Robert B. McKeon Endowed Series on Military Strategy and Leadership with General Joseph Dunford

Thursday, September 5, 2019
Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
General Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense

David E. Sanger

National Security Correspondent, New York Times; Author, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

General Joseph Dunford discusses U.S. military and defense strategy in conflict areas around the world and the current state of cooperative efforts with U.S. allies.

The Robert B. McKeon Endowed Series on Military Strategy and Leadership features prominent individuals from the military and intelligence communities.

HAASS: I wanted to say a few words about Leslie Gelb, who, as you all know I expect, passed away last weekend. Les was most recently president emeritus here at the Council and served as our president for a decade, from 1993 to 2003. And over the last five decades, he was also a distinguished academic, a senior official at the Departments of State and Defense, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the New York Times, both on the editorial side as well as a journalist.

As president at the Council on Foreign Relations, Les lead the institution into the post-Cold War era. He was there for the founding of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic studies, for the expansion of the National Program, the launch of the Independent Taskforce Program, and the invigoration of the Stephen Kellen Term Member Program, among many other initiatives. He was generous with his time and wisdom, particularly with a great many young people in the field, including myself. He was one of the country’s true wise men, and his perspective on this country’s role in the world will be missed. The Council will commemorate Les and his contributions more formally in the months ahead, but I wanted to be sure to take a moment at the beginning of this evening.

Tonight’s meeting is our annual Robert B. McKeon Endowed Series on Military Strategy and Leadership. This series features top military leaders and was made possible by a generous gift from a good personal friend and a friend of the Council, Bob McKeon, who was also the founder of Veritas Capital, who unfortunately passed away way too young in 2012. This series is one part of the Council’s close relationship with our military. Most notably there is our military fellowship program, which each year brings five military officers at the O-6 level from each of the service branches to the Council’s headquarters in New York for a year of study and professional development, established nearly fifty years ago. We’ve now hosted well above 150 fellows, and more than half of them have gone on to be promoted to admiral or general. It just shows that we have not gotten in the way of talent, despite, at times, our best efforts. (Laughter.)

Tonight we are truly honored to welcome General Joseph Dunford, the nineteenth and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Dunford has been chairman since 2015 and will complete his four years in the position this October. Before becoming chairman he was commandant of the Marine Corps and commander of the international security assistance forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, among other important distinguished assignments. And over two administrations now, because as you know the term of the chairman is no co-terminus with the terms of the president, he has been a steady, seasoned, experienced voice for two presidents and the many around him.

Joining in conversation tonight will be David Sanger, the national security correspondent of the New York Times and the author of a new book on cyberconflict, The Perfect Weapon. In addition to cyber, David’s written extensively on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, on Russia, the rise of China, and just about anything else central to the conversation about this country’s national security. So you are in good hands. And please join me in welcoming General Dunford and David Sanger. (Applause.)

SANGER: Well, thank you, Richard. Thanks to all of you for coming out. Thanks, Richard, for your nice memories of Les Gelb, who was, of course, Council president, and a New York Times columnist, and a great colleague. General Dunford, thank you so much for taking the time to go do this. I’m sure in the last month or so of your long service you’ve got a lot of demands on your time. So your willingness to come out and talk about the world here we really appreciate.

DUNFORD: I questioned my judgement when I looked at the schedule this morning.

SANGER: Yeah. (Laughter.) Well, he—you know, at the end of the hour you may question it again, you know—(laughs)—for different reasons.

DUNFORD: Undoubtably.

SANGER: Yes. (Laughter.) So our plan for today, and we’re on the record today unlike many Council events, as you can tell from the many cameras back here. But our plan for today is that the general and I will have a conversation for about thirty minutes, and then we’re going to open it up to questions from our audience here.

Let me start, General Dunford, we could go back on so many places, given your service in so many different roles. But you came into this job in 2015, appointed by President Obama. How would you compare the global security environment that you faced on day one of the job with the one that you are facing as you prepare to turn this job over?

