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Transcript

CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie Holds a Press Briefing, March 18, 2022

March 18, 2022
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

STAFF: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us today. I'm Major Rob Lodewick. I'm the Defense Press Operations desk officer for the Middle East, and I'll be facilitating this morning's briefing.

Today we are joined by the commander of United States Central Command, General Frank McKenzie. General McKenzie is no stranger to this podium, nor to most of you. But he is joining us today from his headquarters in Tampa, Florida, for what will likely be his last Pentagon press briefing as CENTCOM commander.

We're fortunate enough to have 45 minutes with him this morning, so I'd ask you to please keep your follow-up questions short and to, of course, identify yourself by name and affiliation. Also, please be aware that we are fighting about a two to three second communication delay.

With that, General McKenzie, sir, thank you for joining us today. Do you hear us OK?

GENERAL KENNETH GEN. MCKENZIE: I can hear and see you fine. And I'm ready to begin.

It's a pleasure to be with you today. I spent a lot of time this week testifying to Congress for the last time as the commander of U.S. Central Command. It's an important duty to enable congressional oversight. And I also wanted to make sure I had one last time to meet with all of you. 

I can't thank you enough for the important function all of you provide to hold our leaders accountable, including me, to preserve freedom, and to ultimately make us a stronger nation. As Winston Churchill once said, "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize. It is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen."

While I won't be commenting directly on the situation in Ukraine today, I will say that it's clear to me that the decline of a free and open press in Russia has contributed to Russia's unfortunate drift into authoritarianism, and the recent decision to invade Ukraine.

It's clear that I don't always agree with every story you have ever written about U.S. Central Command and its operations over the past three years. I still very much appreciate your efforts to document and report out our activities to the American public.

As this is likely my last briefing here, I did want to take a moment to provide some perspective on my tenure as the CENTCOM commander. 

I took command shortly after the defeat of the so-called caliphate in the end of its ability to hold territory in Iraq and Syria. I think we've had success in advancing the enduring defeat of ISIS, as our partners, with our support, have continued to get better at operating independently to root out and pressure the remaining holdouts of ISIS. The Iraqis in particular are doing the fighting themselves now, as we have transitioned from a combat operation to solely advise-and-assist mission in Iraq. Their ability to operate independently has continued to improve, and we have a strong relationship with their security forces. 

In Syria, the SDF, with our support, continues to root out pockets of ISIS, hold ISIS prisoners and administer the IDP camps.

As you saw with the recent attack on the Hasaka prison, remnants of ISIS remain both in Iraq and Syria, but our partners in both countries continue to do the fighting.

We have also successfully executed two long-range raids in Syria against successive leaders of ISIS, which resulted in both of their deaths.

These missions were important blows to the long-term viability of ISIS, and they demonstrate our continued commitment to the destruction of violent extremist organizations that threaten the homeland.

One area in Syria that I wish we had been more successful in, is in motivating international partners to repatriate ISIS prisoners from their countries. It's a burden that the SDF have primarily dealt with on their own, and the only long-term solution actually is repatriation. 

We also need to reintegrate thousands of IDPs, many of whom are family members of ISIS fighters. We need to get them back into their communities in order to prevent vulnerable children from being indoctrinated into the ISIS ideology. And if we don't do that, we're going to face ISIS 2.0 down the road.

Of course, a long-term political solution to the civil war in Syria that accommodates all stakeholders would be helpful. And that would be key to preventing the return, in the long term, of ISIS.

I continue to see Iran as the greatest threat to regional security and stability. They furnish weapons, support and direction to proxies across the region who engage in acts of terror and undermine local governments, all advancing Iranian interests.

Iran's ballistic missile threat has continued to advance and expand with greater ranges and accuracy. CENTCOM has continued to watch Iran and its proxies as we act as a deterrent to Iranian attacks on U.S. interests.

I will say that our partners across the region fully recognize the Iranian ballistic missile threat and that does actually provide some opportunities for the United States to advance regional cooperation in the area of air defense.

CENTCOM is focused on operationalizing the Abraham Accords, as we brought Israel into our area of operations, and missile defense is one area of cooperation that all our partners understand. They all understand it’s particularly important when you consider the threat that Iranian missiles pose.

