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TRANSCRIPT | Feb. 8, 2021

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. Middle East Institute Engagement Feb. 8, 2021

Paul Salem All right, good morning, everybody, or good afternoon if you're in the Middle East or other parts of the world. My name is Paul Salem. I'm the president of the Middle East Institute here in Washington, D.C. Very glad and proud to be hosting this exclusive meeting today with General McKenzie, commander of Central Command. The Middle East Institute is celebrating its 75th year. We were founded back in 1946. And we've come a long way and still have a lot of sort of activities, ambitions for the years ahead. This year for us, 2021 is a special year because it's the MEI at 75 and we're kicking it off with this very special meeting with General McKenzie and Central Command. This is an institutional partnership between MEI and CENTCOM, a partnership that we're very proud of and quite an exclusive and important relationship that we value tremendously. And I want to thank CENTCOM, the commander, for their trust and confidence. And on our side, I want to thank Mr. Milsap, who heads our defense and security program for his efforts in putting all of this together and everything he does. This is obviously a very challenging year or years ahead for Central Command. We're at the beginning of a new U.S. administration, obviously. So new decisions, new policies emanating from Washington, from the political sphere. Obviously, on the positive side, and I know this is something CENTCOM has been asking for for a long time, that there will be a lot of diplomatic activity helping CENTCOM out in areas where previously it was sort of military first and a lot of burden on CENTCOM. The U.S., as the Biden administration has said, has enduring interests in the Middle East. But the U.S. is also mired in enduring wars or endless wars, obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, how will that be handled...(audio buffers) And we'd like to hear from the commander. There's ongoing operations relating to counterterrorism throughout the region, developments there would be of great interest. And one of the biggest developments relates to Israel and breakthrough agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states, the Gulf, Sudan and Morocco. How does that change sort of CENTCOMs approach to things? And then the inclusion of Israel in CENTCOM is certainly an interesting development. How does CENTCOM address that? How does it handle that? So this will be a very, very interesting session. We're very eager to hear what the commander has to say. And without further ado, let me hand it over to my colleague as senior vice president, Ambassador Gerry Feierstein, who will host and moderate this meeting with the general. And Gerry, over to you.


Gerald Feierstein Thanks, Paul. And thanks to all of our participants today. We're looking forward to this to this conversation. We do understand that, unfortunately, General McKenzie is going to have to leave a few minutes early. And so I had extensive remarks prepared. But in the interest of hearing the much more interesting comments of the general, I will hand over to him. I think that most of you on the call are familiar with General McKenzie and his stellar career, the general assumed command of Central Command in March of 2019. Prior to that, he was the J5 director of policy and plans at the job at the Joint Staff. He has done combat tours with the Marine Corps in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a variety of staff positions over the course of his career. And so, as Paul said, we're extremely interested to hear what the general has to say, given the significant changes both to U.S. defense posture in the region, as well as very specifically to Central Command's roles and missions going forward. So without further ado, let me invite General McKenzie to deliver his remarks. General.


General McKenzie Thanks so much. I'm delighted to be here, even if it's just virtually. It seems like it's only been a few months since I last spoke with a group from MEI, but now more than ever, with a combination of world events and COVID-related restrictions on gathering in person, I think it's very important to continue a regular dialog so we can provide clarity and transparency of what we're doing and why. I want to focus my remarks today on drivers of instability in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, why we are concerned about them and steps that are being taken, at least in the military domain, to mitigate them. Given the acuity of knowledge this audience has with respect to the Middle East, I'm going to skip my normal geography and demographic overview and jump right in, because I think it's important to take a few moments to discuss why, with so much of the United States government's efforts focused against China and Russia, the stability of the Middle East still remains of vital importance to us. Since 1947, when the U.S. developed the foundations of its foreign policy in the Middle East, the security of the region has remained vital to U.S. national security interests. Early on, that importance was mostly predicated on maintaining reliable access to the region to satisfy our energy demands and preventing the Soviet Union from expanding its reach into the Middle East. A Lot has changed in the last 74 years, the United States has become a net exporter of oil and of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists. But with a significant percentage of the world's oil production transiting the Strait of Hormuz daily, it is no longer just about the United States. But it's the health of the global economy that depends heavily on the region's stability so that oil and other commerce can move freely throughout the region to sustain a healthy global cycle of production, trade and consumption.


