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General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. interview on the record Media Round Table - Dec. 20th, 2020

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Dec. 21, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Gen McKenzie Good afternoon, everybody. It's General Frank McKenzie. Good to talk to you today. As Bill said, we are on travel in the AOR, and I just finished what I thought was a very good visit to Iraq and Syria. In Baghdad, I had the opportunity to meet with our ambassador, Ambassador Tueller, with the commander of CJTF OIR Lieutenant General Paul Calvert, and then the Iraqi Chief of Defense Staff, General Abdul Amir (Yarallah) and those were all good meetings. I was very pleased with all of those. Then I had the opportunity to get out and visit some of our forces in Syria. I went to see our forces in Al Tanf Garrison in southern Syria, and had a very good visit with them as well. The only thing I would say is that we remain on track to reach the number of 2500 by 15 January. We see no problem getting to that directed number and everything is proceeding smoothly to get there. So that's sort of what I wanted to open with. And I'm happy to talk about whatever you guys want to talk about.

CAPT Urban All right, Sylvie.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP Yes, hello. Thank you General, for doing that. And we are approaching the first anniversary of the General Soleimani's death; I wanted to know if you expect something special from the Iranians and if you think you are ready?

Gen McKenzie Thank you. So, we constantly adjust our force posture in the theater based on our read of the situation. So, my assessment is we are in a very good position and we'll be prepared for anything the Iranians or their proxies acting for them might choose to do.

Gen McKenzie So I'm comfortable about that. I talk to my commanders about it every day and I think they will be ready for that. I don't know what the Iranians might choose to do or not do as we come up on the anniversary of this event. I think we've been very careful to set up posture in the theater that has established deterrence. And I think that deterrence has been with some friction has been established and maintained over the past few months. But we'll see how it plays out. But I can assure you of two things--We are prepared to defend ourselves, our friends, and partners in the region, and we're prepared to react, if necessary.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP Yes, my follow up was about Al Tanf because you mentioned Al Tanf. Will Al Tanf add or another importance another signification if you have less people on the ground in Iraq?

Gen McKenzie No it will not, in fact, the adjustments we're making to our force posture in Iraq will not change in any way what we're doing in Syria. We'll be able to support our Syria platform without modification, even as we draw down little bit more in Iraq. Thank you.

Missy Ryan, WaPo Hi General McKenzie, thanks for doing this, and I'm glad you guys had a good safe trip today. So, I wanted to ask an Afghanistan question. Can you tell us what is the plan that you and the senior commanders in Afghanistan have settled on to bring the force down to the level that it's supposed to be at by mid-January? Is Kandahar going to be closed? Can you tell us a little bit about what the footprint and the scope of the mission is? Because it seems like when the announcement was made that there was still ongoing planning process that was happening. I'm wondering what you can tell us about where that came out. Thanks.

Gen McKenzie So, let me begin by saying we have exhaustively reviewed the plan, the drawdown of 2500 in Afghanistan with General Miller. We have a very good plan. And it's a plan that sort of works in two areas. First of all we want to bring the people down and at the same time, we also want to reduce our equipment so that we bring our equipment out or we turn it over in a responsible manner. That equipment which can be turned over to our partners is going to remain. So, I am confident we have a very good plan that will take us to where we want to be. I'm not prepared to talk about specific base closures at this time. I'm just not ready to talk about it now and you'll understand why. But I'll tell you that we do have a plan. It's not like we're thinking about it now. It's just we're not ready to talk about it at this time.

Missy Ryan, WaPo Ok, just a follow up? Can you tell us about what the scope of the activities will be? I mean, it’s CT plus high level advising?

Gen McKenzie Right. So, the reason we're there, of course, is to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS from being able to mount attacks against our homeland or those of our friends and partners from Afghanistan. So that's the core mission that we're there for. So that mission will continue. At the same time, we will assist our Afghan partners with what I would call focused advising, it'll be high level advising. The Afghans are doing all the fighting now anyway, we just must be very careful and I've actually said this before, we'll have to be very careful and very smart about how we decide where we're going to advise at the point of need. We should also remember, of course, that NATO is there with us. NATO and allied nations are out there with us as well. And they play a big role in this as well. And in fact, even when we're at 4500, NATO and our partner nations there outnumber us on the ground. When we go down to 2500, they're probably going to make some commensurate reductions themselves. But I'm confident they will still outnumber us on the ground, and we should not overlook the vital role they will play in these activities in Afghanistan and frankly, Missy, I think it's a good news story that we are no longer the largest single force on the ground there. I think it was a good news story about the international coalition, about NATO's responsibilities and about the way the world views this problem.

