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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | May 24, 2021

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. on-the-record interview with AP and ABC, May 24th, 2021

Lita Baldor (AP): Something about overflights over Pakistan being discussed, that they were allowing overflights over Pakistan. They’re trying to make it sound like it was new. I thought that had been going on for a while. And is there something any new agreement with Pakistan?

Gen McKenzie: So today we overfly Pakistan to move in and out of Afghanistan, and that's coordinated with them, we've been doing that for many years. So, there's nothing new there.

Lita Baldor (AP): I wanted to kind of go back to the NATO training. Is this being discussed by the United States? Is NATO going to take the lead on that and not involve the U.S. or is there any way you can at least even talk broadly about how we should be thinking about that?

Gen McKenzie: At this stage of development I really have nothing new for you on that. I appreciate the interest in it. It is going to be something that we will come out with and talk about more in the future. We're just not ready to have that discussion yet.

Lita Baldor (AP): There was a Pentagon report a while back about al-Qaida supporting the Taliban and the DIA had another recent report not that long ago talking about the two groups, the Taliban and al-Qaida reinforcing their ties. Can you give us your assessment of what links you think the Taliban still have with al-Qaida and what level of concern you see going forward? Activity? That kind of thing?

Gen McKenzie: I think I said publicly for a long time that there were significant interdependencies between the Taliban and al-Qaida. That very much concerns me. And I’ve always questioned the Taliban's ability to actually do what they say they're going to do, which is to prevent al-Qaida from basing in Afghanistan and plotting and launching attacks against the United States all the way up from there. I just believe the ties are too deep. They're just too close to do that.

Lita Baldor (AP): Have you seen activity between the groups recently? Has there been any change as this withdrawal that has been talked about?

Gen McKenzie: The Taliban has messaged publicly that they do intend to restrict the activities of al-Qaida, but it's difficult to actually see that happening on the ground, frankly.

Lita Baldor (AP): But have you seen any evidence? Do you get any indications of activity?

Gen McKenzie: Nothing new.

Luis Martinez (ABC): One other thing she’s been talking about is Russia and China filling the void potentially in the region. In a very specific sense when it comes to Afghanistan, can Russia and China actually fill that void significantly? And at what point does Russia and China pushing in trigger a response from the United States? When the U.S. says we need to focus again on Afghanistan?

Gen McKenzie: We're not finished with Afghanistan. We're going to still maintain an embassy in Afghanistan. We're still going to continue to support the Afghan military from over the horizon. We're still going to provide funding to support the defense of the country. So, we're not actually leaving Afghanistan. There is still going to be a significant U.S. influence on the country and a NATO influence as well. It's just not going to be conducted by boots on the ground, inside the country. So, I think we need to bear that in mind as we take a look at the future. I'm certain Russia and China are both concerned about the exportation of radical ideology and terrorists from Afghanistan should there be a void. It's not yet clear that Afghanistan is going to become that void. We're going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening, although we're not going to do it with boots on the ground.

Luis Martinez (ABC): So, does that mean that USAID maintains a presence working out of the embassy? I know you're are going to push this to the State Department, but there is a force protection component that comes to protecting those kinds of State Department missions in Kabul.

Gen McKenzie: I don't know exactly what the type of organization that our embassy is going to be. Typically, USAID as part of any US diplomatic platform.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Yesterday, we spoke about what happened in your meetings in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Press has kind of picked up on your comments. Do you have any response to the way that they're interpreting your comments?

Gen McKenzie: Not at all.

Luis Martinez (ABC): When we talked with you initially leaving the embassy, you know, we talked about Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, potentially your concerns about it maybe going into Lebanon. Now is Lebanon going to be a focus of even more attention, given the reality that just over the last two weeks we had the conflict between Israel and Hamas?

Gen McKenzie: As you know, Lebanon is in the middle of a pronounced economic crisis, which is, not my particular responsibility, but it does affect everything else that goes on in Lebanon, it affects the Lebanese Armed Forces. And my relationship is with the Lebanese Armed Forces, or the LAF for shorthand, and we believe it’s very much in our interests and the interests in the government of Lebanon, to ensure that the LAF is properly trained and act as the sole armed representative of the state in Lebanon. And they should know that's a constant challenge. And the economic cliff that they appear to be going over is not going to help in any way.

Luis Martinez (ABC): So a larger security concern for you is the economic situation in Lebanon?

Gen McKenzie: I think that's the most pressing threat that Lebanon faces right now, the economic challenge, because it could bring a collapse of the government potentially. I hope that's not the case. And I'm probably not the best person to talk about that, so I'll stop there.

Lita Baldor (AP): So, you've just spent seven, eight days in the theater. What are your biggest takeaways from the allies that you met with, including, I don’t know what you want to say about the meeting last night with Khalid bin Salman Al Saud.

Gen McKenzie: Across the theater, everywhere I went, the message is very clear. The United States remains the partner of choice. Partners want to be reassured about what the United States is doing. Every nation I went to understands that the United States has got to re-posture in order to face new global realities. I think what they want to do is just be given an opportunity to understand what that's going to mean for them. That means that we need to continue outreach. And I think our outreach, both diplomatic and militarily, has been very good. And we will continue that. Nobody likes surprises. People in the Central Command region are no different than anybody else. We'll continue to work with them to make sure they know and understand the processes that are going on right now to reallocate U.S. forces.

Lita Baldor (AP): And anything out of the KBS meeting, were there any specific requests?

Gen McKenzie: It was a good meeting. I won't be able to further discuss that.

Luis Martinez (ABC): You just mentioned this, global realignment (inaudible) What's the most common misperception that you're hearing about?

Gen McKenzie: First of all, people need to understand that US posture is not just military forces, it's a whole of government platform. And even when you talk about military forces, there are ways you can be imaginative in how you apply those forces, how you allocate them, how you move them around the globe so that you can still gain effect from them. So, I think, people think that once it’s done it has to stay there. That’s not actually the case. You can do a lot of imaginative things with force posture that still gives you the effect of assurance with your friends and allies and the effective deterrence against possible foes. And that's what we aim to do with posture, is achieve those two things. And that's a hard path to walk. But a key part of that is you want to communicate, particularly to your friends and allies, about what you're doing. At the same time, you’ve got to message to potential opponents that now is not the time to take us on.

Lita Baldor (AP): Are you seeing any changes in shifts between the amount of support that Iran is giving to the Houthis? Have you seen anything evolve at all?

Gen McKenzie: Iran still continues to be, in every way you can consider, a bad actor in Yemen. They still continue to fuel arms, ammunition and support to the Houthis. And those are turned into weapons that fly against Saudi Arabia and against other people inside Yemen.

Lita Baldor (AP): And the shipments, there wasa seizure not that long ago. It's still very prevalent?

Gen McKenzie: Yes, we do what we can to stop these shipments, some we get, some we don’t get. It's a big ocean. We're not bad at it. But there are just a lot of ways to get that stuff through. And we are bound strictly by the law, by international law and other conventions. When we do it, we're not going to do anything illegal at sea.