WASHINGTON - The United States can keep pressure on the Islamic State terror group and build Iraq’s military capacity with fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told VOA in an exclusive interview.
“We can get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq, and the reduction will be done in close consultation with everyone,” said Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), adding the U.S. was “working through that problem right now.”
McKenzie on Wednesday declined to discuss specific troop numbers. The U.S. currently has between 5,000 and 6,000 troops in Iraq.
A U.S. defense official told VOA more details could be revealed on plans for a potential U.S. force reduction in Iraq following the U.S.-Iraq dialogue scheduled later this month. It is still unclear, due to concerns about the potential spread of the coronavirus, whether the U.S. and Iraq representatives will meet in Washington or hold virtual talks.
McKenzie said Iraq’s government has been “very aggressive and very helpful” in attempting to reduce attacks from Iranian-backed proxy forces on bases that hold U.S. and international troops, an issue that has previously caused friction between the two nations.
“Because of that, we have seen a lower number of attacks on U.S. bases than we would have otherwise seen over the last few weeks,” McKenzie told VOA on Wednesday.
The CENTCOM commander said Iran is under great diplomatic and economic pressure but has “made sacrifices” to the detriment of their people to ensure their military threat, including their ballistic missile forces and their elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, remains high.
“I don't consider Iran any less threatening right now than they were several months ago,” he said.
Taliban not living up to commitments
The commander, who visited Kabul on Tuesday, told VOA the Taliban has not kept up their commitments agreed to in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, leading to one of the “most violent” periods of the war in Afghanistan.
“While the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while,” McKenzie told VOA.
On Tuesday, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said Washington was keeping its end of the deal.
“The United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and withdraw from five bases. We have met this obligation,” said Hoffman in a statement.
McKenzie said before there could be a greatly reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan, inter-Afghan dialogues needed to start and the U.S. would need to be confident that the Taliban would not host Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida terrorist groups, potentially allowing them to carry out attacks on the West.
“Right now, it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps in that, in those areas,” he told VOA.
He also reiterated that he had found no information that proved to him that Russia provided bounty offers to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops.
“We are continuing to dig. I have found nothing yet that would make me change my judgment that it is very worrisome, it's very concerning, but it's not proven to my satisfaction that it actually occurred,” McKenzie said, declining to give further details.
Multiple U.S. military commanders have pointed out over the years that Russia has frequently worked to try to counter U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. In 2017, for example, then then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson told reporters of continued reports of Russian arming the Taliban to fight the U.S. and its Afghan partners.
McKenzie told VOA the difference between arming and offering bounties is “the human connection.”
“I think that's what it makes it frankly, you know, morally abhorrent, and against, really against, the Western way of war. We would not, so I find it particularly distasteful to even consider that,” he said.
Below is an abbreviated transcript of highlights from the general’s interview with VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb:
VOA: [Commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)] Mazloum Abdi said that you met with him last week. Can you confirm that? And can you talk a little bit about what you discussed during your talks with him?
McKenzie: Sure. So, I did have an opportunity to meet with Gen. Mazloum in Syria last week as I moved up and down the eastern Euphrates River Valley. Not only Gen. Mazloum, but also, I had the opportunity to visit our forces … out there. What I conveyed to Gen. Mazloum was, we continue to partner with them. We have tasks that remain to be accomplished against ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley. … We also talked about SDF management of the IDP (internally displaced persons) and the prison population that's there. We do not directly manage that. We're not directly involved in that at all, but we are concerned about it. We're concerned from a security perspective and we're concerned from a humanitarian perspective.
VOA: I saw you also discussed that yesterday with some reporters. Is CENTCOM doing anything directly to relieve this burden on the SDF currently?
McKenzie: We really have no direct way to do it. We're involved in some of the training of the forces that go there, but we have no real direct connection to either of those things. We work with our State Department partners. We work with USAID (United States Agency for International Development). We're working with a variety of international relief agencies, particularly with the IDPs to help, but it's indirect help. I would tell you, we’re doing everything we can to provide assistance, and we will aggressively work with the interagency and the international community to do that.
VOA: The United States is very focused on the areas in Syria that are under SDF control. Can you talk a little bit about the developments, though, with ISIS in areas of Syria that are under the Russian control or the Syrian regime control?
McKenzie: Now in areas west of the Euphrates River, where you've got Russia and Syria control, I am concerned because I don't believe they have any concept of stabilization as we know stabilization. They have no idea actually of how to actually manage that area after you've cleared it militarily. And so the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS still obtain out there in the west, that's unfortunate, and I am worried about that. There's not much we can do about it. We don't have forces out there. The SDF doesn't operate out there. So, you know, we try to we tend to concentrate on areas where we do have control. And I think it's a I think we have a path in areas where we do have control. There are a lot of a lot of obstacles down the road. But I think, you know the key is, again, the future is not bloodless. There's always going to be some form of insurgency with these factors in this area. But what we want to do is we want to establish local systems that will be able to handle (the insurgency) so they won't need us to do it, except with very, little support.
