Retiring Gen. Joseph Votel recalls challenges of CentCom, the Middle East

As the four-star general’s four-decade career draws to a close, he recounts one of the toughest calls he made while leading U.S. Central Command.
Published March 27
Updated March 27

TAMPA — Sitting in his MacDill Air Force Base office, with just 48 hours left in a career that’s spanned 38 years, 11 months, two days and thousands of decisions, Army Gen. Joseph Votel recalled one of the toughest decisions he’s ever had to make that didn’t involve sending U.S. troops into harm’s way.

It was just last year, when the commander of U.S. Central Command had to tell Syrian Democratic Forces — staunch allies in the fight against the Islamic State — that the United States was pulling its troops out of Syria.

That moment “was a difficult, difficult discussion to have with them,” said Votel, 61.

“When you deliver bad news, it’s easier when you have a respectful relationship, and what we had in this case was very difficult news.”

He was concerned that, without the presence of some 2,000 U.S. troops, the largely Syrian Kurdish allies could be left vulnerable to their historic arch-enemies, the Turks, or the Syrian regime.

“They were far more understanding than we might have expected them to be,” the general said.

For Votel, who has led CentCom since March 30, 2016, the days of making life-and-death decisions and disappointing allies draw to a close on Thursday. He is set to retire and hand over the reigns to Kenneth McKenzie Jr., a Marine lieutenant general who will get his fourth star shortly before taking over CentCom.

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As it has been for years, the 20-nation swath of territory stretching from Egypt east to Kazakhstan that Votel oversaw is in a time of transition and turmoil.

In Syria, the last dot of land occupied by Islamic State was just cleared, yet the Sunni Jihadi group remains a threat. In Afghanistan, the United States is negotiating with the Taliban to end the nearly 18-year war there. In Iraq, there are political rumblings that the new government, heavily influenced by Iran, will ask the United States and its allies to leave now that the Islamic State has been defeated as a ground-holding adversary. And Yemen — where the United States has supported the Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels with intelligence, weapons sales and until recently aerial refueling — has become a humanitarian disaster.

All this comes at a time when military decisions often come not through orders from the secretary of defense, but via presidential tweets. That was the case in December when President Donald Trump used social media to announce the United States was leaving Syria.

Votel, the commander who was tasked with carrying out the president’s orders, downplayed the challenge.

“We quickly got over” being surprised by Trump’s Syria tweet, Votel said, “and got focused on the mission. The president is the commander in chief, he makes the decisions. So that’s his responsibility and it’s our responsibility to implement those instructions.

“We can think about it. We can talk about it. But it doesn’t help get the job done.”

To Votel, getting the job done in the region means keeping enough of a presence there to prevent U.S. and allied forces from being attacked. So far, the cost has been nearly 7,000 U.S. lives and trillions of dollars.

“We can’t allow the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to come out of this region,” he said. “We can’t allow instability in the CentCom area to spill over into other areas where it impacts our allies and we have to safeguard our access to the critical waterways important not just our commerce but global commerce and we have to maintain a favorable balance power as we've done for 100.”

Votel said there is still the possibility Iraq will not move to evict the United States.

“I think the good news is that there have been no decisions taken by the government of Iraq and in all my conversations with Iraqi leaders, and I’ve just been there,” he said, adding he “is confident at this point they still see great value in the United States coalition.”

But Votel also expressed concern about the influence of Iran in Iraq and the rest of the region.

“I think Iran has a role to play in the region,” he said, then proceeded to laud the Iranian people, culture and history. But the Iranian regime, he said, “is exporting their own form of revolution. And they are doing it by providing the advanced capabilities to proxies in the region,” such as the Syrian regime and Hizballah.

“That is not the activity of a country playing a positive role in any particular region,” Votel said. “We need them to stop.”

In Afghanistan, Votel expressed hope for the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban.

“I think for the first time in a long time we have a path toward the objectives the president has laid out, which is the reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban,” the general said. “It’s an uphill path. It’s going to be curvy. I know it is going to take a lot of work, but there is a path to get there.”

The remaining military mission, Votel said, is to put enough pressure on the Taliban to keep them at the negotiating table, even as Afghan government forces continue to take heavy losses and U.S. troops are killed.

“They are losing people," Votel said. "But I would highlight to you that the Taliban are losing people, as well. I think it is a motivator to get them to the table of reconciliation.”

Votel also addressed issues closer to home at MacDill. Like many other military families, Votel said he and his wife Michele were forced to move out of their home in late 2016 after the discovery of black mold, which has sickened many who live on the base. Then, during the “massive reconstruction” that followed, an electrical fire burned their place to the ground.

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Soon, it will all be behind him. Votel said he and his wife are packing up and heading back to his native Minnesota. They’ll travel some, then Votel will decide his future.

That will not include a run for political office, he said, or serving as a civilian in a job such as secretary of defense.

Whatever it does include, he would like his CentCom experience put to good use.

“I think I've got a fair amount of experience here and something to offer and I would like to be in a position where I can help explain the importance of this region and the dynamics of this region to people.”

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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