Missy Ryan, WaPo Thank you.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg I wanted to get your assessment, General McKenzie, of the progress that the Iraqi government has made in trying to decommission some of the sectarian militias and try to bring them into the national army that the U.S. has spent so much time training and building up.

Gen McKenzie So I know that it is a goal of the Iraqis to do that. I know they have had some success and that success has been limited so far. But it remains for the prime minister, an aspirational goal is to go forward. Look that is one thing where it's not going to happen immediately. We're going to have to give them some time to do that. But I think it's interesting that you're beginning to see fissures in the militia groups themselves. Some of them are interested in shifting away from that close linkage to their Iranian proxy master’s entities that have existed in the past. And I think that is absolutely something we're going to see more of with Iranian-backed rogue militia groups as we go forward.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg And, you know, for my follow up, can you compare over the last year since the killing of Soleimani, the role of those kind of rogue Iranian elements within the militia and has their influence waned or has it increased? And can you give me any sense of that?

Gen McKenzie Sure. I think the death of Soleimani unhinged Iran's ability to direct these units forcefully.

Gen McKenzie He was a strong battlefield personality. He was a magnetic, charismatic leader. He's no longer there. And I think because of that, it is hard for them to adhere to a single line of action. So, I think there's actually a lot more dissonance between these groups and among these groups as they go forward. Not necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time, it also opens the door for people to make unapproved attacks and we must watch out for that as well. Now over the last few months, there have been few and far between. That doesn't mean there won't be one here in the immediate future. I just don't know that. But we have seen the intensity of those attacks go down over the past few months.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP You said that you are confident that NATO will continue to outnumber U.S on the ground in Afghanistan but NATO is going to meet in January because they have doubts about that. So, what makes you confident?

Gen McKenzie Well, the NATO ministerial will occur in February. We'll know what the decisions are going to be there. I can tell you the level that I work with the chief joint operations officers of those nations and the other mil to mil members of those nations that I talked to; I know there's strong support to stay. So, you're right. I mean, NATO is going to have to decide just as we have had to decide. I am optimistic and that might be the best possible way to characterize that. I'm optimistic that they will see the problem as we do and that they're going to want to stay and that we will stand together. That is my assessment.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP And are you confident that 2500 men and women will be enough to do more than just ensure the safety of the American presence there?

Gen McKenzie Well, as you know, the 2500 there are dedicated to the CT mission, they're also dedicated to the advise and assist mission, which we think is a broader mission. And that's where we work with our NATO and other allies and partners on the ground to do that. So, yes, given conditions on the ground, I'm confident that we will be able to accomplish that mission at a number of 2500.

Missy Ryan, WaPo I just want to go back and talk a little bit more about Iran and the Soleimani anniversary. I'm really interested about your response to Eli. So, you're saying that the death of Soleimani, correct me if I'm wrong, sort of weakened Iran's ability to have, like, cohesive command and control of these militias?

Missy Ryan, WaPo And that seems like it could be a good thing, I guess. But how do you balance that fact with the idea that they might not be finished with their retaliation or their desire to retaliate for this Soleimani thing?

Missy Ryan, WaPo Like it seems like those two forces might be at odds. And can you tell us a little bit about how you see their potential threat planning in the next space, given you have the Soleimani anniversary, but also that presidential transition here in the United States? And again, those things seem like they could argue in different directions, if that makes sense.

