Transcript

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Commander, U.S. Central Command, Holds a Press Briefing

April 22, 2021
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (USMC), commander, U.S. Central Command

STAFF:  Good afternoon, I'm Commander Jessica McNulty and I'll be facilitating today's press briefing.  We're delighted to have Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command with us today.  He is going to start with some brief opening remarks and then take questions from you all here in the room and on the phone lines.  We do have limited time, please limit your question to one question, one follow-up so we can get to everyone.

Over to you, Sir.

GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It's a pleasure to speak with you here today.  I've made it a priority  while in command to take the opportunity to engage with the media whenever I can, because I know it's how important your role is for informing the public and holding leaders accountable for our actions.  We work for the American people and the best way to speak with many of our citizens is through a free press. 

As Winston Churchill once said, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of all other rights that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.”  So, I do want to thank you for your service to the nation. 

Of course, I'm coming to you from another essential duty of all Combatant Commanders, and that's informing the legislative branch of our activities.  I have appreciated the opportunity to engage with our congressional leaders in the House and in the Senate in both open and closed testimony.  They clearly demonstrated a concern for the defense of the nation and a desire to fully understand all aspects of the Central Command mission.  As you heard in my testimony this week, we are continuing to plan for a full withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops from Afghanistan at the direction of the president, and in concert with our NATO allies and other partners.

We will conduct that withdrawal in a deliberate and expeditious manner while ensuring the safety of our troops.  I would advise the Taliban that we will be well-prepared to defend ourselves throughout the withdrawal process.  I also testified on our planning to conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations should they be required.

I'll restate now what I've said in testimony, those operations will be harder but not impossible.  My headquarters is working to finalize planning for various options, which I will present to the Secretary.  We will also ensure we have the resources needed to conduct that mission, should it become necessary to do so.

We are committed to keeping the pressure on any potential terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan.  As you can understand for operational security reasons, I'm not going to be able to share with you the details of that planning at this time.

Finally, I would just like to take this moment to express the gratitude to  the nation, to the men and women who have deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Freedom's Sentinel, and Operation Resolute Support.  We successfully removed Osama Bin Laden and many terrorists  from the battlefield and your nation will be eternally grateful for your service.  With that, I'm ready to take your questions.

STAFF:  We'll start with the phone lines.  Bob Burns, Associated Press?

Q:  Thank you.  General McKenzie, I wanted to ask you a question about your comments this morning on the Hill.  In particular, if you would elaborate on the point you made in saying that you believe the Afghan military would collapse in the absence of American troops if the American government does not continue to support them.

My question is whether you think that in that scenario it would follow then that the Afghan government itself would fall to the Taliban and that the Al-Qaeda would once again have sanctuary and a partner in that country?  Thank you.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Bob, thank you for the questions.  So, let me be very clear, we do plan to continue support to the Afghan military.  It will just be more difficult to do that support, it will not necessarily involve people in place on the ground in Afghanistan, but that support will continue.

It is our intention also to continue funding the Afghan military and that will be administered through the platform that will be our embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.  The exact contoured scale and scope of that entity are still being worked out right now.  But it is -- it is our intention to continue that support and we believe that it -- it will be a tough fight for the Afghans but we intend to continue to support them.

Q:  Tom Bowman, NPR?

 

Q:  I’d like to follow up on that.  As you know there are thousands of contractors that needed to provide 75 to 100 percent of the maintenance for the Afghan Army, Police, the Air Force.  So, they clearly can't do the maintenance on their own and I keep hearing we're going to support the Afghan military but how do you do that without contractors, without soldiers on the ground?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, first of all, Tom, you're right, it is our intention to -- to bring the contractors out, the U.S. contractors will come out as we come out.  That is part of the plan with the withdrawal that we have in place right now.  We're examining alternatives to do -- to do -- to assist the Afghans and their maintenance effort from a distance.  I don't want to minimize that problem or, you know, make -- look at it to make it appear easier than it's going to be.

We're certainly going to try to do everything we can from distant locations to assist the Afghans as they maintain the aircraft and the other platforms that -- that will be essential for the fight ahead of them.

Q:  How do you do that from a distant location?  Let's say one of their HMMWVs breaks down in Helmand, what are you going to another country or the same with aircraft?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well so, aircraft's probably a little easier, let me just start with that.  So, aircraft maintenance is typically done at a centralized location.  We might be able to work some remote, televised way to do that. 