While it continues to be nascent at this time, we have seen a willingness of traditional regional partners to work together in exercises with the Israeli Defense Force. Air defense is an excellent opportunity for cooperation because improving regional missile defense can begin with a sharing of information, which doesn't require any nation to approve the stationing of foreign forces on their territory. My hope is that this cooperation will continue to advance in the years to come.

On Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan government was not the result we desired when we began our withdrawal. That said, the courage and hard work of several thousand service members under difficult and dangerous conditions, which allowed the evacuation of 124,000 U.S. partner and Afghan nationals, is something the nation can be very proud of. 

It came at the terrible cost of 13 U.S. service members and over 100 Afghan civilians killed, and that is a loss that I will deeply regret and I will regret it for the rest of my life. We owe these heroes our gratitude.

My final thought is that the security and stability of the CENTCOM region remains a vital national interest for the United States. It's a place with three of the world's most important maritime chokepoints, through which a large percentage of the world's global commerce transits, and of course, an even larger percentage of the world's energy-related commerce.

We remain the partner of choice in this region. Even as we adjust our posture and deployments to account for new global challenges, we still have many friends in this region who look to us for assurance and security.

And with that, I will now take your questions.

STAFF: Sir, our first question will go to Lita from AP. I believe you're on the phone.

Q: Thank you. Yes, good morning, General, and thank you for doing this. And also, I think from a lot of us, thank you for engaging with us and including taking us on trips. So we greatly appreciate the access we've had.

Two things. One, on the latest exchange of strikes between Iran and Israel, can you tell us whether you think this signals more aggression by Iran? And does it -- do you worry that this might spill over into an impact on the U.S.?

And then my second question is on Afghanistan. Can you give us a picture of ISIS in Afghanistan, their growth, training camps? What are you seeing there as far as Islamic State's efforts to expand their numbers and their capability?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, Lita, and I've always enjoyed working with you and I've enjoyed having you on travel with us. Let me actually take these questions in reverse order and begin with Afghanistan, and I'll begin with ISIS.

So we assess probably a couple thousand, more or less, ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. Of course, when the Taliban opened Pul-e-Charkhi and Parwan prisons and infused new talent and new energy into ISIS -- and so they're now reaping the result of that very shortsighted decision.

So ISIS is, as you know, committed to attacking the United States. They aspire to do that, they're going to continue to try to do that. The Taliban has, in the past, conducted operations against ISIS and we're now coming intothe traditional fighting season. Some high profile attacks have been carried out by ISIS and even include targets in the Kabul ‘bowl’ area, as you know, over the last few months.

So I think the Taliban will try to take operations to limit ISIS. It'll be interesting to see if they're able to do it because ISIS is going to be a tough target. There are more of them than there have been in the past, you know they are recruiting, and so I think that's going to be a challenge for the Taliban, although my assessment is the Taliban will attempt to act vigorously against ISIS.

I think Al-Qaeda is another matter. Not nearly so many Al-Qaeda fighters, several hundred probably, dispersed across Afghanistan. I think the challenge is a little more difficult for the Taliban there because of the cultural relationships, the inter-marriages, the linkages of the Taliban to Al-Qaeda, and we will watch with great interest to see if the Taliban have done what they said they'd do, which is prevent -- you know, prevent ISIS -- or prevent Al-Qaeda from conducting external operations and limiting what they're doing.

We're watching closely and we'll see if they actually do what they said they were going to do in the past. I will watch that with great interest.

You asked about Iran and Israel. So I think it's obvious that Israel is going to take steps to defend itself when it's confronted with Iranian actions. And of course, Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. That's a matter of public record, they've said that many times.

I do worry about these exchanges between Iran and Israel because many times, our forces are at risk, whether we're in Iraq or in Syria. So that, in fact, does concern me as we watch this -- as we watch these series of exchanges.

Thank you, Lita.

STAFF: OK, our next question here in the room -- Mark from Fox?

Q: Hey, General. Good morning, sir. Congratulations on the retirement. Mark Meredith with Fox News.

Picking up with where you just left off, sir, can you talk a little bit about how soon you believe that ISIS-K would try to actually carry out these attacks? Is this something in a period of months, is it, you know, a year away?

And then you mentioned the possibility that they may try to go after U.S. targets. Any idea of what a potential target for them would look like? Are we talking about something small but noticeable, something broad, bigger? Anything you can shed light on, sir?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, Mark. So it's our assessment -- and I testified publicly to it this week -- we assess that ISIS-K has about a 12 to 18 month window to regenerate an external attack capability, absent effective CT pressure. And by that, I mean the ability to carry out an attack in the United States. Difficult to do, they aspire to do it, and we believe that remains one of their very highest priorities. 

