The Islamic State just lost its last bit of territory but remains a threat in Syria, Iraq and beyond. Blood continues to flow in Afghanistan, where two U.S. soldiers were recently killed even as negotiations with the Taliban continue. Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. The Iraqis rumble about whether to evict American forces. And the tensions between Israel and Iran always leads to headaches for whoever leads U.S. Central Command.
Welcome back to Tampa, Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
As the new CentCom commander, all this is now yours.
McKenzie, 62, assumed command of CentCom from Army Gen. Joseph Votel at the Downtown Hilton on Thursday afternoon. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presided over the change of command ceremony.
This is McKenzie’s third stint at MacDill Air Force Base. He returns to take over military command for a region that is, as usual, roiling.
In July 2010, McKenzie was assigned to the base as head of CentCom’s directorate of strategy, plans and policy. In June 2014, he received his third star and assumed command of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command — essentially leading all Marines under CentCom.
Now he is a four-star general and has commanded at the platoon, company, battalion, Marine Expeditionary Unit and component levels. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McKenzie becomes the first Marine to lead CentCom since James Mattis did it in 2010-13.
Those who know CentCom’s new leader lauded his experience and expertise.
“I’ve known Gen. McKenzie for more than 20 years,” said Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “I can’t think of a more capable leader, operational tactician, or strategic thinker to lead the men and women of U.S. Central Command through the challenges of the coming years.”
Former CentCom Chief of Staff Mike Jones, a retired Army major general, agreed.
McKenzie “understands war fighting from the ground infantryman to the strategic level, and knows the Central Command theater as well as anyone alive,” Jones said. “He is a straight shooter, articulate, well informed, and has the moral courage to offer his candid thoughts at the highest levels of government.”
In his new role, McKenzie will need all those skills and more.
The CentCom commander oversees U.S. military operations in the world’s most volatile region, a 20-nation swath of territory stretching east from Egypt to Kazakhstan. Though ISIS has seen the end of its physical caliphate, it remains a threat as an entrenched insurgency in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula continues to be a threat in Yemen, where a brutal civil war between the former government and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has led to a humanitarian disaster. Until recently, U.S. tanker jets have refueled a Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign that has caused massive civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, Iran is increasing its influence over Iraq, where government leaders are making noise about evicting American and allied forces. Though negotiations with the Taliban bring at least the hint of hope of a resolution of 40 years of conflict, casualties mount. Nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is also in McKenzie’s purview, has traded fire with India, which is not. And all this takes place as Pentagon wants to focus more resources against great power competitors like China and Russia.
McKenzie said he understands the challenges ahead.
“We know as we build upon the gains of the last few years — and what we’ve accomplished in Syria actually just the last few weeks — new challenges always await this command,” he said. “I know that the battle-tested team at CentCom remains at the ready to do what has to be done.
“I’m excited to follow Joe Votel to build upon the remarkable work that he’s done.”
Votel, 61, retired in a ceremony earlier in the day and will head back home to Minnesota with his wife Michele after nearly 39 years in the Army.
Shanahan sang his praises for his work against ISIS, the Taliban and elsewhere in this difficult region.
“In leading these efforts, and many more General Votel has been akin to a 10- foot-tall superhero,” Shanahan said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix has designs on him for the next Marvel series.”
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