Look, we're going to try all kinds of innovative ways, the one thing I can tell you is we're not going to be there on the ground with them.  We want them to be successful, that remains a very high priority, so we will look at innovative ways to do that, we're still working those out right now, Tom, but I do take your point and I acknowledge that it's going to be a lot harder – it’s going to be a lot harder to do once you're out of the country. 

STAFF: Back in the room, Fadi Mansour from Al Jazeera?

Q:  Thank you, commander.  Welcome back, General.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Thank you.

Q. So based on your -- this assessment of the future of the Afghan forces, are you expecting Taliban to make gains on the ground after the withdrawal?  And based on your knowledge of the movement, do you think they will seek tactical gains to leverage their position in the political settlement negotiations, or strategic gains to regain power through military means? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well so, you know, the Taliban have never stopped fighting as I'm sure you're very much aware.  So -- and the pace of their attacks has been as high as any during the entire history of our war in Afghanistan.  The difference that -- in the west we don't track it, perhaps as closely because they're not attacking coalition or U.S. forces- which is unfortunate because Afghan soldiers, and policemen, and other security people are fighting and dying everyday in significant numbers -- 30 to 50 a day, sometimes more a day.  And they're also inflicting damage on the Taliban. 

So, I would tell you, I believe it is probably the Taliban's intent to conduct military operations, we'll have to wait and see how that plays out.  I think the Afghans are going to fight back.  I can't predict the future; I don't know how that's going to play out.  We will certainly do everything in our power to assist our Afghan partners after we leave. 

Q:  You presented -- if I may say, like some kind of a bleak assessment, is your assessment, the military assessment, at odds with the political decision to leave Afghanistan? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  No, I don't believe so, and I'm not sure I'd -- bleak would not be the word that I’d use, others have used that word.  I will tell you this, I had ample opportunity to give advice to the President of the United States, he received my advice, it was an iterative process. 

My views were fully heard, it was a thoughtful -- very thoughtful, very in-depth process that went on over an extended period of time.  So, we were -- I was fully consulted in this, General Miller was fully consulted, and General Milley was fully consulted in this process. 

So, I think they went out of the way -- the President went out of the way to ensure all views were on the table.  And so, my assessment is, I don't believe it is out of step at all with the decision that's been made.  I think we all recognize there are risks ahead that follow as a result of that decision, but I would reject the assertion that we're out of step. 

STAFF:  OK, back to the phone lines.  Idrees from Reuters? 

Q:  Thanks, General.  So earlier this week you said there were no basing agreements with countries near Afghanistan.  I know you can't go into details, but are you confident that you will have basing agreements in place by the time U.S. troops leave? 

Or do you believe the internal politics in some of these countries in Central Asia and Pakistan may come in the way of that?  And do you believe these agreements will sort of take days, or weeks, or are we months away from them being put in place? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, I think if you're talking about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, we have no significant basing agreements with any of those countries right now.  I know our diplomats will work, and we will examine what the art of the possible is. 

That would be ultimately a decision made at the national level by the United States if we were to seek basing rights in those countries.  So, I won't get out ahead of that at this time.  I will note that we have very good access to basing and over flight rights with our partners in the Gulf. 

The ranges are significantly greater to get into Afghanistan, you all know that and I certainly know it.  But we do have other options that are on the table.  We will explore those options even as the whole of government -- the interagency process looks to find the best possible combination of basing options to support future counterterrorist contingency operations. 

STAFF:  Back here in the room, Barbara, CNN? 

Q:  Thank you.  I wanted to ask you about Iran for a minute, two things.  Roughly since January 1, do you think Iran is closer or further away from having a nuclear weapon? 

And when you look at their overall weapons inventory, can you talk about what your concerns are about their qualitative improvements in things like range and precision, versus their traditional quantitative large inventories?  What are they doing in range and precision that worries you, and more worried -- less worried about an Iran nuclear device?  Are they closer or further away? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Let me start with the ballistic missile question, because that's actually -- as I look at the theater and I look at the Iranian threat, that is the most concerning threat to me.  Over the last five to seven years the Iranians have made remarkable qualitative improvements in their ballistic missile force while it has grown quantitatively as well, and now numbers, depending on how you choose to count the weapons, something a little less than 3,000 of various ranges. 

Nonetheless, their accuracy has become much better than it used to be, that is very concerning to me.  We saw that demonstrated in the attack on Al Asad Airbase in January of 2020, where I would argue that the Iranian missiles generally hit within tens of meters of the targets that they chose for them -- so that is very concerning to me. 