General McKenzie Besides being a crossroads for global commerce, the region has also and unfortunately become a global epicenter of violent extremism and eliminating the threat of terrorism against our homeland, as well as threats to our friends and allies from violent extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, which seek safe haven in the various locations across the CENTCOM area of responsibility or AOR, all of this remains a U.S. national security imperative. And the last point I want to touch on, which I will discuss in greater detail later, is that while the Soviet Union is no more, the United States faces increasing competition in the region from Russia and China, both vying for power and influence through a combination of diplomatic, military and economic means. This adds another layer of tension and instability to an already complex and challenging region.


General McKenzie So let's take a look at what I believe are the main drivers of instability in the CENTCOM AOR, with the understanding that while some of these drivers are temporally bound, none are approaching sunset and thus they require our continued commitment and attention. So, I'll start with what is my most challenging driver of instability, the actions of Iran. For more than 40 years, the Iranian regime has funded and aggressively supported terrorism and terrorist organizations and defied international norms by conducting malign activities, which destabilize not only the region but global security and commerce as well. Iran is a major source of instability in Iraq and uses Iraq as a proxy battleground against the United States. Iran's actions also contribute to the instability seen in Syria and Yemen: Two regional conflicts that have resulted in millions of refugees, famine and outbreaks of diseases.


General McKenzie So what are we doing to mitigate this instability? I believe our presence in the region, mostly defensive in nature, has brought us to a period of contested deterrence with Iran. That presence sends a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities and will to defend partners and U.S. national interests, a signal which has been clearly received by the Iranian regime. In addition to visible presence, CENTCOM demonstrates U.S. capability and will by enhancing a resilient and responsive force posture, dynamically moving forces in and out of the region as needed, and building cohesive and dominant partnerships with regional and coalition forces. Central Command leads two critical multinational partnerships in the region: they help provide stability and freedom of navigation. The first is the combined maritime force or the CMF. The second is the International Maritime Security Construct, also known as the IMSC. The 33 nation CMF conducts maritime security operations to ensure the free flow of commerce and actively deny the use of the high seas to terrorists and illicit networks. The CMF's frequent interdiction of illicit shipments of contraband and weapons in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea are key contributors to eroding support for terrorist networks and armed groups throughout the region. The IMSC is a cooperation-based framework that, through the combination of presence and surveillance, ensures safety of maritime shipping and deters adversarial and malign interference to the crucial flow of seaborne commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb.


General McKenzie Besides these two ongoing examples of cooperation, both focused on a common goal of providing stability, I want to note the potential for the normalization of relations with Israel. The easing of tensions between Israel and other Arab countries provides us with a strategic opportunity to align additional partners against shared threats to stability in the region. Now, I fully understand there are fundamental political issues that remain to be worked out between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. And, that process will take its course. But, it's always been my observation that since you can't choose your neighbors, you have to find a way to get along with the ones that you do have. Clearly, several Arab nations have weighed their options and have chosen rapprochement with Israel over the destabilizing tactics of Iran. But, Iran has choices as well. The new U.S. administration has signaled it will take a deliberate and thoughtful approach moving forward with its Iran policies, working in close consultations with our partners.


General McKenzie I want to transition now to a broader driver of instability in the region, and that's the threat of violent extremist organizations or VEOs. This threat comes from several different groups across the entirety of the region, but none as prevalent and globally focused as ISIS and al-Qaeda, across Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Since 9/11, our strategic objective in Afghanistan remains to safeguard the homeland from attacks by VEOs, primarily al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS-K, and preventing them from using Afghanistan as a base and safe haven. Success toward this objective will best be achieved through a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. With our current force level in Afghanistan, we focus heavily on counterterrorism, or CT operations, while continuing to support the NATO led Resolute Support Mission. The Resolute Support Mission represents 36 nations and operates with approximately 5000 personnel from allies and partner nations working to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Defense Security Forces. While the ANDSF, enabled by the Resolute Support Mission, continues to place pressure on the Taliban and VEO groups, challenges remain. For example, although ISIS-K's Afghanistan-wide operations were hindered by territorial and personnel losses in 2020, new leadership allowed it to stabilize and increase localized and lone wolf attacks throughout the second half of the year. In the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces, which we know as the ISF, have made great strides over the past year. And in July 2020, coalition forces under command of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve - I recognize that's a mouthful CJTF-OIR for short, began phase four of the campaign in Iraq and Syria, transitioning from a focus on tactical level train, advise and assist to a focus on advising and enabling partner forces at the operational and strategic level. Much of that progress is due to the global D-ISIS coalition's investment in training and equipping of thousands of troops, with many of those units now acting independently, receiving only high level advisory and enabling support from coalition forces. In fact, the progress of the ISF has allowed the United States to reduce its force posture in Iraq and has enabled U.S. and coalition forces to depart from several bases where our Iraqi partners have remained.