At the same time, of course, they're carrying out -- and they have been carrying out attacks across Afghanistan, high profile attacks against the Taliban. As I've noted, we've seen several of those over the course of the fall and into the winter, and I think those are going to continue.

But absent effective pressure, it's going to be -- we would expect that ISIS will continue to regenerate in the ungoverned spaces, principally in eastern Afghanistan but not exclusively there, and we're going to see them on down the road.

Thank you.

STAFF: Next question -- Barbara from CNN? I believe you're on the phone.

Q: General McKenzie, you have had, of course, quite a good deal of experience with understanding Russian forces in Syria. So limited to that, can you give us, as you conclude all of this, your sense recently of, of those Russian forces in Syria, do they have frontline equipment? Do they have food? Do they have fuel? Do their commanders look after them? How -- are they a top notch fighting force in Syria? And I know you’ve also spoken a little bit but could you regroup for us your latest thoughts about Russian mercenaries in Syria? The extent to which the Russians may be either using Wagner or recruiting in Syria to move into Ukraine? Thank you.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Thanks, Barbara. So over the three years of my command at CENTCOM we have generally had a brisk, professional de-confliction relationship with the Russians in Syria. They -- we can always contact them if we have a problem, they’ll always pick up the phone. And we feel that we respond in kind to them.

So that relationship has been -- that relationship has been very, very professional. I will tell you that they do have good equipment, I mean we have seen first echelon fighter aircraft down there, we’ve seen bombers come in and out of their air base in Western Syria. 

My observation is that writ large the one thing the Russians don’t have which is sort of the key of the U.S. joint force is the middle management level; the NCO and staff non-commission officer level that really form the backbone of our military. They’re the people that actually ensure things get done. 

That people are -- that people are fed properly, that people have a place -- a warm place to sleep at night, all of those things. I just don’t believe they’re as good at that as we are. And you can draw your own larger conclusions, which I’m really not the person to talk about their operations in Ukraine, and what it means for their level of small unit training and small unit effectiveness which I would again note is the pride really of the U.S. military. 

Our ability to have junior leaders execute independently. That is I think something that sets us apart from most militaries in the world and we’re very -- and we stress that as a point of emphasis and we’re very proud of it.

You asked about mercenaries in Syria and recruiting. We see little evidence of recruiting in Syria to bring people back to Ukraine. Not saying it couldn’t happen and I’m not saying that one or two or three or four haven’t gone but we haven’t seen any large-scale effort to do that. 

There’s something of a Wagner presence in Syria but it’s actually relatively small and we don’t actually interact much with them. You may recall back in the first half of 2018 the Wagner group attempted to attack American forces down around Deir al-Zour and resulted in a significant defeat for them with a number of casualties numbering in the hundreds.

And that’s an abject lesson that they should probably ponder in Syria as they go forward. Thanks, Barbara.

STAFF: We’ll stay on the phones. Dan Lamothe.

Q: Thanks, sir, thank you for your time. And thanks for all the context you’ve offered over the last couple of years. Two questions, if I could. You mentioned at the outset of the briefing your regrets on the loss of the service members in August. I’ve talked with a number of those families and I know they’re still quite frustrated for understandable reasons. 

As you look back on that month and in particular on that day, anything in particular that you would change? More defense in depth? Some other kinds of ways to have more stand-off, anything like that? Or was it simply not possible given the circumstances?

And then on Syria, we continue to see sporadic interactions between Russian forces and Americans over the last couple years. This sometimes seems aimless in the eyes of some veterans, in the eyes of some analysts. What do you assess at this point makes sense for U.S. posture in Syria particularly as it relates to Russian forces? Thanks.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, Dan. So not a day goes by that I don’t think about August of last year and the loss of our 13 -- 11 Marines, one soldier and one sailor there. I think about it a lot. You go back and you always try to find ways -- things that you could have done different. 

But I would just tell you this, Dan, the battlefield is a dynamic place. It is not a business plan. It is a contest of wills. It's a contest of plans where unpredictability, friction dominate.

We stopped a number of attacks; we were not able to stop this attack. I don't know what we could have done that would have prevented this particular attack. I know that we -- again, as I said, we stopped other attacks.