And that's probably the most -- the thing that concerns me the most about Iran, although at the same time they have begun to invest heavily in land attack cruise missiles and in their unmanned aerial program -- their drone program - has also made significant achievements. 

All of these are relatively new developments -- I mean, over the last five years or so.  So, it takes a while sometimes for that to become known to us and our analysts as we take a look at it, but I am very concerned about that. 

As for the Iranian nuclear program, I would simply note they've done nothing that's irreversible up to this point, and I think that's just an important thing to remember. 

Q:  What does that mean?  Tell us what you think that means? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I think -- and again, this is probably a question better for the Department of State, so I'll just make a very brief comment about it.  I think they want to see what happens in negotiations with the United States. 

STAFF:  Thank you.  Pierre Ghanem, Al Arabiya?

Q:  I’d like to follow-up on Iran, if you don’t mind, General.  You called Iran a threat, that they do aggressions and you are into the business of deterring Iran, also.  Are they deterred?  Are you in the business also of containing Iran?  Can they be contained?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, the word deterrence is a diplomatic construct, not a military construct.  Deterrence is obtained when the opponent has a clear understanding of the capability and will of the other party, and it affects his decision making so that he recognizes that the potential gain of what he's after -- the cost may be greater than he's willing to bear.  Or he may be, in fact, not able to get there at all. 

Deterrence by denial or deterrence by punishment.  So, we gained deterring effect against Iran, by having a capable force that they know we're ready to use.  And I would argue since January 2020 the Iranians have had to recalculate our willingness to use force against them, that has had an effect on them. 

At the same time, we've been able to keep a posture in the region that has also deterred Iran from acting against us in a state-to-state way.  The final point would be, I think Iran still pursues a policy of attempting to eject the United States, and indeed our partners and allies from the region as well -- and that's principally fought out in the battleground that is Iraq for them. 

Over the last -- over most of 2020, I believe they thought they had a political solution to force the United States out of Iraq.  That is no longer the case, it's evident from the recent Strategic Dialogue and from other signals we receive from the Government of Iraq.  We're going to be there, our NATO partners are going to be there to finish the ISIS fight, and we're going to stay in Iraq. 

So, I think you might see kinetic events spring up as a result of that in Iraq.  But that is different from the larger Iranian desire to avoid a state-on-state conflict with the United States.  They may be mistaken in that approach, but I can't defend their logic, I'm just trying to describe it to you. 

STAFF:  OK.  Another one the room before I move to the phone lines.  Jennifer Griffin, FOX?

Q:  General McKenzie, we've heard a lot of lip service to how it's the responsibility of the U.S. military and U.S. government to help the Afghan combat translators who have worked for the U.S. government over the years and face threats from the Taliban.  Yesterday General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote a letter saying that it's U.S. responsibility to help those translators get visas to the United States. 

What are you planning to do?  There's a backlog of about 34,000 people who have applied for these special immigrant visas.  What are you planning to do to get those people out of harm's way who helped Americans? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, if directed to -- directed to accomplish that task, that is a task that we could assist in accomplishing.  The special immigrant visa program is probably the best route to make that happen.  And it's really a better question for the Department of State than me.  I would just tell you that from a Central Command perspective and the perspective of the U.S. military, if directed to do something like that, we could certainly do it. 

STAFF:  OK.  Moving to the phone lines, Kasim Ileri from Anadolu?

Q:  Yes, thank you very much, General, for doing this.  In northeast Syria there are fears, conflicts between Assad regime forces and SDF-YPG.  Is there a plan that you would support SDF against Assad regime as you did in the past, or not? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I would tell you now our reason for being in Syria is to complete the destruction of ISIS.  Our SDF partners, which the YPG is, is a part -- or the principal weapon that we use to continue that operation, to finish.  The caliphate no longer holds ground in Syria.  They are moving small bands, what we call at the insurgent level.  And our partners there have been very effective in getting after that.  We will continue those operations. 

At the same time, we do recognize potentially Syrian forces, pro-regime forces, PRF forces as we call them, might want to push particularly against the oil fields that our SDF partners operate, that do provide a source of income for them.  You know, we'll have to see how that plays out.  We've been able to hold the line on that to this date.  And I don't see any sign of an imminent attempt to do that.  It's certainly something we'll watch for in the future. 

Q:  Thank you, General. 

STAFF: (Back here in the room, Sylvie from AFP?

