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Gen McKenzie and Luis Martinez On the Record Interview 22 DEC 20

Press Operations

Dec. 24, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

GEN McKenzie Hey, Luis, its Frank McKenzie how are you doing?

Luis Martinez Fine Sir. How are you during this holiday?

Luis Martinez Glad you are coming home 

GEN McKenzie We are coming home. If you'd like, I will give you a brief summary of what I've done. Coming back from being in theater, had an opportunity to go into Iraq to visit with our commander there, visit with the Iraqi CHOD, then had an opportunity to go to Syria. And then I visited Afghanistan, had an opportunity to spend some time with General Miller, his team, as well as President Ghani. And now we're on our way home. So it was a short but very productive visit. And I'll pause there, Luis, so now you know where I've been.

Luis Martinez While you were in Baghdad, Sir, it appeared that there were some rocket attacks launched at the Embassy. Were you present when that happened and can we talk a little bit about the security situation and what that implies that those attacks are still on going?

GEN McKenzie So, no, I was not present. I left. I think was gone 12 hours or so, maybe not quite that much. But I was out of the country when the attacks occurred. And that's the biggest attack we've had in a while against our embassy and other embassies that are there in the international zone as well. So very concerning. We've been at a period where those attacks have died down for quite a while, but launching over 20 rockets at the U.S. Embassy is certainly an escalation.

GEN McKenzie We’re right now trying to determine who did it, what the attribution of that attack is. And we're working very hard to do that. And I might add our Iraqi partners are working very hard on that as well.

GEN McKenzie And we reached out to them at every level and they have responded. So we're trying to just run that down right now. Who actually was behind that attack? The good news is our C-RAM system, our gun system at the embassy was effective. We believe it was. We'll look at exactly how it performed, but we think it was also a factor. So I'll pause there. Luis. Over.

Luis Martinez Sir you called it an escalation. And in the past, nothing has been in ordering strikes against KH. Could it be that if it is attributed to the KH, that we may be doing something against them?

GEN McKenzie So, Luis, yeah I don't know. That won't be my decision. That'll be a decision made by senior national leadership. No Americans were injured in the strike. We're still trying to make sure that no Iraqis were injured. There may have been some minor injuries. I don't know that. So I just don't know right yet what happened there. But no, we view this very seriously. We conveyed our concern to the government of Iraq. You know, we are there at their invitation. They have a responsibility to protect us. And I actually believe they take it very seriously. And I think the prime minister and his team have done a number of things to help us in that regard.

Luis Martinez Two weeks ago you gave some interviews to the AP and The New York Times and stated that there might be some possibility that the amount of Syrian forces in Iraq may be for rocket attacks targeting US forces. Do you this as indicative of that or is in part in that pattern of concern that we've been looking at?

GEN McKenzie Luis hit me with that question again. I'm sorry, just the first part of it.

Luis Martinez Sir, no worries. Two weeks ago, you gave interviews to the AP and The New York Times where you spoke about intelligence that indicated that maybe Iran or maybe PMS in Iraq might be planning some kind of attacks against US forces inside Iraq.

Luis Martinez Do you see the recent rocket attack as indicative of that or part of a pattern, isolated, how do you see that?

GEN McKenzie Well, somebody was responsible for the attack, and 20 rockets is a pretty significant event. So the good news is with an attack that large, there'll be lots of evidence. And we're in the process with our Iraqi partners of gathering that evidence up right now. So I'm confident we'll eventually have a pretty good idea of who actually launched it, who may or may not have been behind them when they launched it. Just too early for me to speculate on that right now Luis.

Luis Martinez In the past, you've also talked about how Iran seemingly appears to have been deterred in some of its activities against the US, do you still see that's the case in.

Luis Martinez Do you see the transit of the Georgia yesterday? Making that public as far as a deterrence campaign against Iran.