DUNFORD: Sure. The easiest way, David, maybe to answer that is to take the five problem sets we’ve identified in the National Defense Strategy and maybe just talk about each one of those individually. If you took a look at Russia, since 2015 they’ve gone into Syria, they’ve conducted a GRU operation in Salisbury, they’ve attempted to interfere with democracy in Europe and in the United States, they’ve fielded capabilities that are not compliant with the INF Treaty, and President Putin has obviously trumpeted the weapon systems and the capability development designed specifically to put the American homeland at risk.

With China, despite the fact in 2016 President Xi Jinping promised President Obama he would not militarize the South China Sea, they have done that. And they’ve also been on a pretty deliberate path of military capability development in China as well. And had what I would describe almost as a Goldwater-Nichols equivalent in terms of reorganizing their military in 2017.

If you look at North Korea, a large amount of their ICBM testing, and the one nuclear test, took place in 2016 and ’17. So clearly, North Korea a different place than 2015 in terms of the number of tests and so forth they’ve had since then. I think you’d have to say that Iran today is more aggressive in projecting malign influence than they were in 2015. And the one area where I would highlight a significant change probably in a positive sense is that in 2015, if you go back and read your newspaper or the headlines from any other newspaper, they would have talked about ISIS and the domination of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the establishment of a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria. And I think while the fight against violent extremism, transregional extremism, is far from over, we’ve made significant progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria specifically.

SANGER: We’re going to drill down on each one of those for a bit but let me just start with that same military strategy you described. So during your tenure, the military strategy of the United States, or at least the broad objectives, radically changed. We moved from a government thaw as really focused on counterterrorism to one that said Russia and China were revisionist powers—that was the phraseology in the national security assessment. And that the direction of the United States had to be—not just the military but more broadly—to deal with that—with that change. And yet, when you talk to people within the Pentagon, it’s hard to change mindsets. There’s—you know, we still have active conflicts underway in Afghanistan and obviously Iraq’s still a very challenging arena. We have all of these other areas.

If we are truly going to focus on Russia and China, do we have to give something up? Can we—can we continue at the pace at which we have been dealing with all of these hotspots you’ve just described while we are trying to refocus on two great powers?

DUNFORD: Sure. No, that’s a—it’s a fair question. Although, I would argue that we have significantly reoriented since 2015. And as you—as you indicated, I think it’s fair to say from 2001 to 2014 we were almost singularly focused on the fight against violent extremism. And by 2014, really the catalyst for change came when we started to look at our competitive advantage relative to China and Russia in 2014 and ’15, compared to what it was in 2000. And I won’t go on at great length about this, happy to answer other questions, but China and Russia certainly studied us beginning in Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Began to field a wide range of capabilities designed against what they perceived to be our vulnerabilities. And as we were focused on the fight against violent extremism, they began to field these capabilities. And so even as early as 2015, the first classified military strategy that we wrote in 2015 was at that time focused on the 4+1. We now call it the 2+3. But I was focused on the four state actors—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, violent extremism. And then we refined that with the National Defense Strategy to focus on great-power competition, as you suggested.

I would say two things, though. Number one, clearly China and Russia are the benchmark against which we measure our path of capability development. They’re how we think about risk and how we prioritize and allocate resources for the force today. That’s the framework within which we do that. But priorities don’t mean exclusivity. So the art for us is to be able to deal with the challenges that we have today—violent extremism, one—and at the same time shift sufficient resources to make sure that we sustain the competitive advantage that we have today well into the future. And so when it comes to giving things up, every time we develop a budget we make choices. But the choices that we made, particularly in 2016, ’17, ’18, ’19 and as we move into ’20, have reoriented to make sure that first and foremost we address the cyber, the space, the electronic warfare, the maritime capabilities, the functional systems that need to change to make us more competitive in the context of great-power competition. So by definition when you make priorities some things fall off the table, there’s no question about that.

SANGER: China in particular is a fascinating subject for so many in the Pentagon and beyond. Did we fundamentally midjudge the speed at which Xi Jinping would begin to project power around the world? I recall when he came to visit here in Washington as vice president, just before he took over, the thinking in the Obama White House at that time was he’s going to bide his time, he is going to focus on domestic restructuring and the domestic economy. And there wasn’t much of an expectation that he would take the kind of more aggressive turn that we’ve seen in South China Sea, in cyber, in space, and so forth. Was this an intelligence failure? Was it a judgement failure? Were we just too focused on other things?