Q:  You said during the hearing that you're concerned about the ability of the Afghan air force to fly without the U.S. military being there.  So, what does it say about the billions of dollars that the U.S. invested in the military assistance to Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, I would say today the Afghan air force is actually a very important force-multiplier for the Afghan military.  They fly effectively.  They deliver ordnance.  And they're actually a deal-changer in many ways in the fight against the Taliban.  So, I think that's -- I think we have got a good return on our investment there. 

But any kind of airplane, any kind of advanced technology requires continuous maintenance.  And so that is where I am concerned.  If the maintainers, which are largely U.S. contractors and other -- some third nation contractors, if we leave, we're going to have to find a way to replace them.  And as I've chatted just of a few moments ago, we will look at innovative ways to do that. 

I don't want to minimize the risk.  I want to be very clear and honest with you.  It will increase the level of risk.  Is it doable?  I think so.  We'll find out.  We'll certainly try very hard.  But aircraft maintenance is not something that you can -- well, let me rephrase that, you have to do every day.  It requires engagement every day in order to do that. 

So, it's not so much a reflection that the money to date has been lost, because I think the effects that we've gotten today from that force are actually very good.  But going forward with a different set you just have to recognize that the risk is going to be harder.  It will be harder to do all of those things. 

STAFF:  Wafaa, Al Hurra?

Q:  Thank you, General.  The tension between Israel and Iran is very high, obviously.  And recently we've seen several incidents between the two countries.  One of them happened during Secretary Austin's visit to Israel.  So how concerned are you about these incidents and about the possibility that such incidents may drag you to certain military engagement in the region? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, so, as you know, Israel is under the new Unified Command Plan.  Israel will actually enter the Central Command AOR.  We're working to make that move that will further align Israel with -- actually with its Arab neighbors, ultimately.  That would be one of the goals of bringing them into Central Command, further the normalization process that began with UAE and some other nations during the last few months.  So, I think that's a very positive sign. 

I would tell you that I don't see it as possible for us to be dragged into a war, as you've discussed it.  It's very concerning when these strikes occur.  We express our concern when those occur, particularly depending upon the timing.  However, I think it's -- I would not say that we're on the verge of a conflict occurring.  And the United States is not automatically beholden to act on anyone's behalf should a conflict break out.  There is no ultimate automaticity, in other words, to us going to work. 

So, I'm confident that we can maintain our distance and act for our own best interests in this matter. 

Q:  But does Israel inform you or notify you or coordinate with you - such activities? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, I'll tell you, that's an operational matter that I'm just not going to be able to discuss here today. 

STAFF:  OK.  Back to the phone lines.  Jeff Seldin, Voice of America?

Q:  General, thank you very much for doing this.  During your testimony earlier, you indicated that you agreed with the Afghan Study Group conclusion that once U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, al Qaeda and ISIS will be able to reconstitute in about 18 to 36 months.  How do you assess the -- how that -- the type of threat that will pose to the region and also to the U.S.? 

And you also talked about possible knock-on effects for other countries as a result of instability after the U.S. and NATO forces leave.  How is that potential destabilization going to the impact the region and, again, perhaps threaten the U.S.? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, so I would be -- I think the intent of my comment was this.  I think al Qaeda and ISIS will be able to regenerate if pressure is not kept on them.  Now that pressure could be kept on them by the government of Afghanistan.  We just don't know the exact composition of what the future government of Afghanistan is going to look like. 

It may be that -- you know, the Taliban have actually undertaken to do this.  They have said that they will not allow al Qaeda or ISIS to base out of Afghanistan.  So, it may  be that they will keep their word should they be part of a future government.  And we don't even know the terms and contours of that because they're not attending the Afghan peace negotiations right now.  And those talks are sort of deadlocked at least in the short term. 

So, there is a way for that to happen and for pressure to be maintained.  It does not necessarily involve us doing that pressure.  Perhaps -- although we might act in concert with some future government of Afghanistan to do that. 

As for the local or regional considerations, I think that's very concerning to all the neighboring states, you know, biggest concern to Pakistan, it's a concern of all the Central Asian states to the north.  It is even of concern to Iran in the West, I believe.  Everyone has a vested interest in a stable Afghanistan.  Everyone has a vested interest in an Afghanistan that does not harbor terrorist groups that have -- such as al Qaeda and ISIS that have an apocalyptic vision of a future world. 

STAFF:  Luis Martinez here in the room, ABC? 

