Q&A Transcript from 2023 MRE Conference
WASHINGTON — Speaking with Military Reporters & Editors on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 during its annual journalism conference, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, Distinguished Senior Fellow on National Security at the Middle East Institute, answered questions about the current Israel – Gaza war and shared his insights and thoughts on global national security.
TRANSCRIPT LIGHTLY EDITED FOR CLARITY
Howard Altman: We’re speaking with Joe Votel. He’s a former commander of both U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command and currently a distinguished fellow at the Middle East Institute. And it’s an honor, Joe, to talk to you again. Obviously, a lot of things are going on even tonight. Intensified bombardment, ground movement, the Houthis firing ballistic missiles into Israel. Give me a sense of what you’re seeing.
Yeah, thanks Howard. And it’s great to be with you and with all of your group here today. Thanks to you and thanks to all your colleagues for what you do to get the information out there for our citizens.
I think what we’re seeing here is what we’ve been watching for the last week or so. And that is, you know, on the cusp of a much broader, larger scale military operation certainly from the Israeli side. We’ve seen some of these probing attacks. We’ve seen increases in indirect – and looks a little from the latest that I’m seeing – in direct fire into the Gaza area.
We continue to see posturing by Iranian-aligned militias and proxies not only in the immediate vicinity of Israel and Gaza, but certainly much more broadly across the region to include in Iraq and Syria and apparently down in Yemen as well.
So, I think what we’re seeing is people are continuing to posture for a fight here and that has not yet fully broken out. But different parties are trying to get into the best positions that they can be to represent their own individual interests. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it right now.
Howard Altman: How difficult is any kind of incursion that the Israelis take into Gaza? Hamas has had a long time to build. It’s been pummeled by bombardment. Hamas has a large amount of tunnels, weapons. How difficult of a fight is this going to be?
That’s an important question. I think this is going to be a difficult fight. We don’t know exactly how the Israeli Defense Forces will approach this, but as a former military officer, somebody who has been in these situations before, I think you have to expect that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult fight for a variety of reasons.
First of all, the three-dimensional nature of the terrain, you’ve got tall buildings, you’ve got surface canyons – by streets and rubble and other things that are existing in Gaza, and especially in Gaza City. And of course, you’ve also got this underground network, the architecture of nearly 300 miles of well-developed tunnels that allow Hamas to move fighters around, to locate their supplies, to locate their command and control, to locate their medical care for their fighters, a whole bunch of things. So that makes it really difficult just to begin with.
And then of course, you continue to layer on some of the other complexities involved with this. The presence of hostages, the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, and I think an amplified information environment out there where information is getting out very quickly, sometimes unverified, that is informing the whole situation. So, I think this is going to be a difficult endeavor, really, regardless of however Israel does this.
And just talking, if I could just take a moment to talk a little bit more about that, it’s interesting to watch what they’re doing now. I don’t know that we’re getting any clear indications of how they’re going to do it, but I think you’re getting a feel for the different options that might be available. We’ve seen some very heavy indirect fire delivered by aircraft and other systems that the Israelis have into Gaza, really going after destruction of the tunnel systems and Hamas leaders and Hamas command and control. That’s been pretty heavy. It seems to have been amplified over the last 24, 36 hours. But, you know, when you think about urban operations, there are several different ways that this can be approached.
There’s the kind of very deliberate clearance that many people have thought about early on and what was talked about in the media and with a lot of commentators. And this is the block-by-block clearing of this, a very time-consuming resource-intensive clearing of the area. And of course, at the end of that, the force that clears it, in this case, the Israelis really kind of have to occupy it and have to control it before it can be turned over to somebody else.
A second approach is kind of what I would describe as kind of a rapid advance approach. And that is forces move to not clear everything but move to critical locations from which they gain a maneuver advantage or some kind of dominance over there. There may be specific geographic or other political objectives in Gaza that they get to. And then they emanate from there. It’s not, it doesn’t really buy into the full clearance of all of this, like the deliberate option does. Well, it’s another way of doing this.
