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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | May 13, 2021

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. Al-Arabiya “Panorama” News Segment Transcript, May 11th, 2021

Reporter So joining us from Washington tonight, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie.*  General McKenzie, welcome to Panorama. On Al Arabiya news channel. We have several topics we'd like to discuss with you. We'll start with the Iran, if you don't mind, some previous statements that you mentioned that Iran is a key source of destabilization of the region. Do you still believe in this position and what is available for the United States? What could they do at this time in specific? 

Gen McKenzie Well, so first of all, thanks. I'm glad to be with you. Excited to be on the show tonight. Thanks very much for having me. So Iran does, we believe, remain the greatest single threat to stability across the region. And they still pursue a wide variety of malign activities, both directly and through proxies that threaten not only us, but our friends and partners across the region. How I think we respond to that is through deterring them from further action by acting in accordance and in companion with our many friends in the region to show that it's not in their interest to attack us and that the cost of attacking us would be greater than any possible prize they might seek to attain as a result of that attack. So we keep a deterrence posture in the region. At the same time, we're committed to the free flow of commerce across the region, particularly through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb. And we work with a variety of partners to ensure that continues. 

Reporter So, General, when you say that the price that they will pay will be severe. So what are you studying in order to deter Iran? 

Gen McKenzie So I think we achieve deterrence of Iran through the combination of our capabilities in the theater, which they can see very clearly. We make no secret of them. They're out there for everyone to see and also through our will, our willingness to act should a situation occur. Now, let me be very clear. We do not seek war with Iran. What we would like for them to do is actually return to the family of nations in a responsible manner. And as you know, negotiations are underway now between the current presidential administration and the government of Iran through intermediaries in order to maybe perhaps facilitate that. That's still in the future. And the military element of that is to ensure that while these negotiations proceed, while our diplomats do their work, it's very clear that it's not in Iran's interests to disturb [diplomacy, and embrace]  some kind of military adventure on their part. 

Reporter So military action, is it still on the table? 

Gen McKenzie All actions are on the table. Nothing is off the table. I think the United States always prefers to act diplomatically whenever possible. And I think you're seeing a very good example of that right now with the efforts of Special Envoy Malley and our team of negotiators, we always prefer a diplomatic solution when that is obtainable. 

Reporter So what can the United States present to its allies and friends in the region to protect them also from this Iranian intervention? 

*Editor’s note: anchor erroneously said joining us from Washington tonight; Gen McKenzie conducted the interview from U.S. CENTCOM Headquarters in Tampa
Gen McKenzie So the United States has a long and deep history in the region, both with our forces, with the equipment we've helped our friends and partners purchase, [and] with the training that we provide them so they can use that equipment themselves. You know, in the long run, nations have to be able to defend themselves. And I think we'd all want to get to that goal. But I also believe there's a role for us to continue training, to continue working with our many partners here in the region to allow them to reach that state. You know, the best way to defend against a single country with, really, no friends internationally, but a single country who's intent on bad behavior, is the collective action of like-minded partners. And I think we can contribute to that here in the Gulf. 

Reporter So despite the American warnings to Iran, but its provocations continue, as some say we're talking about, whether in Iraq or Yemen or even other regions, that has, how should we understand, literally this continuation of provocations in the region and the American interests and even international interests, general? 

Gen McKenzie Sure, in the case of Iraq, I believe that Iran for a long time thought they had a political way to force the United States and our international partners out of Iraq. When in fact, our operations in Iraq, which are largely directed against Daesh and along with our international partners and our very capable Iraqi security force partners, they've not been able to accomplish that task politically. Therefore, they resort to direct means through the Iranian-backed militia groups, which seek to attack at a low-level in order to raise the level of friction for us there. I'm pleased to report that the Iraqi government has been very responsive to trying to limit these attacks. And I believe we're going to be able to stay in Iraq. And I think we're going to continue our counter-Daesh campaign. And whatever our future is in Iraq, it will be a future that is jointly decided between the United States and the government of Iraq, not by some third party like Iran, who wishes to dictate not only our actions, but also the actions of the government of Iraq. 

Reporter So going back to the other threat of Iran to shipments. Are the naval passages or international commerce-- There are many things the United States condemned and the Iranians said that they occurred by mistake. Do you believe that was done by mistake or was it done deliberately in an attempt to destabilize the stability of the water passages and international economy? 

