don't see it. We look all the time very closely at potential threats to our forces in Afghanistan. I do, General Scott Miller, our commander in Afghanistan do, we talk about this all the time? I relentlessly query my intelligence people on this. We just don't see it. But it's not because we're not looking at it. We're looking at it very hard.
Katie Bo Williams I want to turn to Iraq now where the United States is also drawing down to 2500 troops by January 15th. And just give us a quick nugget overview of what the status of that withdrawal is.
General McKenzie Sure. So I would tell you, just like in Afghanistan, we are on a glide slope to deliver the directed level of 2500 by the 15th of January we'll make that with no problem. Now, at the same time, it will allow us to continue our activities in Iraq, much as we are doing now. And again, there's a good news story. Our coalition and NATO partners are going to be with us. The NATO mission in Iraq, which is at institutional level, capacity build, defense, security, capacity building organization, we believe is going to expand and we're going to work with NATO. As they bring in more people to help us and they are so there's actually a couple of good things going on. I would also note Katie Bo there's been discussion here recently about drawdown of the U.S. embassy. That's a drawdown. The ambassador is going to remain and it's just with increased threat reporting and the period that we're going into, including the one year anniversary of the death of Qasem Soleimani, just felt it was a smart thing to do to reduce our attack surface. It does not reflect a not designed to reflect, to the best of my knowledge, a long term reduction in diplomatic capacity in Baghdad, but rather just a smart judgment made based on the threats that we see out there right now. Let me emphasize again, the ambassador will remain core embassy functions will remain.
Katie Bo Williams Speaking of the anniversary of the killing of Qasem Soleimani, which obviously is coming up, is the United States right now aware of any current planning by either Iran or its proxies operating in Iraq? To either take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal to much further attacks or to act in retaliation for the Soleimani killing?
General McKenzie So Katie Bo, you'll understand I'm not going to be able to go into much detail on that. I would just tell you this. We watch all these threats streams closely all the time. We monitor forces in the theater. I'm in an active discussion all the time with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with the secretary of defense of what forces we need to deter Iran, because that is our intent, to convince them that it is not in their interest to lash out. It is not in their interest to attack us, either directly or indirectly and by indirectly, I mean through proxies. And the probable place that would happen is, as you noted, in Iraq. So we want them to know it's not in their interest to do that. And to date, I think we have achieved a certain level of what I call contested deterrence. It's not perhaps perfect, but I think they see it's not in their interest to do that. And that is that's sort of the military element of it. There are a lot of other political and diplomatic elements of it, but my concern is principally the security and the military element of it.
Katie Bo Williams How concerned are you that some of these sort of Iranian proxies operating in Iraq might take it on themselves to take action without the explicit permission or blessing of Tehran?
General McKenzie Good question and we are very concerned about that. You know, here's the one thing about the U.S. military. If I give an order, it's going to be followed. I have complete confidence in the chain of command down to the lowest level of people will do what I ask them to do. That does not apply in the Iranian system or in the Iranian proxy system. And I think there's a degree of dissonance there that you just got to watch. Now, the problem is that Iran has given these proxies, which they have some in some very good degree of control over others, as you noted, perhaps less. They've give them very capable weapons and we will know where those weapons came from. They're not going to be able to conceal that. So Iran is going to own a major responsibility, regardless of how this happens. But I think that's a key point. The one thing I would tell you, though, that we are very pleased to see is the government of Iraq is actually very active in working to reduce threats against us. Prime Minister Kadhimi and his team have done a lot of very good things to reduce threats to U.S. and coalition forces around Baghdad, but also across the country writ large. So we're very pleased with that. And that shows I think it's a good indicator of the way the two nations are working together.
Katie Bo Williams It's been almost a year since the Soleimani killing as we referenced, what have you learned in the intervening months about his successor General Esmail Ghaani?
General McKenzie So I would say this. They miss Qassem Soleimani. He was a powerful figure in their system. He had direct access to the Supreme Leader. He used that. He was decisive. The man whose come behind him is perhaps not so good at communications, doesn't have those skills. And I think they're paying a price for it. And I think that in a system where one person can remain for over 10 or 15 years doing these things, you tend to get that kind of activity and you see what happens then when you lose that person and they're seeing it now, I think they are still actually digesting, the reality of Soleimani no longer being around, no longer being able to give advice.
