General Kenneth F. McKenzie, U.S. Central Command Commander talks with a WVTM reporter in Birmingham, Alabama, about the raid on the ISIS compound in Syria which resulted in the death of the ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
[Jeff] General McKenzie, I know your resume is is (laughs) very long and distinguished. It begins with being born in Birmingham, so I’d love to know your connection and how long you lived here.
Jeff, first of all, delighted to have the opportunity to chat with you this afternoon. I owe much of my success in life to being from Birmingham, Alabama and if you’d like, I’ll sorta talk you through my history and roots with Birmingham. I was born in Center Point, Alabama. And actually attended school through about my junior year at E.B. Erwin School out in Center Point. And then I transferred to Shades Valley, to the Resource Learning Center located at Shades Valley High School over in Homewood. As you’re probably aware, the Resource Learning Center is the antecedent of the current inter-baccalaureate high, international baccalaureate high school there. So it was a great experience for me. I graduated with the Class of ’75 and those two years at RLC were certainly formative for me. They developed a lot of the attitudes toward learning and thinking that I’ve been able to use, really for the rest of my life. So it was just a great launch pad and an experience for me.
[Jeff] Well that’s really fascinating. I wasn’t sure, but you obviously do have deep roots and so much of your life experience formed here. That’s fascinating. You are now the 14th Commander of Central Command, as I know it. To our viewers who may not really understand that, explain your job as simply as you can.
Sure, Jeff, I’d be delighted to do that. I am one of 11 Combatant Commanders that the United States has. I am one of the Geographic Combatant Commanders, which means I’m responsible for a part of the Earth. And the part of the Earth that I’m responsible for is from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, Kazakhstan in the north to Yemen in the south. Certainly, one of the most turbulent and demanding regions of the world. And I am responsible to the Secretary of Defense and to the President of the United States for what happens with U.S. Forces in that area. As part of that, I work very closely, not only with all the countries in the region, but also our diplomats, all the other elements of the United States that are engaged across the world. They all have a role to play in Cent Com and we work very closely with them, really day in and day, out from our headquarters here in Tampa, but also from forward in the field. And I, Jeff, I’ve spent about half my time actually working across what we call the AOR, the Area of Responsibility. Whether it’s either visiting our forces that are engaged in Afghanistan or Iraq, in Syria. Also visiting the other countries with which we have close defense relationship with. So I spend a lotta time traveling.
[Jeff] So you do, and I think you and I are about the same age and I guess, because you also have a masters in history, I know, tell us really how warfare has changed. It’s very different from when you and I were little boys, I guess, playing with toy soldiers and certainly since 9/11. We’ll get to this most recent, successful raid in a moment, but fighting people in these tunnels with suicide vests and grenades and sadly, you know, children being used as pawns. What has happened to the world, just in your military lifetime?
So, Jeff, when I entered the Marine Corps as an officer in 1979, we trained largely against the Russian threat and its threat to Europe. Once the wall came down in 1989-’90, we shifted a little bit, and then adapted to fight the fight that we’ve been fighting for the last 18 years in the U.S. Central Command AOR, a war against violent extremists, a war that really knows no genuine boundaries, that is shocking in the fighters’ use of really barbaric force, and you talked a little bit about that just a moment ago. In the latest raid that we just executed, we saw some of that complete disregard for any and all norms of human conduct or the laws of armed conflict as we would know. And that’s been a very difficult challenge for us, but we’ve adapted, we have fought well, and I’d like to believe that we’ve kept our values, even as we had to struggle in a very demanding fight across all of U.S. Central Command.
[Jeff] And in this successful raid with al-Baghdadi and his death, I guess, again, I mean you obviously went through great detail in the news conference, so I don’t want you to enumerate all those things, necessarily, but things that happened along the way, maybe that you can tell us now that you couldn’t just a few days ago, and really what went down there as best you can describe that to viewers who are, obviously, fascinated by what you do.
Sure, so we chose to execute this raid after an extensive period of intelligence gathering where we has narrowed the location of the individual down to a very good place. And I would just tell you, if you want a real nutshell, actually of the American way of war, we could have struck that place with stand-off aircraft at any time, but we were concerned because there were children on the objective. And we did not want those children to die as we went after Baghdadi. So we put men and women at risk in the air at night, flying long distances under a significant risk, significant threat, in order to get down there and save as many of those innocent people as we could. And we were able to save some, not all of them. And the fact that we were not able to save all of them, I know, weighs very heavy on the men and women who executed the mission. However, it’s also, I think, a really sterling tribute to the lengths to which we will go to avoid killing innocent people as we proceed about these very difficult battlefield tasks of going after militants like Baghdadi and everything that he represents.
