TAMPA — As the man in charge of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel oversees American military operations in 20 nations that comprise the world's most dangerous and complex region.
A Minnesota native and former commando chief with 37 years in the service, Votel helps develop plans to battle Islamic State, the Taliban and other jihadis. All the while, he must navigate challenges from the Russians and Iranians, political tensions among U.S. allies, and the regional fallout of the enduring Arab-Israeli strife.
On Wednesday, Votel, 59, sat down with the Tampa Bay Times in his office at MacDill Air Force Base for a rare one-on-one interview to talk about his 16 months on the job. He discussed a wide range of issues over nearly an hour.
Among the highlights: Iraqi forces will need to shift from combat mode to security mode to protect against a shrinking ISIS, the military is expanding its work with the Russians against a common enemy, and the Iranian regime remains the most destabilizing influence in the CentCom region.
Talk about the new authorities you have been given under the Trump administration.
The president has granted authority down to the secretary of defense (allowing) us to be more agile and more responsive to a very complex, developing situation. We want to enable our people forward with all authorities and decision-making capability they have and I think we have done that. And that's certainly been reinforced by the new administration but frankly it's something we started under the old administration.
Can you offer an example of how that's worked?
Sure, the most pertinent example is Mosul. We are advising, accompanying, assisting, enabling Iraqi forces all around that city. That means providing (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) support for them, fire support for them, and in order to provide that most effectively, you really have to allow our advisors that are with them to make those decisions, to be responsive, to take advantage of opportunities we see, to help forestall advances by the enemy. We can't make that decision back at a centralized in Iraq and certainly not back at here in Tampa or Washington or anywhere else.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — dead or alive? And does it matter anymore?
I have no idea. I have nothing to tell me one way or the other. I certainly have seen all the reporting on it. I guess in one extent it does matter. I hope that he is (dead), frankly. I think it could be viewed as another blow to them. That said, we've been doing this long enough to know that leaders are killed and we've killed plenty of them. And that there's always somebody who is going to step up into those positions so we shouldn't think that just killing Baghdadi is the key here. He can be replaced. So in that regard, it may not matter as much.
After the fall of Mosul and defeat of ISIS, how can Iraq come together with so many divergent interests?
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In many ways this is the hard part of what we are doing here. The political aspect of this, the humanitarian aspect of this, is always more difficult than the military things, so this is the challenge before us. The political side always takes a bit longer. As we went into the fight in Mosul, we had very good cooperation between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government. Absolutely vital for success was the ability of leaders to come together and set aside their differences for a period of time to beat ISIS. I consider that to be a very successful approach here, and it has given the ability now, as we move into the more difficult political aspects, a way to address that. Certainly there are things that are going to have to be addressed. It won't be easy, but there's a basis for doing it.
On Sept. 27, the Kurds will hold a referendum about independence. How much of an additional challenge is that?
Being able to have the Kurdish Regional Government and the government of Iraq work together on Mosul was a key factor in the overall success of this, so I'm concerned the referendum could add a little friction into the remaining operations here that could effect things. But I am very trustful in our diplomatic efforts to address that I know there are things ongoing here. The timing may not be best for what we still have left to be done here but I am hopeful that with our engagement we will minimize that.
How concerned are you about ISIS 2.0 and what can be done to prevent that?
I think we should all be concerned about that. One thing we have learned about this organization is that they are adaptive. I think what we'll see now is smaller cells, we'll see stay-behind elements, we'll see pockets that will begin to take on more of an insurgent-guerilla type approach as opposed to an Islamic army that we saw back in the beginning. We have to be prepared for that, so that some of the things that we will do as we look to that is we will look to adjust some of our coalition training efforts for the Iraqi security forces to ensure that can move from doing large-scale operations like they have been doing in places like Mosul to now doing wide-area security operations, where they have to go out and have to address a network, address small elements. We really need to return to that.
Classic Special Operations Forces missions?
More of what perhaps we have seen in the past, and an important point is keeping the pressure on. The people of Iraq should take great pride in what they have accomplished and the coalition should take great pride in what they've enabled, but we can't rest on our laurels. There's still a lot of fighting left to do, a lot left to be done in the city of Mosul. There's certainly a lot more to be done in Ninewa and across the country and in Syria as well. So we should reflect on what we've accomplished but we have to stay on this more until its over.
How do you engage the Sunnis?
That has to come through the government of Iraq. I think the prime minster, a very good man, recognizes the importance of that and hopefully he will continue to do that. It is pretty noteworthy to watch him up in city of Mosul, which is largely a Sunni city, and how well he was received up there and how he reached out and did all that. These are all the earmarks of a leader at war. He was performing as the commander in chief. I would also highlight that one of the things again on this point of the prime minister as commander in chief, one of the things he was absolutely strident on throughout this, was as we conducted the operation in Mosul, was ensuring that we did everything we could to protect that population up there, a population that was largely Sunni. And this was a horrible, challenging fight up there, and certainly, there have been civilian casualties. But I will tell you, through the prime minister's leadership and his direction to his leaders and our support for them, I think we should be very proud of the way we conducted ourselves.