Gen McKenzie Sure. So, look, Missy as you will appreciate, it is a very complex issue. So, I would say at one level, I think the Iranians, they're not looking for a war with the United States right now. They're not looking for a major incident with the United States right now, because I believe that deterrence has been established. The Iranians have never doubted our capability to respond. They've never doubted that, but they've often doubted our will to respond. And I think the Soleimani episode last January sort of set them back and they've had to recalculate the will of the United States. We've demonstrated a level of will that perhaps they did not believe that we would be able to have. So, I think that's one factor. The other factor, you're right. I think there is a desire on their behalf to avenge the death of Soleimani. And I think they do, in fact, think about that. I think it is hard for them to come to a way to do that because Soleimani was genuinely the mastermind for many of these schemes. He was the person who pulled all the threads together. And when you've been doing it as long as he did and you were as practiced and cutthroat and ruthless a bureaucratic operator as he was, you tend to draw those things together. So, when you're suddenly no longer able to give advice or be the last person in the room that speaks, if you will, then I think you're going to see a little bit of a lack of coordination. And I believe that lack of coordination is extended from June to 2020, through right now and is continuing still. Now, the last part of your question would be. So, what does that mean? So, yes, he could shake them up. He could get all the ships sailing in the same direction so that option is no longer available to him. So, yes, clearly there's a possibility that they will be less coordinated, and some lower-level actor might have an opportunity to do something. But, you know, that's just the nature of the region that we are in, the nature of these rogue these rogue groups. And that's always a risk in Iraq. The one thing I would tell you is, though, what has happened is the government of Iraq has done a pretty good job operating against the Iranian-backed rogue militia groups. And they've been very they've actually been very helpful. So, the Iraqi military, the security services, the prime minister, they've all done a lot of good work.

Missy Ryan, WaPo OK, can I ask how are you concerned that as the U.S. military draws down enough in Iraq, you know, that Iraqi dependence on Iran could increase? I mean, you have Iran making offers to support them in terms of defense cooperation. You know, the Iraqi government is facing a repeated financial crisis. Is that a concern for you?

Gen McKenzie Iraq and Iran share a long, continuous border. There's going to be interplay between those two nations. It's inevitable. There's going to be an interplay between them. We should also remember they fought a very bloody war several years ago, that lasted eight years, and killed a lot of people. So, let's not overestimate the degree of penetration of Iraq that's going to be possible by Iran. So, we should keep the historical context in mind when we think about it. And I will tell you this. I believe the government of Iraq want a U.S., NATO and allied military presence going forward. They see the value of our training. They see the value of the relationship with us and not only with us, but with NATO and with the other nations that are there as well. So, I think they see that. Is there going to be a relationship with Iran? Certainly, and absolutely. And we would be wrong if we didn't recognize that. But I think they know; they know the quality of our equipment. They know the quality of our training. They know the quality, the relationship. And I think the nature of our relationship with the government of Iraq going forward is going to be one that will be arrived through collaboration, through meetings, through a series of strategic dialogue, and that won’t be at the mil-to-mil level that will actually be at the political level, you know, run by the Department of State. I think we have a path forward and I think that they're going to want us to stay.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg Thanks so much. I kind of pivot off some of the congressional testimony you gave earlier this month. When you talk about having to make decisions that, you know, with less of a force structure and that you're going to be very careful about the kinds of missions that you support. Can you get into a little bit more specifics about the sorts of things that you maybe won't be able to do that you were doing before with less forces on the ground?

Gen McKenzie So actually, I'm not going to be able to get enough specifics. I'm just going to tell you that, you know, first of all, this is something General Miller and I talk a lot about. We just got to be very smart when we decide we are going to push or we're going to push support and advisers to this point because they need it more here or they need it more there. We do the same now. The margins will be less, but we still believe we will be able to generate that support to the government of Afghanistan. We're confident we can do that.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg OK, are there other besides the training assist and sort of the kind of targeted support are there are other kinds of missions that were being done before that probably won't be done now.

Gen McKenzie There will be some tactical missions that I'm not going to talk about here. The other effect of drawing down is we also present a smaller attack surface to a potential opponent. There are fewer targets for the potential enemy as well. You know, fewer bases, fewer targets. And we call that reducing the attack surface. So, there is advantage to getting smaller, too. Sometimes being lean is better in these environments.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg And one thing that other folks have talked to me about when I've written about it before has been that there is potentially going to be a drop off in the quality of human intelligence that you'll be able to get by just not having as many people around. You are going to be kind of in there with these units. Are you worried at all about that?

