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The United States has left Afghanistan, but it is just part of the region that Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie counts as his responsibility. He oversees the Middle East and Southwest Asia as the top general at U.S. Central Command. He commands troops in the region — including in Syria and Iraq. He also keeps an eye on Iran. McKenzie joins Nick Schifrin to discuss his role and the region.
The United States has left Afghanistan, but it is just part of one region that Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie counts as his responsibility. He oversees the Middle East and Southwest Asia as the top general at U.S. Central Command.
Not only did he oversee the evacuation of Afghanistan, but he commands troops throughout the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, and must keep his eyes on Iran. It is a full docket.
And he sat down with Nick Schifrin this morning.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, thank you very much.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander, U.S. Central Command:
I'm glad to be here today. Thanks for having me, Nick.
What is the threat, as you see it, from Iran, and how is CENTCOM postured to confront it?
Gen. Frank McKenzie:
So, I think Iran is, first, the most serious threat we face in the region today.
And I think the threat manifests itself in several dimensions. First is their expanded ballistic missile force, which they have developed carefully over the last few years. And just over the past couple of three years, we have seen the addition of land attack cruise missiles, and UAS's.
UAS is drones, essentially.
Unmanned aerial systems. Can be drones, typically of different sizes that they could choose to employ.
The other thing that is very concerning is their proxy forces, principally in the region, but also has the capability to manifest itself globally. Now, the Iranian nuclear program is also another area of concern. The diplomats are working very hard to find a way to reenter an agreement with them.
And we — at CENTCOM, we try to do everything we can to support our diplomats as they pursue that goal.
So, nuclear program, proxies, and missiles.
If tens of thousands of U.S. troops that you command in the region, dozens of bases, can't deter Iran from advancing on all three of those aspects, what can?
Well, so actually, what we have done is, we have deterred Iran from state-on-state conflict over the last couple of years.
And I think that's a testament to the posture we have had in the theater.
But the three problems that the U.S. has long had with Iran, as you just identified, have actually advanced, right?
They have advanced, and they're going to continue to advance.
And I don't think any posturing or any other force elements we put in the theater are going to affect that, because they reflect national decisions made by Iran.
But what we can do and what we should strive to do is affect Iranian behavior toward their neighbors.
The diplomatic engagement in Iran, of course, is ongoing today.
Iran has increased its enrichment of uranium to 60 percent. Is there a military plan if Iran increases that enrichment to 90 percent, which would be weapons-grade?
We have all kinds of plans for Iran, which I'm not going to be able to discuss with you, as you will appreciate.
I think the best course of action with Iran remains the diplomatic track.
There have been U.S. assets deployed to Israel, deployed off the coast of Israel to help with Israel's air defenses.
What would CENTCOM's role be in any kind of military conflict between Israel and Iran? Would the U.S. essentially be dragged in?
Well, I think we will help Israel defend themselves, should that become a necessity.
Does that mean that the U.S. military would participate in any kind of military action between Israel and Iran?
So, as you will appreciate, that is uniquely a political decision, not a military decision. So, I will leave that one alone.
There have been attacks, including an assassination attempt, against the Iraqi prime minister that Iran says it didn't authorize.
But what is the threat of militias in Iraq, given that those groups are a little less centrally controlled than before?
So, they are less centrally controlled. And I think we would agree with that assertion.
However, they're all armed, ultimately, by Iran. So Iran has a profound moral responsibility for the actions those groups take. Really, the Iraqis have got to take this action against the Shia paramilitary forces that, actually, as you noted, are a little bit out of control.
And I think that that risk is probably going to rise over time.
Why are you confident that the training you're doing for Iraqi forces won't end up as it has in the past? Iraqi military folded in the past, as you know.
And we just saw the Afghan military, whom we trained for 20 years, fold. Why won't it be the same story there?
In both cases, the Iraqis folded and the Afghans folded because we left.
We're not leaving. We're going to keep a small platform there that's going to be able to do advise and assist. And that's the key difference in both those situations. And it's important to note that.
Let's move to let's move to Syria.
I want to start with civilian casualties there. CENTCOM recently said a December 3 drone strike in Syria might have killed civilians. And we actually saw a video posted by a member of the family that says they were the victims.
We're investigating it right now. And I can't share any more information on it.
I would tell you this. We take it very seriously. We will investigate it very quickly, and we will have something out here very soon on that.
There was another case of civilian casualties back in March of 2019 at the end of the war against ISIS in a town called Baghuz.