And then I think a third option that we may be seeing here is kind of a combination of the heavy fire and then these raids into Gaza.
And I first started talking about this a couple days ago before we saw this armored column go in a day or so ago. But the idea in this case would be to go in and do raids, whether it’s with ground troops or probably as we saw with armored columns go in, accomplish a specific mission, and then come back out. And then kind of continue to do that to try to loosen this up.
I think it’s likely we could see a combination of all three of these, as the campaign unwinds. So, I think it’s important to pay attention to what the Israelis are doing. I think the time that they’ve taken – now nearly three weeks here since the atrocious actions of October 7th – illustrates, I think, a level of care and deliberateness with which they are looking at the situation.
Howard Altman: Do you think we’re seeing some probing attacks? Some of these armor incursions are probing attacks to sort of keep Hamas off base and maybe to set off some of their booby traps, some of their defensive measures and pull out and get a better sense of intelligence inside Gaza?
Sure. That’s it. That’s exactly the reason for some of these limited raids here to go in. And one is to get Hamas off balance and let them see something. Second of all is we can’t dismiss the fact that they’re doing this for their own population to demonstrate that they’re actually doing something.
But operations like that do give the forces a good insight of what they’re going to face as they get a feel for what the level of booby traps or improvised explosive devices or obstacles that might be in their way. It might give them an opportunity to get in and look at something on the ground before they actually withdraw out. It gives them an idea to get in and look at the impact of the terrain from the strikes that have taken place over the last couple of weeks here so they can make some assessments about it. So, I think there’s a lot of good reasons for doing things like this from an attacking force standpoint to understand the situation better and it has some other corollary benefits to it as well.
I want to touch a little bit on the sort of geopolitical role you had. As a CENTCOM commander. Israel wasn’t in the [area of responsibility] AOR, but still it was an ever-present issue. The long-standing, long-simmering problems between Palestinians and Israelis were probably something that you had to deal with as a CENTCOM commander with the other members. Talk about how that is affecting any kind of cohesive ability to counter Iran.
In my time at CENTCOM – which is the 2016 to 2019 period – certainly I think everybody, everybody who’s ever been in that position, anybody studied the Middle East, really recognizes that one of the prevailing underlying currents and tensions through the region is of course the Palestinian issue and how that ultimately gets gets resolved.
I should say during my time that was not the governing issue, frankly. We were dealing with ISIS and the continuing remnants of terrorism across the region and that was really the focus that I had. But the role of the CENTCOM commander in this – and I think it’s a really critically important role that people appreciate – is he’s certainly not a diplomat as you we would normally think of, but he has many of the same qualities that that a lot of our diplomatic professionals have. He has broad relationships across the region. He can talk to a variety of people. I think it’s important to note that we saw the current CENTCOM commander – Gen. Erik Kurilla – in the region very early on not only visiting Israel but also getting out and talking to a variety of of partners out there.
So, he has a network of relationships out there – trusting relationships – that go back years and include his predecessors like me and many others. So, there’s some very deep relationships and these really help us, I think. And it’s a really kind of a secret tool for us as we continue to navigate this extraordinary environment. This particular situation does resonate through the region. I mean you’re seeing King Abdullah in Jordan has reacted to this because he has a sizable Palestinian population in his country. So, he reacts differently to this. Each of the Gulf countries have reacted in different ways. Some of that has been measured. Some of it a little little more strongly, but it does bring back to the surface this really key underlying current in the region and exposes it again.
It’s a problem that’s existed for a long time that’s never been resolved. And now it’s playing out and threatening greater instability across the region. So, I think that’s kind of how I look at it right here. And of course, all the actors that are involved in this, certainly the Iranian-aligned part of all of that are clearly paying attention to this and I think trying to make determinations: Is this the opportunity to pile on against Israel? Am I trying to bide my time? Am I just trying to harass them? What do we do here? And so, I think it just exposes some very raw nerves across the region, and I think that’s what you’re seeing play out right now. So, the importance of our deep relationships really matters in this situation.