GEN McKenzie Well, just a couple of things. Let me actually begin with the Georgia. So when a submarine goes through the Strait of Hormuz it’s going to go through on the surface. So, you know, there are a lot of reasons for bringing a submarine into the Strait, into the Arabian Gulf. I'm not going to comment on it beyond that, except to say that you've got to come in on the surface when you do that. So you’re going to be seen so you can take that for what it's worth. I won't comment further on tactical dispositions of forces in the theater. Break. For the next part of your question. It is my belief that that Iran doesn't want a war with the United States right now. And I know for a fact that the United States doesn't seek war with Iran. So we start with those two. We start with those two positions. I believe, however, that Shia rogues, rogue militant groups in Iraq sponsored ultimately by Iran, are intent on pushing us out of Iraq. And so I think that activity continues, the exact degree of Iranian support for that. Sometimes it's hard to determine because, you know, sometimes there are very clear lines, sometimes they're not, it's hard, is hard to sort out, and that's the process of what we're doing right now with this latest rocket attack. I would go a little further, Luis, and say that I think for much of this year, early part of this year, anyway, the first half of the year, I believe the Iranians may have believed that they had an opportunity, may have believed they had an opportunity to get us out of Iraq politically. And I don't believe that track is open to them anymore.

GEN McKenzie I think it's pretty clear that the government of Iraq wants us to stay. And I think that the future level of our posture here in Iraq is going to be something that's going to be worked out between us and the government of Iraq.

GEN McKenzie And it's not only going to be US forces, it's going to be international forces that are in there with us, including NATO and the NATO mission in Iraq, which is a very important role to play. That's sort of the way I see the situation right now, Luis. Over.

Luis Martinez Thank you. In your talks in Baghdad, did they focus on the future of the U.S. presence there?

Luis Martinez I think the talks are still ongoing. When do you think those will conclude? What kind of outcome do you see?

GEN McKenzie So I think that the talks are still ongoing and I'm sure there will be more talks. And I'm sure when a new administration comes in they're going to have a view on this as well. But I would tell you that the one point I made to the chief of defense was, look, the way forward is going to be about it's going to be mutually determined by the Iraqi people and their government and our government. And it's going to be really the Department of State that leads that effort going forward. But I believe I really do believe that they see there's a role for us to remain there. ISIS still remains a very significant threat. We helped them in a variety of ways. Against that very real, against the very real threat of ISIS. And again, when we talk about this, it's not just the United States. It's also our NATO and ally partners that are with us in there. And I think there's a place for all of us. And so I emphasized that point to the chief of defense. He took it on board and we had a very good, very good, very straightforward exchange of views, as I always do when I talk to him.

Luis Martinez And in your stop inside Syria. Where did you go and what did you see? What kind of impression did you come away with?

GEN McKenzie So I got an opportunity to get down to our garrison in Al-Tanf, which, as you know, is in the southern and western part of the part of Syria, just north of Jordan. Had an opportunity to visit with our forces there, because of time, there was really the only place I was able to get to on this trip to see those people down there. They provide a very important role for us. What they do is they're focused against the ISIS threat in the Badia desert there. And we've been very effective at reaching out who are to our partners down there and diminishing that threat. That's a pathway that ISIS uses where they also can get, get our forces if left untouched. This gives us an opportunity to sort of make it hard for them to transit, hard for them to transit into Iraq is one of the key roles that we have there. Additionally, it prevents them from being able to infiltrate into Jordan. So all those things are served by the garrison that we have in Al-Tanf so it was just good there.

GEN McKenzie Good to go see our folks that in that position. Over.

Luis Martinez Thank you. You talked about the larger numbers of NATO forces that will be present inside Baghdad. That's also the same reality you have now in Afghanistan. Do you think now that potentially the force level you will keep inside of Afghanistan is what you actually can continue to do to maintain the current mission. I know you've talked in the past about how, you know, now will be able to advise and assist the top most levels. But how important is it to keep maintaining that level down at lower ranks? You still need to do that.