DUNFORD: No, I think—I think it was an assumption that didn’t obtain. And I wouldn’t have to tell this audience that I think we made a judgement well before President Obama’s administration that economic integration with China would lead to political integration. And we thought that we could integrate China in a way that they would comply with the world order as we know it. As it turns out, what they’ve tried to do is leverage the rules to their advantage and ignore the rules when it’s not to their advantage. And I think very clearly we started to see—and, again, as we reoriented the strategy—we started to see in 2015 and ’16 that the assumption that might have been made by some very smart people trying to do the right thing back in 1999-2000 to integrate China wasn’t leading in the direction that we thought it should, or that we thought it would.

SANGER: Mmm hmm. And similarly with Russia, obviously we had earlier—an earlier sense as Putin came back into power of what he would do. But that accident earlier this summer of what appears to have been a nuclear powered—not just a nuclear capable missile, but a nuclear powered one—suggests that he’s been investing extraordinarily heavily in trying to get the kind of range around the world that the old Soviet Union aspired to, and that Russia until Putin came back the second time appeared, we thought, to have given up.

DUNFORD: It’s a statement. I mean, I don’t disagree with that. (Laughter.) That all—I mean, that all rings true. As you indicated, though, I think we had much earlier indications of Russia. You go back to Georgia in 2008, you go back to 2014 with Ukraine. So we knew where Russia was going to be. I think we all know that Putin’s objective—he’s been quite open about it—was to restore Russia’s prominence on the world stage and views a strong military capability as being a vehicle to be able to do that. And certainly—I would tell you this, that the operational patterns that we see from Russia today are ones that were—I saw them in the 1980s when I was a captain deployed in the Mediterranean aboard marine amphibious units. And so we haven’t seen in it decades. But I agree with you, that their operational patterns have changed. Their pattern of—or, their path of capability development has changed. And I think we all know the reason why.

SANGER: As you said, you grew up in a military that was consumed by the Cold War, before you had to spend the post-9/11 part of your career in counterterrorism. How does this differ in both feel, politics, technology from the confrontations with the Soviet Union when you first came in?

DUNFORD: Yeah. Maybe just as I think about characterizing the world today, compared to the 1970s when I came in. I mean, there’s three things that jump out at me. One is the pace of change, right? And we talk about Moore’s Law with information technology, but it applies to virtually every function in our profession. The second is the character of war has changed profoundly. I mean, we were focused on a sea-air-land battle. We now have sea, air, land, space, and cyberspace. Profoundly different. If you look at the security environment, in the Cold War context it was relatively binary. I would argue the strategic landscape today with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, violent extremism—and I call it, plus tax, so all the other things that aren’t necessarily specifically addressed in the National Defense Strategy but things that consume resources and our attention on a day-to-day basis—I think the security environment is far more complex than it was in the 1970s during the Cold War.

SANGER: Let me drill down on some of the regional issues that you—that you raised. And let’s start with Afghanistan, because that has been most in the news lately as Zal Khalilzad tries to put together this final agreement. When you think about the objectives in Afghanistan right after 9/11, which was to make sure that al-Qaida did not have a safe haven, but then became over time the transformation of Afghanistan away from a place that was controlled by the Taliban and so forth. And then you look at where we are today, which seems to be a—heading toward an agreement that may envision the kind of stalemate that we’ve been in continuing on for some time—tell us, what did we accomplish?

DUNFORD: Well, the first thing, when you talk about 9/11—and I believe this, and I’m happy to take this on in questions because I’ve told many men and women who have deployed to Afghanistan this—we did—as you describe—we did go to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to protect the American people and the homeland from what was a sanctuary for al-Qaida and violent extremism. And in addition to al-Qaida there’s another eighteen or nineteen groups in South Asia right now that have expressed the intent, if not the capability, to attack the homeland. So, first and foremost, I do think we have prevented another 9/11. We have disrupted plots against the United States. And we’ve significantly degraded al-Qaida in South Asia.

