Anthony C. Zinni is commander in chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), a position he has held since August 1997. A four-star Marine general, he is the senior American officer dealing with a region of twenty countries stretching from Kenya to Egypt to Pakistan.1 He began his military career in 1965 as a second lieutenant in the Marines upon graduating from Villanova University with a degree in economics. His foreign experience has included stints in Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, at European Command, and helping to implement relief operations for the Kurds of Iraq (Provide Comfort), the former Soviet Union (Provide Hope), and Somalia (Restore Hope and Continue Hope, followed by United Shield). Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson interviewed him on June 17, 1998 in Washington.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
Middle East Quarterly: CENTCOM's area of responsibility (AOR) includes many of the regimes intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. How do these weapons programs affect CENTCOM's operations?
Anthony Zinni: These problems do indeed affect the way we view the region. Obviously, we're looking at Pakistan; not too long after the turn of the next century, Iran stands a very good opportunity of getting a nuclear capability. Iraq would if it could, but probably won't be able to. Although not in our AOR, Israel is in our area of interest (AOI), as is India.
Chemical and biological capabilities don't attract as much attention, but they too are obviously a problem. And we're beginning to see countries like Sudan that are showing a great deal of interest in research and development and, possibly down the line, in production. So these, too, are going to be a significant threat.
The presence of these weapons obviously affects the way we conduct operations. They impose limitations on us that we must address. We're probably very good at the tactical level, but we need to look at levels above that. We would do so if we had anything in this region like another Operation Desert Storm. For example, some of our bases are very, very vulnerable.
MEQ: Do the recent Indian and Pakistani nuclear explosions have direct implications for your AOR?
Zinni: Not direct implications but indirect ones. The explosions reverse the trend of nations ridding themselves of nuclear capability. India and Pakistan have let the genie out of the bottle; they have taken the first step, and it could encourage others in our region and provide a justification to do the same. They take place in close proximity to Iran and other states seeking the same capabilities.
Others will watch international reaction to the recent explosions. If it's mild, obviously it would be encouraging to them; in that sense, there's a direct implication. An Indo-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir or anywhere else would greatly increase tensions in the region.
MEQ: Do you worry about India and Pakistan sharing nuclear weapons with Middle Eastern states?
Zinni: That depends on who's in control. It's in our interest to do everything to encourage responsible political and military leaders, so that there's no irresponsible sharing or selling. A radical regime or an unstable political or military leadership could end up giving us that problem. I would worry much more if we had something other than what we do have—a stable military and a responsible political leadership.
We have to be much more in tune than we've been as to who's in control politically and militarily, because of the significance of the weapons systems they could have in a very short time.
MEQ: You have been quoted saying that Saddam Husayn challenges the United Nations when he detects a downturn in U.S. forces patrolling his region.2 How many soldiers do you need in the Persian Gulf region to contain Iraq?
Zinni: We don't do it by numbers; we do it by capabilities. We need to contain Iraq, by which I mean the day-to-day business of enforcing the sanctions. Barring any major act by Iraq, like running divisions south into Kuwait, we try to maintain a force that consists of some air power to maintain the no-fly zones and no-drive zones north and south; we don't have a carrier-battle group, so we augment the ground base there with a Marine Expeditionary Unit about half the time. We also keep a full-time reinforced battalion ground unit in Kuwait—sometimes a larger unit—and some of the attendant surface ships for maritime intercept operations and support for ground forces. In given periods, when we have exercises, that number goes up. It's a well-balanced force. We also have pre-positioned stocks there that we can fall in on very quickly, as well as forces in the States that maintain a degree of alert that can be ratcheted up if tensions increase. So we rely on a combination of many elements.
MEQ: You don't want to give us a number?
Zinni: I'm not reluctant for security reasons, but because it can vary greatly depending on whether a carrier or a Marine Expeditionary Unit is in or out; or whether we're engaging in an exercise. I'll give you an average of about 20,000, but it could be three or four thousand more or less. Numbers of troops won't tell you much; rather, we try to maintain our capabilities. It's really balanced among the air, ground, and naval presence we try to keep out there, to provide enough of a foothold if we had to deploy our forward, pre-positioned sets and man them, both afloat and ashore.
MEQ: Seven years after the Kuwait war, how much of a threat is Saddam?
