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TRANSCRIPT | May 23, 2021

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. on-the-record interview with AP and ABC, May 23rd, 2021

Lita Baldor: You met with a bunch of Saudi officials today. Can you tell us who you met with?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure.

Lita Baldor: Okay, and then just maybe just talk a little bit about what their concerns are, particularly regarding U.S. military support. But, what were the biggest things they brought up to you about their concerns?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, in Saudi Arabia today had the opportunity to meet with the Chief of Defense, Gen. Ruwaili, Fayyad Ruwaili. He's an old friend of mine. We talk frequently and have an opportunity to meet about once every three months or so. And what we talked about today were, Saudis concerns. They're under constant bombardment from Yemen with a variety of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small UASs; they're very concerned about that. We want to help them with that. And there are ways that we can help them. And we do help them as they as they defend themselves against that. They're also very concerned about the nature of our posture in this region going forward. So, I was able to share with them that the Secretary of Defense, by direction of the President, is undertaking a global posture review and that I'm a participant in that process. I can't share any of the details of it right now, but we'll share those with our friends in Saudi Arabia as soon as they become available. But they're very concerned about that. They're concerned about the enduring threat from Iran, which is very concerning to them. And we had an opportunity to talk about all those things today.

Lita Baldor: Do you get the sense they are concerned since you removed some PATRIOT batteries earlier from Saudi? Do you get the sense they're concerned about less defensive assistance, military assistance from the U.S.?

Gen. McKenzie: I think they're concerned about the ability to protect their country from attack by Iran, but also from Yemen. And, the point that I made today and we continue to make with the Saudis all the time is it's not actually the types of equipment that are here. It's maximizing the use of the more than 20 PATRIOT batteries that you do have, being interoperable with us, maximizing those capabilities so that if trouble occurred, we could certainly come back in very quickly to help our Saudi friends.

Lita Baldor: Do you see the number of forces and the amount of support the U.S. has here now, do you see that going down? What are your concerns about that?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure, Lita, I'm just not going to be able to speculate on future force deployments or numbers.

Lita Baldor: But what is your concerns about the possibility of that?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, again, I think the numbers are not as important as the capabilities, the interoperability that we develop, particularly in the area of integrated air and missile defense. It's not necessarily the number of things that you've got, it's how effectively you use the things that you do have. And so, we've made great progress with that, with the Saudis over the last couple of years. I feel very good about that, actually.

Luis Martinez: I mean, you mentioned Iran. Saudi Arabia obviously has concerns about the JCPOA. What are the things that they are stressing to you about JCPOA and the administration's stance? Well, in general, just the whole plan itself.

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, actually, at my level, the military and military level is fairly little discussion about the JCPOA and what it means. I think what at my level, speaking to the Saudi CHOD, what they are concerned about is their ability to defend themselves should they be attacked from Iran, regardless of whether there's a JCPOA or there's not a JCPOA. And there are material things that we can do to help them with that. We help them with integrated air and missile defense. We've done a lot of hard work with them on their PATRIOT batteries, allowing them to be better linked together in what we call a common operational picture in the military, so that you can get an early warning of an attack that allows you to focus your defensive efforts. And the Saudis are actually, I think they're actually becoming much better as a result of our interaction together.

Luis Martinez: Can you explain why the Saudis need all of this with relation to Iran?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, sure. So, over the last three months, Saudis been attacked well over 100 times by ballistic missiles, by UASs, unmanned aerial systems, small drones, and by land attack cruise missiles that have come from Yemen. And the people that are launching them in Yemen are proxies of Iran. So, Saudi’s under constant bombardment. So, they actually feel they are under attack and they are under attack. And so, they're very concerned about their ability to defend themselves against this threat. And we were able to help them by working to improve the capabilities, the U.S. provided PATRIOT missile batteries to effectively engage these targets as they come. Also, their ability to mobilize their air defense, their Air Force assets to attack these targets. And the Saudis have actually enjoyed generally pretty good success in doing that, which is a testament to both our systems, but more importantly, a testimony to Saudi capability.

