Persistent Excellence: A Conversation with CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie

In this special installment of The Burn Bag, our executive producer Javed Ali (former NSC Senior Director of Counterterrorism) had the opportunity to have a conversation with sitting CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie. GEN McKenzie and Javed talk about the biggest issues and challenges facing the US Central Command in its Area of Responsibility, which stretches from the Middle East to parts of Central and South Asia. The General candidly discusses Iran (and issues a warning for the Iranian Government), the current situation in Iraq, and his assessment of the challenges facing the ongoing negotiations for the Afghan Peace Process. The General also discusses Russia’s presence in the region, and the ongoing fight against ISIS in Syria. 

[00:02:59] TWO CRITICAL INTERESTS FOR CENTCOM: “The United States has two critical interests, in the Central Command’s Area of Responsibility. First, maintaining and improving security and stability of the region, including the freedom of navigation, and second, eliminating the terrorist threat to the homeland which emanates from the region.”

[00:04:08] GREATEST THREAT IS IRAN: “The greatest threat to security and stability in the region is clearly Iran. From their funding of terrorism and terrorist organizations, to propping up the murderous Assad regime, to providing advanced weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, to their direct attacks on international oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, refineries in Saudi Arabia, and US and coalition troops in Iraq, Iran is stoking instability and degrading security all over the region for their hegemonic purposes. The Iranian regime has taken a great portion of its country’s wealth and prosperity and repeatedly invested it in instruments of instability and in proxies, who use violence to push the Iranian regime’s agenda”

[00:06:34] WE DON’T SEEK CONFLICT WITH IRAN: “We do not seek conflict, but rather seek to present a strong defensive posture that is capable of observing, and when necessary, exposing Iranian attacks. That’s why I believe our reconnaissance capabilities actually have a substantial deterrent effect on Iran. They make it more difficult for them to act out militarily against us. This is also why the International Maritime Security Construct, the IMSC as we know it, has been so successful in preventing maritime attacks in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz, because their continuous presence has a similar antiseptic effect to malign activity, as sunlight does on infectious organisms. We can see and we can expose, and Iran does not want their malign activities exposed before the worldview.”

[00:08:40] IRAN AS A COMPLEX PROBLEM: “Iran with its malign activities, and its nuclear program, poses a complex and enduring challenge to the United States and our partners, and there will always be some disagreement on the best way to tackle a complex problem.”

[00:09:21] GENERAL MCKENZIE CAUTIONS IRAN: “It’s hard for me to know and understand what honorable retaliation means in the context of Iran, but we’ll just push that observation aside. I would say this. It’s hard for me, impossible for me to overestimate the prominence, that Soleimani had in the Iranian regime. He was the most accomplished operational leader and planner, as well as one of the key symbols of Iranian resistance culture. From a US perspective, I believe his death has disrupted Iranian operational planning to some extent, and has probably degraded some Iranian control over their proxies, particularly those in Iraq. I do not believe, however, that Iran will forget that the United States is responsible for his death, and I anticipate that they may indeed pursue some form of retribution in the future. I’m not going to be able to speculate on the form that that retribution will take, but I would caution Iran against actions that could heighten tensions, test US resolve, or lead to conflict. And those are important points. We will be ready, and we’re ready every day in the theater, to respond to anything that Iran does. We pay great attention to it, we pay great attention to achieving appropriate force protection for our forces, for those of our coalition partner friends in the region, and for US citizens in the region. So we are on our guard, and will remain on our guard.”

[00:11:05] IRAQ’S PROGRESS: “I think that the Iraqis have made substantial progress, in regard to being able to operate independently in the fight against ISIS. As such, they need less tactical support from the US to keep the pressure on ISIS. However, I do assess that they continue to benefit from US advisory support and we need to continue to work with them to root out the remnants of ISIS and prevent a resurgence.”

[00:12:19] IRAN-BACKED MILITIA GROUPS: “Rogue elements of the popular mobilization forces, who are more beholden to the Iranian regime than the Government of Iraq, have hindered some of these efforts against ISIS. Some of these militias smuggle advanced weapons into Iraq from Iran, not to defend the country from ISIS, but to undermine existing security, and threaten the US and coalition forces that are partnered with Iraqi security forces. These are militia groups that had initially supported Iraq’s fight against ISIS, but who are now more focused on attacking Iraqis and the coalition forces fighting against ISIS.”

[00:14:24] DEFEATING ISIS IN SYRIA: “We’re in Syria for one reason, and that’s to secure the enduring defeat of ISIS. As part of that mission, we’re helping the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, to secure the oil fields that are in Eastern Syria, and to prevent ISIS from profiting off of Syrian oil. Syria is one of the most complex and contested battle spaces in the world… ISIS continues to pursue an insurgency, with activities focused on reestablishing networks, assassinating and intimidating local leaders and security forces, and extending their influence in rural areas. In fact, in some parts of Western and Central Syria, where there is no US or SDF presence, ISIS has been able to survive. The best way forward in Syria, from my perspective, is a political agreement that allows the country to be governed in a way that’s responsive to the will of the people, and also that’s able to provide just security and stability to the people of Syria.

[00:16:24] RUSSIANS IN SYRIA: “We have a pretty effective deconfliction channel with the Russians. It operates at what I call a tactical level, between our command posts on the ground, and between our air operations center and their headquarters. The OIR Commander, the three-star general that works for me, has an opportunity to talk to his Russian counterpart there as well. We were disturbed by the activity that occurred a couple of months ago, because it was manifestly unsafe. The Russians were encroaching into an area in which we operate. They did not coordinate with us. So we went back to them pretty strongly on that, and we made our point. At the same time I chose to send additional resources up to Syria, in the form of Bradley fighting vehicles, to just show our determination. Nothing shows strength like an armored personnel carrier, or an armored infantry fighting vehicle. Since that has happened, things have calmed down with the Russians… we will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that the men and women who are out there are going to be safe, and going to be able to do the task we sent them out there to do.”

[00:22:48] THE AFGHANISTAN PEACE DEAL: “Although the road to peace is going to be long, and going to be challenging, the United States recognizes this is the best option to meet our objectives in Afghanistan. Both sides have established a team of negotiators, for Afghan Peace Negotiations, the APN, which began on September 12th, and those teams are going through the hard work of negotiating the resolution to the conflict. The US has responded to these conditions by upholding our part of the deal. We’ve reduced our forces, and we’ve closed some bases. NATO has reduced their number of troops as well. Taliban violence in Afghanistan continues to be the greatest obstacle to moving forward with the peace process. The sheer volume of Taliban initiated attacks against the people of Afghanistan, are not indicative of an organization that’s serious about peace. They’re not seizing the opportunity before them to lower tensions and negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict… while the Taliban has clearly demonstrated a will to prevent ISIS from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, and pronounced a willingness to prevent Al Qaeda from doing the same, it is less clear to me, that they are committed to denying Al Qaeda a presence in Afghanistan. As I have said before, we are not going to focus on what the Taliban say — instead we are going to focus on what they do, with respect to Al Qaeda, and we need to see action here.

[00:27:11] THE GENERAL’S DECISIONS: “Every thing we do ultimately comes down to that single place where we are in contact. The man or woman who has nothing between them and the enemy, except for whatever we give them. That’s a pretty sobering thought, and I try to keep that in mind as I make decisions here. I’m very much aware that the decisions that we make have life and death consequences for not only for US Servicemen and women, but also people across the region, so I’m very mindful of that going forward.”

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