Howard Altman: We’ve seen increasing uptick in attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. We’ve got nearly two dozen troops who now have TBIs after drone and rocket attacks. There’s been threats from Hezbollah to launch an attack if Israel goes into Gaza. The Houthis are involved now. How concerned are you about this conflict spinning out of control beyond just Israel and Hamas?
I’m very concerned because I think that we could – we still are in a position where we’re just one very bad miscalculation away from expanding the conflict. So, you know, any one of these attacks that you alluded to by the Iranian-aligned militia groups on an American base or an American diplomatic location or something like that – that caused American deaths or more serious injuries – I think could change the perspective from how we are involved in this.
And so, I am really concerned about the miscalculation on the part of other actors in this and how they are looking at the situation, looking to take advantage of this very, very serious situation that we’re seeing in Gaza right now.
Howard Altman: Last night, the U.S. struck targets in Syria associated with these Iranian militias. What does that accomplish?
Well, I think we have to see. I mean, first off, I should say I’m glad we struck back at this. My knowledge of the situation is probably the same as everybody else in the room there. So, I don’t have any unique insights into this. If we’re being attacked in Iraq and we’re striking back in Syria, I think we have to pay attention to make sure that the message is penetrating to those that are perpetrating the attacks.
Again, what we have out here is a variety of Iranian-aligned militia groups, some bigger, some smaller, who are perpetrating attacks all at the behest of Iran, and whether they can be deterred by something that happens at a location that’s different from where they are, I think remains to be seen. I’m not saying that’s not the case. I’m just saying we have to pay attention to that as we watch these attacks over the coming days.
So, I think it’s important we strike back. I think we should send a very clear message in this, and I think in many ways being clear about that, and sending a very clear signal that no, no, we’re not tolerating this, and that’s not going to go unchallenged or unpunished, I think does add an element of stability to the situation.
If I could make that argument there, frankly, that unambiguous, not taking action, not taking action that’s linked to things that are causing problems here, I think could lead to further escalation.
Howard Altman: What is your sense of a potential direct conflict with Iran? How likely is that do you think?
Well, I don’t know. Iran doesn’t necessarily act directly. The way that Iran acts in this region, of course, is through their proxies and through their Iranian-aligned militia groups, which are numerous across the region. I mean, we’re looking at the Houthis, we’re looking at Hamas, we’re looking at Lebanese Hezbollah, but there’s a bunch of other ones there. And you know Howard from, and many in the room know from their experience in the Middle East here. In places like Iraq, for example, we have Popular Mobilization Forces that are Shia aligned, that stood up during the fight against ISIS, but have never gone away. We have organizations that go back to our – from the 2003 to 2011 time, organizations like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, for example, which, as I understand in my own reading, has relocated at least a portion of its forces to the western part of Syria, to be in a position where they can do something.
So, I think it is likely that our contact is going to be directly with these types of groups first, but I think, make no mistake, that they are doing this at the urging and with the political support, military support, economic support of Iran. So again, that will be an important decision for our government. At what point do we stop dealing with these groups that are out here causing problems, and we go back to the original source of the problem? That’s a pretty big step for the region. And I’m sure one that our country would, our leadership would take very, very, very seriously.
Howard Altman: As the CENTCOM commander, what would be that line? What would be the line that you would say to your boss? Sorry, I think that the time has come that we need to do something — direct action against Iran. What would be that red line?
Well, certainly very clear indications that Iranian government forces were involved in an attack on American interests in the region would certainly be an aspect of that. But there are lots of other things that we can do against Iran and even before we get to that point.
Part of the purpose of our large movement of resources in the region is one to posture and second of all to help contain the conflict and deter actors like Iran from taking this. Iran is dependent upon using airways, air traffic to move materials around. They’re dependent upon using non-standard maritime vessels for moving things to the Houthis and others. We have the ability with our partners in the region, certainly with some of the assets that were deployed in there to maybe tamp down on some of that, to make it difficult for them to do that. So, we can get their attention quickly without having to go to an all-out fight.