Zinni: Obviously he's not as much of a threat as he was during Desert Storm. He has about half the ground forces he had then and nothing like the air forces nor the surface-to-air missile capabilities he had. If you look at it from a pure military order of battle, he's not the force he was.
But he poses a danger in that he probably feels cornered, as if time's running out. He's been unable to modernize and perhaps sees a degradation of his military capabilities. If that continues, he must see he will not possess the power that will allow him to be a regional power or fulfill his hegemonic designs. So he becomes a threat in that he might commit a rash act to turn that around.
Relative to the other forces in the Gulf (discounting the U.S. presence for the moment), he's still a significant threat; he commands a most powerful ground force, and a most powerful air and potential missile force, certainly surface-to-air and those sorts of things. So if you are a Kuwaiti or a Saudi, you ought to worry.
But with our capabilities there and the ability to close the region pretty rapidly, we can handle Saddam and manage him as a threat—unless something went wrong, and we didn't get the right and timely decisions, intelligence, and early warning.
MEQ: You note that Iraqi forces are attriting; this is happening as other countries in the region spend billions of dollars to upgrade their forces. Is there going to be a point when they can stand on their own against Saddam Husayn?
Zinni: In some respects, the region's capabilities complement ours and counter his. It has invested a lot of money in missile and air defenses, for example, and there's some very high quality out there. As the "friendlies" grow in capabilities, their power helps us by providing better coverage on the ground. We've also done some work with countries in the region to use the new air and missile defense to establish a more cooperative and collective approach to security.
In some areas, the region is more capable and does not need to be augmented by us as much as it did seven years ago. But in other areas, such as ground forces, the demographics don't allow them—even if they could afford it—to get the kind of forces that could stand up to the Iraqis. They might have an advantage in quality, thanks to the kinds of tanks and artillery they have plus Saddam's inability to modernize, but he has an overwhelming quantitative edge.
MEQ: Is the Iraqi military now capable of invading and taking Kuwait?
Zinni: Without us there, yes, I believe it could; or if for some reason we were there and we didn't see it coming.
MEQ: With us there, any chance he will invade?
Zinni: I would like to think not. I want him to believe that we are in a position where we could see his moves and react to them in sufficient time. The good news is that the latest crisis in early 1998, Desert Thunder, gave us a great opportunity to exercise our ability to get there and get on the ground in the way we want to. Other exercises we do in the Gulf also confirm that capability, so I'm confident of it. But Saddam Husayn has a very short distance to go, and he has a large number of divisions in the south, some armored, not too great a distance for Republican guards to go. It's a race for us to get to Kuwait from 7,000 miles away; Saddam Husayn needs only to cross maybe 180 miles; that's the issue.
MEQ: What would you do if ordered to effect a regime change in Iraq?
Zinni: I would go very slow and avoid a military showdown. We have to be very wary of direct foreign action—setting up in enclaves, assassinating the leadership. We'd do better to establish the conditions for regime change.
MEQ: Do you see any changes in Iranian military activities since President Khatami took office a year ago?
Zinni: There is a major change going on in Iran in the direction of moderation, and it has not fully played out. I find it a little hard to measure, but we have seen a change of attitude even in military-to-military communication and coordination. You see that particularly on the navy side. Ships need to talk to other ships, and when ours deal with Iranian ships, our forces have noted that it's less confrontational, less tense, which is encouraging.
We would look to see a change in the direction of their military, a change of their support for terrorism and access to their intelligence services. We have not seen a change in control of the military; or in its direction when it comes to the pursuit of certain weapons that would give us a difficult time in the region—ship-to-ship missiles, surface-to-ship missiles, mines, that sort of thing—or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Also, we haven't seen any reduction in the support for terrorism. I feel the hard-liners are still in charge of the intelligence service and the military.
MEQ: Do you see signs of political moderation in Iran?
Zinni: Yes, there is positive evidence of this. Hard-liners are in charge but moderates are gaining ground. Eventually, there might well be a confrontation.
MEQ: After years of blatantly protecting smugglers of Iraqi oil, for three months earlier this year, the Iranian navy stopped providing them cover; then resumed again. Does this seriously impede U.S. Navy operations on behalf of the Multilateral Inspection Force (MIF) to enforce the sanctions on Iraq?
