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Trump nominates Marine general to head Middle East operations

Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: August 22, 2018

President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated a veteran Marine officer to head U.S. Central Command and oversee the ongoing insurgent wars across the Middle East.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie will replace Gen. Joseph Votel, who is expected to step down as CENTCOM chief in coming months.

McKenzie has been one of the Pentagon's most visible senior military officials over the past year, regularly briefing reporters on operational issues along with the department's civilian spokeswoman.

McKenzie was commissioned into the Marine Corps after graduating from The Citadel, a private military college, in 1979. In the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he led Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. He later oversaw military planning at CENTCOM and served as the commander of all Marine forces in the Middle East from 2014 to 2015.

McKenzie prepares to take over CENTCOM at a time when the Pentagon, under the leadership of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former Marine, seeks to pivot away from the insurgent wars of the past 17 years and sharpen the military's edge against major state powers including Russia and China.

While the campaign against the Islamic State, which dominated CENTCOM's mission since 2014, is winding down, U.S. forces continue to conduct risky operations in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.

In Afghanistan, an American force of about 15,000 is tasked with helping Afghan troops reverse a long Taliban resurgence, an effort that the current commander acknowledged on Wednesday was at "a bit of an impasse." No end to that mission is in sight.

In Yemen, Special Operations forces are battling al-Qaida militants while the Pentagon continues an increasingly controversial program to provide support to a Saudi-led coalition that is conducting a separate campaign against Houthi militants.

From his command headquarters in Tampa, McKenzie will also have to navigate an ongoing feud between Gulf allies and contend with friction with Russia and Turkey, which are not within his area of command but play important roles in Syria.

Derek Chollet, who was a senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration, said McKenzie's qualifications included deep experience in both operations and military policy.

"He's been one of the principal architects of the campaign against the Islamic State, deeply involved in Afghanistan policy, and the effort to push back against Iran crossing two administrations," Chollet said. "There are very few people I can think of who are as well versed and deeply involved in U.S. operations in the Middle East over the last six years."

The Pentagon is also expected to nominate Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, who now serves as the top planning officer on the Joint Staff, to be the next head of U.S. Special Operations Command when Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas steps down.

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