Of course, the presence of an American carrier group in the Middle East, particularly if it’s down in, say, the Gulf of Oman, poses a very significant problem for Iran. We can hold an awful lot of risk, in terms of doing that. And if Iran continues along the path and is directly going after American interests, then we can always choose to hold the critical things for them at risk.
Howard Altman: We saw the Iranian Navy when we flew out to the USS New Orleans…
We did. We did.
Howard Altman: So, let me open up to questions… Thank you, Joe. I appreciate it.
Carla Babb: Hey, General Votel. This is Carla Babb. The Voice of America. Good to see you.
Carla Babb: I apologize. I missed the very top because I was escorting our previous speaker out, but I wanted to ask [a question] because of your expertise with Mosul and General Glynn was giving his expertise. He helped you during Mosul and that was a nine-month slug. How do you compare Gaza for the Israel Defense Forces and Mosul? Is it going to be harder and longer in your opinion? Should we look at like a nine-month ground invasion? What should we be expecting right now?
Thanks, Carla. It’s great to hear from you as well.
I think there are some aspects that are going to make it much more difficult here. Obviously, let me just start with Mosul. ISIS had been there for a couple of years, so had an opportunity to harden some of their positions, to get embedded a little bit, to kind of understand and know the lay of the land and be able to operate in there. And of course, there were big differences between Eastern Mosul and Western Mosul, and the most difficult part of the campaign up there, the nine-month portion really was consumed in the Western part of the city, which was very, very dense, not unlike what we’re going to see in Gaza and Gaza City. So, there are some similarities there.
But ISIS never was as fully integrated into the population as Hamas was. ISIS did not have this elaborate 300-mile system of tunnels underneath the built-up area. ISIS did not have the array of indirect rockets and missile systems that Hamas does. So, I think there are some fairly significant differences to take place in that.
I think the fighting will be as brutal. I have reminded people that at the end of the fighting in the Western part of Mosul, our Iraqi partners who we were enabling at that time, the last clearances of ISIS fighters were done by bulldozers to actually dislodge ISIS fighters who were so embedded and dedicated to the fight in there. It’s likely that the fighting, I’m certain that the fighting in Gaza will be equally as brutal between the Israelis and Hamas as well. But I think it’s going to be an even more challenging environment.
Carla Babb: And one quick follow, if I may, would you advise Israel to continue doing what it’s doing in terms of airstrikes? It appears that Israel says that it’s been doing these airstrikes to target Hamas fighters to prepare for a potential ground invasion. But while they’re doing this, they’re hitting a lot of civilians and they’re also losing hearts and minds as they’re doing this. Is this a good prep for a potential ground invasion in your opinion?
That’s a hard one. I think any military force that is doing a campaign like that has to look at the effectiveness of the things that it’s doing. I don’t have any unique insight into how effective this is being. I’m seeing everything that you all have with this. But I think certainly the humanitarian situation is a big aspect.
And this is another area where there are some differences in what we’ve tried to do in Mosul against ISIS and what’s happening here. In the lead up to the Mosul part of the campaign there, we had learned from some of our experience in Fallujah and some of the other areas earlier fighting ISIS that we needed to have more concentration on humanitarian planning for our military operations. And so, we did. And there was a well-developed architecture of humanitarian organizations where the United States was a key player in that. And we actually did plan with them.
We planned for humanitarian corridors. We planned for assembly locations. We ensured that the supplies were in place. In fact, I think we actually had more than we actually ended up needing in this.
I don’t think that we don’t have the luxury of all of that right now in Gaza. And I’m not saying anything bad about the humanitarian aid community. I think they’re doing the very best they have. And I know a number of organizations have set up camps, are getting stuff in there. And that’s really, really critical. But the humanitarian aspect of this is really critical. And I know it must weigh heavily, it weighed heavily on me as the commander, weighed heavily on my commanders. And I suspect it does on the Israelis as well.