Luis Martinez: Have these, the presence of these American forces here, these new capabilities, has it deterred Iran? I mean, it's one of the things that you always talk about with regards to Iran is deterrence. What kind of an impact has it had on their activities?

Gen. McKenzie: It's hard to measure deterrence until you've lost it. But I would tell you that I believe our posture in the theater has prevented a state on state attack from Iran. It has not permitted proxy attacks from Iran, either from Yemen into Saudi Arabia or as we have seen in Iraq against our forces there, but it has prevented a large state on state attack by Iran.

Luis Martinez: I'm going to move quickly to the Houthis. Is that okay?

Lita Baldor: Can I just follow up that on that it hasn't prevented the proxies. Do you have a sense how much direction or support they're getting from Iran? Is it getting any different? Is it getting any better? We've talked a lot about the difference between when Soleimani was here and when he is not. What's your assessment right now of how much direction they're getting from Iran?

Gen. McKenzie: So, it's hard to characterize attribution for each individual attack, but it is very easy to know where the equipment came from. It is very easy to know where the training came from. It is very easy to know where the strategic direction came from. And that all came from Iran.

Luis Martinez: The Houthis in Yemen are Iranian backed. They're the ones who are launching these missiles. Everyone talks about how there's going to need to be a political solution there. Are the Houthis part of the solution there? Do they have to be a part of the solution?

Gen. McKenzie: They should be a part of the solution there. They're a significant player inside Yemen. They're a large military presence inside the country. They can conduct attacks against Saudi Arabia as well as the government of the Republic of Yemen. So, yes, they've got to be part of the solution.

Luis Martinez: But do you see the Houthis stepping back at all in the future as part of this? And do you think that the Saudis themselves need to have the buy in that the Houthis will be a part of this because the reason they went in in the first place into Yemen was because of the Houthis?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, we believe that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is eager to make a political settlement in Yemen and they're willing to work very hard to that end. I don't believe the Houthis are yet willing to make those same deals. And that's unfortunate because we've got a lot of diplomats that are working to make that the case, beginning with the United Nations, our own Mr. Tim Lenderking, the President's representative, who's out here in the region working the problem as well. So, a lot of diplomats are working the problem. The Houthis are being recalcitrant. And, I would argue it's in their best interest for them to make a deal now. But they don't appear to be interested in doing it. And, I believe they're partially prompted in that by their Iranian masters.

Lita Baldor: Right. Don't you think that this hinges or could hinge in part on what happens between the United States and Iran and the ongoing negotiations?

Gen. McKenzie: So, I think it could. But I think, I would really talk to the Department of State about the linkage in those two things. They're probably better able to give the opinion than me.

Luis Martinez: Iran continues with some online activity as we see around the region. And they started again now with the incidents against U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. The last time we spoke with you, you said that the assessment was, these are local commanders. How can you work or address the change in Iranian behavior if they don't have the command and control to get at that level? Where which is where you're seeing the harassment with the American ships?

Gen. McKenzie: That's a great question. The Iranian harassment of our ships in the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf has largely been at the level of local commanders of the IRGC Republican Navy. And that's a Navy element that is different from the professional IRIN, the regular Iranian Navy, and is characterized by irresponsible activities on the part of junior commanders. It's very worrisome for us, that Iran is unable to effectively apply command and control of these forces. When I give an order I'm confident it's going to be carried out, that's not true on the Iranian side. And that is a constant factor that we need to balance. I'll tell you one thing. We're very lucky. We've got highly professional sailors on our ships out there that understand this and can act with cool, professional, good judgment at sea when these kinds of malign activities occur.