General McKenzie In Syria, the civil war, the long term displacement of individuals, the malign influence of Iran, the meddling of Russia, and security concerns of our NATO ally, Turkey. And finally, the COVID pandemic, are all the backdrop to coalition efforts to bring about the enduring defeat of ISIS. CJTFOIR retains a presence at the an-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria and also in northeast Syria, where the Syrian democratic forces or SDF, display continued progress against ISIS. Coalition forces support SDF operations and are developing the SDF's capabilities to enable it to operate independently. Given ISIS tenacity demonstrated recently by a horrific suicide attack on a civilian marketplace in Baghdad, we must retain a vigilant focus on the ISIS mission, understanding that the territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean the organization's complete elimination. ISIS is a learning and adaptable extremist organization still committed to its murderous vision. And in my assessment it has for the time being, gone to ground but with the goals of maintaining its insurgency in Iraq and Syria and a global cyber presence, while building and retaining a cellular structure which allows it to carry out terrorist attacks.


General McKenzie From a global perspective, I firmly believe we will need to maintain constant vigilance to defend against the threat of ISIS or whatever follows ISIS, wherever it looms. Even the brightest possible future will not be a bloodless future. Attacks will more than likely continue in the form of an insurgency as it remains a core aspirational goal of ISIS to renew its connective tissue throughout the Middle East and beyond with the ultimate goal of exporting terror to our homeland. So our goal moving forward is to continue to develop and enable the ability of our local partners to maintain the fight against ISIS in their respective areas without external assistance. And today, I believe we're on the correct path to that desired end state.


General McKenzie While most of the public's attention remains on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, VEOs also operate in many other ungoverned spaces in the region. In Yemen, for example, the critical U.S. interests there resides in our ability to conduct CT missions, counterterrorism missions, against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We refer to them as AQAP and of course, ISIS Yemen. While AQAP has suffered organizational and operational setbacks over the last year, it remains a threat to the U.S. homeland, as evidenced by the AQAP enabled attack against U.S. Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 2019.


General McKenzie I am also deeply concerned about two long-term challenges to stability that are byproducts of the D-ISIS fight. The first is the substantial number of ISIS fighters, including third country nationals, detained in SDF-run detention centers. The second is the much larger number of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, remaining in Syria and Iraq. Today, the SDF detains approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters, including approximately 2,000 foreign fighters in more than two dozen makeshift detention centers across northeast Syria. Although U.S. forces do not directly supervise these detention activities, DOD assistance continues to help mitigate the risk of breakouts from these facilities. Breakouts that could fuel ISIS's efforts to regenerate. The SDF remains capable of responding to both external attacks and quelling internal riots. Although the detainees within the walls of these makeshift facilities largely govern themselves. Of even larger scope and concern, are the IDPs living in camps across northeast Syria and Iraq, I'll use the al-Hol camp in Syria to provide an example. As of last month, about 62,000 people, mostly women and children, were living in the al-Hol camp under difficult, even dangerous conditions. Around two thirds of the population of al-Hol is under the age of 18. Over half are under the age of 12 and one third are under the age of five. Combining the poor conditions and an already at risk demographic creates a very real near-term risk as an outbreak of cholera or coronavirus could cause a situation where we witness a massive loss of human life. The longer-term risk is the systemic indoctrination of this population to ISIS's ideology. This is an alarming development, with potentially generational implications. And to be clear, there is no military solution to this problem. Unless the international community finds a way to repatriate, reintegrate into home communities, and support locally grown reconciliation programs, we will bear witness to the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS as these children become radicalized. Failing to address this now means ISIS will never be truly defeated, as the ideology will continue well into the future. Addressing this issue requires cooperation among diplomatic, security, and humanitarian channels with a local solution supported by local governments, organizations, and communities. They are the ones that are best placed to support and reintegrate individuals into society. This remains a tough global problem, requiring global resources channeled through regional and local solutions. And it's not going to go away by ignoring it.