Zinni: Yes. For a while, the Iranians were actually proactive in stopping some of them. It surprised us to see their navy enforce the sanctions and, in some cases, stop ships that were violators. It went on for maybe a month to six weeks, then suddenly things seemed to revert back to the old way—allowing violators to transit Iranian international waters.
MEQ: So this was just an isolated decision by the local commander?
Zinni: Initially, we read it as a major policy change, maybe an effort by the moderates to prevent active support such as accepting bribes and moving the smugglers along, and almost having their own internal process for moving the violators into the area and up to the Shatt al-‘Arab, to get their gas and oil, and whatever they have aboard, and bring them back down. There might have been an internal struggle over this. I'm not sure how it panned out in the end, but we're not seeing the same degree of enforcement we saw before, either passive or active.
MEQ: You mentioned a less confrontational attitude with Iran in military-to-military relations. But in early 1997, reports indicated that a variety of sharp confrontations were taking place. Could you characterize the relationship you have now, say, during training exercises?
Zinni: You're exactly right. A year and a half ago we did have incidents of ship bumpings and very hostile communications, threats, and rhetoric when there had to be bridge-to-bridge communications. We would see some of their airplanes fly through our formations above the carriers, which can be very dangerous. That's all subsided now. Now communications are all very professional and polite; although I won't go as far as to say warm and friendly. We have not seen any provocative act by ships' captains, or things that could appear threatening. Such things concerned us because if one of our captains, or one of their captains, misreads an act as a hostile act, or if someone's just trying to push the edge of the envelope, we could end up with somebody taking an action that precipitates an unintended clash that could escalate. I never felt that their command authority supported that, but it was just a general attitude throughout the ranks.
CENTRAL COMMAND'S MISSION
MEQ: It's said that mil-mil ties in the Middle East function much more smoothly than their political counterparts. Is that your experience?
Zinni: I can't comment on the political relationships because I see them from the outside. But the military relationships are very good and in some cases excellent. In others, we need to do a little bit more work. I'm encouraged that nowhere out there do we have cool or what I would consider less than good relationships; and in every place I see the relationships are getting stronger, even in countries that my predecessors haven't dealt with for a long time. I just recently came from a visit to Yemen. General [Norman] Schwartzkopf, before the war, was the last CINC [commander in chief] to visit there. Now our military-to-military contacts have begun there, too.
MEQ: You saw the president of Yemen on your visit, right?
Zinni: Yes, I saw the president, and we were very warmly received. We've begun a process now of opening military-to-military relationships. They're very enthusiastic about it. And there are several places like that where the relationships are getting stronger. So, overall, I'm encouraged.
MEQ: Do you feel you get proper attention abroad as commander in chief of Central
Zinni: Oh, yes. I don't think people realize the respect given to American CINCs. They generally have the strongest relationship with foreign leaders of any official figures in the U.S. government. For that matter, I don't know anyone in the government who knows the regimes better than do the CINCs.
MEQ: And attention at home?
Zinni: Not nearly so good. The interagency process is wearisome. I wish I could have more of a say!
MEQ: Do you foresee the U.S. military ever again having an air base with a five-year lease in eastern Saudi Arabia?—as it did with the Dhahran Air Facility in 1951-62?3
Zinni: We don't need permanent bases in Saudi Arabia, now or in the foreseeable future. Right now, I am not looking for permanent bases in the region, although we do need a few service headquarters there. We have the Naval headquarters and some command and control requirements there.
MEQ: What do you need?
Zinni: It's fine for us to share bases on a temporary basis or use them
for prepositioned equipment. We need prepositioning in the region because it cuts the time necessary to bring in large-scale forces. We also need a very balanced exercise program that permits us periodically to come—balanced in the sense that it does things that are mutually beneficial to their military and ours, assuring that we're favorably received. We need forward-presence forces on a temporary basis—obviously naval forces, air expeditionary forces, plus ground forces in Kuwait. We can adjust the frequency of their deployment or the length of their stay depending on our threat assessment.
MEQ: Can the U.S. Air Force really continue operating indefinitely as an expeditionary force in your AOR, instead of operating from permanent bases? We ask because the Air Force retention rate among pilots has dropped recently4 and the higher operating tempo (OPTEMPO), especially the deployments to Saudi Arabia without families, seems to account for much of this problem.