Lita Baldor: When we were here with you a year ago, you were out on a couple of different ships where you talked about the reason they were there was to deter Iran. We're seeing a bit less of that. The carriers not there. The Army is gone. How important is it at this point that the carrier or ships like that are in the region? Has this changed your mind at all about the level of activity and the linkage with the ships?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. Without being specific about types of ships or anything like that, I would tell you that a healthy force posture in the region is the best way to deter Iran from doing something irresponsible. And, when I consider the problem, I think not only in terms of ships, I think in terms of air power that we've got in the theater, I think in terms of our ballistic missile defense capabilities, all of those things are an aggregate capability that I take into account when I consider how effective we are going to be or are not going to be deterring Iran.

Lita Baldor: You are a number of thousands down in troops compared to where you were last year around this time or a little earlier, has that had an impact at all?

Gen. McKenzie: So, I think we've been very visible, Iran has seen that visibility. I wouldn't comment particularly on the force levels in the theater. You'll appreciate why I can't do that.

Lita Baldor: Does the difference matter or have you seen that it mattered at all?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, I've been pretty clear that I believe the reduction in forces before the spring of 2019 figured in the Iranian thinking that started the cycle of escalation that really took us throughout all of 2019 and culminated in the attack on Al Asad Air Base in January 2020.

Luis Martinez: Saudi Arabia, a major player in the Middle East. There's been a recent conflict in the Middle East between the Israelis and Hamas. In your meetings today, did this issue come up, the possibility of impacting not only the U.S. military to military relationship, but just the dynamic in the region?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. I think everyone's very concerned anytime to a nation and another entity are firing rockets at each other, bombing each other. I think there's always the danger of it spreading. So, I think Saudis are very interested in that. But beyond that, not too much discussion.

Luis Martinez: Okay, so now that CENTCOM will be working with, incorporating Israel into its area of responsibility, you talked about spreading earlier, what as this situation, as the cease fire goes on and this new dynamic continues, do you see that CENTCOM may play some kind of a role as part of ensuring that conflict doesn't come back?


Gen. McKenzie: So, Central Command is going to accept Israel into our area of responsibility in the next few months. We'll become very interested in what goes on with Israel and in Gaza. But as the details beyond that about how we might play a role in that future relationship, that's really something I'd leave to the Department of State.

Lita Baldor: Why does it matter?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, I think the danger of conflict anywhere is that it can spread.

Lita Baldor: Then why does it matter that it's moving into CENTCOM? What does that give you? What does that give Israel? How does that help either player?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, Israel's threats have historically emanated from the east over the last few years. Moving Israel into Central Command will formalize that relationship. It will also perhaps give opportunities for more outreach with their Arab neighbors to the east. We've seen that as part of the normalization of relationships between UAE and Israel. And so, it's just sort of a natural congruent to that type of activity.

Luis Martinez: CENTCOM obviously has relationships that stretch from the Mediterranean all the way to Afghanistan with regards to the drawdown that's going on in Afghanistan right now. Where do you see things going right now and what is the pace headed? What is the timeline?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, we are on pace in our withdrawal in Afghanistan. Gen. Miller and I, who's our commander on the ground in Afghanistan, confer daily on progress. We're making good progress. I believe that the positioning of additional combat power in the Central Command area of responsibility send a very strong signal to the Taliban that they didn't want to try to attack us during our withdrawal. I hope they're able to keep to that as we continue our withdrawal. And I can't give you any more specifics on that, Luis. As you'll understand, we're moving on a timeline that we're very satisfied with where we are. We'll certainly be able to meet the date given by the President.

Luis Martinez: And are you seeing these high level of attacks that continue against Afghan forces? Is there anything the U.S. can do to prevent that from continuing?

Gen. McKenzie: So, you're right. While the Taliban has not chosen to attack us, their attacks against Afghan Security Forces remain as high as ever and in some cases the highest they've ever been. On some occasions, we are able to help our Afghan partners and we'll continue to do that as long as we can until we withdraw.

Luis Martinez: Going back to your meetings today with the Saudis, obviously the purchasing agreements, the weapons deals that are signed between the United States and Saudi Arabia are very significant, especially the ones that were reached during the Trump administration. Is that still something that the Saudis are looking for in the future? Is that something that they brought to the discussion, particularly the F-35?