General McKenzie Another, more technical area I believe a concern for long-term stability is the proliferation of commercially available small, unmanned aerial systems. We know them as UAS in our shorthand in the military. There's been an increase in the use of UASs by both state and non-state actors, and they represent a growing threat to the United States and to our regional allies and partners. And I'm not just talking about large unmanned platforms, which are the size of a conventional fighter jet that we can see and deal with by normal air defense means. I'm talking about ones that you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars. These systems are inexpensive, easy to modify and weaponize, and easy to proliferate. They provide adversaries the operational ability to surveil and target U.S. and partner facilities while affording plausible deniability, a disproportionate return on the investment all in our adversary's favor. I argue all the time with my Air Force colleagues that the future of flight is vertical and unmanned, and I believe we're starting to see it now. The growing threat posed by these systems, coupled with our lack of dependable network capabilities to counter them, is the most concerning tactical development since the rise of the improvised explosive device in Iraq. Right now, we're on the wrong side of the cost and position curve because this technology favors the attacker, not the defender. But, we're working very hard to fix this and flatten the curve. We have a variety of systems in the field already, and I know that it has the direct attention of leaders in the Department of Defense and the Army, the executive agent for counter UAS. Those are all steps in the right direction. But it worries me because I think what we're seeing is the emergence of a new component of warfare, part of a system of systems, and how we work our way through this challenge will be closely watched by our competitors and our adversaries.


General McKenzie So speaking of competitors, the last topic I want to talk about is strategic competition in the region with China and Russia. Because while common interpretation of the U.S. National Defense Strategy infers that competition primarily occurs in the Indo-Pacific and European regions, the CENTCOM AOR is and always has been a crossroads of global interests and historically prime arena for foreign powers to compete for influence, for resources and for access. In 2020, Russia and China exploited the ongoing and regional crises, financial and infrastructure needs, perception of declining U.S. engagement, and opportunities created by COVID-19 to advance their objectives across the Middle East. In central and southern Asian nations, to gain or strengthen footholds in the region, Russia seeks to undermine and disrupt U.S. influence and to reassert its own identity as a global power. Its engagement in the CENTCOM AOR is also fueled by a set of economic factors from maintaining oil production agreements to expanding Russian access to nuclear energy markets, trade and arms sales. Russian activities in the region include the establishment of an enduring military presence in Syria, where it regularly interferes with the global coalition's D-ISIS campaign to establishing long-term presence with their 25 year lease at the Tartus naval base in Syria and nearby Flamingo Bay in Sudan. In September 2020, in response to a dangerous increase in unauthorized and unsafe Russian interactions with coalition forces, CENTCOM deployed Sentinel radar and Bradley fighting vehicles to the eastern Syria security area and increased combat air patrols over U.S. forces. I suspect Russia will continue to challenge U.S. presence as opportunities present themselves; positioning itself as an alternative to the West by trying to mediate regional conflicts, selling arms without end-user restrictions, offering military expertise and participating in regional and multilateral organizations and military exercises. While Russian engagement with regional partners will remain largely transactional and opportunistic, Moscow's greater strategic objectives in the region include reinforcing its global power status, countering U.S. influence, and expanding its own influence in the region.