GEN McKenzie Sure. So, you know, as you know, Luis, we're on a path to go to 2,500 by the 15th of January. We're going to make it out without any problem. And we will also bring down our equipment set to match what we've got there now. But again, it's important when you talk about forces in Afghanistan to realize that as of today and has been for a while, actually, there are now more NATO and other allied coalition forces in Afghanistan than US forces. That's an important point. And we just need to recognize that. So we're going to go down to 2,500. I believe that NATO will look at this and their ministerial and after the first of the year, they'll make a decision about going down. And I think they'll come down some. I think they will still probably maintain more forces there than us. But I don't know that's going to be a NATO question and they will have to work that out for themselves. So what that set gives us in those numbers is it gives us the ability to do CT operations when we need to do it. It gives us the ability to protect ourselves, and it gives us the ability to reach out with focused advise and assist to our Afghan partners where they need it. We will not be as robust as we were in the past. That's a fact and we recognize that. So General Miller has some very good concepts for being very focused in how we provide that need to do our Afghan partners at the point of need where the situation requires that. The other point I would notice I would also note is as you get smaller, you also reduce your own attack surface. So you are a little bit harder to get to. So we're on track to do it and we still think we can carry out the functions that I've just described to you at that number and in working with our NATO partners there on the ground. Over.

Luis Martinez The levels of violence continue to spike. If you were to give a recommendation right now about whether to proceed with further drawdown, what would you recommend?

GEN McKenzie Well, so right now I'm pretty much focused to get to 2,500. So once we get down there we will consider our next step. I would say this. You're absolutely right, Luis, the level of violence is way high. As you know, the Taliban, at least today, has scrupulously avoided attacking us or our partners. And that's that's an important thing, our NATO coalition members. However, the fighting has been very bloody with Afghan security forces. You know, that needs to come down. The best vehicle for that to come down would be the Afghan peace negotiations. As you know, they've been talking for a while in Doha. We have what I would call an initial framing agreement about how to proceed with talks. They have paused for consultation and they'll pick that back up, I believe, on the 5th of January. It's going to be very important that they make progress there. And that was a point I convened when I had an opportunity to talk to President Ghani. I encouraged him to make sure on his side on the government side that they are fully aligned. They're ready to be very, very engaged in these talks as they come back. I would hope that the Taliban is on the other side. That's the mechanism that will actually take us forward here. Afghans talking to Afghans, if that's the way this is obviously going to be settled. If it's going to be settled at all. And I'll pause there Luis. Over.

Luis Martinez Thank you. Moving to another part of the region, there's a lot going on in your region right now. The Houthis.

GEN McKenzie Always.

Luis Martinez We're seeing all these attacks on ships near, off, near Yemen or near the Saudi coast near Yemen. Can you describe what's going on there? Who's behind them? I think the insinuation is that it is the Houthis, but what kind of mechanisms are they using to delivery these attacks?

GEN McKenzie So the Houthis have a variety of ways they can reach out and operate against the free flow of commerce through Bab el Mandab, and north of the Red Sea and even around the horn there, end up in the Gulf of Oman. They can do it through surface craft. They can do it through mines. They can do it through a variety of means like that. They are not being responsible. They're not being responsible. When they do that, in fact, they're being very reckless. If it is their intent to actually eventually come to a political settlement in Yemen with the Saudis, with a Saudi led coalition and with the UAE, this is certainly not the way to go there. Additionally, the fact that they continue to launch missiles into Saudi Arabia is not productive. It is my belief that a deal is there to be had. So if a deal is there to be had if the Houthis will just make the deal. And I think really the burden right now is on the Houthis to actually negotiate in good faith, particularly with the Saudis, to try to find a way forward. So I am very concerned about that activity because as you know, there are three big choke points in my AOR. One is the Suez Canal. One is the Bab el Mandeb. And the other is the Strait of Hormuz.  Activity in and around the Bab el Mendeb which is to international commerce. The free flow of commerce, which is one of the core principles that we stand for in the region, is not a good thing. Over.

CAPT Urban Luis we've got five minutes left.

Luis Martinez Okay great, thanks Bill. So Iran continues to supply the Houthis. What kind of armaments are they getting? Are they getting more high tech weaponry and a growing concern to you that that continues?