So you can—you can, as you’ve suggested, take issue with various efforts that we’ve had along the way to build the Afghan society, to build the Afghan National Defense Forces. But it’s very clear to me today—as I’m providing military advice to the president—it’s very clear to me what our national interests are in South Asia, and against which we should measure the level of commitment that we should have in Afghanistan and in the region.

SANGER: And the president has said he wants to go down to 8,600 troops, roughly. He said this in a radio interview I think just a week or so ago. That’s roughly the level that President Obama wanted to go down to when he did the withdrawal. What can we imagine that we could actually accomplish at that level? Is it merely intelligence gathering?

DUNFORD: Sure. Let me—first of all, I think it’s important for everyone here to understand that the level of resourcing has to be understood in the context of the operational environment and the objectives. We’ve spoken about the objectives, and then—and now speak about the operational environment. The number 8,600 that the president referred to was a number that was generated by military leadership when we looked at the current mission that we have, the operating environment that we’re in, and the capabilities that we would need. So it wasn’t in—it wasn’t drive by a number, 8,600, it was driven by a conversation between General Miller, General Votel, now General McKenzie, and myself to say: What are the right capabilities?

And when we look at South Asia and Afghanistan in particular, we have—we have a challenge. We have to look at our level of effort in dealing with extremism in South Asia relative to the challenges that we have from West Africa to Southeast Asia. And we have to approach Afghanistan in the context of our overall national defense strategy, which we spoke about a minute ago. So the direction that we embarked on a few years ago was to say, look, we need a politically, fiscally, and militarily sustainable solution to violent extremism in the context of the National Defense Strategy. So we have—we looked at our posture in Africa. We have looked at our posture in the Middle East. We looked at our posture in South Asia.

In that context, General Miller was asked to describe what would be an appropriate counterterrorism platform in Afghanistan that would allow us to maintain the partnership with the Afghan forces and pursue our mutual objectives to disrupt violent extremism in the region. So he described those capabilities, he described the infrastructure that would be necessary to support those capabilities. And the number of troops is actually related to the size of our footprint in Afghanistan, and in particular the infrastructure and the capabilities that we would need to operate. So I just want people to know where that 8,600 came from. That came from us.

SANGER: And tell us a little bit—let’s assume that General Miller and Zal are able to complete their negotiations. I understand they’re back in Qatar now trying to work this out. What is the best we could hope for in the way Afghanistan is operating and the way the Taliban behave if they’re successful, if you—give some analysis, if you would.

DUNFORD: Sure. Sure. Look, to me the theory of the case behind the negotiations has always been—I see Peter Lavoy sitting there, and no one worked that harder than he did for a few years. But the theory of the case has always been to initiate intra-Afghan dialogue in the hope that some political accommodation could be made. We always have known that an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process was going to be the end. That would be success, reaching that. So I think in this negotiation, the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue is probably a relatively modest and yet achievable objective. And we’ll see.

SANGER: Do you consider this to be Afghan-owned, considering that we’ve been driving the negotiations?

DUNFORD: The negotiation is designed to deliver intra-Afghan dialogue. That’s different than a negotiation now that is Afghan-owned.

SANGER: Let me ask you a little bit on the counterterrorism—

DUNFORD: But just before we leave that, just because think it is in the news, and I would want to make this point. If you listen carefully—you mentioned what the president said last week. If you listen carefully to what the president said last week about 8,600, he also spoke about conditions on the ground and making sure we had a sufficient posture to deal with the terrorist threat from the region. Again, the level of effort specifically associated with the operational environment. If the operational environment significantly changes, then our level of effort can significantly change. But the one thing that we’ve all been clear on, and we’ve made this point to our Afghan partners as well, is that any negotiation is going to be conditions-based. And so there’ll be very specific conditions that have to be met. If those conditions don’t—aren’t met, then my assumption is that the negotiation will unravel.

SANGER: You spent a lot of time in Afghanistan before you were—

DUNFORD: Not as much as Jim Cunningham. He’s here too somewhere. (Laughter.) So I’m humble in his presence. (Laughs.)