Zinni: The forces out there don't have the best quality of life. It's pretty remote and tough in some cases, although we and the host countries have tried to do everything to make life as good as we can under the conditions. In addition, the training level isn't very high. Enforcing no-fly zones are not the exotic kinds of training events they would go through back home in their normal syllabus. So going there for repeat tours—some Air Force people and others are out there for the seventh, eighth time—has kind of worn on them. We've tried to do things to help.
MEQ: Like what?
Zinni: Lowering the rotation times, so you might be there more frequently but for shorter periods. Short rotations mean you can still retain your pilot proficiency. It also allows us to bring in guard and reserve units; for them, it's exciting and not something they do frequently. When the National Guard or Air Reserve's A-10s or F-16s take a tour there, it's actually a positive experience for them. The shorter tours allow us to integrate them and this helps to spell the active units.
We've also looked at adjusting down our force levels. As these air expeditionary forces become much more experienced and proficient, we may not need as many aircraft on the ground and can perhaps reduce the number.
Also, there have been a lot of new technical capabilities that have increased our capabilities since Desert Storm. Developments in ordnance and other things make us much more proficient. Our surveillance of this region is a lot better than it was before the war. These kinds of things might help us reduce the size of forces in the future.
PERCEPTIONS OF CENTRAL COMMAND
MEQ: What about the populations of your AOR and the delicate issue of basing American troops? How happy are the people and the governments in the Persian Gulf to have U.S. forces operating out of their countries?
Zinni: Forward presence has put a strain on some relationships. If it's very visible, it can be counterproductive. We look for ways to lower the visibility. In part, we emphasize the prepositioning of equipment; we also look for bases that don't put us in areas where we're very visible. It's best to preposition and have low numbers of people off to the side. Low visibility basing is real important if you're in Saudi Arabia.
MEQ: Do you make efforts to convey the right image of American troops?
Zinni: Very much so. We participate in de-mining programs and various humanitarian programs. We are now working with the militaries to demonstrate how to respect and be good stewards of the environment, and how the military can maintain environmental standards of protection concerning such things as hazardous waste handling and removal. We hope the populations will look at the U.S. military not as threatening and not as a colonial power. We hope they won't buy into the extremists' ways of portraying us. Some leaders in our AOR recommend that our military leaders be more accessible to their media, to give us a human face. They ought to see a face and hear our words. It's a good idea, for people should see us—even if they do throw hard questions at us, questions we can't answer very well, and they do not believe our answers.
MEQ: What is the biggest fear in the region concerning CENTCOM?
Zinni: That we will do something rash. To head off these fears, we have to consult extensively with the region's leaders. At the same time, the leaders all believe that the U.S. military presence helps preserve stability—so long as we are not too visible or too provocative.
CENTRAL COMMAND'S CAPABILITIES
MEQ: Is Tampa, Florida the ideal spot for CENTCOM's headquarters?
Zinni: In principle, no. I would rather be in the AOR. But right now that would be difficult for several reasons, not the least of which is funding. If we move a headquarters or do major military construction, there are implications for people and families that would have to move; staffing would go up to operate there. You'd have force-protection requirements. You'd also have to take into account the politics in the region. I know a number of countries would like to have us; they've even invited us to move out there.
MEQ: Can you tell us which?
Zinni: I would rather not mention names; in some cases, they do a good job mentioning their own names. Some time in the future, when the climate is right, we ought to move the headquarters out there.
MEQ: What about the individual services?
Zinni: Yes, it would be important for some of our components to be in the region. The Navy is out there already, and I'd like to see some of our other components based out there. But not right now.
MEQ: Does your current AOR have a logic to it?
Zinni: The Unified Command Plan5 can be designed a number of ways, and every year there may be five new ideas about how the world's geography ought to be split. We went through that at the last CINCs conference, and we'll go through it again in a couple of weeks when we do it again.
MEQ: What are the choices?
Zinni: If you make divisions on the basis of military factors, you look at span and control, numbers of countries that you may have to respond to in a big way, freedom of navigation, and balancing the number of countries so no one CINC is over-stretched. There's an idea, for example, not to split sub-Sahara Africa but bring it under one command.
If you look at ethnic and cultural affinity, to keep some sort of coherence, you might divide it another way. In that case, we might end up with predominantly Muslim states.