Katie Bo Williams But can you expand on that a little bit? You said you think they're paying a price for not having...What's the price?
General McKenzie The price is that it's hard for them to coordinate things. I'll give you an example: I think that they would have liked to have seen a political solution to push the United States and the coalition out of Iraq in the spring and summer of this year. Iran was not able to achieve that. And I think that might have been because of their inability to bring all the groups together under a single leader in Iraq. And I think that's a clear example of it right there. And there are other things, and we should never underestimate the role of the Iraqi people themselves and their desire to choose their own political leaders. But I think the fact that Qassem Soleimani is no longer there to bang heads together and to force people often against their will to go a way they might not have wanted to go, I think that's something that Iran and the proxies miss very much.
Katie Bo Williams So just sort of zooming out broadly. You know, we're in this transition period in the United States. How do you anticipate that Iran will behave in the waning months of one administration awaiting an incoming administration?
General McKenzie Sure, so you know, I said a few minutes ago, Katie Bo, that I thought we had achieved contested deterrence and that's how I would describe it. I think Iran recognizes that we're willing to act and we will act if we're attacked, if our friends in the region or attack, I think we're willing to do that. That's been very clear to them. So they understand that now. At the same time, I think there's still pressure to avenge the death of Sulimani. I still think there's a desire to eject us from the theater, and that remains a long term aspirational goal for them.
General McKenzie Those things compete and it's very hard, sometimes almost opaque, to look into the highest levels of Iranian decision making and try to understand it. And I don't I don't claim to be an expert on that. I'm actually very humble in my own ability to judge what the Iranians will do or will not do. But I can just look at what's happened and we have achieved a form of deterrence. I would like that form of deterrence to go as long as it can. It may be that part of the Iranian calculation is they want to wait until the 20th of January and see what happens. I don't know. That would be fine with me as long as nothing happens. And we'll just have to see how that plays out. But I think I think we have achieved that form of deterrence. I keep coming back to that. We managed to do it, I believe, by keeping an appropriate level of forces in the theater forces that are clearly enough to defend and if necessary, to strike back, but at the same time, not enough to be provocative and to add and to add temperature to what is already a very dangerous situation. So we manage that very carefully.
Katie Bo Williams You know, in addition, obviously, with the Soleimani killing, we also just in recent weeks, saw the killing of a key architect of Iran's nuclear program, in an assassination that Iran has blamed on Israel. What response have you seen to that? And have there been any recent threats to either the US or its Gulf Allies in response specifically to that?
General McKenzie Sure. So, again, I think Iran feels that very keenly. I think they are embarrassed by it. I think they're searching for a way to respond. But their process is often slow and often not completely synchronized. So I think they're still working what that's going to be. Would they like to probably hit back against Israel? I think so, yes. But they haven't been able to do it yet. I don't know that they will or they won't. And as you know, they often associate us with it whether we had anything to do with it or not. I mean, we certainly didn't. But it doesn't matter what I think. It's what they think. And that's something that I think we're going to pay great attention to. The last thing I would just say on that is we look at all kinds of threats all the time across the theater and, you know, we pay attention to those threats. We've learned the hard way. Never take those lightly. You know, you've just got to dig into them and understand them.
Katie Bo Williams I want to go back to Syria. We talked a little bit about the IDP situation earlier. And I want to return to the conflict at large. You know, the Pentagon has been reluctant, obviously, to disclose exactly what U.S. force presence looks like in Syria. That former D-ISIS envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, recently told me that the troop levels there were "a shell game" designed to obscure exactly how many people the U.S. has there. Can you, as best as you're able, describe for us the current U.S. posture there and tell us why the exact number of troops there is classified in a way that it's not in Afghanistan or Iraq.