For those family members who've lost a child or loved one there, my heart breaks for them. And I feel their pain, I understand that. My son went to war twice. He came back, but I could imagine the effect on me had he not come back. So I know exactly the tremendous pain these families must feel.

But this is a tough situation. I know that we prevented some attacks; we were not able to prevent this attack, and I regret that.

Dan, you asked about Syria. And we have no evidence that the Russians are intent on escalating anything in Syria. I think they probably have plans to do that -- I'm just guessing they do; I don't know that -- but they have not chosen to do so.

And you're right, sometimes Russian actions in Syria are puzzling. You know, we went through a phase last year where we had a lot of friction with ground patrols, and we took some measures that seemed to reduce the friction a little bit. 

We moved some armored vehicles into Syria as a signal of our intent to continue to conduct the operations that we need to conduct and to not be dissuaded by their bullying behavior. And I think we came to an understanding there. I think in the air it's generally been the same thing. 

But I don't see any evidence that they're -- you know, that the temperature is rising, particularly in Syria, as a result of what's going on in Ukraine. But I do think it's -- well, I know it's something we watch very carefully.

Thanks, Dan.

STAFF: Wafaa, Al Hurra?

Q: Thank you, General, for doing this. Wafaa Jibai with Al Hurra. In your assessment, would an agreement with Iran help to address the security challenges that you mentioned -- would help to stop Iran's malign activities in the region?

And another question on Syria, do you have concerns that U.S. forces in Syria would be targeted by groups backed by Russia in response to the U.S. military and security assistance to Ukraine?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Thank you. So the number one objective of the United States with regard to Iran is that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon. So I think any solution that closes that path to them contributes to regional security, because we'd all like to work with an Iran that is not a nuclear-armed Iran. The best way to get to there is probably through a negotiated agreement.

Now, that does not solve Iranian proxies. It doesn't solve the compelling problem of Iranian ballistic missiles, land attack cruise missiles and small unmanned aerial vehicles, and we need to recognize that. That's a separate problem.

But I do think having the ability to take the nuclear option off the table has to contribute to regional security. Now, there are second-order effects with that, if an agreement is reached. And that would be with the Department of State, not with the Department of Defense, and not with me to comment on. So I'll leave that alone.

But I think anything that -- where Iran agrees not to possess a nuclear weapon that is verifiable through a process that would be jointly and mutually agreed upon, I think that's a good thing. 

There are other significant problems in the theater that agreement will not address. And we're going to need to be able to address those, preferably through negotiations but also through deterrence, which is my contribution, my share of the task, if you will. U.S. Central Command is to provide that military component to our overall strategic approach to Iran. 

So you asked about Syria, could you repeat the question on Syria for me please?

Q: Yes, there were concerns that groups backed by Russia would target U.S. forces there in response to the U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.

GEN. MCKENZIE: So we examine our force posture every day. I talk to my commanders in -- my overall commander in Iraq and Syria very frequently about this. I think we’re well postured for anything that could happen and we’re prepared for any eventuality. 

We see no evidence that Russia intends to escalate in Iraq or Syria, but of course we will be prepared for that should that eventuality come about. Thank you. 

STAFF: Sylvie, AFP?

Q: Hello sir. I would like also to thank you for all the access you gave us and all the press conferences you gave us. Is there a possibility that some missile defense equipment that could benefit Ukraine directly or indirectly could come from the Middle East?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So first of all, as you know, I live for these press conferences. They’re the highlight of my day. Just kidding. I would tell you, I can’t -- obviously there are capabilities that Ukraine could reach out from nations in the Middle East. There’s a lot of air defense assets in the Middle East, but I really wouldn’t be prepared to go beyond that. 

And, you know, I know there are a number of people that are looking at ways they can help Ukraine with a variety of air defense systems, and I’ll just have to leave it at that. Thank you.

STAFF: We’ll go back to the phones. Tara Copp, Defense One?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Hi, thank you for doing this. I just want to echo Sylvie and others’ comments. Thank you for talking to us general, even on days when it was really hard. It’s deeply appreciated. I wanted to follow-up on Syria questions. Are you getting any sense that Russia is overstretched now because it has gone so far in on Ukraine?

Has it affected its ability to influence operations in Syria? It seems like there is the possibility of a ground movement in Syria by any government protesters to try and regain somewhat of what has been lost?