SANGER: That’s right. (Laughs.) When you think about what our hopes were going into Afghanistan and what we’re facing today in this negotiation, is there a bigger lesson there for your successors about what Americans think as they head into wars, particularly those fought in anger, as this one was after 9/11?

DUNFORD: Look, I—in terms of whether we should have gone to Afghanistan when we went to Afghanistan, I’ll afford myself the luxury of reflecting on that some months from now. Right now I’m trying to provide recommendations for how to deal with the situation as it—as it currently exists. But I can tell you, from a military perspective, I think we’ve learned quite a bit in Afghanistan. And I would offer to you that I think we applied the lessons of Afghanistan, particularly as it pertains to working with local partners—we applied those lessons to Iraq and Syria in 2015, ’16, and ’17. And if you look at the footprint that the United States sustained in Iraq and Syria, and if you look at the method of developing partners that could deal with a challenge in their own country, in my view much of the work that we did in Syria and Iraq—and the piece of it I’m proud of—was informed by lessons learned in Afghanistan. So I do—you know, I think it is fair to say that there would be some things we would do differently along the way. The idea is now that we are a learning organization and we institute those lessons in future endeavors.

SANGER: Let me ask you a little bit about ISIS. President said ISIS was defeated. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. There are now two thousand male ISIS fighters from forty countries sitting in makeshift detention camps run by the Syrian militias, with our backing. Very few have been repatriated. Their own countries don’t want them back, despite the pleas from the administration to take them back. There are about seventy thousand civilian women and children who are also in these—in at least one camp, al-Hol in Syria—in which many people are concerned has become a major ISIS breeding ground. So how worried are you as you leave this job about creating the next generation of Islamic extremists and foot soldiers in places like that?

DUNFORD: Yeah. David, I think you’ve highlighted to me what is the major strategic concerns in the region. In addition to what you mentioned, there’s 2.3 million refugees inside of Turkey right now. There are literally millions of internally displaced persons inside of Syria today. You mentioned the al-Hol camp that has about seventy thousand. There’s many other camps with perhaps not seventy thousand, but thousands of other people that are in those—in those camps, in what are not the kind of conditions that you would want to see human beings in. And then you mentioned the two thousand foreign terrorist fighters that are part of an overall ten thousand individuals that are in detention just by the Syrian Democratic Forces. That doesn’t count the numbers that are being held by the regime and regime-backed forces.

And in my view, the international community, if we don’t get this right, if we don’t address the refugee problem, if we don’t address the internally displaced persons problem, if we don’t address the people that are in these camps, as you’ve correctly—you know, I describe it as a petri dish for future extremism in these camps and in these detention facilities. Addressing these people, to include the detainees, is, in my view, a critical strategic issue.

SANGER: Are we doing enough in that regard?

DUNFORD: Look, you’re only—I’m, at least, personally, only satisfied when you actually get it done, right? I’m under no illusion that there’s a great deal of effort being expended right now to return people from where they came. The issue, in many cases, is countries don’t have the framework within which to bring those people back home, successfully detain them, and prosecute them. And so this has taken a lot longer than folks like me would want it to take.

SANGER: You know, at the beginning I asked you if we can manage to keep doing the breadth of things that we’re doing. And so I was looking back at just where our special operations troops are right now—Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan—all in some kind of fight to contain terror groups or stop an ideology from spreading. How long do you expect the U.S. military is going to be able to continue to do this while keeping the central focus in the places that we were just describing?

DUNFORD: Yeah. So first of all, where we are in terms of numbers isn’t the complete story. We are deploying our special operations forces much closer to what I would describe as a sustained rate today than we were two or three years ago. And today we’re maintaining at or about a one to two deployment to dwell. That means that our special operators—and this isn’t true in all cases. For those of you that have sons and daughters in special operations and say, wait a minute, that’s not true. By and large, our special operations forces are deploying at a—at about a one to two deployment to dwell ratio. And I’ve had many conversations with the new commander and special operations commander Rich Clarke, who is very well aware and personally focused on reorienting our special operations capability to make sure that it can meet the imperatives of the National Defense Strategy.