Tony Capaccio: Hi General, Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg. What practical results came from the transfer from EUCOM to CENTCOM of Israel? I know this came after your time. But were there any practical results that are playing out now that you can explain in layman’s language, how this bureaucratic shift worked? And second, how closely did JSOC work with the Israeli counter-terrorism hostage rescue specialists when you commanded the unit and fast forward to today, as far as you know?
Well, thanks. Let me handle the second part of your question there first. And I’ll just say this, I won’t go into too many details about particulars of unit exchanges and stuff like that. I’ll just say we had a very extraordinary relationship with the Israelis that went back quite some time. I can remember even as a colonel visiting Israel after we first went into Afghanistan to make sure that we were sharing ideas and getting the benefit of their practices.
Of course, Tony, as you remember, when I was leading the ID effort in the Department of Defense back in the 2006-2008 timeframe, one of our principal partners we relied on was the Israelis.
They had advanced capabilities in this area. They and the Brits were well ahead of us in how we dealt with challenges like this. So, we have well-developed relationships. I have no doubt that those remain very, very strong at high levels in the special ops community and then probably down into very specific organizations that have pretty deep relationships.
To the first question you had about the relationship, I think the benefit is that most of the things, most of the security concerns that Israel has really are looking into the CENTCOM area of responsibility. They’re not really looking out into the European Command area of responsibility. So, to me, I think this was a good alignment when we brought Israel into the CENTCOM area of responsibilities.
My last trip as the CENTCOM commander that I made to Israel, I did go there several times. We actually did it in a more public way, acknowledging the fact that we now had the CENTCOM commander visiting there. That was an important aspect to do and an acknowledgement that many of their concerns were really nestled within the CENTCOM area of responsibility.
More practically, it helped provide opportunities to build relationships between the Israelis and other military leaders across the region. I think this is important. We’ve all heard over the last couple of years about a series of exercises, some in the air, some in the maritime environment, some on the land, some of them command post exercises, some of them just general conferences of meetings between military officers from Israel and in other countries within the region. I think these are all trust building activities. This is a really, really positive aspect of it. If I could just step aside from the current conflict, our efforts to build upon the Abraham Accords, I think really benefit of course by this relationship as well. I mean, we’ll see where that goes with all of this, but certainly I think that’s aided.
I just think the idea of netting together countries who share common security issues as Israel and many countries in the region do, vis-a-vis Iran, I think is a real benefit to this new relationship.
Jared Szuba: General, thank you for doing this, Jared Szuba, with Al-Monitor. You mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sort of underlying this regional crisis. And I know what I’m going to ask is a little bit, you know, after your time at CENTCOM, but I thought I’d get your take. Prior to this crisis, the White House was pushing to expand the Abraham Accords, pushing for Saudi normalization with Israel. CENTCOM was working on regional security construct, integrated air and missile defense, and then, of course, planning with Israel for a potential, you know, contingency of a multi-front conflict. But it seems that Hamas as a trigger for that, was not anticipated, seemed to catch at least everyone off guard. So, I’m wondering, given the centrality of the Palestinian issue to regional consciousness and Iran’s success in raising these militias in states with either failed states or weak governments, how was the vulnerability to U.S. strategy overlooked?
It’s a great question, and I’m not sure I’ve got a satisfactory answer for it. From a U.S. standpoint, I mean, we’ve obviously been focused on some other national security priorities for us, obviously our focus out into the Pacific and vis-a-vis, you know, great power competition with China, which I agree as our security strategy identifies it and it’s kind of a pacing threat and something that is truly existential to us. We have to pay attention to that. Even as a CENTCOM commander, I testified to that, that’s clearly an important aspect. But I think the thing that does concern me a little bit is that we don’t seem to have a full appreciation for how this region and our security interests, our national interests in this region, fit into a broader strategy.
Again, set aside the current thing here. We are competing in this region as well. We are competing with China. We are competing with Russia, who will step into voids, who want to be seen as friends to different partners in the region here and play a more leading role. And when we pull back, those voids that we create are filled in.