Q:  Hey. One quick question on Afghanistan and another one on Iraq if I could. On Afghanistan, you talk about this continued support for the Afghan military, and you made reference that there's not going to be any troops in the country, but are you forbidden from engaging in the normal training patterns with other countries between the U.S. where we see rotating forces sometimes going in and continuing to train local forces? Is that under consideration?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Luis, right now, just in front of us in planning, I don't have an answer for that right now. I think that our - but I will tell you that the permanent force is going to be very low. Whatever is required to provide the embassy security. And as you know, the embassy security is the responsibility of the host nation. In most nations, we can do that with 12 Marines.

I don't think that will necessarily be the case in Afghanistan, but we'll see how it develops. As for the rotational training teams, I just don't have an answer for you on that right now, so I would not want to speculate.

Q:  And on Iraq, with - there was an attack in Erbil a couple of weeks ago with a drone. You have said that the drone is the - the thing your biggest concern in your - in the region right now. Was there any indication that this is a fixed-wing drone from Iran or do you have concerns that Iran could launch such a drone from a long distance or that this is a Shia militia that's received something, new technologies that could pose a new threat inside Iran?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So first of all, you're right. The - the UAS threat, the small drone threat, the quadcopter less than the arms length of a human being, is what really probably concerns me the most in the theater, and this was an attack of that nature. We are still trying to determine the attribution of that attack. We recovered part of it. We got good people looking at it, and we'll eventually know where it came from.

I don't have an answer for you on that right now, but I - but I would note, those things concern me greatly because our air defense system and our patriots and our other radars, they're very good at seeing the larger - the larger objects, be it ballistic missiles or be it larger land-attack cruise missiles or larger drones.

The smaller drone is a problem, and smaller drone is the future of warfare, and we need to get ahead of that right now.

STAFF:  Back here in the room, Dan DeLuce, NBC News?

Q:  Can I ask you because this is such a long conflict and there's been so much sacrifice by the U.S. and others, what is your message to U.S. troops who either serve there or currently serve there as we approach this withdrawal? Is - is it - has the U.S. accomplished what it set out to do? Is it your view that the mission was achieved?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, as you know, I've served there myself. My son served there twice. Almost everybody I know and their - and a number of their family members have served there. I think that we have accomplished the mission that we set out to do, which was to prevent an attack against the United States.

That mission has been accomplished. We can all have judgments about what other missions crept in during the 20 years that we were engaged in there, but the core mission, preventing an attack on the United States, was actually accomplished. And we will find ways to continue to execute that mission even as we leave Afghanistan, because the war will not end in Afghanistan, as you know simply because we leave.

The threats to the United States won't end simply because we leave, but we will be vigilant and we'll be ready to respond against those threats.

Q:  And just a follow-up going forward, what is your - what are - what are the range of scenarios you see in terms of al Qaeda and the threat they pose now and the threat they could pose without the U.S. military and intelligence resources there on the ground?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure. So, it first comes down to what is the future government of Afghanistan going to do? Is it going to - is it going to keep an obligation to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a, you know, as a - as a hotbed for terrorists to plan and plot attacks and launch them? That's the first thing we - that we've got to determine. That is yet indeterminate, we don't know that, and that will sort of be the big thing.

Once we know that, then we will - we can begin to - then we can begin to see what will be necessary to ensure that happens, because I can assure you of one thing, and the President has been very clear on this, we will not allow attacks against the United States to occur. We'll do everything we can to prevent those. There are a variety of avenues to prevent those.

Clearly the best way for - for all of this to happen would be that Afghanistan undertake its obligations as a member of the family of nations to prevent these attacks from, you know, from being plotted, planned, or generated from there. We'll see if that happens.

STAFF:  Back to the phone lines, Joe Tabet, Sky News Arabia?

Q:  General McKenzie, thank you so much for doing this. You've been in Lebanon lately, could you give us your assessment on Iran's armed shipments to Hizballah, either in Syria and Lebanon?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure. So, I did have the opportunity to visit Lebanon. I am always concerned about the activities of Lebanese Hizballah or LH there. But when I go there, my focus is actually on the Lebanese Armed Forces. I had an opportunity to visit a number of LAF units across the country. It's - it's hard to do that just by moving around, but it was a - it's a great opportunity.

As you know, we view the Lebanese Armed Force as the singular military representative of the government of Lebanon, so we go to great lengths to try to arm them, to try to train them, to try to make them an effective force.

In the aftermath of  the Beirut port explosion, I think the LAF had probably the  best response of anybody in Lebanon to that, which goes- to just shows you the virtue of that force, responsive to the government within constitutional norms, none of which apply to Lebanese Hizballah, which is always a very great concern to me.