[Jeff] And I note with some interest today that Turkey has captured Baghdadi’s sister, I think her name is Rasmiya Awad. And from what I understand, this man used his relatives, you know, as operatives. So that there’s some supposition this woman might be a treasure trove of intelligence. Do you feel that that’s possible?
Jeff, what we normally find in the aftermath of something like this, first of all, we gather information from the objective. And I can’t go into any details about that, but we gather things that are very helpful to us to follow up on other leads that leads to other sources, other objectives, other cachets of material. So it typically has a very positive cascading affect and I would say yes the fact that she has been captured is probably going to lead us to even more opportunities to continue the final ultimate defeat of ISIS.
[Jeff] I know your time is valuable and short. I wanna ask you a couple things that I normally ask people, I don’t get an opportunity to talk to people this high up in the chain of command, but are there things you can tell me that worry you, and as an adjunct to that, beyond what keeps you up at night, what inspires you even in this twilight struggle, I guess, as President George W. Bush called it at 9/11, what inspires you even in the midst of all this?
Well let me answer your first question. You know, I can’t improve on General Mattis’s answer to this question when he was asked, and his answer was, “I sleep well at night. “I keep other people awake.” I try to do that, too. I get my sleep, I sleep well. But I would tell you what I really draw strength from is the quality of the people that are in the Armed Forces of the United States. The men and women that are out there on the ground, doing the work every day, flying at night, in all kinds of conditions, on the ground, moving across severe terrain, driving ships across the sea, under the water, or being an infantry man as I was and as my son was. Those are things that really, to me, they’re why I’m in this business, that’s why I can get up every day, and that’s why I’m confident that we’re gonna meet any challenge that we face.
[Jeff] That’s terrific. And again, to just draw a little bit back, anything that comes to mind as we’ve been talking here about growing up in Center Point and in Birmingham, any particular episode or influence that you’d like to share?
I’ll tell you this, I think one of the great experiences of my childhood was when Auburn beat Alabama in 1972, 17 to 16 in the two-block punts game. You know a lotta people claim to be at that game that were not. I was not at that game, but I listened to it on the radio and as I look back over my childhood, that was a remarkable episode. My family are Auburn people. As you know, I did not go to Auburn. I went out of the state and went to school at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. But, you know, those long, all those Auburn-Alabama games all across my childhood have been, they were very significant to me. Even as today, I tend to follow UAB football pretty closely ’cause I think they put a great product on the field. They’re a great team and the story of them over the last few years has been remarkable. So I think that’s a real good current, it’s a good news story about football in Birmingham.
[Jeff] I love it. Well then I can’t let you off the hook here, your Commander and Chief is on his way to Tuscaloosa, we understand, this weekend to watch the Alabama game. I don’t know, can you say that you’re pulling for Alabama and do you have any military strategy for Nick Saban against LSU?
Well Jeff I think it’s gonna be a tough game, they’re playing at Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s a well-coached team, so is LSU. I watched them play Auburn just a couple weeks ago. but I think this is one probably Alabama is gonna come out the winner and I’m not sure it’s gonna be by less than about seven to 10 points.
[Jeff] Wow, and no special plays. I remember President Nixon drew up one for the Red Skins, I think, in the early 70’s. You don’t wanna draw up any special plays for Nick Saban?
You know, I don’t think those guys need any help from me to do what there doing.
[Jeff] Thank you Sir. Anything else you’d like to add, any hello’s to folks here in Birmingham I can pass along?
No, it’s a great city. I think it’s a city that has remarkably transformed itself over the last 40 years or so. And you know, and I think a lotta that actually has to do with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the things they brought to the city and so I’m actually very proud of that and, as you know, my sister’s associated with UAB, so I tend to follow UAB a little bit because of that, but I get back about three or four times a year, I always enjoy coming back. It’s very much like, well like coming home, as you would hope it would be. I have great memories of Birmingham and the things I learned there have really powered me throughout my career.
[Jeff] Well, you have an open invitation when you come back to come visit us. Congratulations on a super successful mission that was not without great risk, but obviously got the American people a great reward and we thank you so much.
Jeff, thanks so much. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to you. Take care and we’ll be talking again I’m sure.
[Jeff] Same here, sir, and many thanks for your service.