GEN McKenzie Well, I think two things. I think, first of all, Iran does continue to move supplies down to the Houthis. And the Houthis turn that into a weapons that finalizes the assembly of the components that come down to them. And then they launch against as you as you noted against ships at sea. And they also launch significant numbers at Saudi Arabia, an activity that is inherently dangerous, escalatory, and is not going to lead to good things if it continues. Let's just remember this. Iran has done nothing and I mean nothing about the humanitarian problem in Yemen. They have not provided one penny of humanitarian support. A lot of other nations have provided humanitarian support. Iran has provided nothing but lethal violent aid to the Houthis. So let's be very clear. Who's to blame here in this equation? The last thing I would say is this Iran has no interest in ending that. It is good for them to see the struggle continue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, between UAE and the Houthis, for that matter. It is all in their interest to keep that fight alive. In the long run, the Houthis are going to have to decide whether they're going to become a responsible, become responsible negotiators here and actually try to find a solution to the problem or they're not going to do that. The burden is on them. I think the burden is very much on them to do that.

Luis Martinez Two weeks ago you said there seemed to be a higher risk than normal for an Iranian attack on US and allies in the region. Is that risk still high or has it gotten even higher?

GEN McKenzie I think the risk is very high. I think it's a combination of things. You know, I think there's still the effect of the maximum pressure campaign. Is still forcing the Iranians to choose solutions that will try to mitigate that by reaching out. And I think that's a problem. I think at the same time, they still pursue a goal of ejecting us from Iraq. As I've noted earlier. I think also, though, as I said at the beginning, I don't think they want a major conflict with us now. So these sort of things, sort of compete inside the Iranian decision making process. And that is pretty much opaque to us, and for all I know is opaque to them to. Because I'm not sure they're synchronized and coordinated at the highest levels and how they actually make and implement and enforce their decisions. So that's just an observation. We watch them closely. I do believe we remain in a period of heightened risk. But again, I would just emphasize this key point to you Luis. We're not looking for we're not looking to escalate ourselves. We're not looking for war with Iran. I really want to emphasize that because I think it's an important point. Over.

Luis Martinez And to that point, I mean, there seems to be some concern here in the US in some quarters that the risk of the U.S. doing something against Iran, continues and has increased. What do you say to those thoughts?

GEN McKenzie I'm not going to comment on that.

GEN McKenzie You know, I stay focused on the facts and the theater. And those are what I've just sort of pretty much laid out to you. I really won't comment on that Luis.

Luis Martinez I understand that.

Luis Martinez And the Baghdad attack, the rocket embassy attack, were those 22's what was it that made it significant?

GEN McKenzie I think it was the number, the number that over 20 that were fired, that's the biggest attack I think we've had since 2010 against the, the international zone. So that's a pretty significant number. There were 107's Luis.

Luis Martinez They were 107's, okay. And I know my time is running short here, when it comes to the region as a whole, do you think that the diversion of these forces to you know, bring fear to your      competition, do you see that affecting your status as a force in the region? 

GEN McKenzie Hit the first part of that question, again, Luis you broke up again.

Luis Martinez No problem. So there's been a diversion of resources that we've seen in Somalia and that being attributed to nuclear competition to maintain a competitive base with Russia and China. How is that affecting your resourcing in your AOR?

GEN McKenzie So look I fully realize we have to be able to compete with China and with Russia. Those are the principal pacing threat the nation faces. So CENTCOM is a full participant in shifting forces against the most significant threats that we face. I would just tell you this. The threats are global and from those two nations, they're not limited to either the Western Pacific or to the Baltics. There is a struggle to be had globally. And part of that struggle remains in US Central Command. Luis that's about it for me. Anything else, I'll give you one more short question.

Luis Martinez What's the greatest threat in the region right now to US and allied interest?

GEN McKenzie I've always said its Iran. I think it remains Iran right now. Iran and the proxies that are associated with them spread across the theater.

Luis Martinez Excellent. Thank you, sir. And best wishes to you on a safe trip home and Merry Christmas to you and your family.

GEN McKenzie Luis, thanks so much. Merry Christmas to you and your family as well. I look forward to seeing you here face to face sometime soon, OK? You take care. Bye bye.

Luis Martinez You got it Sir, thank you very much for doing this