Gen. McKenzie: So, in particular for the weapons deals that are still out there being worked they understand some of them are under review and they fully understand that process. They know the new administration is going to take a look at those things. It's a natural thing. And they understand that there's going to be a period of time while the Biden team takes a look at it.

Lita Baldor: I'm just going to veer back to Afghanistan for a minute. NATO has said that they have agreed that they will train SF over the horizon somewhere. Would you expect that the U.S. would participate in that? And is the U.S. sort of working with NATO on a plan to do that? And is it only at this point there are special forces or do you think it might expand at all?

Gen. McKenzie: So, I wouldn't want to speculate on the details of future planning like that. I will say that I'll be talking to the Secretary and the Chairman here in the next few weeks, few days, actually, about what the scope and character are for over the horizon assistance for the Afghans will look like.

Lita Baldor: This NATO announcement the other day come out of nowhere?

Gen. McKenzie: We're closely linked with NATO. They see everything we're doing. We see everything they're doing. You know, from the beginning, our theory has been we're going to go in together, we're going to come out together and I'm sure will be aligned with what we do after we leave.

Lita Baldor: With that and you don't know yet or you can't say whether that would include some.

Gen. McKenzie: I wouldn't want to comment on it right now.

Luis Martinez: You came from Iraq before you arrived here. Are you seeing any change in behavior by the Iranian backed militias, their new tactics, maybe consolidating their positions or their ranks to try to restrict information flow, making them more cohesive, improving the command and control?

Gen. McKenzie: I think what you see on the ground from the Iranian affiliated militias, militia groups in Iraq, is they want to confuse us by presenting a multiple number of groups that, with ever-changing names as they launch their attacks, that make it difficult for us to find attribution. We're actually pretty good at getting through that. Sometimes it takes us a little time to do that. And, of course, we work very closely with our Iraqi partners as we parse that information out. So, yes, they're trying to do it. They believe it gives them a little measure of cut out, if you will, when they attack us. I think we'll be able to get our way through that. As for new tactics that they're using, same tactics they've used for a long time, we are seeing an increase in unmanned aerial systems, the small drones that are very concerning to us. And, you've heard me talk about that a number of times. It is a great concern to me.

Luis Martinez: When you were in meetings there with the Iraqis, is it still the same message? Yes, we want to see long term U.S. presence here.

Gen. McKenzie: Yes, the Iraqis are very interested in continuing presence with us. We're going to continue the strategic dialog here very shortly with military technical talks, which will actually talk about the contours of that future relationship. What is clear to me that they see a continued need for U.S. presence in Iraq.

Luis Martinez: Are you seeing a change in dynamic among Iraqi politicians, particularly those Shiite politicians who may be wary about Iranian domination of the political scene?

Gen. McKenzie: I'll tell you I defer to the Department of State on that one.

Luis Martinez: I'm going to ask for more on Syria, Syria, obviously a very important visit there for you to visit and reinforce the importance of the U.S. presence there to the troops as well as to our partners. What did you hear from our partners, the Kurds, when you were there?

Gen. McKenzie: So, the Kurds are very interested in how long we're going to stay. I think that's their principal interest. They recognize at some point they're going to have to reintegrate into the political life of Syria. And we would like for that ultimately to be the solution. And there's actually a U.N. Security Council resolution that speaks very clearly about the ultimate political solution that we should all be striving for. And, I think that's what our special envoys, our special representatives are seeking to find is the final solution in Syria. I think we're a long way from that right now, but I think it's not through lack of effort on our part.

Luis Martinez: The Global Posture Review continues. Where do you think CENTCOM may lie in this particular relief, since we've talked about the national defense strategy? What do you think applies?

Gen. McKenzie: The goal of the Global Posture Review is ongoing, I was present in the building when the National Defense Strategy, the 2018 version, was written. I agree completely that China needs to be the pace and threat we orient on. Also, we need to pay great attention to Russia. At the same time, we are a global power and we need to have a global outlook. And that means that you have the ability to consider the globe as a whole. But I fully support the Global Posture Review. It's a good process and we're fully engaged in it.