So really about eighteen months ago I think it’s fair to say our special operations community has begun to reorient. And, again, the missions that you talked about, David, I constantly talk about priorities don’t mean exclusivity. If we’re going to be a global power we’re going to be in many places, we’re going to be doing many different things. The question is, do you have the right level of effort against the right problem set? And, again, I would argue today that we have reoriented special operations at a point where we are now sufficiently focused on great power competition, always—not complacent. Always looking back and making sure we got the balance right, right? I mean, when I came into this job I said: I think my most significant challenge is being able to provide good advice or recommendations to meet today’s challenges and, at the same time, set the conditions to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Interesting enough, without rehearsal, Secretary Esper said the same thing to me ten days ago. And so this is—this is a constant challenge for the department. I would argue that compared to four or five years ago, as we spoke about a minute ago, the balance that we have today—to deal with today, and when I say today in many cases it’s a—it can be seen as a euphemism for violent extremism and the—and the current operational challenges. But the balance that we have between deploying forces and meeting those commitments today and orienting ourselves to make sure we’re on the right path of capability development and we have sufficient forces to deal with tomorrow, we got a better balance today. We’re very aware of the need to have that. And the NDS has really provided us the framework within which to prioritize and allocate resources and develop capabilities.

SANGER: So the president threw an extra loop into that balance sheet in recent months. Fort Campbell in Kentucky, of course, is home to some of the most deployed troops that you’ve had in the country. They’ve fought America’s wars for the last eighteen years. And yet, this week the Pentagon had decided not to fund a middle school there in order to send money meant for the school to help rebuild President Trump’s border wall. How do you tell the troops that this is taking care of them?

DUNFORD: Yeah. First of all, David, I’m not prepared to talk about the implications of any of those projects. I saw the list about forty-eight hours ago, and so I can’t speak to the details of that elementary school. I don’t know if that means we’re going to slide construction six months, twelve months, eighteen months. I don’t know the condition of the school today. And so I think that’s going to be on a case-by-case basis when we talk to our men and women. And I also know the secretary well enough to know that if there are projects on that list, and the implications weren’t fully appreciated when those projects were put on that list, the secretary will review that.

SANGER: Let’s turn to Iran and North Korea before we go off to the questions from the audience here. So the Iranians are going to announce this Saturday, or so they have said, what their next step is going to be. And what we fully expect this to be, we don’t know the details, is a further stepping away from the commitments that they made under the 2015 agreement. We would not be surprised if they up the level of enrichment of uranium, which would take them closer to but not at grade, up their production rates. Is this all a negotiating ploy, to your mind, in order to get more out of the French and the Europeans? Or is this an actual movement back to what the Pentagon was convinced, and the intelligence community was convinced a number of years ago, was a desire to have a weapon?

DUNFORD: Look, I don’t—I don’t claim to have any unique insight into what is behind Iran’s recent decisions. I can describe what the administration’s policy is very clearly, which is diplomatic and economic pressure to negotiate the twelve policy objectives that were outlined by Secretary Pompeo. And I can talk to you about the military dimension of that strategy, which is sufficient posture in the region to deter provocation by Iran, to ensure that we have adequate force protection for all of our forces, and to make sure that we give the president a full range of options in the event that deterrence fails. So that’s kind of the framework of Iran, from my perspective.

SANGER: Do you think we’ve got sufficient forces in the Gulf to bring about the security objectives we have for the tankers and—after all the events of the past few months, the seizure of tankers and so forth?

DUNFORD: So I look at that almost every day, and certainly talk to the commander of CENTCOM. If I don’t talk to him every day, I talk to him twice a day. And we—I mean, it’s—you know, and you’re constantly reviewing and you’re never complacent about your posture. What I would tell you today is that we are in agreement that we have sufficient forces in the region to deter an Iranian attack against the United States or American people. We have sufficient forces in the region to deter a proxy attack that’s attributable to Iran. We clearly don’t have deterrence against attacks on our partners in the region. And you can see the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have routinely and recently been attacked.