General McKenzie So publicly, we say we got around 900 troops on the ground there. That number sometimes goes down, sometimes goes up. There's been no shell game played. I have to report in writing to the Congress and to my chain of command exactly what those troop numbers are. So I know Ambassador Jeffrey very well and I appreciate his comment on that. But you can't play a shell game because I'm bound by reporting requirements where I have to say where everybody is. So that number is reported very clearly to all the oversight organizations that take a look at where we are. So I'd just like to make that point at the beginning. But your larger question, we are positioned on an arc, really, from an-Tanf Garrison in the southwest of Syria, just north of the Jordanian border, where we have an outpost, then up the Euphrates River, generally along the line of the Euphrates River in an area to the east that we call the eastern Syria security area. There we are partnered with our SDF partners who actually are the people that are carrying out combat operations against ISIS so the force is disposed to do that. And that's the way we actually put them on the ground. I'm not going to talk at a lower level about where they are, but you will understand that. Now a couple of months ago, we had an opportunity to bring armor up there. When we had the Russians actually had a patrol go out of its sector into an area that was not coordinated with us. We didn't give them permission to do it. And we felt it was appropriate to show a little more teeth up there. So we brought a Bradley platoon, M2 Bradley platoon, which is an armored fighting vehicle. And I've kept those up there and I continually revisit that. Do we want to keep them up there? It just shows that we're determined to ensure that the men and women we put on the ground up there have the protection they need to carry out the task that we've assigned them to do. And the last thing I would say is there's discussion about defending oil fields. The SDF defend the oil fields. We enable them to defend the oil fields. And the oil fields we hold for a couple of reasons: one, to prevent ISIS from getting to them because it was a valuable stream of revenue for them during the life of the caliphate. And second, it actually helps the SDF accrue finances and may actually regenerate some form of a nascent economy in eastern Syria, which is a priority for us as well.
Katie Bo Williams I want to zoom out a little bit on the Syria picture. What is the long term plan here? Is the idea that this will essentially be kind of, as some officials have described it to me, sort of a permanent U.S. deployment, either in perpetuity as the conflict kind of settles into a de facto stalemate or as a potential peace [00:27:14]________(inaudible)___.[0.0s]
General McKenzie Sure. So there's actually a U.N. Security Council resolution that talks about what the future in Syria should be and that's what we subscribe to. And it needs to be one where people's voices are heard. Clearly, it would require an adjustment from the government in Damascus in order to make that happen. It would require serious negotiations between them and the Kurds in the east. Those types of things need to happen. And the government in Damascus has shown no particular sign of wanting to take those steps. But I think that's the way forward. It's got to be a political solution. You know, the decision to keep U.S. forces long term in Syria is not a military decision that is uniquely a policy decision by civilian policymakers at the highest levels of the United States. So I don't know what that decision would be going forward, but I can tell you that there's not a clear military solution. But I would add this: the conditions that gave rise to ISIS exist in western Syria just as they exist in some of the IDP camps that we've talked about. And unless we find a way to provide stabilization for those elements, the problem is not going to go away. East of the Euphrates River where we are, we have those stabilization mechanisms in place with our SDF partners. West of the Euphrates River, they are largely absent because the Russians and the Syrians have no concept of how to do this kind of stabilization and they're not interested in it. So the conditions are at least as bad as the conditions that fomented the original rise of ISIS back several years ago. So we should be concerned about that.
Katie Bo Williams We got just under a minute left, so I'm going to let you get out of here with just one more question that I'm sorry I can't let you escape without asking you a quick transition question, which is, have you briefed President-elect Biden or his team yet?
General McKenzie So there's a formal process for the transition and it's handled...I actually, as a younger officer, I was part of that process for President Obama when he came in, and his administration came in. So I'm very familiar with that process. It's jointly managed by the joint staff, by OSD and by the incoming transition team. And as part of that process, all combatant commanders have an opportunity to engage. And I have been engaged, as many others have. And I thought it was a very good process, very well supported by the department and very well supported by the president elect's team.
Katie Bo Williams Well, thank you so much, General McKenzie, for taking some time with us today. This was a very important conversation. That is all the time we've got have left today. But to those of you watching me watching online, be sure to stay tuned for a word from our exclusive underwriter Cisco. And be sure to join us on December 15th at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Standard for our next event with 2021 series, the "After Trump and Awaiting Biden: What Now for Conservatives and National Security" panel discussion, which is featuring Richard Fontaine, chief executive at CNAS and [00:30:06](inaudible)_____________director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at __(inaudible)____. [1.5s]
Katie Bo Williams Again, thank you so much to everyone who joined us. And thank you, General McKenzie, for your time today. Thank you, Katie Bo. Take care. Bye bye.