Lita Baldor: One of the things I was interested in is the Global Posture Review. Obviously, we've heard, you know, the pacing threat. We get it. But you hear a lot about the inroads that China and Russia are making in the Middle East. And I'm just wondering if you could just talk about that a little bit. What are you seeing as far as China and Russia trying to step in? Maybe if the U.S. leaves a void, is that a concern? Are there any locations where you think that's a higher priority concern?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. So, I think the Middle East broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit, how they exploit that? That might be through weapons sales, that might be through training opportunities with nations that no longer have that relationship with the United States. That might be ultimately through basing arrangements, although I believe Russia's entry into the theater is opportunistic, primarily because, you know, they have a presence in Syria where we interact with them every day. They don't operate in a great deal of the rest of the theater except to try to sell weapons, air defense systems and other weapons across the theater where they can. China has a more long-term view, in my opinion. And, their entry into the theater now is primarily economic, using the debt trap diplomacy that we've seen them use in other areas. But I think they seek to eventually I think in the long term, China would probably seek bases in the region. I don't think that's imminent right now, but it's certainly a possibility.

Lita Baldor: Are there places in the region that you think might be particularly vulnerable?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, I think I think Pakistan, by being so close to China, is particularly vulnerable to pressure from China. I think it's just a fact. And I think the Pakistanis have done business with China and they're a little wary of it after some of their early dealings with them on the one belt, one road initiative.

Lita Baldor: And what about Saudi Arabia? What do you think? There's any concern here that either Russia or China might try to make inroads, particularly as they see the Biden administration looking at sanctions, looking at, you know, reducing some weapons sales? Does that give them an opening here?

Gen. McKenzie: I think across the region, everywhere America, the United States is the partner of choice. It's only when that option is not open for countries going to nations going to hedge and seek other opportunities. And that might be in the area of weapons sales or it's not possible, for whatever reason, to purchase U.S. weapons. They'll turn to other places. But clearly the people realize, nations realize that when you buy a U.S. weapon, you not only get the weapon, you get the whole of the U.S. government that supports it. At the same time, we have in use monitoring on our weapons and you can't use them for any purpose you want. There are certain things you can't do with them. Those restrictions don't apply to Russia and China who really could care less what you do with their weapons. So, that is an attraction for Russia and China. And, we just need to realize that.

Lita Baldor: What would you say the difference in interest by Russia and China, either or, is now than it was maybe a couple of years ago?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, I think they see the United States shifting posture to look at other parts of the world and they sense there may be an opportunity there. I'm not sure it's actually going to turn out to be an opportunity for them when it's all said and done.

Lita Baldor: Why?

Gen. McKenzie: Because I think we're still going to have a presence here. It may not look exactly like the presence it was five or seven years ago where we had hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops here. But I think we're going to play a very smart game in Central Command AOR, to leverage what we have and is not necessarily just a ship or just a submarine or just an aircraft carrier, but it's the whole of U.S. government approach. When we do business with a country, we not only can train their military, we can also bring their officers and enlisted men back to the United States, enlisted men and women back to the United States to be trained. And, if a country has a choice between going to the United States to receive training or going to China to receive training, I think we know where they choose to go.

Luis Martinez: Saudi, do you plan a meeting with MBS?

Gen. McKenzie: I haven't met with him yet today.

Luis Martinez: Going back to the whole notion of why they want U.S., do they will want U.S. troops here in Saudi?

Gen. McKenzie: I think they want reassurance here in Saudi, that they're going to be helped if they're attacked by Iran and they want help against the continuing attacks of Yemen. And so, troops are a part of that. But also, we can give them larger assurances that don't necessarily involve stationing large numbers of troops here. As we said earlier, we've spent a lot of time and effort training their integrated air missile defense system, the PATRIOT batteries, to be far more effective than they were just a couple of, three years ago. We worked for the Royal Saudi Air Force all the time, improving their capabilities. So, it's not just having troops stationed there, although certainly there's an element of that in their thinking. But I think far more important is sort of the broad spectrum of capabilities that we can give them.