The battle for Raqqa is now on. How long will that take?
We are not going to make any time estimates on this. You just watched what took place in (Mosul), a city of 1.6 million, 1.7 million people. It took nine months. Raqqa is probably 300,000 to 400,000 people, but it's in an area that again has had a long time to prepare and the forces we are operating in Syria are different than the forces we are operating with in Iraq. We're not talking about the Iraqi army that has ministries to lead it. Now we are talking about a much more indigenous force made up largely of Syrian Arabs and Kurds — and Kurds are part of that indigenous force. They don't have all the trappings of a big army, so I think it is important for people to understand the context of what we are doing here. A large city, an indigenous force, a well-prepared enemy. And by the way, an enemy now that has suffered a significant defeat, so they are running out of space there. We would expect they are going to fight harder, and more aggressively than they are and a large part of that is going to be exploited again. So I think it is going to be a challenging fight and it will take months.
Talk about the cease fire in southern Syria. How's that working and what do you have to do?
Obviously, I would tell you we are paying very, very close attention, but there are no immediate equities for CentCom or the Department of Defense. That's still very much being worked out. We have not been told to do anything with respect to that.
What are your thoughts on working with the Russians?
The word we use is not cooperation, but it is deconfliction and that is principally what we are doing. I have characterized this interchange as being very professional military to military interchange and I think trust certainly has to be earned over time here. But I will tell you the deconfliction line that we have had in place and has become more robust over time, meaning that not only do our air components talk to each other but (Army Lt. Gen. Stephen) Townsend (in charge of the ground war against Islamic State) now has the ability to talk to his counterpart.
As the White House looks at other options for working with Russians in Syria, are you comfortable sharing intelligence with them?
We don't share any intelligence with them. I'm not authorized to do that. That's not the nature of the relationship.
If the White House said it wanted some sharing of intelligence with the Russians, would you be comfortable with that?
If we are directed, we certainly would.
Talk about Iran and your concerns about their influence in the region.
I think Iranian influence is significant in the region, and as I have said and others have said, Iran is perhaps the most destabilizing. I should say the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people. I want to make sure I call a distinction between that. The Iranian people are culturally rich and deep and have a place in the region here, but the Iranian regime and their activities, particularly those under the Qods Force (special forces) element I think are the most destabilizing factor in the region long-term.
As the battle space shrinks and so many groups are fighting over the same dirt, and nations outside your region get involved, like Turkey and Israel, how concerned are you about something going wrong?
This is always present and when you look at the layers of complexity in a place like Syria, you've got extremists, a civil war, you've got ethno-sectarian challenges, whether Arabs and Kurds or Sunni and Shia or Turks and Kurds. Then there is the influence of state actors like Russia and Iran and you have legitimate concerns from a country like Turkey, for example. They have a very legitimate concern about terrorism that emanates from organizations like the PKK and other things there that I think are a concern. The concern for us is that when we do things, they have second or third order of effects that trip over into these other layers of complexity and really make things much more difficult to work. And that's why I think the importance of deconfliction lines, the ability to talk, to make sure that, hey, this is what we are doing, here's where we are focused — it has allowed us to prevent escalation, escalatory events, in some situations. I think it has been very, very, very vital.
The situation with Syrian Kurdish allies must be particularly vexing given the Turkish feelings towards them and the fact that they are also among the best fighting forces as allies.
We certainly acknowledge the Turkish concern. I think as you've seen, (Defense) Secretary (James) Mattis and a variety of others do and we support it 100 percent. Our intention is to be as transparent and as clear in terms of what we are doing here as we can be and I think that is working for us and again that's another way of helping work through this complexity.
What additional complexities do the Israelis, who've fired on Syrian regime targets, present?
You just highlighted the complexity. One of the underlying challenges of course has been not only the Israeli-Palestinian issue but the Israeli-Arab issue that is an underlying current for a long time in this particular theater, so it certainly adds another level of complexity on top of all the blankets of complexity we have here that we have to be cognizant of. And again, we have to communicate and make sure people understand what's happening here so I think it does highlight it.
Given the shared concern about Iran, do you see greater cooperation between Israel and Sunni nations in the region?
I think there is an opportunity, certainly, for that and I think that's probably a better question for Israel or the other nations there to answer. But we certainly would encourage that.
Lets talk about the situation between Qatar and the nations blockading it. You have to work with all those nations. How is it going?
There have been some impacts, they've been mitigable to this particular point, but it is concerning to us. I'd prefer as a military man to see these differences addressed in a different way than perhaps they are now, through dialogue and discussion as opposed to some of the approaches that have been chosen. Nonetheless, that's been done and we are where we are here, so I am grateful to our Department of State to get out there and help us work through some of these things and do that and help minimize the impact of what's going on.