And we know that, in fact, Iran does continue to ship arms to LH in Lebanon with an aim to build capabilities that could strike Israel to the south. All those things are very concerning to me.

STAFF:  Back here in the room, Meghann Myers from military.com

[Editor’s Note:  Meghann Myers is with Military Times]

Q:  What is the current end goal in Iraq, and has the Secretary or the President consulted you on what an eventual drawdown there might look like?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, I - I talked to the Secretary about this many times. And right now, we are in the process - we've had a very good, Strategic Dialogue with the government of Iraq just a few weeks ago. There are no plans to drawdown as we are in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. I can't speak for the future.

But I do know this, Any - any future force level in Iraq will come about as the result of negotiations and conferencing between the government of Iraq and the United States, so we'll reach that together. I think it's very important to - to realize, the government of Iraq wants us to stay. They had opportunities over 2020 to ask us to leave, and they did not do that. They want us to stay.

They need us to continue the fight against ISIS. Additionally, I think you're aware that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and what we call the NMI, the NATO Mission Iraq, is actually going to expand. And at some point, there'll probably be more NATO forces there than there are U.S. forces, which will be a good thing.

But a specific answer to your question, two things, first of all, I'm in constant contact with the Secretary of Defense to talk about this. And second, we've been not - not been given any direction about drawing down. I would just say, to close out, the Biden administration is undergoing a very thoughtful review of all these policies, and I'm sure we'll get some guidance and some decisions on this in the future.

Q:  Considering that the Afghan government is not exactly asking us to leave, what would you say is the strategic difference in between those two drawdowns - now physical drawdowns and one potential drawdown?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, I think in - I think clearly - clearly in Iraq, there's still great work to be done with ISIS on the ground. And - and so I think that's the reason we're in Iraq. And I would just avoid a comp - a comparison of Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm not going to - I'm not going to get into that comparison.

STAFF:  Back here in the room, Tony Cappacio, Bloomberg?

Q:  Hey Sir, I had a couple quickies. So, one on Afghanistan -  you hinted today that the MQ-9 Reaper will be used great - more greatly in the next three or four months that cover the withdrawal drawdown.. Are you considering a CAP- a 24-hour combat air patrol over Iraq -with tankers, manned, and unmanned aircraft?

Two, China - in the region-  what is your perception of China's relationship with the United Arab Emirates as the United States is planning to sell the Emirates the F-35 airplane?  Are you concerned given the relationship, that the technology might be compromised or do the Emirates have a pretty good technology security apparatus?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Tony, thanks.  I want to make sure - you’re talking Afghanistan or Iraq for the first one?

Q:  Afghanistan.  Is there a capping plan to cover the drawdown?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Yes.  So, we actually maintain coverage, significant coverage over Afghanistan now that will continue and we will add additional forces.  I am not going to be able to talk to you about those additional forces because the Secretary's still considering what those forces will be.

And I'm not going to get out ahead of him, but once we have that, this department will announce what those additional forces will be.  But I am confident we will have the combat capability to provide an overwhelming response should we be attacked or our allies or partners be attacked as we execute the drawdown -- as we execute the drawdown.

I'm very -- I'm very comfortable with the combat power that General Miller will be able to bear in that circumstance.  As for the question about the F-35 and UAE, we will depend upon UAE to exercise the appropriate precaution with the F-35 and I know that our government has been in close negotiations with UAE about protection of the F-35 and-  all the unique capabilities that are associated with that airplane.

So, I'm -- I am comfortable that we're in a good place for that, but I watch it closely, it is a matter of interest to me as well.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Here in the room, Caitlin, Stars and Stripes?

Q:  Hi, Caitlin Doornbos, So, you spoke about NATO Forces earlier.  I'm interested in how you are working with the NATO Forces in the drawdown and with their drawdown?  And then secondly, if they choose to drawdown before we do, would that affect our timeline at all?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So, you know, the whole motto in Afghanistan really from when the Article 5 was called out on the 12th of September 2001, is ‘in together, out together.’  And we are completely synchronized with our NATO partners about -- about how we're going to come out and General Miller devotes a great deal of time and energy to that.

I do too from my headquarters where I talk with what we call the framework nations that have interest in it.  But we -- we invest a lot of energy in that as you know, the Secretary went to Europe and General Miller has gone to Europe several times to talk at the various -- at the NAC and at other committee levels to make sure that we're all aligned on this.