So, the thing that I would be concerned about is that if we are choosing to be the nation we are, and with the interests and the influence that we want to have, going forward, and I hope that we do, I think we should, we can’t afford to minimize regions like the Middle East that are so critical to us.
Again, there’s no doubt. The biggest challenge is going to be out in the Pacific with a rising China and their very aggressive plan with what they want to do out there. But we have to also make sure that we look after our interests in other areas. I think we brought our forces down too low. I think our dialogue, our narrative has de-emphasized this region — maybe because we’re tired of it, maybe because we haven’t seen a lot of gain over the last 20 years or at least as much as we had. The fact of the matter is this region is an important component of our overall national security strategy.
I think we have to look at it that way. Like you and like others, again I’m surprised that not only the Israelis missed it, but that we and others did as well. This may not have been the primary area that we were looking at in terms of this. Our collection priorities are probably focused in some other areas here, but I am really surprised that we were so surprised by this attack and then the nature and complexity of it here that we didn’t — include the Israelis — didn’t know that this was taking place.
Jeff Schogol: Thank you, General. You mentioned the US military’s pivot to the Pacific. Given your time in the CENTCOM AOR, do you envision a time when the US military will be able to move its focus to the Indo-Pacific? Or is the CENTCOM AOR kind of like Hotel California, where we can check out anytime, but never leave?
I hadn’t thought of that description of it, but it’s a little bit apt. I oftentimes talk about the siren call of the Middle East here that about the time you’re ready to leave and do something else, something occurs that draws you back into it.
Frankly, I do think we have done a lot of things to address our priorities out in the Pacific area. I’m not an expert in that area. I’ve traveled out there, even in my time as a retired officer with some of the interests that I’m involved in here. And I can clearly see that we are doing work out there in terms of partnerships, in terms of some of our military activities, the increase in some of our capabilities out there, the focus on things like logistics and other things, our efforts to address some of the more predatory aspects of the Chinese economy going after our intellectual property and going after our businesses and things like that. I think we’ve done a lot in terms of that. And there’s probably more than needs to get done. But I think my point here is — I’ll try to sustain what I said a little bit earlier.
We have to appreciate that we do have interest in other areas. And what I do think we need to do is we need to figure out what is our sustainable level of support — military, diplomatic-wise, information-wise, economic-wise, all the elements of national power in an area like the Middle East, the Levant, and Central South Asia — so that we can look after our interests there and make sure that they’re protected, so that we can deter adversaries, we can protect ourselves, and we can reassure our partners in the area. It matters to us.
It matters to us to have a positive influence in an area like the Middle East. We’re not as dependent upon resources coming out of that area. Many of our partners are. Things that, as you point out, things that happen in the Middle East don’t have a tendency of not staying there. They impact other areas. It’s important. There is always the challenge of proliferation of weapons and mass destruction. Of course, it’s a cauldron for terrorist organizations. So, there are interests here that are long-enduring, that will continue to be in the future. And we need to figure out what a sustainable level of military force in this region is that allows us to complement our other elements of national power to make sure we look after and preserve our own interests.
Patty Nieberg: Hi, General. This is Patty Nieberg with Task and Purpose. Kind of combining the two topics we’re talking about Indo -Pacific and the Middle East. There’s a lot of concern about China’s growing influence in the Middle East, Africa. I’m curious if those conversations happened during your time in service, and just if you have any thoughts China in the Middle East.
Yeah, they did. But the Chinese activities, I think the majority of them that were occurring during the time that I was in the seat were largely economic and commercial activities. It was not difficult to go to any of the big cities in the Gulf, for example, and see the presence of Chinese construction companies or other things that are in there. That was clearly taking place.
When I first came into the seat as a CENTCOM commander, I think the Chinese had the presence of one naval vessel in the region on a regular basis. They had negotiated access to a maritime base in Djibouti that, while not necessarily in a CENTCOM area of responsibility, it definitely was an important location in the kind of the maritime environment that is CENTCOM. So, we’ve seen it grow over time, but they were not as aggressive then as they have become now in terms of more presence, more locations, more focus on the Belt and Road Initiative.