Gen McKenzie Sure. Let me begin by saying, you know, the passage through the Strait of Hormuz is not vital to the economy of the United States, but it is vital to the global economy and we are part of the global economy. Therefore, we share an interest with many other nations in ensuring that commerce can pass freely through, not only the Strait of Hormuz, but the Bab el Mandeb and, of course, the Suez Canal, also three critical choke points, all of which are within the United States Central Command area of responsibility. So over the past couple of years, the International Maritime Security Construct, or the IMSC as we have known it, has served to pass information and prevent malign actors, whomever they might be, from attacking shipping in and around the Strait of Hormuz, in the Bab el Mandeb. And generally that has been effective. We're very pleased with that. It's an example of where like-minded nations can come together to pursue a common goal when faced with a potential threat. So I think that is that's a very good model for how these things can go in the future. So we're very pleased with that. 

Reporter General, please stay with us, so we will come back to you because we have other related points. For example, in Syria, the number of American troops are nine hundred soldiers. This is a small number of Americans in a strategic area and prevents Daesh or ISIS controlling the region. And also the Syrian Democratic Forces, in America's opinion, requires the United States to continue to support them. General McKenzie, the American presence, whether in Syria... So let's talk about Syria first. How is it evaluated at this time and what is the goal of the American presence inside Syria? 

Gen McKenzie Sure. So the goal of the American presence inside Syria is to finish the destruction of Daesh working with our SDF partners up and down the Euphrates River Valley. That's the beginning and end of our mission there. And we have had great success. As you know, the caliphate no longer exists as a concept that can hold ground, however, small pockets, remnants if you will, still remain active. And with our SDF partners, and in fact with our SDF partners in the lead, we're moving to final destruction of those remnants. And that prevents the development of attack plotting against our homeland and the homelands of many of our friends and neighbors. 

Reporter And going back to Iraq. So if you reduce your presence inside Iraq, ISIS will remain the key reason for you remaining there? Or are there other reasons, or files (sp), for you being present in Iraq? 

Gen McKenzie Sure. The principal reason we're in Iraq is to continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces as they reestablish their sovereignty against Daesh. So that effort continues. And actually, it's a good news story. We have been able to reduce our force presence significantly based on the growing ability of the Iraqi security forces to carry on the campaign against Daesh. And that's continuing. And the future level of U.S. forces in Iraq, again, will be the result of direct negotiations between the government of Iraq and the government of the United States, bearing in mind the security requirements of Iraq, the state of the campaign against Daesh, and that will be a matter that the diplomats will work out in the future. 

Reporter So can you indeed say that ISIS is completely over in Syria and Iraq, or relatively, or do you think that ISIS will remain and could appear in a different way if all the crises in these countries are not ended?

Gen McKenzie So I think Daesh is not over with. I think it's a revolutionary movement, if you will. And so it's hard to go after something like that and completely get rid of it. What our aim is, is to enable local security forces to be able to deal with Daesh without significant external assistance. I don't believe the future is going to be bloodless, but we want to have it be a future where elements of Daesh remaining in Iraq or in Syria are not able to gain connective tissue internationally, link up with other far-flung elements of Daesh that might be able to carry out attacks against our homeland or the homelands of others. And so that's really our goal there. And so that will require an ongoing investment, most significantly an ongoing investment by the government of Iraq. And I believe they're making that investment now. 

Reporter So, General, also in Iraq, there are American forces with other NATO countries. The aim is to destroy ISIS and also the previous administration to reduced the number of troops to 2,500 soldiers. And now General McKenzie, this reduction in numbers of troops in Iraq, is it a periodic thing, which could be changed or amended in the future?

Gen McKenzie The one thing I can assure you is any adjustment to our current force posture in Iraq would be a decision that would be made in consultation with the government of Iraq. 

Reporter And the government of Iraq and your bases are inside Iraq, how do you evaluate this protection or Iraq's protection to American officials? When I say officials, I mean consultants recruited inside Iraq. How do you follow up this matter? 

Gen McKenzie Sure. So I think it's important to remember that we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq. It is their responsibility to defend us. And I believe that the government of Iraq is making a very good faith effort to do that under very difficult circumstances. But again, we work very closely with the government of Iraq against Daesh, but also in terms of force protection for our troops that are there right now. And again, I'm very pleased with what the government of Iraq is doing. 