And then just to follow-up on Barbara’s question on the Russian professionalism, besides the NCOs, do you assess that their military in Syria has all of the gear, the food, the logistic support that you would expect given some of the surprises we’ve seen in Ukraine? Thank you.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Let me talk about the tempo in Syria. We haven’t seen any change, really, in the force levels in Syria. They go up and down a little bit, but we look at it over the last several years, so we look at it over -- longitudinally and we have not seen any significant drawdown of forces in Syria in order to go back to Russia. 

Over the last 30 days, they’ve flown aircraft into Syria to do things, mainly look out over the eastern Med when the Truman and the Charles de Gaulle battle groups were in the eastern Med and they’ve flown those aircraft back to Russia, but they were never permanently based in Syria to begin with.

So, you know, that is clearly something that I watch very carefully. I just haven’t seen any indication. And I would expand that to not only Syria, but also the ‘Stans;’ Tajikistan where there’s a significant Russian presence, and some of the other Central Asian states. We just haven’t seen anything yet that would lead us to believe that the Russians are going back.

I would just tell you that, you know, the standard of care for Russian soldiers is not the standard that we have for service members in U.S. Central Command AOR. It’s just very different, I would just leave it at that when it comes to how soldiers and airmen are taken of by the Russians. Over.

STAFF: Luis?

Q: Sir, thank you again for these briefings. I echo my colleagues’ comments, and I’m glad that you, too, think it’s the highlight of your day. Wanted to ask you two things, one about Syria. The United States military presence there is about ISIS. Where do you see that mission going in the future?

And the Russians have been there now for many years. Do you envision that they too will become an enduring presence inside Syria, and at what point does it not become feasible for them to continue on? And following on Wafaa’s point, do you think that the U.S. will be able, if there is a deal, be able to compartmentalize between Iranian malign activity should there be a deal with them keeping with the deal restrictions if there is a deal?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Luis, first of all, our principal reason for being in Syria is to continue the fight against ISIS, and we’re actually continuing that, you know, by supporting our SDF partners as they do the actual heavy lifting and the fighting, and additionally supporting our SDF partners as they sit on top of a very large and concerning displaced person population and even more concerning prison population including over 2,000 hardcore fighters, and we’ve seen the danger of that as recent as the Hasakah prison break of just a few weeks ago.

So I think that probably covers the Syria question. As for what the Russians are doing there, they came in after us. I think they came in for several reasons. First of all, I think it was opportunism, not grand strategy because I'm not sure that they're practicing grand strategy, but they came in because we had gone into Syria. It was an opportunity to throw sand in our gearbox. It was an opportunity to prove their relevance on the world stage. It was their opportunity to really give aid and assistance to one of the very few countries in the world where there’s a client state for Russia external to the immediate boundary of Russia.

So a lot of reasons brought them in. A big one, though, is the naval base in -- on the coastline of Syria. I believe they're going to stay there. As you know, they signed a long-term lease for that, so I think that’s a long-term goal of theirs. I think the Russians will probably intend to stay there. As to their ability to sustain it over the long-term, we’ll just have to see if they're able to actually do that. I don't know the answer to that question.

And we should remember that they held that naval base through much of the Cold War. It never posed a particular problem for us. We watch it. I know my good friend Tod Wolters over at EUCOM, he and his team look at it and what they can do there, so I think the Russians will stay subject to their ability to, you know, economically, fiscally, and then, with a force posture, sustain it in the future, and I just don't know how that’s going to shake out. Thank you.

STAFF: Go to the phones. Meghann Myers, Military Times.

Q: Hi, General McKenzie. I just wanted to ask you a little along the lines of what Luis asked, you know, what the future is for troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq, kind of what the endgame is, and, you know, if you guys have thought about the picture what that looks like when troops are able to leave?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So let me actually begin with Iraq. You know, Iraq, it’s a good news story. We’re in Iraq at the express invitation of the Iraqi government. They want us to be there. Not only do they want us. They want the NATO Mission Iraq to be there, which are our NATO partners, a small but growing effort on the ground in Iraq. So we’re there because they want us to be there. It’s important to emphasize that point.

Look, as we look into the future, any force level adjustment in Iraq is going to be made as a result of consultations with the government of Iraq. And we just finished a strategic dialogue a few months ago. We believe that will continue. As you know, Iraq is now in the process of government formation, and I think, you know -- so we're watching that with great interest and wish them well.

