CENTCOM Chief Zinni Talks Issues, Bids Farewell
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 26, 2000 For the last few years, Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni has been on watch in one of the world's most troubled regions, a land of oil wells and deserts, staunch allies and determined enemies.
As the commander of U.S. Central Command, he's led U.S. efforts to contain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's aggression. He's dealt with repeated violations of the U.N.-imposed no-fly zones over Iraq and trained thousands of U.S. troops in the Kuwaiti sands.
Zinni is retiring in July after nearly 40 years' service. He is moving to Virginia, but has no specific plans. "I'm going to think about my future there," he said. "I'm certainly going to stay active. I'm not ready to sit back and fish and watch the days go by, and neither is my wife ready for me to do that. I will be up to something constructive."
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, currently CENTCOM's Army component commander, is slated to take over the unified command. "I feel proud and happy that he's my successor," Zinni remarked. "I like his style. I like the way he operates. He knows the region and he knows the people out there very well. I see a continuation in growth and improvement on all the things we've done."
At his request, Zinni met with the American Forces Information Service here in mid-June to talk about issues affecting CENTCOM and to bid his troops farewell. He especially highlighted the role the command plays in world affairs.
CENTCOM's area of responsibility covers 25 countries from the Horn of Africa and Egypt eastward through the Arabian Peninsula into Southwest and Central Asia. This part of the world, Zinni said, is vitally important to U.S. interests because of its energy resources, trade markets and transit routes.
Zinni acknowledged the support the United States receives from friends in the region, who, he said, "have been by our side in many conflicts and supported us elsewhere in the region that we help protect."
The United States maintains about 20,000 service members in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. They enforce no-fly zones over Iraq and U.N. sanctions against maritime smuggling. U.S. naval forces, along with coalition and allied support, intercept and interdict the gas and oil coming out of Iraq.
These sanctions against Iraq remain necessary, Zinni said, because Hussein would again threaten his neighbors if given a chance. "If he is allowed to rebuild his military forces and weapons of mass destruction, we could repeat the same events we saw in 1990 with Desert Storm," he said.
Hussein repeatedly challenges the sanctions. "Day-to-day we fly the skies over Iraq and patrol the seas off of Iraq," Zinni said. "Occasionally he fires at our planes and we are forced to respond to protect our own pilots and to enforce the requirement we are engaged in."
Since Operation Desert Fox ended in December 1998, there have been nearly a thousand violations, Zinni said, including Iraqi aircraft violating the no-fly zones, radar illuminating coalition aircraft and Iraqi forces firing surface-to-air munitions at the planes.
"We have responded to most of these," Zinni said, "and his air defenses have paid the price. We have probably destroyed over 30 percent of his air defense system now as a result."
Zinni said Hussein continues to provoke a response to show he's in charge and to distract the Iraqi people from the real cause of their plight. "Unfortunately it's his poor military personnel -- the troops that man the air defense systems -- that pay the price."
The United States maintains a carrier battle group in the region to help enforce U.N. sanctions and conduct exercises with allies and coalition forces. Marine expeditionary units and an amphibious readiness group are also deployed in the region part time. If he had his druthers, Zinni said, he would like to see even more U.S. military presence in the region.
"We would like to see full-time coverage," he said. These units give CENTCOM the flexibility to respond to crises all over the region. They've conducted noncombatant evacuations operations and helped with humanitarian operations in Africa. They would help us reinforce Army forces we have on the ground in Kuwait should we see Saddam start moving toward the Kuwaiti border."
Zinni also acknowledged the air support the command receives. He said the air expeditionary force initiative launched by Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, works very well for CENTCOM. It promotes deployment predictability, cohesion and teamwork and brings much more order and logic to deployments, he said.
The United States also maintains a full-time rotation of ground forces in the region as part of Operation Desert Spring, Zinni said. A battalion task force and other reinforcements are in Kuwait. Combat equipment is pre-positioned in Kuwait and Qatar, and at sea.
"Army air and ground support forces in Kuwait give us the capability to protect and defend Kuwait," he said. "I'm always impressed with the units we see make up the battalion task force. They do a great job in maximizing and taking advantage of the facilities -- the ranges, live firing, the maneuver space. I think each one goes home feeling much more ready than when they came."
The U.S. units demonstrate America's resolve to protect Kuwait, he added, and Kuwaiti forces appreciate joint training opportunities. "The sense of protection and credibility we bring to the defense of Kuwait has also aided them greatly in improving their military capability," the general said.
Threat of Iraqi aggression puts U.S. forces on the front line against chemical and biological weapons. Zinni said the military's mandatory anthrax vaccination is an extremely important force protection requirement for his command.
"I'm convinced that the anthrax vaccine is safe," he said. "I've had all six of my shots. All my headquarters (staff) has had the shots, too.
Iraq has anthrax capability, he stressed. "We know that the Iraqis have the capability of using it, distributing it, and they certainly have it stored." Its use would be devastating, Zinni said.
"It's important that our troops be protected. We cannot afford to have troops that are unprotected if we were to be exposed to anthrax," he said. "The loss of the troops that haven't had the protection would have a serious effect and put at risk those who have had it and degrade our capability to react."
On another regional front, Zinni said, he see progress toward stability in the political changes that have occurred in Iran.
"I'm hopeful about Iran. I'm hoping this moderation will continue. It's a long way to go yet," he said. "We still worry about their weapons of mass destruction program, their missile program and the activities (of their) intelligence service in supporting terrorism, but there's change in the wind.
"I think the people of Iran want change -- they want moderation," Zinni continued. He sees the fact that they worked hard to elect President Mohammad Khatami-Ardakami as a promise and hope for the future. "Right now I think it's appropriate to wait and see."
During his three years as CENTCOM chief, he said, he's carried on the work of his predecessor, Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, in establishing the kind of military footprint in the region that allows the United States to rapidly respond to crises. "We've built strong relationships with our friends in the region and they welcome our presence," he said. "We've worked hard in Africa to develop the capability to deal with peacekeeping and humanitarian operations."
CENTCOM has also developed Bright Star, an exercise conducted annually in Egypt that involves 7,000 international troops. "I see that growing," he remarked. "I think it's important for the region. It shows our capability to operate as a coalition and the willingness to do so."
As for the military's future, the general said, he sees the need to adjust to the "other than war" missions required by the changing world. More and more, he said, the military is being pushed toward peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, protection of the environment and dealing with transnational threats such as terrorism.
"I think we've got to make those adjustments necessary and recognize those are the real missions we have got to take on and not be resistant," he said "Engagements around the world are important. We are the last superpower and we need to do that."
Defense leaders need to take a hard look at the armed forces, he said. "Do we have the military that is constructed the right way? Is it the right size? Are we manned at the right levels? Do we have the kinds of funding for our services in support that we need?
"I'm not so sure that's the case across the board," he said. "I think that after the Cold War ended, we anticipated peace dividends that may not be there. We are going to see less and less of the peace dividend and more and more challenges of this transforming world post Cold War. Our military has to make the adjustments and deal with it."
In a salute to the men and women of CENTCOM and the armed forces, Zinni said, "In my 39 years of being in the military, I have been blessed with seeing the finest young men and women in the world in our armed forces. I can never remember a time when they let me down.
"My son is a Marine second lieutenant, and I'm proud he chose to serve. I am especially proud of those who wear this desert camouflage uniform. In my three years as commander in chief they have always performed magnificently. Those in uniform as well as those in civilians' suits have delivered a performance that was absolutely superb."