The following is a transcript of an interview with retired Marine General Frank McKenzie, who was commander of U.S. Central Command from 2019-2022, that aired on “Face the Nation” on Sept. 10, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to retired Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, who was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2019 to 2022. Welcome back to Face the Nation, sir. Tomorrow–
GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE: –Margaret, good to be with you this morning.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Tomorrow is the 22 year mark after the attacks of 9/11. And this Friday, a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters that al-Qaeda is at a historic low point and revival’s unlikely in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wonder if you think we’re at the point where the U.S. can declare victory.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, it’s good news about al-Qaeda. I think ISIS is actually the more enduring threat right now. Al-Qaeda is torn with internal theocratic debates. ISIS is not. And I do believe that ISIS, particularly in Afghanistan, is taking advantage of the vast ungoverned spaces that are there. And I believe they are in fact gathering strength. I would not dispute the judgment on al-Qaeda.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, your successor, the current CENTCOM commander said ISIS could do an external operation against the U.S. in under six months. How should Americans understand that threat from Afghanistan?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I believe ISIS has always wanted to attack us here in our homeland. It’s a core tenet, a core belief of theirs. And one of the reasons that we were in Afghanistan was to prevent the use of that country as a base from which to gather strength and either to direct or inspire attacks on our homelands, or the homelands of our allies. As a result of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now far more difficult for us to pursue those objectives.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you’ve made no secret of the fact that now as a private citizen, you opposed both President Biden and President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In June, Biden was asked about some of the documented failures of that withdrawal. And here’s what he said:
PRESIDENT BIDEN SOUNDBITE: Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we get help from the Taliban. I was right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you make of the President’s characterization of the U.S. working with the Taliban?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Of course I don’t see that intelligence reporting anymore. But everything up until April 2022, which is when I stopped reading it, led me to believe that the Taliban would act only in the light of their very best interests. And while they might- they might- they might make some temporary accommodation as they did when we withdrew from Afghanistan, they weren’t to be trusted and they actually have a long term familial and customary relationship with al-Qaeda and it’s very difficult to think that would change. I think that relationship is far stronger than any potential relationship they choose with the United States.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You oversaw that evacuation and you’ve testified to Congress previously that the U.S. did not have any opportunity to take out that suicide bomber who took the lives of the 13 Americans who died August two years ago. But in recent months, a marine sniper has testified to Congress that he had the bomber in his sights, and he was not authorized to take the shot. Do you stand by your initial statement?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Yes, I do, Margaret. And the point I would make is this. As the days wound up to the 26th of August, which was the date of the strike, we were looking at four significant threats. We were looking at a vehicle borne IED attack, a car with a bomb in it, that we thought was very real, in fact, was being prepared. We were looking at a suicide vest attack of the type that actually occurred on the 26th. We were looking at indirect fire rockets or mortars directed against the airfield. And then we were looking at the possibility of an insider attack, somebody who got past our checkpoints and- with a bomb and was able to set it off either in the crowded terminal area or an airplane. So the point I would make is, look, there were a lot of threats being worked all the time.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But there was nothing that you saw indicating that there was a decision made not to take a shot. Nothing that would substantiate what this individual said under sworn testimony.
GEN. MCKENZIE: What I can tell you is that tactical units on the ground went in with rules of engagement, what we call ROE in our business, that were robust enough to allow them to defend themselves. And we actually exercise that right on several occasions in defense of the airfield where we engage targets that appear to be threatening. So the rules of engagement were in place as to what actually happened on the ground at the tactical level down inside a rifle squad or a platoon. Well, Margaret, I- I don’t know the answer to that, so I can’t- I can’t help you with that particular one. But I do know we had good- good rules of engagement. They were the standing rules of engagement that we’ve had, people were well trained in those rules of engagement and knew how to apply them.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to also ask you as former CENTCOM commander about Iran. We have seen a build up by the administration of Marines, warships in the region at the same time, a bit of a thaw with Iran with this potential prisoner exchange happening and the release of 6 billion in unfrozen Iranian oil reserve money. How should Americans at home think about Iran now, given what’s happening?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Iran remains the most significant threat to peace in the region. And they continue to pursue ultimately a policy of ejecting the United States and other Western- Western nations from the region. That hasn’t changed. That- that’s a- in return to hegemonic power in the region. All those remain core goals of Iran. Now, they will do a lot tactically to gain sanctions relief. And that’s- in my judgment, that’s what they’re doing now. The core problem of Iran has not gone away. In fact, it’s worsened, because over the last 10 years, Iran has significantly increased the capabilities and capacity of their ballistic missiles. They have thousands of those- of land attack cruise missiles, low- low flying missiles, and also drones. And those give them the capability to gain what we would call overmatch against their neighbors. That’s a significant- that’s a significant rise in Iranian capabilities. We tend to overlook that sometimes because we look hard at the nuclear issue and the nuclear issue is important. But the issue that’s- that poses a threat this afternoon is the Iranian capability with their missiles.
MARGARET BRENNAN: General, thank you for your assessment and your time today.