You said there are some impacts. What are those impacts?
The impacts are it potentially takes people's focus off the common things we really want to be working on, like Iran, for example. It creates a disunity among a group of people that we rely on here. And again, to this point, these have been very mitigable in terms of what we are doing, so it is not significantly impacting what we are doing. But over time I think perhaps it could.
In a worst case scenario, what could that be?
At the very extreme of this it could be more direct action between these parties. The other thing more probable is it could lead to more lack of cooperation. I mean, we rely on all these partners. It's no surprise that we have a big airbase in Qatar that supports our operations across the region, so we rely on that to make sure we can pursue our objectives and the common objectives here. I am concerned long-term a rift like this can, I think, effect relationships.
Let's shift to Afghanistan, where there are still nearly 9,000 U.S. troops with plans to send more. Can the Afghans handle the fight?
What you seen over last couple of years is that the Afghan security forces are in the lead. They have been able to deal with the situations they are dealing with (like) attempts by the Taliban to come in and take over major urban areas. We've seen the Afghans be able to get after that and to take areas back and to prevent some of that. Where they've tried to expand into areas that are of importance to the Afghan government, around the capital — to the north, on the south, out in the east and in some areas they've been able to do some operations to take that — they've had, I think some success against the ISIS elements that exist in Afghanistan so they've done that. The Afghans have taken a lot of casualties. They've paid a very, very heavy price for that and they are engaged every day. And so that toll that takes over time is significant and it's resulted in a situation where there is a bit of a stalemate here and so what we have to look at is how we help them move forward over that
Can you talk about your recommendation to the president for new troop levels in Afghanistan and what do you want those troops to do?
A: I won't talk about what my specific military advice was up the chain of command that is still under consideration, so it is really inappropriate for me to talk about my specific (recommendations). I am satisfied that both (Army) Gen. (John) Nicholson (commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and I have had our ability to have input into the process and I am confident that the chain of command will take that on board and make some decisions here in terms of that. But that's still underway here right now.
Can you talk about what the additional troops should do?
I think what we have to do is look at how we optimize the successes that the Afghan security forces have achieved, so I think one of the bright spots that you see in the Afghan security forces is their special operations capability. I think we need to look at how do we enable that more in the future. They've been very good. They've been the principle response force They've been a key element here to the fight as we've moved forward. So how do we double down on that aspect? Another aspect of that has been the budding Afghan air force. It's not very big. It's not as capable as it needs to be. But it has demonstrated some capability. On one of my most recent visits was down to the south part of the country, I was able to talk among the corps commander and what he was telling me about was how some of the aircraft that we have been able to get to them, the A-29s, have been very, very successful at doing close air support. Afghan air force supporting Afghan forces. This is good. We need to double down on that. The Afghans are in the process of moving their border control forces from ministry of the interior over to the ministry of defense. That's a good move. That's a very positive move. We need to look at how we can support that. The Afghan police have certainly had challenges and so we have to look at how we help them perform more of their appropriate police functions in holding area.
The Taliban has made significant gains. How confident are you that the Afghans can defend themselves?
I think I am confident, with our sustained assistance, I think they can. I think a very good factor here has been President (Ashraf) Ghani, and he does have a long-term vision. He's laid out a four-year approach here for how he kind of sees things he's done for the coalition and I think the response from the NATO partner and others has been very, very good in terms of that. As I think I've commented to you, I'm a soldier who went to Afghanistan in as early as October of 2001. I was in the first wave. I went there, so I want to be hopeful for Afghanistan. I want to see them succeed. But it's going to take something — we're turning a big ship here and there are challenges. There are challenges of corruption, there are challenges with bad governments, challenges of disenfranchisement, all kinds of things that have to be addressed. And we have to stay focused on all of those things. It isn't just about fire power, and advisors and things like that. It's addressing all of these other things and making this a professional force and doing things we talked about with (non-commissioned officers) here. It really is about a very comprehensive approach. It is going to take time and we have to be able to sustain that over time. We'll be able to mitigate the troop levels and other things based on the situation and stuff like that. I'm confident that we can make decisions on that, but what's important is the sustained support.
Do you see sustained support in the form of continued U.S. troop presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq and for how long?
I think as long as it takes. But again, these enter into policy decisions so I don't want to get out ahead of the policy makers. But from my perspective, as a military man and CentCom commander, I think when we provide assistance we have to be prepared to sustain that. We can't just come in and do something and leave. You know we did that in Afghanistan in the past and we saw what happened as a result of that. We did that in Iraq and we saw what happened as a result of that. So I think we have to be cognizant of paying attention to the lessons of the past here and trying not to repeat those things.
Anything else you want to add?
I think in the wake of a great success like Mosul here, the thing I want the people of Tampa and the American people to recognize is that we are very, very proud of our partners in Iraq and all the coalition partners. They should continue to be proud of how our country is being represented. They should be very, very proud of the men and women we have out there, doing our nation's bidding. I certainly am.