While I was in place, the belt and the portion of the Belt and Road Initiative that essentially bisects Pakistan was in the formation phase. And as I talked to my Pakistani counterpart because Pakistan did fall on CENTCOM, there was real concern about it from their standpoint in terms of how that was actually going to benefit Pakistan. So, I think, I think we were early on into this, I’m not trying to offer any kind of excuse or anything. I’m just saying it was early on. It’s been developed. I think what China is doing has been much more exposed now in terms of how all this kind of fits together and I think it poses more of a concern for us.
Howard Altman: I just want to just follow up on that question a little bit, the Chinese have come out supporting Iran recently, the Russians have moved in aviation assets that when the U.S. moved the carrier group into the eastern Mediterranean, how concerned are you about those two actors taking a more direct role in what’s going on?
I don’t know that either of them will take a more direct role. I think the role that they will play is the one that we’re seeing right now is this — trying to be a broker of peace and someone who is trying to rise above this and try to solve a problem for which they don’t have a whole lot of expertise.
I think it’s in China’s interest to see us get tied up in here — to see us involved in another tumultuous situation in the Middle East. From a Russian standpoint, I don’t know how much resources Russia actually has that they can dedicate to this, given this just disastrous operation they’ve set upon in Ukraine. That they really have the resources? I’m sure they have some that they could probably move down there and have never probably left Syria from the original support they provided to the Assad regime there. So, there’s something there.
But again, I think they are looking for opportunities to fill in the gaps, to watch the erosion of American influence and American power in the region and to take an advantage of that. I think both of these countries are going to look for ways that they can leverage this situation for their own benefits, mostly to diminish U.S. influence — U.S. leadership on a regional, on a global scale.
Howard Altman: How close do you think we might be to bringing more troops into the region, move towards that, getting back into it? How close do you think and what would what decisions would have to take place to make that happen?
I suspect we’re looking at this on a day-to-day basis. I don’t know that we will necessarily see hundreds of thousands of ground troops in the located bases in the Middle East like we have seen in the past. I think what you have seen is our military resources, the carrier strike groups, air wings, squadrons, moving into the area. You’ve probably seen some response forces move into the area. You’ve probably seen some special operations posturing in the area here to make sure that we are prepared to deal with responsive stuff. I don’t necessarily think we’ll see a large-scale movement of ground troops as we saw in the past.
I do think what we probably will see, but it may not be as evident, will be the movement of enabling capabilities into the region. This is intelligence, this is all the other things that we need to do to make sure that the theater is operational.
There’s a lot of architecture that goes into CENTCOM, not just the intelligence aspect of it, but the logistics aspect of all that was a critical component of that. A lot of that has gone, and we’ve reduced a lot of that. I think it’s likely that we’ll see some of that being reestablished to make sure that we can be flexible in the event that we do have to move more forces in the region, ground forces, for example, which I’ve not necessarily seen at this time. I think we’re going to continue to see probably more of what we’ve been seeing, if we’re not already there, some of the enabling capabilities that support all of that, to make sure that we are effective and that we have a great read on the situation, and we are prepared to respond quickly and effectively.
Viola Gienger: General, this is Viola Gienger from Just Security. When you look back at the October 7th attack by Hamas on Israel and the shocking nature of that sort of emotionally, historically, obviously, physically, when then you look at the response, how should military commanders weigh an effective military response and the potential humanitarian fallout from that? How do you look at that?
Well, thank you for the question. It’s a really good one.
I think as a U.S. military officer, it was clearly my responsibility to follow the Law of Armed Conflict and make sure that the conduct of the operations that I was leading or I was directed were being conducted in a lawful and ethical manner. I think that is the way that most military leaders that I know would think about this, and that includes making sure that we are exercising all the principles associated with the Law of Armed Conflict — the distinctiveness requirement, proportionality requirement, all the other things that are involved in that to make sure that our operations are directed at military targets and not just cavalierly against the population because we are angry over something that happened or was perpetrated upon us. So, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do that.