VOA: I'd like to move on to Iraq. There's supposed to be a meeting slated in D.C. for late July. We're halfway through the month now. Is that going to be happening in person? And what do you hope to see come out of these talks?
McKenzie: I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the value that U.S., coalition and NATO forces bring to them in their fight against (ISIS). And I actually believe that as we continue through the strategic dialogue, and as you know the first strategic dialogue happened, in the second one is scheduled for later this month. I believe we're going to arrive at a solution going forward that's going to be something negotiated between the government of Iraq, us and our partners, where they're going to want us to help them continue operations against (ISIS). So, I'm hopeful that that is actually going to continue because I recognize they believe that we are value-added. I would also note as an aside, this represents a setback for Iran. Iran has pursued a policy of trying to eject the United States from the theater and from Iraq, in particular, for some time. And I believe they felt very strongly, they the Iranians, felt that in the spring of this year they had the opportunity to achieve that objective. I believe that is now turning into a dead end for them and they're finding that the government of Iraq is not going to be completely beholden to them. Rather the government of Iraq is going to make decisions in its own best interest. … So, the strategic dialogue is scheduled. You know the friction of coronavirus, the dangers inherent with that. I do not know the status of if that's going to be a physical event, which I know we wanted it to be, or it's going to be a virtual event or it's going to be a hybrid combination. Carla, I just don't know.
VOA: Attacks have continued on bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. What do you make of that?
McKenzie: Iran realizes they're not going to, probably not going to be able to get us out politically. So, they've got to make a decision: Do they want to move us out through the use of force? And that would be through the use of their proxy forces, the Shia militant groups that we know operate in Iraq and have actually been very well armed by their Iranian masters. And in fact, in past years have killed a lot of U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen. So very much aware of that. The other point is the degree of Iranian control over the Shia militant groups is imperfect, even more imperfect after the death of (the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force), Qassem Soleimani.
So, I think Iran is beginning to think about testing the boundaries of what they can get away with to cause pain to us. We will watch that closely. Those attacks to date have been relatively minor, but we watch them and could very quickly turn into a major, major problem, and we will be ready to respond should that occur. But I think they’re driven, at least partially, by the fact that they were not able to get the solution they wanted politically in Iraq. So that's one of the reasons they're moving against us.
VOA: I think what you may be trying to imply is that the attacks have continued in part because Iran doesn't hold as much power over these proxy forces as they used to. Is that what you're saying?
McKenzie: I think there's a degree of that. But I think, you know, whether Iran is telling them the attack or not, the weapons are enabled by Iran. So, there's clear Iranian ownership, at least moral ownership with what these groups do, even if they're not actually pulling the trigger and saying attack this base tonight. The government of Iraq is reaching out, and they're being very aggressive and very helpful in attempting to reduce these attacks. I think because of that, we have seen a lower number of attacks on U.S. bases than we would have otherwise seen over the last over the last few weeks. So, I think the prime minister (Mustafa Al-Kadhimi) takes his responsibility very seriously to assist those who are in Iraq to help him.
VOA: In Afghanistan before there was an agreement to withdraw down to the 8,500-8,600 range of U.S. troops, there was a determination, not just political, but a military determination that the U.S. could get the job done with that number of troops. How many troops do you need to get the job done, and if you don't want to be that specific, can you get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq?
McKenzie: So, the answer is yes, we can get the job done with fewer U.S. forces in Iraq and the reduction will be done in close consultation with everyone. And I'm not ready to actually talk about the specific number, but I believe that we have the capability to, just as we've hardened ourselves and our bases in Iraq against Iranian attack, we still can do all the things we need to do by reducing the attack surface that presents itself against the Shia militant groups in Iraq. So, I think we can do all those things and we're working through that problem right now.
VOA: The Trump administration has officials that have said Iran is especially vulnerable right now due to the maximum pressure campaign, due to sanctions, the pandemic, the aftermath of last year's massive protests. Has the threat towards the United States from Iran also weakened?
McKenzie: I think Iran has gone to great lengths to ensure that what they hold as their critical capabilities to retain the ability to act. By that I would mean their ballistic missile force, their strategic air defense forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other elements. I think they have made sacrifices among their larger population in order to ensure that these elements which they hold to be so important, you know, receive preferential treatment and are ready to respond. So, I think that Iran still retains very significant capabilities. I think the penetration of the coronavirus in Iran is very disturbing, because I do not think they've been particularly effective in treating it across the country. I think the penetration among senior leaders is worrisome as well. That could always lead to unpredictable behavior. You know, we're prepared for that. That's one of the things that one of the things we look at all the time is what can Iran do? We look at Iranian capabilities all the time. … I would tell you, I don't consider Iran any less threatening right now than they were several months ago.