We also, as you were talking about, have a maritime security initiative now in conjunction with Australia, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, with several other nations indicating interest, which is separate from the pressure campaign in Iran, but designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region. And that is a—we’re up and operational in doing that. And we believe we have sufficient resources to provide the indications and warnings, the intelligence, and the capability to ensure freedom of navigation. But, again, we look at that every day. As the operating environment changes, we’ll make adjustments in our force posture. But, you know, as of 1700, we were comfortable with where we were. (Laughter.)

SANGER: OK. We’ll ask you again tomorrow.

And North Korea. The president’s engaged in some truly creative diplomacy. (Laughter.) We’ve never seen a president before meet a North Korean leader. He’s now met him three times. And yet, as we’ve reported in the Times just this week, the estimates that you’re receiving, and others, are that fuel production has continued basically as it was before Singapore. So if you believe that accounting, six, twelve additional—fuel for six or twelve additional weapons—that doesn’t mean they’ve made the weapons—each year. As you pointed out in the beginning, you’re not seeing the inter-continental tests. But we are seeing increasingly creative short-range tests that appear to be designed to evade missile defenses and so forth. So what’s changed on the ground versus what’s changed in diplomacy?

DUNFORD: Sure. Look, we—obviously our priority has been to support the diplomatic path that began in 2017. Having said that, from a military perspective, we have been anchored from the beginning on North Korea’s capabilities, not their intent and not the progress of diplomacy. And so our posture in the region is designed to deter North Korean aggression. And our level of readiness and the forces that we have in the region, the planning that we have in place, the forces that we would subsequently flow in a crisis or a contingency to the peninsula, are all designed to make sure that we can adequately respond in the event that deterrence fails. That hasn’t changed. And I think with regard to North Korea, I haven’t seen a material change in the capabilities of North Korea over the last couple of years. And therefore, our approach to deterrence and responding in the event deterrence fails has not changed significantly, even as our posture day to day changes to make sure that we are accommodating the diplomatic path.

SANGER: Just so I understand, when you say you haven’t seen a material change, you wouldn’t dispute that they’re continuing to produce fuel at a significant rate, they’re continuing to test missiles, just not long-range missiles?

DUNFORD: Yeah. I don’t have anything to share with you on what they’re doing right now in terms of increasing their capability. But four years ago, three years ago, we looked at intercontinental ballistic missile capability. We looked at the potential to marry that intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities with a nuclear capability. We looked at the full range of other cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that threaten our allies in the region. And our military posture is designed to address that. Those facts on the ground still exist.

SANGER: And a last question for you. I was just with a number of your Cyber Command folks today at a different conference. Tell us a little bit about how the rise of this new command has changed the way you think about what a future conflict is going to look like. Are we into a world in which this constant short of war persistent kind of back and forth is going to be the new norm? Or are we in a world in which if there is another full-scale conflict it will be cyber first, in the first twenty-four or forty-eight hours?

DUNFORD: So in part you’ve answered the question, David. I mean, you know, we used to think about warfare as you’re either at peace or at war. And our planning construct used to be phases. And so we’d have phase zero, one, and two, which was short of war, and then would have phase three, which is a conflict occurs. More than two and a half years ago we put out a memo saying, look, at the strategic level there’s no such thing as phases. We look at the capabilities that an adversary deploys, we look at the activities that they are conducting, and we deal with those capabilities and those activities as they are, not with a false framework of we’re either at peace or at war.

Cyber is but one of the tools that adversaries use in that competitive space, right? You can see electronic warfare, you can see unconventional warfare, information operations. We’ve seen all of that by our adversaries that compete in this space. So I think cyber is but one of the—one of the functional areas that has caused us rethink about peace at war. And I don’t think about being at peace at war. I think about what activities and what capabilities do our adversaries and potential adversaries have today. And we deal with those as they are.

SANGER: And it’s in your time that this concept of having a persistent presence in foreign networks has really come up and become part of that doctrine.

DUNFORD: Well, I would just say this, without going into specifics, there’s three things you need to think about with cyber. One is the force structure that we developed. Two are the authorities that General Nakasone and his team have every day. And then the activities that are consistent with those authorities. And I would tell you that in all three areas our force structure, the authorities that our forces have every day and the activities they conduct are profoundly different than they were three or four years ago. And I’ll give you one example of a reorientation of the department.