And we have to be because of the interdependencies of protection that exist between us and NATO.  So, we pay great attention to that and we will come out together even as we went in together, I am confident of that.

STAFF:  Gordon here in the room, Wall Street Journal?

Q:  Hi Sir. Two quick questions. There was a report that you would require a carrier to help with the drawdown from Afghanistan.  Can you tell us if that's true and also if the need for over-the -horizon basing which you may not have, will require the carrier to stay, you know, more permanently?  And also, can you categorize like how -- what the role the U.S. military will play in pulling NATO Forces out of Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, let me deal with the NATO -- the NATO question first.  So, there are nations that we have a lift and sustain agreement with.  We will help them come out.  There are nations that will bring themselves out.  In all cases we'll be ready to -- to give a, you know, a willing hand to help anyone who needs -- who needs assistance as we go through the process.

As for the carrier, I read the anonymous leak and, you know, I -- I'm up here accountable for what I tell you.  I can't answer for what some -- someone leaked anonymously without any responsibility at all.  And I'm just not going to be able to shed any further light on that.

STAFF:  OK.  Back here in the room, Roj from Rudaw?

Q:  Thank you, General.  The previous question about Syria was referring to the clashes between SDF, your partners, and the Syrian regimes’ armed groups (inaudible) where there has been multiple casualties on both sides.  Russia is offering to mediate -- they've started mediating between the two sides.

So, I'm just wondering if you see a role for the U.S. to play in de-escalating the situation and how concerned are you about your -- the safety of your soldiers because we know American soldiers are also in the area?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So, the SDF have been very good partners for us in protecting U.S. forces they're -- in fact, they're our principal -- they're our principal-protected element that we depend on.  So, they've been -- they've been very good at that.  We'll do anything we can to help in de-escalating these -- these clashes.

You're right, they're going to continue, I'm not sure that they're going to go away.  In particularly as pro-regime forces continue to push to the East.  I think they're -- they may even rise over the coming weeks and months.  We'll be prepared to -- we'll be prepared to deal with that at every level.

We would prefer to deal with it at the diplomatic level if you can or through talking, but we'll be prepared to assist our SDF partners.

STAFF:  Back to the phone lines.  Jared Szuba, Al Monitor. Jared?

Q:  Hi, Sir.  Thank you for doing this.  Yesterday, Special Envoy Lenderking deferred to the Defense Department when he was asked about what specific support the U.S. is providing to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.  We know that the U.S. has been providing defensive support including ISR to the Saudi-led coalition.

But what can you tell us about, you know, support for the battle for Marib, has there been ISR support?  And is the -- has the U.S. discontinued logistical and maintenance support for the Royal Saudi Air Force?  Thanks.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, right now what I provide the Saudis are defensive support, as you noted, they're under attack typically at least every other day, sometimes more than one a day from a combination of ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, or small and large UASs from Yemen.

So, the principal thing I do with the Saudis is I give them advanced notice when I'm able to do that, we are not always able to that, it depends on the situation.  So, I would characterize our support as essentially defensive in nature.

We're not doing anything in terms of ISR where we give them ISR on things happening in Marib or places like that.  That's just not -- that's just not something that we're doing and we're not doing anything with them that could be characterized as offensive in nature.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Kristina Anderson -back here in the room, AWPS.

Q:  Oh yes.  General McKenzie, thank you for taking my question.  Can you talk a little bit more about the U.S. forces and some of the training which has been done with the Lebanese Armed Forces?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  I had an opportunity to -- to visit several training sites in Lebanon when I -- when I went in there.  We used typically special forces teams to do that kind of training and we train them on small unit action, we train them on law of armed conflict, we have a -- an aviation relationship with them as well.

You know, they're flying the -- the A-29 which is a great airplane.  Had the opportunity to sit in a cockpit of one up in an airbase in Northern Lebanon.  So, I -- it is a good relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces and it's a relatively inexpensive relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

And again, we view them as one of the -- one of the few institutions in that country that really is a -- is a pillar of stability.  So, it's important to keep that relationship alive.  So, we will -- we will continue to work that very hard.

STAFF:  Back to the phone lines.  Sam LaGrone, USNI?

Q:  Hi General McKenzie.  You mentioned a little bit in your testimony about your concern about the -- the sea mine threat in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb.  Can you talk a little bit about how you're working with the Navy and other expeditionary forces to shore up some of the capability gaps that you all are going to have there when the -- when the avengers leave the inventory?  Thank you.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  And, first of all, thanks -- thanks for the question.  It is a concern of mine because that is another example of an Iranian asymmetric capability that they can employ against us.  And so, the Strait of Hormuz is a logical place for them to do that.