General McKenzie China's current interests in the region are predominantly economic. China currently imports nearly 50 percent of its crude oil from the region, and it continues to cultivate trade relationships, economic investment, and comprehensive partnerships among regional states. China uses its Belt and Road initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to expand Chinese influence and presence within the AOR. Russia and China leverage their proximity to the region, historical relations and a perceived decline in U.S. engagement to establish and strengthen opportunistic relationships. In 2021, China will continue to strengthen defense cooperation throughout the region through arms sales, exercises, and multilateral organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seeking to establish and strengthen trade relationships across the Middle East; prioritizing access to energy resources. Coordinated U.S. interagency efforts, strong allies, and partner relationships are key in the great power competition. Opportunities to bolster partnerships and compete with Russia and China in the region include border security measures, counternarcotics efforts, counterterrorism, defense, institution building and even development assistance. These low cost and often overlooked programs possessed outsized impact in terms of building relationships and assuring key partners.


General McKenzie So I've raised a lot of concerning issues over the last 20 minutes or so. But, despite the many forces that threaten the peace and prosperity of the Middle East, there's reason for hope. In the near term, the greatest source of stability in the Middle East is the resolve of our partner nations there to work hand in hand with the United States and an international coalition of law-abiding nations in defense of the principles embodied in the UN Charter. There is a military component to this, as it demonstrates to malign actors that there are consequences for undermining these principles. And as I talk to you today, I don't doubt that our adversaries have any doubt about that. Ultimately, enduring stability in the Middle East will not hinge on military capabilities unless they're reduced to a point that invites further instability. Right now, we enjoy an upper hand in a state of contested deterrence, but this is not intended to be an interminable state. Rather, it sets the conditions that allow the diplomats to do their work. I'll close by quoting the trailbreaking baseball manager of the St. Louis Browns, Branch Rickey, who said in 1915 that luck is the residue of design. I believe we have a design in this region that will help reduce these drivers of instability over the coming years while promoting greater partnership to benefit the entire region. Thanks very much. I enjoyed the opportunity to address you this morning.


Paul Salem Thank you so much, General McKenzie. And that was actually an outstanding overview of the regional picture as it as it appears down in Tampa. And I would be remiss if I didn't congratulate you on your victory yesterday. I'm sure that there are a lot of very happy faces at MacDill this morning. And Tom Brady gives everybody hope that there is life after 40. So let me begin with a few questions. And if we could drill down a little bit on some of the points you touched on just to make the point that, in fact, there have been extremely significant changes to your strategic picture really over the last couple of months. And if I could ask you a few questions about some of those changes and how Central Command is adapting and responding. Let me begin with your new responsibility for Israel. You touched on it. You touched on the significance of the Abraham Accords and and how that brought Israel more closely into cooperation with several of the Arab Gulf states. How does Central Command intend to go forward in integrating Israel into the region? There are both benefits and costs, I think, associated with this. But how do you see it and what are your next steps? I know you were just in Jerusalem.


General McKenzie Thank you, Ambassador. And you're right, Tampa really enjoyed the victory last night. This is a great city. It's a great military town, and we're delighted that the New England Patriots could help us out by sending Tom Brady down here. We hope they'll have several years in the future to continue to regret that decision. But thanks. So look, as everyone may be aware, let me just take a minute to describe the Unified Command Plan. It is a document signed by the president that tells geographic commanders what their responsibilities are. It's updated every couple of years in the most recent update. Israel was moved from the European command area of responsibility to the Central Command area of responsibility. So first, practically, and I know you as a diplomat will appreciate this, this does align Israel with Israel's presence in the Middle East bureau that they are in the Department of State. So it's actually bureaucratically … it's just a thing that makes it a little easier to work those relationships. However, what will happen now is we'll get an order from the secretary to do this. That'll take a little time to actually make it happen so that we get an opportunity to do it right after he's had a chance to review it going forward. We do a lot of business with Israel now, just as a practical matter of fact, because their threats generally emanate from the east. So in a certain way, this is just a natural recognition of that at the operational level. At the same time, coming as it does in the wake of the Abraham Accords and what that has meant at a higher level in the region, it also gives an opportunity to sort of put an operational perspective to that. It will allow further corridors and opportunities to open up between Israel and Arab countries in the region. And we would hope that, that will happen in the fullness of time. I don't want to overestimate the speed that this will happen. It's going to take some time to occur, but it does make it a little easier for them to work together. And I think that is all a good thing. I think in the future we would like to see and, you know, for many years this has been an aspiration in U.S. Central Command, a collective approach to security here in the region and a collective approach to security for our friends in the region to do more for themselves … it’s actually something that is entirely consistent with the NDS and recognizing that we have a finite number of military resources available globally. So we're going to need to make some shifts and what we can do to help our neighbors work more closely together. Anything we can do that brings them together is a good thing. And I think this is a step in that direction.