Reporter So you work only militarily, of course, I understand that you're a military person, but there's also talk about an attempt to find political solutions. Some say about the crisis in Syria is not resolved or even the sectarian one in Iraq, then there will be ramifications for all these things. Has the United States, whether through your presence or other institutions, how does it deal with the situation inside of Iraq and Syria? 

Gen McKenzie So I think you're really talking about political issues, and I would probably not be the best person to talk to about that. But I'd refer you back to our Department of State because they're the people that actually work that day to day. I will say this, U.S. military forces that are in Iraq and in Syria are there to support the larger interagency and international efforts to bring those conflicts to a conclusion. So that's really a diplomatic question rather than a purely military question. So I think I'd stay away from that one. Thank you. 

Reporter So we just tried to get some info out of you, but anyways, we'll talk about other matters. So since the announcement by the administration is scheduled for the withdrawal, which ends by the 11th of September, Taliban increased terror attacks in Afghanistan and one of the leaders of al-Qaeda announced the return of the organization, which raises questions about the timing of the withdrawal. And in Afghanistan, the number of the 2500, I believe, troops in Afghanistan, General McKenzie and several states expressed his wariness about the ability of the Afghan security to control the lines after the withdrawal of the foreign forces in the coming months. [Side chatter]

Reporter So, General McKenzie, you always warned from reducing the number of troops and Afghanistan by Biden took the decision to reduce the number of troops. What happened? 

Gen McKenzie Well, that's a presidential decision. And I had the opportunity to give advice, as did a number of others. The president made his decision and now we're fully committed to carrying out the president's decision going forward. You know, I think our goal is that we will remove all American combat forces from Afghanistan. We'd like to keep an embassy there. We will want to ensure that our embassy is going to be safe when we leave there. That will be the responsibility of the government of Afghanistan to ensure that our embassy is safe. We are on a good glide slope to comply with the direction given by the president of the United States. 

Reporter What about the military impact of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan? 

Gen McKenzie So now it will be time for the Afghan military to defend itself, to stand and fight, and we will know if they're going to be able to do that. We've trained them for a long time. They have good equipment. We work with them very hard. But now it's time for them to move to the very fore and stand alone and fight and win. And I'm hopeful that they're going to be able to do that. 

Reporter And do you believe that the Afghani army is able to do that? You have a wide experience in Afghanistan. Do you believe that they could do that by themselves or do you think Taliban will come back and control things in Afghanistan? 

Gen McKenzie I think it will be a very difficult fight for the Afghan military. We will do everything we can to help them, but we will no longer be in the country and able to stand behind them there. Having said that, it's a good army. It's a large army. Some good fighters in the Afghan army. And now it's time for them to step to the fore and fight the Taliban. We will continue to support them financially, plus a number of other ways as well... [side chatter]

Reporter Other means? How do you mean? 

Gen McKenzie We'll continue to support them financially, that is our intent right now and we'll get through the U.S. embassy a variety of mechanisms, but we're just not going to be able to be on the ground in a train, advise and assist role. So we're working out the details of what that will mean right now with our Afghan partners. 

Reporter So are you setting any abilities up stronger or do you think there will be a stronger return now for the Taliban after this withdrawal? Is this possible? 

Gen McKenzie I think the Taliban has been committed to fighting throughout the entire process. I don't think they've negotiated in good faith. So I would see no reason to expect their attacks will not continue, and even increase. 

Reporter So who manages these topics? Do you discuss with the neighboring countries or any related to countries with regards to Afghanistan, General McKenzie? 

Gen McKenzie So we always consult with our friends in the region over Afghanistan, and I'm not going to be able to go into much more detail than that. But I would tell you that our approach and the approach of this administration has been inclusive as they have made decisions and all of our friends in the region have been brought into the circle, if you will, and are aware of the decisions and had an opportunity to speak to senior leadership in the United States about these issues. 

Reporter General McKenzie, thank you very much for joining us from Washington. General Kenneth McKenzie, the fourteenth commander of the United States Central Command. General, any last words you would like to say or anything you'd like to tell our viewers? 

Gen McKenzie Thank you very much for having me on. And I'd just like to wish everyone a Happy Eid Mubarak. 

Reporter Thank you very much, General. Take care.