I think you’ve seen a very constant reminder of that by our national leaders — the presence of our Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, President of the United States, the Sun Conqueror, a variety of others in here, essentially emphasizing to our Israeli partners — it’s not just what you do, but more importantly, it’s how you do it. This really matters. So, you really do have to put focus on this and that’s kind of the way that I think about it.
In my experience, whether it was ground campaigns like this or whether it was counterterrorism strikes against Al Qaeda or any of the number of organizations that we did that against, we have to keep that in the forefront. We have to follow the rules, make sure the processes allow us to do that. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes. I’ve made my share of this and the units that have worked for me with this and I regret all those. We tried to learn as much as we can out of those, and sure we try not to repeat them. The unfortunate aspect of all of this, even with the kind here, is that what we’re all seeing is the brutal nature of war — human conflict that plays out.
As I illustrated to you in my comments to Howard about the closing aspects of the fight in Mosul, literally using in a bulldozer to dislodge ISIS fighters, I think is illustrative of this. This is extraordinarily difficult, extraordinarily personal and close fighting that will take place in areas like this and undoubtedly civilians will get caught up in this, unfortunately. That is a very unfortunate aspect of this, and we have to do everything we can to minimize that — wherever we can.
Howard Altman: Do you believe the Israelis have minimized the bombardment to adhere to the Law of Armed Conflict?
Again, I don’t have any unique insight into this. I think they are adherents to this as well. I think the challenge that they have is an extraordinary one that’s even more challenging than anything that we have faced, and that is that they are fighting an enemy that is perpetrating attacks, atrocious attacks on their own country and continuing to do it with rockets and missiles and continuing to do it from locations that are embedded in civilian areas. The whole nature of this tunnel system, subterranean component of this is designed to leverage the civilian population that sits on top of it.
So, I think it’s fair to criticize the Western militaries and hold them to a very, very high standard in terms of this. We should always be trying to do this, but they are trying to accomplish a military mission. My experience with Israeli officers, I think they are humans as well. They try to conduct themselves in a manner that befits the profession and befits their own national values. So, I don’t know that they are deliberately doing things. Certainly, in this very population dense environment here in a very small space where there isn’t a lot of places for civilians to go, it’s exacerbated right now. And so, I’m not ready to say that they’re deliberately doing this. I don’t think that’s the case. But it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation, probably more difficult than anything that I dealt with.
Howard Altman: How big a threat does Hezbollah pose to Israel given its massive 100,000 or more rockets and missile arsenal?
Well, I think, you know, Hezbollah is much better supported by Iran. Their weapons capabilities are much better supported by Iran. Their weapons capabilities are much better than we saw with Hamas. They have rockets and missiles that can penetrate much more deeply. They are better organized. They’re supported by a political aspect that is actually embedded into the Lebanese government.
And they are an experienced force. We shouldn’t forget that Lebanese Hezbollah came to the aid of President Assad relatively early in the in the fighting in Syria, and as a result, gained a lot of experience there. So, they’ve got probably experienced leaders, experienced fighters that can bring all that to bear. Lebanese Hezbollah is largely regarded as the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. So, with all of that said, they pose a very, very significant threat to Israel.
An attack by them limited or otherwise into Israel will have to be met with resources and forces and could divert attention away from the efforts down in Gaza. When combined perhaps with attacks on other parts of the Israeli border, say along the Syrian border or other places like this, it could pose even more difficulty. So Lebanese Hezbollah is definitely a force to be very, very concerned about. That’s probably the number one force we ought to be watching on a day-to-day basis.
Howard Altman: Well, listen, Joe, really great talking to you again. I really appreciate it. Thank you very much for your time.
You can view the live dialogue recording here provided by Ivan Meyers, Medill News Service, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Northwestern University, Washington, DC.