If you look at bringing adversaries together, we might end up with India, Pakistan, and Israel in the Arab world. You could also make a case for North Africa.
If you look at it on an energy basis—and our strategy is basically energy driven, or it's at least one of the prime considerations in determining our interests—you might try to bring all the energy resources together by bringing in the Caspian Basin and the Central Asian states with the Gulf.
But every time you come at the problem from all these directions, you get fifty different options.
MEQ: The military is the only part of the U.S. government where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon are not handled by those responsible for the rest of the Middle East, being relegated instead to the European Command.6 Can you see CENTCOM expanded to include Israel, Syria, and Lebanon—which are now part of European Command's AOR?
Zinni: I would like to see the Middle East peace process on a more positive track before we ever took it on, if ever. Bringing Israel in would completely dominate our whole strategy and demand all our attention. At least now I can get through the preamble which has to address the Middle East peace process, double standards, and all that, and then finally I can say, "But it's not in my AOR, now let's get on with other business."
MEQ: Double standards?
Zinni: Meaning, do we treat Israelis and Arabs differently in terms of enforcement of U.N. resolutions? That's a popular theme now on the Arab street—that and the plight of the Iraqi people are the two themes that resonate really well.
MEQ: Does the Arab-Israeli conflict come up much in your work?
Zinni: The topic is always being rammed down our throats. It is the most important political factor in the region and affects every single person there. If the peace process continues to go south, we have big problems.
MEQ: Is it fair to describe CENTCOM as ARABCOM, designed especially to handle relations with the Arabic-speaking states?
Zinni: Well, we don't ever want to appear as advocates for particular countries or to have "clientitis" in any way, but the states we deal with do view us as their guide back in the States, and it might cast a little doubt on our credibility or sincerity if we had both countries in an adversarial relationship. (We have enough with the Irans and the Iraqs of the world, plus all the minor disputes.) The way things are, they know that they have no competition at least for our attention. Pakistan knows that as far as American interests go, it's CENTCOM; in India, it's PACCOM. The Arab world basically knows it's CENTCOM and for Israel it's EUCOM. It can be very helpful to have things split that way, not having two adversaries or two contentious groups or countries in the same AOR.
MEQ: What about bringing Pakistan and India under your command?
Zinni: Same problem. If we had India and Pakistan, it would demand nearly all our time.
MEQ: Are you content with CENTCOM's expertise—linguistic, cultural, political—about its area? Has the U.S. military prepared itself for this region?
Zinni: We do a good job given what we have. I'm satisfied with the quality I get in terms of linguistic capabilities and cultural awareness, although I would always like to see more. We've begun a program to educate our people more in this.
MEQ: Is CENTCOM a popular posting?
Zinni: I've been somewhat successful at getting more people stationed in our area to come back to CENTCOM. If a colonel or lieutenant-colonel served a tour as an attaché or a security assistance billet, I want to get them back onto the staff. They come back with language capabilities after spending two to three years; some of them are foreign area officers and their expertise is very deep.
MEQ: You have a reputation as an avid reader; what have you read in connection with your role as head of CENTCOM?
Zinni: I estimate that in the last two years I've read something like seventy-five books on the region. These are the books that are on anybody's reading list. I've read a lot about the Gulf—God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Inside Iran, and The Kingdom. With Central Asia now coming into our area, I've focused a lot of my reading on it; The Great Game recently impressed me.
1 For more information on CENTCOM, see the website at <http://www.centcom.mil/>.
2 Associated Press, Jan. 3, 1998.
3 Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 67, 92.
4 One report (The Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1998) says only 26 percent of pilots who have served their nine-year obligation stay in service (despite a $22,000 a year bonus), compared to 81 percent four years earlier.
5 The Unified Command Plan defines the boundaries of responsibility for the military's geographic unified commands, each headed by a four-star general or admiral who controls all U.S. forces in that region. Other than the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Russia (for which the Pentagon's Joint Staff is responsible), the five unified geographic commands—SOUTHCOM, PACCOM, EUCOM, CENTCOM, and USACOM (the last of which is responsible for the Atlantic Ocean and its islands)—divide the entire world.
6 The European Command also includes Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and (soon) the Caucasus. CENTCOM calls all these countries part of its Area of Interest (AOI), not its AOR.