Gerald Feierstein Great. Thank you. And then the next thing, of course, is the announcement last week of a decision by President Biden to end support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, but, of course, fencing off defensive measures. And you talked, of course, about the threat from drones and missile attacks from the Houthis into Saudi Arabia and the State Department put out a statement on that just this morning, but also fencing off CT cooperation. And so, again, I think that you were just in Riyadh meeting with Prince Khalid and others in the Saudi leadership. And can you talk a little bit not only about how we're going to move forward in our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but also very specifically, you talked a lot about violent extremism, about AQAP and ISIS in Yemen. Our ability to work in that CT arena in Yemen is going to depend not only on our cooperation with UAE and Saudi Arabia, but also what happens in Sana'a and are we going to have a government in Yemen that is capable and willing to partner with us on that mission. So if you could talk a little bit about how you see that that issue going forward and what advice, what was the nature of the dialog with the Saudis?


General McKenzie Certainly, thanks Ambassador. So, as you know, our interests in Yemen is a CT interest, first and foremost, a counterterrorism interest against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and elements of ISIS that are there. So, the American national interest begins and ends there. We are not, as you know, a party to the Yemen civil war. And our current support to the Saudi led coalition has actually been extremely limited even up until now. So, we will move out smartly to comply with the direction that we've been given. However, we will also continue to support the Saudis as they defend themselves. So, you know, over the last several weeks, a number of attacks have been launched out of Yemen against Saudi Arabia. We will help the Saudis defend against those attacks by giving them intelligence when we can about those attacks. But what we will not do is help them strike, continue to conduct offensive operations into Yemen, so that won't continue. And that leads to the long term relationship that we want to have with the Saudis. Nothing that has been said or done means we're not going to continue to engage the Saudis and our other coalition partners. Our focus there is going to be to do things that will help them defend themselves more effectively and efficiently. And there's a common threat there and that common threat is Iran. We should remember that it was only in October of 2019, where Iran launched a comprehensive, complex attack against a critical oil infrastructure target in Saudi Arabia. That threat is very real. And anything we can do to assist the Saudis in getting better and more effective in defending against that attack is good for them and good for us as well.


General McKenzie Because I come back to a theme that I've sort of developed as we gone through it. Anything we do to help our partners in the region gets better, gives more options for the future deployment of U.S. forces. You know, if partners are better able to defend themselves, then we can have a little bit more flexibility in how, where and when we deploy forces into the theater. All of that, is in the future. But those are things that we at the Mil-to-Mil level, which, as you know, is the level that I work; those are the things that we try to do. And I had very good and substantive discussions with the chief of defense in Saudi Arabia when I was in there on just these matters, Ambassador.


Gerald Feierstein Great. And in that same regard, of course, one other change in your operating environment over the last few months has been the Al-Ula agreement that that was signed in January of this year among the GCC states. And to what extent do you think that that has opened the door for you once again to try to pursue measures that integrate defense capabilities of the various GCC states with the United States? Has that made your life a little bit easier, is the bottom line?


General McKenzie Sure. So for CENTCOM, the agreement does not restore complete unity of the GCC. It does end the long-standing disagreement and opens the door for collective action. This current agreement will reopen airspace and resume trade among GCC states; mistrust at a higher level, I'll leave the diplomats to talk about. But, I do think it does help us at a practical military level. Enhanced U.S.-GCC security cooperation will require us to continue to walk a fine line interacting with all the GCC countries, and we're prepared to do that. But we view it as a step forward. I mean, the geography of Qatar, just to take a look at a map, places it at the very center of the region. Certainly when you consider the problem with Iran, they have a large role to play in that. So in all these areas, we welcome it. But, you know, it's more of a diplomatic issue than a purely Mil-to-Mil issue right now. As you understand, given the nature of these states, the sensitivity of the disagreement and the very high levels in which this is being addressed, we can support at CENTCOM and we'll continue to do so.