They have thousands of mines that they would be able to deploy.  There's another area though that is also of concern to us and that's the Bab el-Mandeb in the Southern Red Sea where they might be able to do it through their Houthi proxies down there.  So, both those areas are of great concern to us.

Now the United States is not -- does not depend on the Strait of Hormuz for our economy.  However, if the Strait of Hormuz were closed, it would have a significant effect on the global economy, particularly oil exports to a number of nations, which would ultimately have an effect on us. 

So, there's a lot of good reasons to have the capability to -- to keep the -- you know to keep the Strait open.  So right now, you're right, the -- those minesweepers are actually going to leave the inventory at some point.  That will be of concern to us.  We have United Kingdom minesweepers that are there.

We're looking at other alternatives to go forward it's -- it is a -- it's an area that gets a lot of attention from me because it is -- it is something the Iranians could do within -- it might be hard to attribute.  Although, I think if you found a mine floating in the sea of -- in the Strait of Hormuz, it's probably not German.

So, you'll probably have a guess where that might have come from.  So, I would just -- I would just point that out and we will -- we'll continue to work this problem but thanks for calling that out.  That is -- that is a matter of some concern to me.

STAFF:  OK.  We have time for one final question.  Abraham?

Q:  Thank you so much.  Sir, this morning you spoke about the intelligence and firepower would have to come out of Afghanistan eventually.  So, what -- as you're drawing down, will you be able to continue right up until the last day providing that support for the Afghan armed forces or can you -- or can you access how they can defend themselves against Taliban attacks without that support?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, we will attempt to keep collective security with our Afghan partners as long as we can, as long as the capabilities exist, either in the country or out of the country until we -- until we leave.  So, we work very hard at that because again just as in -- as in -- as in Syria, the first line of defense for us, is the SDF.  Actually, the first line of defense for our forces in Afghanistan, are our Afghan partners.

They're the people that are actually in contact everyday and as we noted, they're the people that are taking significant casualties everyday right now.  So we will do everything in our power to keep that capability alive and to keep it as late as we can.  At some point it's going to end because we're going to leave.

Q:  Is it a possibility that the Taliban could -- some Afghan cities could be falling as the U.S. is pulling out?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  It's a -- that's a future contingency that I -- I would not care to speculate on.

Q:  Just a follow-up, General.

STAFF:  Lucas, FOX?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, Lucas. For you.

(Laughter.)

Q:  I appreciate it. Ten years ago, all U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq only to return a few years later to fight another war.  How concerned are you about that happening again in Afghanistan?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, it's something you think about but I'll tell you, nobody thinks about it more than the Secretary of Defense - because he was right there when that happened.  He knows the risks.  We've had the opportunity to discuss it.  We're going to do everything we can to ensure that we can still protect vital U.S. national interest outside of Afghanistan. 

We don't plan to go back in, Lucas.  I -- we just -- we're not planning for that.  I didn't say we wouldn't go back in and strike, but we're not planning to go back in and reoccupy.  I don't think so.

Q:  Is counter-insurgency a failure dropping thousands -- hundreds of thousands of satellite-guided bombs and handing out thousands of Beanie Babies to Afghans, looking back, was counter insurgency a failure?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, I would tell you the reason we went in, which was to protect, prevent attacks on the United States - there have been no attacks on the United States.

STAFF:  That -- that's it for questions.  General, any final closing remarks?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So actually yes, I do.

STAFF:  Thank you, Sir.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, you know recently I've been asked -- and I was asked twice as the SASC today what I would tell someone who lost a child or husband or wife  in Afghanistan.  So, I just want to tell you what I would tell them - and it would be this - that nothing I could say, no words of mine are equal to the task of comforting someone who's lost a loved one at war.

It would be in fact presumptuous of me to try to do that.  What few words I can offer, would attempt to tell those who have to deal with the empty seat at the table, the voice that will not be heard again, the missing laugh at the center of a gathering is this; we fought to protect our country and to give others a chance to choose their own destiny.

There's no better -- higher thing to fight for. That's why I went to war, that's why my son went to war.  So, their loss I would say is not in vain.  In fact, I would reject that.  If I can paraphrase from Second Timothy, they fought the good fight, they finished their race and they kept the faith even into death.

And so, I'll close with a motto from my service, Semper Fidelis.  Thank you very much.

STAFF:  Thank you so much.  This concludes today's press briefing.