Luis Martinez: And the Saudis, are they requesting more?

Gen. McKenzie: Yes, sure. Everybody wants more. Everybody wants more of the United States.

Luis Martinez: Can we get into specifics about what they want?

Gen. McKenzie: Not really.

Lita Baldor: Is it more?

Gen. McKenzie: But look, it's the state where you'd want to be you'd want to be the partner of choice. We are the partner of choice. We're the partner of choice for everybody in the region. It's a good state to be in.

Lita Baldor: I just switch back to just real quick to Afghanistan, the Chairman talked the other day about needing an international effort to secure the airport, how difficult do you think, how big of a challenge is that and how do you see that and not specifically how to do it, but how do you see something like that working?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, I would tell you that if we're going to if we and our international partners are going to keep embassies in Kabul, the airfield is going to have to be open and we have to have assured access to that airfield. So, today as we to talk right now, the airfield is actually secured by the Afghans. It's not secured by us. We actually secure lodgments inside the airfield so we don't provide security for the airfield today. So, we would expect in the future that the Afghans will continue to provide security for the airfield and we might maintain lodgments inside again that would allow planes to land and helicopters to be flown back and forth from our embassies, not just us, but our international partners as well.

Lita Baldor: So, would this be the concern, obviously, is if there is some collapse of the Afghan military or degradation as U.S. troops leave, that could put the airport at risk?

Gen. McKenzie: Certainly, it could put the airfield at risk and it could put our embassies at risk to very directly. Although I would say that the airfield is a critical thing if you're going to keep an embassy in Kabul, because that's the only way to get in and out.

Lita Baldor: Any thoughts on how that international effort to secure it might look?

Gen. McKenzie: I wouldn't want to get ahead of the planning that's going on now, but you'll appreciate that.

Luis Martinez: Obviously, you know, diplomatic lane for Iran, obviously that's preeminent, but what can CENTCOM bring to this part of that effort?

Gen. McKenzie: So, what we do is we provide deterrence. The military component of this is to convince Iran it is not in their best interest to launch an attack while the diplomats do their work, either in an attempt to provoke us or an attempt to pressure, further pressurize the negotiations. I'm not saying that's a good idea from our perspective. I'm just saying it's my job to be prepared for whatever idea they have, whether it's a good idea or not, and we obtain that through deterrence. And, deterrence is you either do it by preventing them from achieving the object of their attack, or do it by punishment. You prefer to do it by the first of the two, which is that they're not able to achieve it because of the posture in the theater. But if not, the promise that we can come back and we can impose cost on you at a time and place of our choosing.

Luis Martinez: You're going to see a new election in Iran in about a month's time, actually three weeks, I think. Command and control, we've talked about it. How does a transition, a political presidential transition, affect command and control?

Gen. McKenzie: In Iran, I don't know. We will certainly watch it very closely, you've hit on something, that would be of interest to us. And we'll just watch as we get closer to that day.

Lita Baldor: Can I just add something one last time as we veer back? We know the over the horizon option is being studied heavily. Again, there's no agreement, yet. Everyone and they've said back at the Pentagon, there's no agreement yet with any of the countries. Is this something that you think can happen within months, days, weeks, years? I mean, how long of a process is getting agreements with countries for?

Gen. McKenzie: I think we'll have some capabilities immediately and I think we'll work to get better, closer capabilities over time. It is going to take time because that's all that is going to be essentially a diplomatic process. And, diplomatic processes, by their nature, don't proceed very, very quickly. But we will work as aggressively as we can to get the best and most advantageous basing that's available to allow us to continue to prosecute over the horizon CT in Afghanistan should it be necessary to do so.

Lita Baldor: Do you have a sense it won't be necessary?

Gen. McKenzie: I don't know. We'll be prepared to do it either way.