Despite the many roadblocks that are being thrown up by Iranian-based proxy groups, they're proceeding, you know, maybe not the way we would do it, maybe slower than the way we would do it, but nonetheless, they're moving forward.

In the long term, we would like to have a normalized security cooperation agreement and posture with Iraq, and that would inevitably mean, at some point in the future, that you're going to look at how many people you got there.

What we want to do in the long term, in the fight against ISIS -- and this is really an important point -- is you want to get to the state where nations and security elements in those nations can deal with the violent extremist threat without direct support from us.

Right now, the Iraqis are doing the fighting, we're still helping them. Over time, you'd like for them to take a larger share of all of the enabling that we're doing now, cause in the long run, you want local security forces to be able to achieve the security condition of suppressing ISIS.

It is not going to be a bloodless future, there's going to be violence, there are going to be more Hasakah prison breaks, there's going to be more explosions, there are going to be more IEDs directed against the Iraqis. They know that. 

But what you want to do is you want it to be suppressed to a level where forces on the ground can actually deal with that problem. And we are on the path to do that in Iraq. It has been a slow path, it's been a painful path, but we're moving forward.

And again, let me emphasize whatever we do in the future is something we'll jointly arrive at with our partner with the government of Iraq. And again, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, very significant, important in growing presence in Iraq, again, at the explicit request of the Iraqi government.

So in Syria, again, our principal task is to complete the defeat of ISIS. You know, we are in support of our SDF partners as they continue that operation and also as they sit on top of the many displaced persons camps and the prison camps that are there. 

So there's still work to be done in Syria. I don't know how long we're going to remain in Syria. That's just not known to me. Ultimately, that'll be a policy decision that'll be made by, you know, national leadership of the United States as we go forward, based on the situation on the ground.

Thanks, Meghann.

STAFF: Staying on the phone. Idrees?

Q: Thank you. Let me caveat in my question by saying I totally understand the differences between Ukraine and Afghanistan, but as you watch Ukrainian forces put up stiff resistance, do you look back and think if we did X, Y, Z differently with the Afghan forces, maybe they would have put up more of a fight, you do you think this would have happened inevitably? I'm just curious, you know, do you see any potential comparisons between the Ukrainian resistance and what the Afghans didn't do?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Idrees, you were cutting out a little bit but let me just make sure I got your question. Just based on the fighting spirit that the Ukrainians have shown, could we perhaps look at Afghanistan and postulate what we could have done different to inculcate them and the Afghan Army? Is that your question?

Q: Yeah, just generally, what are your takeaways, looking at Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So, you know, you can train an army, you can equip an army. What you can't give an army is the fighting spirit of the individual soldier. Clearly, the Ukrainians have tremendous fighting spirit at the individual soldier level, at the small unit level. They're defending their homes, they're defending their country, they feel that that right is on their sides. 

We can all make our judgments about how motivated the Russian soldiers appear, and they don't appear, from where I sit at least, to be particularly motivated or particularly engaged in the campaign that they're undertaking.

So what are the lessons you draw from Afghanistan? Clearly, the DNA of a Taliban fighter was the same DNA as that of an Afghan Army soldier. The Taliban ultimately chose to fight, the Afghan Army, as part of what I would characterize as not just a military collapse but really a national collapse, ultimately couldn't find the will to stand and fight.

And I think we're still -- frankly, I'm still digesting that. I don't know how you get to that. You know, many people have said, you know, we tried to build an army that probably looked too much like our own Army.

But again, I don't know how you inculcate fighting spirit into an organization. There's got to be a way to do it and we've done it with other armies and our own forces have it in abundance. But clearly, in the summer of 2021, and really for the years prior because the events of August 2021 did not suddenly begin in the spring of 2021 -- you've got to go back 10, 15, 20 years in order to gather all the facts that actually came to that culminating moment in the history of Afghanistan.

So a long answer to your question. It's a great question and I'm going to continue to think about it and I know others will, as well. Thank you.

STAFF: Courtney?

Q: Hi, General McKenzie. I want to echo the thanks for talking to us, especially on the hard days, and also add to it -- thank you to your PAO Bill Urban, who's also been very accessible and helpful to us during your time. I know you guys are very busy but you both always made time for us.

