Gen Kenneth McKenzie argues US forces need to stay in Iraq to stop ISIS regaining strength

He warned that the resilience of ISIS posed the greatest threat to regional stability

 US soldier stands guard at the K1 Air Base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, during a handover ceremony. Getty
 US soldier stands guard at the K1 Air Base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, during a handover ceremony. Getty

American forces should remain in Iraq to stop ISIS regaining strength, especially through radicalising children, the US commander in the region said.

Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, also warned that the vast number of ISIS prisoners in poorly secured jails in Syria meant there was a strong chance of a breakout that would be a major boost to the terrorists.

Separately, he argued that Iran was blocking any path to a political agreement in Yemen and he was critical of Russia’s “opportunism” in the Middle East.

But it was the resilience of ISIS that posed the greatest threat to regional stability and made a strong argument for the US to keep a strong military presence in Iraq.

“We must remain focused on the defeat of the ISIS mission, understanding that the organisation's destruction is not yet complete,” Gen McKenzie said.

Coalition forces needed to maintain “constant vigilance” to defend against the threat of ISIS or its successors who were planting “destructive seeds around the world”.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 4: Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., USMC, left, and Lt. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, U.S. Army, testify during their Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on December 4, 2018. McKenzie is nominated to serve as General and Commander, U.S. Central Command, and Clarke is nominated to serve as General and Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie: 'If we are unable to reintegrate displaced people we will bear witness to the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS.' CQ Roll Call

The US and its allies, including Britain, needed to continue to train Iraqi troops in order to keep the terrorists at bay. “But this does not provide stability, it provides security,” he said in a webinar interview with Raghida Dergham of the Beirut Institute.

Something that could dramatically undermine stability was a mass breakout of the 10,000 ISIS fighters currently held in jails run by the US-trained Syria Democratic Forces. This number includes 2,000 foreign fighters, seen as the most committed and violent extremists, who are guarded in makeshift detention centres across north-east Syria.

“Coalition military forces do not directly supervise these detention activities,” warned Gen McKenzie. “But our assistance continues to mitigate the risk of breakout that could fuel ISIS efforts to regenerate.”

Another long-term risk was the number of young refugees in camps who were vulnerable to extremist indoctrination.

“This is an alarming development with potentially generational implications and there's no military solution to this issue,” he said. It was vital for the international community to help reintegrate the refugees back into their homes.

The officer then gave a stark warning. “If we are unable to reintegrate displaced people we will bear witness to the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS as the children become radicalised and then it will become a military problem as the next generation of ISIS fighters grows up in front of our very eyes and takes up arms against us.”

While former US president Donald Trump vowed to remove US forces from Iraq, reducing them by half to 2,500, the new administration under Joe Biden is undertaking a defence review of global force numbers.

Asked about his view of the continued American military presence in Iraq, Gen McKenzie indicated that he would wish them to stay.

“It is my judgment that the government of Iraq wants the United States and our coalition partners to remain because they see the value of our presence in the country. I think the government of Iraq wants us to stay and I'm not going to disagree with it.”

He was critical of Russia’s military presence in Syria which he said was there to undermine the US in the region and for Moscow to “sell their military equipment to whomever will buy it”.

But he warned while it was easy to get into Syria, “as the Russians have found it may be a little harder for them to get out.”

On the Yemen conflict, Gen McKenzie, who works closely with his Saudi and UAE counterparts, said he believed Saudi Arabia was “ready and willing to end the conflict”.

“They have conducted a unilateral ceasefire and they've made some overtures to the Houthis. The ball really is in the Houthi quarter.”

But he accused Iran of not wanting to bring the war to a close mainly because it gave Tehran the opportunity to strike at Saudi Arabia through its Houthi proxies.

“Iran has no interest in this bloody war coming to an end. They’ve brought nothing to Yemen but death and weapons. They've never put any humanitarian aid into Yemen. It suits Iran's geopolitical aspirations for this war to continue so the Houthis need to rise above that and come to a better agreement with Saudi Arabia.”

Asked about the potential of a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran, following strong hints that the Biden administration would re-join the deal, Gen McKenzie, 63, said: “I'm confident that very soon we'll know what that ultimate policy is going to be.”

Updated: February 25, 2021 09:46 PM

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