The U.S. military will continue to have an active presence in the Middle East despite recently announced troop drawdowns, the head of U.S. Central Command said Friday.
"Our presence in the region sends a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities but, most importantly, the will to defend partners in the national interest," said Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander.
U.S. forces are still needed in the region to deter Iran and contain the Islamic State, which continues to pose a threat in Iraq and Syria requiring U.S. support for local forces, McKenzie said in virtual remarks to the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations.
An ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan has also been targeted by U.S. forces and has often clashed with the Taliban.
Several times in 2019, both on Twitter and in statements, President Donald Trump said that the Islamic State had been "100% defeated."
However, a day after the raid into Syria by U.S. commandos that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Trump in an address to Chicago law enforcement officers said that “70%” of the so-called “caliphate” had been eliminated.
"We're moving forward with the president's decision to reduce our forces in Iraq to 2,500 [from about 3,000 by Jan. 15]," he said.
McKenzie did not specifically address Afghanistan, but Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Tuesday that President Donald Trump had ordered a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, in addition to the withdrawal of 500 troops from Iraq.
In a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Miller noted that more than 6,900 Americans have been killed and over 52,000 wounded in the so-called "forever wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hours after the troop withdrawals were announced, four rockets, possibly fired by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, landed inside Baghdad's Green Zone, the location of the U.S. Embassy. There were no casualties among U.S. personnel, but the Iraqi military said in a statement that an Iraqi child was killed and four locals wounded.
Despite the attack, which appeared to break an informal truce reached with the militias in October, McKenzie said Iran's "malign influence" in the region has been largely deterred.
"I believe the Iranian regime recognizes if they get into an escalatory spiral with the United States, it will not end well for them," he said. "So that's why we've seen a recent decline in these tensions at sea, and attacks against us in Iraq and other places. Today, I believe Iran has been largely deterred, because the regime now understands we possess both the capability and the will to respond."
While the U.S. does not want war with Iran, it maintains sufficient forces to deliver an overwhelming response to any attack, McKenzie said.
He had a different take on the long-term threat of an ISIS resurgence, noting that the United Nations estimates the terror group still has about 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
"The government of Iraq has clearly indicated it wants to maintain its partnership with the United States and coalition forces as we continue to finish the fight against ISIS," McKenzie said.
ISIS' "ultimate aspiration" is to reestablish its physical caliphate in the region, but the more ominous long-term threat is the influence and spread of its violent ideology, he added.
He warned that "the years ahead will not be free of violence. There will never be a time when ISIS, or whatever follows ISIS, will not be active."
McKenzie renewed his warnings that thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families, as well as millions of refugees in the region displaced by Syria's civil wars, are likely targets of ISIS influence.
He was introduced at the forum by Dina Kawar, the Jordanian ambassador to the U.S., who said that about 1.3 million Syrian refugees remain in Jordan, making up about 20% of her country's population.
McKenzie, who has been almost alone among top U.S. commanders and officials in pointing to the foreign fighter and refugee crisis, said, "We are buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road [unless it is addressed]."
Without action, "We're going to have to do this all over again," he said, meaning a massive U.S. troop buildup in the region. "These issues will not go away by ignoring them."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.