Two quick questions. One, following on what Sylvie was asking about the missile defense systems, because you talked about the importance of those in your opening statement. I'm wondering if you have any concerns about losing any of those systems, given the ongoing need for them in places like EUCOM and Ukraine, or if you think that you have enough? I know you’ve frequently said that you never have enough of anything but do you feel like you actually need more missile defense systems in CENTCOM?

And then also, there's been a lot of talk about de-listing the IRGC as a foreign terror organization, as part of these negotiations with the peace talks, and I'm wondering if you can talk about sort of the operational impact, if there is one, that that could have on the theater, if the IRGC is no longer an FTO?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Hey thanks, Courtney.

First, on air defense systems, let me say we have enough for the mission that we've been given here in Central Command right now and the Secretary and I are in a constant dialogue, through the Chairman, about what the appropriate posture is here in Central Command.

I think the real story about air defenses in CENTCOM is not the U.S. air defenses, it's really the air defenses and particularly the Patriot systems and other high-end systems that our Gulf and other partners possess and how that is knitted together, because what you got to do is -- Saudi Arabia has a number of Patriot batteries, UAE has a number of Patriot batteries, as does Kuwait, as does Bahrain.

So the task in the theater is really how do you knit those together so that you create more than the simple sum of the component parts? We call that, you know, ‘tipping and queuing,’ advanced early warning, and you build what we know -- and you've heard me say this -- the common operational picture so everybody sees the same thing, everybody gets early warning, everybody can be prepared to react very quickly to a potential Iranian attack. That's where the future in this theater is. 

And so why is it important now and why are we suddenly at a state where it looks like people are increasingly interested in it? I'll tell you, it's principally because of the Iranians. They have invested enormous resources into improving the number and capabilities of their ballistic missiles.

And, you know, as in the Al Asad attack in January of 2020, their missiles hit within tens of meters of the targets they were intended to hit. So you have to respect that capability, and believe me, our partners in the Gulf respect that capability. So nothing focuses the mind, you know, of a nation like an imminent threat just over the horizon with malign intent. 

So it's not only ballistic missiles, it's also land attack cruise missiles and it's also unmanned aerial systems. All of those things are now at a greater state of danger than we have ever seen in the Central Command AOR.

So now there's pressure that really is immediate, that maybe hasn't been there in the years prior for nations to come together and develop that defense architecture that will allow them to share information. And again, it's a form of defense cooperation. It's easier to get to than other forms of defense cooperation because as I noted, you're really sharing information.

And so when we think about what's in the theater, what do we need, that's really the heart of the matter. It is not the U.S. systems; it is actually our allied and partner nation systems, and they had a bunch more Patriot batteries than we do in the theater by a factor of three or four or five so there's a lot of capability there.

Courtney, you asked about the IRGC, and you know, first I will tell you, the IRGC is the centerpiece of Iranian bad behavior in the theater. The IRGC and the elite sub-element of the IRGC, the Quds Force, you know, they're the principal malign actor in the theater, so they're very concerning to me. As to what effect de-listing them would have, I don't know that. I would defer to the Department of State. I don't know that, in terms of operationally, in terms of the way we think about them, in the terms of the way we think about the threat and what they do on a daily basis across the theater, I don't think much would change as a result of that. But again, I would wait to see what, you know, what the actual agreement is, what actually the parties contract to undertake as a result of that.

And thanks, Courtney.

STAFF: We have time for about two more questions. Go to the phones for Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

Q: Thank you, General. I just wanted to read you something from an article in The Atlantic. It said that when you met with Abdul Ghani Baradar, that you had agreed to all -- that you said you only needed to control HKIA, and not the rest of Kabul. And you said -- and in the article, it says, ‘The exchange between Baradar and McKenzie would contribute to making the evacuation the nightmare that it became.’ In retrospect, should you have asked the Taliban to be able to control all of Kabul instead of just the airport? Thank you. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: Hey thanks, Jeff. Absolutely not. I categorically reject that idea and I'll tell you why.

First of all, it wasn't a serious offer. It was an off-the-cuff offer from Baradar, and as we can see now with the fullness of hindsight, he does not actually tend to speak for the hard-liners in the Taliban. I don't believe he would have been able to deliver that even if he had intended it to be a serious offer, number one.

Number two, if we had gone in to do that mission, it would have required the introduction of vastly more U.S. combat power, at least a division with enabling elements from the Corps in order to conduct that mission. The Taliban would never have stood for that.