VOA: I'd like to switch to Afghanistan for the final part of this conversation.
VOA: You had said to reporters last week, and Gen. Mark Milley, (U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) has actually echoed similar information, that you had asked your team to further dig into the matter of Russian bounties being offered to the Taliban in exchange for the deaths of U.S. service members. Have your people found any more evidence to back up that initial report?
McKenzie: I asked that question back in January when I first received a report. And so, we are continuing to dig. I have found nothing yet that would, you know, would make me change my judgment that it is very worrisome, it's very concerning, but it's not proven to my satisfaction that it actually occurred. Look, I would go no further, Carla. I take every death of every U.S. man or woman in Afghanistan very seriously. We continue to look at a broad variety of things but I've got nothing back yet that would change my judgment on it.
VOA: You know general, I was in Afghanistan with Gen. (John) Nicholson back in 2017 when he was telling reporters that the U.S. had continued to get reports of the Russians arming the Taliban. What makes the idea of offering bounties so different than arming the Taliban to fight against the U.S. forces?
McKenzie: Well, sure I think it's the human connection that you tie it to a wanting to kill a specific kind of person, a specific American or a specific Afghan. I think that's what it makes it frankly, you know, morally abhorrent, and against really against the Western way of war. We would not, so I find it particularly distasteful to even consider that. Look, Russia does not mean us well. We know that. They are not our friends. I've said this before. They have no interest in our success in Afghanistan, or in a lot of other places as well. So, it should not surprise us, and it does not surprise me that they work against us. That's just a given when you consider the nature of the battlefield there.
VOA: Let us shift to the peace agreement that we are trying to form that we are trying to help form between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We're now more than 135 days into this. The United States just mentioned that it had kept up all of its commitments. The Pentagon issued a statement yesterday. Has the Taliban kept up their commitments in your opinion?
McKenzie: No, I would not say that they have yet. Here's why I would say that. So, we expected to see a reduction in violence. And while the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact, the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while. It’s one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we see to date. Average lethality is down just a little bit. But the number of enemy initiated attacks is, fact, very worrisome. We need to get to inter-Afghan dialogue. It is uncertain that we're going to get to that at any time soon. That's really the next critical thing that needs to happen in order to move forward. Because what's going to happen is that the Afghans have got to talk to each other to determine how they're going to formulate a plan forward. That's what leads us to the long-term conditions that would allow us to that would allow us to actually see a future where there's far less U.S. or coalition presence in the country.
Those conditions are just not met yet. But, you know the biggest conditions of course, are that we need to be assured that ISIS and al-Qaeda do not have the opportunity to be hosted in Afghanistan and develop attacks against the West. And Carla, right now it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps in that, in those areas. And they still may yet do it. Time is not out. But I just haven't seen that actually be developed yet. So, I think we're coming up with a pretty important time with this process.
VOA: How confident, Gen. Mackenzie, are you this far into the deal that a peaceful resolution can stem from this? Or are we on the verge of a reset?
McKenzie: We don't we don't need to believe the Taliban. We don't need to like or dislike the Taliban. We need to study and observe the Taliban and see if they keep their commitments and move forward. And that will tell us whether or not there is a path to go to peace. And at best, at best, they've only partially done some of those things. … And I think honestly the government of Afghanistan is trying very hard to do what they've undertaken to do as part of the agreement. I think right now the Taliban is not in the same place. So that's how I draw my assessment of what the future is. … I would not say that I'm confident or not confident. I would say that I look at the indicators and that lets me know how people are living up to their obligations under the agreement that we made. And the Taliban has not lived up to some of the obligations they have made. They still have time to change. I don't know that they will. I don't know that they won’t. I do know that we're going to watch very closely. It will be indicated by actions that they take.
VOA: What's the repercussion to the Taliban if they're not being helpful, if they're not allowing the U.S. to move forward on this peace negotiation with the Afghans, the Afghan government and the Taliban? What does the U.S. military plan to do if they're not helpful and they're not keeping up to their commitments?
McKenzie: That ultimately is going to be a political, not a military decision. But if the Taliban envision a future where there's very little or no foreign presence in Afghanistan, then they have to create the conditions for that. And the conditions for that would be an agreement with the existing government of Afghanistan, a way forward that it has a significant reduction in violence and absolute promises that are verifiable and verifiable to ensure that al-Qaeda and I have no safe haven in Afghanistan.
VOA: Thank you, general. Thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America.