Gerald Feierstein Great, and then if I can, I think we have about five minutes left and let me turn to another part of your AOR, and that's Afghanistan and Pakistan. And again, I think that you were in Doha within the last couple of months meeting with the Taliban. As you probably know, there's been a great deal of chatter here in Washington over the last few days about the recommendation of the Afghan Study Group of Senator Ayotte and General Dunford to recommend to the president that that he not make that decision to withdraw the last of U.S. forces from Afghanistan according to the schedule, which would be May 1st, I believe. What is your sense of the ops tempo in Afghanistan, of the prospects for the implementation of this agreement that Zal Khalilzad negotiated? And really, what is the future role of the United States in supporting Afghanistan and building up its capability to pursue the conflict with the Taliban?


General McKenzie So the Taliban continued to resort to extreme violence with targeted killings across the country and frequent attacks on the ANSDF, Afghan forces, while they have mostly avoided attacking U.S. and coalition units. The level of violence is just simply too high. And so that's an action that we look at. We continue to watch Taliban actions. And I know that the administration is taking a close look at the way forward in accordance with the February 2020 peace agreement. Some key elements of that plan, though, require the Taliban to take actions. And so they need to do some things too, if we're going to go forward. Look, we all agree that the best path is going to be a negotiated political settlement among the Afghans. No one debates that essential point. However, you have to take a conditions-based approach. Both parties have got to show that they're willing to make the concessions that are going to be necessary to find a political path forward. And frankly, I remain concerned about the actions that the Taliban have taken up until this point. You look further, the matter is under review. And I would not want to get out ahead of that policy review for obvious reasons. And so we will. But I've had the opportunity to give input. I know they're giving it a great deal of thought and consideration. And we'll have a way forward here, I think, in the near future.


Gerald Feierstein OK, and then let me just move next door to Pakistan. And I know some friends of ours are being drawn into a conversation. Once again, this is a periodic I have to say, every few years everyone scratches their head and says, what are we going to do about Pakistan? That is back on the table? I think, you know, how do you stabilize? Obviously, the nature of the U.S. Pakistani relationship over the years has been heavily focused on our Mil-Mil relationship supporting the Pakistani military. How do you see that going forward? And, you know, if you can talk a little bit about the nature of your dialog with the Pakistani military leadership and what would Central Command like to to achieve in that relationship?


General McKenzie You know, Ambassador, not a lot of people realize that Pakistan has consistently been a key member of our U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces and consistently steps up to lead our combined task forces that conduct maritime security operations throughout the region. In fact, today a Pakistani officer is currently leading Combined Task Force 151 with the Mil-to-Mil level. I talk to General Bajwa fairly frequently. And you know, we always have a good exchange of views. Pakistan is absolutely critical by their location next to Afghanistan. They've helped us in some ways. We sometimes wish they would do more. They say Pakistan will play a key role in the future of Afghanistan, not only there, but also the region because again, because of their location at one of the hinge points in the world today. So, at the Mil to Mil level, what I try to do is we make sure that the lines of communication are open. I've always found General Bajwa to be open and communicative with me. It gives me the opportunity to sort of assess the level of tension there. And he's receptive to the messages that I've asked him to pass and the things I've asked him to work in regard to Afghanistan. So again, that's another area where I know the new team is going to take a look at that. But, you know, geography gives you certain facts you have to deal with. And Pakistan is certainly one of those facts we're going to have to deal with.


Gerald Feierstein Indeed, and it always has been. General, I think that we've run out of time. We've taken a good bit of your of your morning. Appreciate it greatly. And obviously, everybody on this call deeply appreciates the work that you and your team down at MacDill are doing every day to help stabilize the region and to advance U.S. national security interests. So thank you so much for joining us. We're looking forward to having a number of conversations. And, of course, you have an open invitation to come back to MEI any time, either virtually or even better in person in the future to talk to us a little bit about what's on your mind and how you see the AOR. So thank you again and best of luck to you and your team.


General McKenzie Ambassador, thanks. It was a great opportunity to do this. I look forward to doing it at some point in the future … not virtually. Thanks so much.


Gerald Feierstein Indeed, take care, bye-bye.