So I reject that completely. I think it's a complete misreading and a misunderstanding of the situation. Thanks, Jeff.

STAFF: For our final question, we'll go back to the phones. Nick Schifrin, PBS.

Q: Thank you, General, and thank you for your accessibility and your team's accessibility over the years. I wanted to end with Iran and give you time for a kind of classic question about what you're telling your successor. 

So Iran -- are you seeing any change in Iranian behavior across the theater in these days that appear to be the final days before a possible deal is signed? And the big question: Is this the obvious greatest challenge your successor inherits? And what's been your advice to him as he begins the job, when it comes to Iran? Thanks.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Hey, Nick, thanks. First of all, my successor is a magnificent Army general officer, Erik Kurilla. I had the pleasure of working with Erik. He was my chief of staff here at Central Command for part of my first year in command here. He knows the theater deeply. He knows the issues deeply, and he's going to be a remarkable leader and will take CENTCOM on to do even better and more -- and greater things in the years ahead. So I could not be more pleased with the opportunity to pass the guidon to him here in just a couple of weeks.

As for Iran, the point I would make is the Iranians want a couple of things writ large. They want sanctions relief, and I think, you know, and I believe they're probably willing to talk about the nuclear issue in order to get the sanctions relief. So that's sort of bucket one.

Bucket two, the Iranians want us out of the theater, and for a while I believe they felt they had a -- and they see the principal, but not the only battleground for that being Iraq. So over the past couple of years they have worked political solutions to try to eject us that have not panned out for them, so they've turned to kinetic solutions, and the Iranians have believed that they can undertake a certain level of kinetic action against us and it won't affect the larger negotiations, state-on-state. 

And I'll tell you, over the last six months, as you know, we've been attacked a number of times in Syria and Iraq, and through very good action on the part of commanders on the ground, through good counter-UAS action and a couple other things, we've been able to avoid U.S. casualties. Had U.S. casualties occurred, I think we might be in a very different place right now, but we've been able to avoid that, and we'll continue to use those best practices as we go ahead.

But I think Iran wants the deal. We'll see in the next -- maybe today, maybe in the next few days if we're -- if we're actually going to get a deal there. But they still hold that long-term view of wanting to eject us from the theater. 

So having said all of that, as I've noted earlier today in my comments, I think we don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and the best way to get to that is probably through a negotiated solution. That will not solve the other problems of Iranian behavior in the theater, and I don't think anybody in the United States government is blind to that fact. I think everybody knows it.

But I'll tell you, Nick, if you can take nuclear weapons off the table, that's a powerful capability that you don't have to worry about, assuming you can get all the verification that you -- you know, all the things that we would want in place to ensure that that doesn't happen.

Then you move on and you deal with the other elements of Iranian behavior. Again, what you'd like to do is negotiate that. But if you can't negotiate that, that's where U.S. Central Command comes in. It's our job to demonstrate to Iran the concept of deterrence, that the things they want to pursue are too painful for them to achieve, and so we work at that every day. We work at that with force posture. We work at that through our other activities that we carry out across the region, and we have had some success in doing that -- not perfect success. You know, the phrase I use is ‘contested deterrence’ when we talk about the state of affairs that exist between us and Iran in the theater. And we are -- but we will be ready every day.

So what I will leave my successor with is my central problem in my three years of command was Iran. There were other problems, other huge problems, but the headquarters as a whole, as a joint warfighting four-star headquarters focused on the Iranian problem and everything attended to that. Thanks, Nick.

STAFF: OK, with that, we're just about out of time. Thank you very much for your time today, sir. It has been an honor working with you and your Public Affairs team there at CENTCOM. Do you have any closing remarks for us here?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, I'd just like to say that I actually -- I think reaching out and being available to the press and talking to the press is a very important responsibility for all senior leaders. We've got to do it. And there have been days, I'll tell you, I would rather have my leg taken off below the knee than come in there and talk to you guys, but it was an important thing to do, and in the long run it's better for the country, it's better for everyone if we're accessible to you and we share what information we've got. And I have enjoyed the very professional -- professionally rewarding and personally rewarding relationships that I've had with members of the media. You're trying to do your job, and your job is very important, and I support it. 

Thanks very much. It's been a good opportunity to talk to you today. I wish you all the best, and thanks very much. Out.

STAFF: All right, thank you, sir. 

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today's press briefing. Thank you.

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