Your initial investigation found the airstrikes killed four civilians and the strikes were in legitimate self-defense. But you also admitted, in that investigation, you couldn't conclusively characterize the status of more than 60 casualties.
This is also under investigation by the Department of Defense right now. The New York Times reported there were more than 70 fatalities.
Do you believe your initial investigation got it wrong?
I really can't tell you anything about it. We have an ongoing investigation, so I'm sort of — the best thing I can do right now is just be silent, wait until this very thorough investigation is complete.
People who were involved in the initial Pentagon inspectors general report told The New York Times CENTCOM slow-walked information and even removed an initial legal opinion that said a violation of the law of armed conflict may have taken place.
Do you believe that's what happened?
I don't believe that's what happened.
But what I believe actually doesn't matter here, because it's going to be investigated and we will all know.
Can I zoom out and ask you, do you believe there's any problem with the command climate, or any problem with special operators and how they call in airstrikes, that lead to these kinds of incidents?
I think we had a very long, tough fight in Iraq and Syria.
In 2018 and 2019, we called in about 6,000 strikes. That's a lot of strikes. We have gone to elaborate lengths to prevent civilian casualties. I cannot tell you in every case that we have been able to achieve that goal.
I can tell you that, when we know about it, when we have an opportunity to learn that civilian casualties may have occurred, we do investigate it.
Let's zoom out.
In Syria, main objective, of course, is to prevent the return of the caliphate. But we have seen ISIS cells in Eastern Syria expand. We have also seen ISIS cells in Southern Syria attack inside Northern Iraq.
Do you believe the mission is working?
I believe the mission is working, and here's why.
We never have predicted a bloodless future with ISIS. We have always thought that ISIS is an ideology of the mind, so it's going to recur. What you want to be able to do, though, is keep it local and you want local forces to be able to deal with it. And, increasingly, that's what we're seeing, certainly in the case of Iraq.
Let's talk about Afghanistan.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, have you identified any targets, and have you proposed any airstrikes inside Afghanistan?
So, those are all operational details.
I would tell you that we continue to look in Afghanistan for particularly ISIS-K targets and al-Qaida targets. And that process continues.
Are you able to see those targets?
It's a difficult thing.
You know, we keep — we are able to bring platforms in overhead to take a look. We're able to — in the long term, perhaps we can reestablish some relationships on the ground.
I wanted to go to Lebanon.
How worried are you about government collapse in Lebanon, and what would its impact be?
I believe this is a very dangerous time for the government of Lebanon, and they need to — they need to do some actions to get their own house in order, if they're going to be able to go to the various international agencies that can provide them some relief to restructure their debt.
The Lebanese military, of course, has been the one institution that's widely trusted, or at least has legitimacy among many Lebanese, but it's on the verge of bankruptcy.
You recently met with the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces. What more is the U.S. willing to do in order to make sure the Lebanese Armed Forces stay viable?
Well, I agree with you that the Lebanese Armed Forces are probably the best example of an institution in the country that has relative trust by everyone.
We need to take action to ensure that the LAF survive.
Do you believe that they might not survive?
I think this is the most dangerous period they have been in for quite a while.
They have an extraordinarily capable and good commander. I think he's doing everything he can with the resources that he has. They're going to continue to need help.
Thirty thousand feet on the region and China.
Do you feel pressure by policy-makers, who are more focused on China, when it comes to the capacities that you have in the Middle East?
We need to be oriented on China as the pacing threat for us.
And, with that in mind, we need to allocate resources conscious of that threat. However, China is a global problem, not just a Western Pacific problem. China has increasing interests in the region, and we're going to see increasing Chinese activities in the region as a result of that, principally economic now. In the long term, it could be military. Hard to know.
China has, exactly as you just said, militarily tried to increase its presence, even through the United Arab Emirates.
What's the impact of Chinese military actions on U.S. partners?
So, I think U.S. partners are looking for U.S. assurance. They want to know that we're going to stay around.
The Department of Defense has given them that message of assurance. Look, the partner of choice is the United States. No one partners with China by choice, because, first of all, the capability of their weapons is significantly limited. Also, the debt trap diplomacy that comes with China coming into a country, many of the countries in the region have seen the practice of that in the Pacific, so they're very concerned about that.
But, as you know, from Jordan, Israel, even Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they do question U.S. commitment to the region. They have seen multiple presidents now talk about wanting less of a footprint in the Middle East.
And we do have less of a footprint in the Middle East, but we're still here. And we're still able, if necessary, to decisively alter events in the theater.
General Frank McKenzie, thank you very much.
Thank you, Nick.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Ali Rogin is a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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