Gen McKenzie So we always worry about our ability to gather intelligence. I'm not convinced we're at that point yet. There is a point. I just don't know where it is. There is a knee in that curve. And, you know, really, the human intelligence comes from the Afghans out there getting human intelligence because people like me are not going to gather that intelligence, rather the Afghans are going to gather the intelligence. So, it's going to be our ability to continue to interface with what we call the broad ecosystem of intelligence services, ISR and other intelligence gathering apparatus to make it possible for us to put together a picture of what's going on. And that's just one of the many parts of it. I don't think we're at that point yet.

CAPT Urban Go back to the top. One more round.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP Yes. Thank you. General, well, I know you don't want to speak politics but with a new administration in one month exactly. Do you expect a change on the politics on the ground? Do you expect them to change the posture and that we ask from you?

Gen McKenzie So Sylvie you're right, I am not going to be able to talk about that. I would just affirm that the United States military is completely apolitical. Doesn't matter to us who the political leadership, is it's our responsibility to follow orders faithfully. And you can count on us to do that. And really, that's about all I can say about that.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP OK, I know the Pentagon was not advocating for a reduction of troops on the ground in Afghanistan before any progress on the violence situation in Afghanistan. So, do you have any regret that you must withdraw troops?

Gen McKenzie No, and I'm not going to go much into that. I would just tell you; I have always had the opportunity to give advice and my advice has always been heard. Ultimately, the national leadership is going to make the decisions that are going to make and we're going to faithfully execute the orders that were given as a result of those decisions. And I'll just leave it there.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP OK, thank you.

Missy Ryan, WaPo OK, with the lightning round. Just quickly, to what degree are you and other senior military leaders concerned about the potential for Iranian attacks on American officials? That, you know, we have the reporting around like Esper's final trips. They sort of didn't say things ahead of time, didn't announce their movement ahead of time in a way that is unusual. I believe that that was the same with Milley. There anything you can say about that, I guess that this is like a sensitive topic.

Gen McKenzie Missy as you would expect us to, we pay great attention to that and we do. And that's really all I can say about it.

Missy Ryan, WaPo OK. And then my other question is, do you anticipate any in your talks with the Iraqis? Is there anything coming down the pipe that you could talk about in terms of the sale of American defense items?

Gen McKenzie We did not talk about that. We did not talk about that at all. I think that something that certainly they're interested in, we're interested in that as well. But it did not come up in my discussions today with the CHOD. It just didn't come up. But it is a point of great discussion with us going forward. I think it could be a fruitful area for further negotiations.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg I just wanted to ask, what is the current relationship between the U.S. military and the Syrian defense forces and particularly some of those Kurdish fighters, who fought so effectively alongside U.S. special operators in rolling back the caliphate?

Gen McKenzie I think it's good. I think, as you know, we have a substantial platform in Syria that works with our partners. They're the people that are fighting the remnants of ISIS. They're the people that are sitting at the top of the prisms. And they're also the people that are providing support for the various refugee camps. So, we work with the SDF closely, and I think it is a good relationship. Look, it is a complex relationship, and you can recognize that.

Gen McKenzie but nonetheless, I think it's a good relationship.

Eli Lake, Bloomberg Can you give me any kind of details? I mean, how has it changed since the sort of the maneuverings in 2019 when Turkish forces went into the border area? And, you know, have you been able to sort of recover some of the trust that may have frayed in that moment?

Gen McKenzie I think we have a good relationship. I think they recognize that national leadership can make decisions that can affect them. But I think on the ground, the trust, the mil-to-mil trust, I think is very solid. And in fact, it is critical to the safekeeping of our men and women that are out there. So, we depend on the SDF for that. And we've never had an issue with that.

CAPT Urban All right. Well, I appreciate the quick discussion. It's at the end of the night for us so we're going to head out. Thank you, everyone. And all comments were on the record.

Gen McKenzie Thank you, everybody. You all have a great day and I'll talk to you again soon. Take care. Bye.