Probably in 2015 or ’16 if you talked to leaders about cyber they would have said: Look, the Department of Defense’s job is to play the away game. We’ll worry about the away game and our inter-agency partners will defend the homeland. We clearly recognized in 2018 that the most important thing to the United States was protecting our democracy and the elections in 2018. And we believed at that time that all the capabilities that we could bring to bear to protect democracy should be brought to bear. And reoriented as priority one for the United States CYBERCOM to do that. And I would argue we not only learned a lot, but we had great success in 2018 with General Nakasone and his team in protecting the elections as well. And so there’s an area that is an example of a change in mindset as our cyber capabilities have matured, and as our thinking about cyber has matured.

SANGER: So we’re going to go out to all of you. They’ll—microphones around. And when you get one, please just briefly tell you—tell us who you are. And we’ll start with Barbara.

Q: Thank you very much, David. I’m Barbara Slavin. I direct a program on Iran at the Atlantic Council.

General Dunford, I would be very interested to get from you your evaluation of Iranian capabilities. Over the summer they shot down a very sophisticated and expensive American drone with their own technology. Were you surprised by that? How would you rate them in terms of an adversary in the region?

DUNFORD: Yeah. First of all, that—you know, that particular capability was designed to be employed in a high-end fight, right? So that—the capability that they shot down did not have its own self-protection. And it was—it was really designed to provide maritime domain awareness in a relatively benign environment. That’s an important point for people to understand in terms of that capability. I would argue that Iran has made great efforts to develop their ballistic missiles, their cruise missile capability, their cyber capabilities, electronic warfare capability. I respect those capabilities, but I wouldn’t put them anywhere near the capabilities of a Russia or a China at this time, in any one of those functional areas.

SANGER: And cyber as well?

DUNFORD: And in cyber as well. They’ve developed cyber capabilities, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category as China or Russia from a cyber capabilities perspective. So again, I think we get paid to respect any potential adversary’s capabilities. But I was not surprised at Iran’s ability to shoot down that particular system, nor did that reflect a high degree of maturity in terms of capability.

SANGER: Back there. Sir?

Q: Good evening, General Dunford. My name is Mansoor Shams. I’m the founder of I served from 2000 to 2004. So it’s a pleasure to see you in person, actually.

DUNFORD: I’ve actually received a few emails from you. (Laughter.)

Q: That’s correct. (Laughter.) General Neller was—

DUNFORD: It’s good to see you.

Q: So General Neller was at the—well, him and I were in touch. He had to come speak at Quantico to the Marines there.

My question is related to the sort of things that are taking place right here in the homeland. I wrote it down. Do you think, like, the current administration’s attitude towards Muslims, specifically, the rhetoric that’s coming out these days in general, has made U.S. military operations challenging for you? Has there been a backlash? Are the allies that are Muslim majority still cooperating as they would be? I’d just like to get your thoughts on that.

DUNFORD: Let me be disappointing for perhaps not the first time tonight and not the last time tonight. Look, I’m not going to in any question address or make a judgement about administrative—the administration’s policies. It’s not my lane. I’m going to stick to the military lane. I think you’d want me to do that. You’d want me to remain apolitical in that regard.

What I would tell you is that I haven’t seen any change in the difficulty of us conducting operations around the world over the last couple years. I mean, I think the challenges that we have experienced in the Middle East and South Asia, I wouldn’t argue that they’re materially different than they might have been two or three years ago.

SANGER: Elise.

Q: Thank you. Elise Labott, Georgetown University.

General Dunford, I was wondering if we could take you back to Afghanistan and the idea that, you know, the deal with the Taliban would, you know, try and get them to prevent attacks against the United States, or not allow attacks against the United States. But I was wondering if you think—if you have concerns that you can really trust the Taliban when it comes to fighting ISIS. And if you think that, you know, a lot of people are concerned that this is kind of outsourcing, especially if you—once the 8,600 draw down, if that’s really going to be enough to stop ISIS from planning attacks against the U.S. from Afghan soil, if the Taliban are not able to counter the growth of ISIS, just like the Syrian and Iraqis were not able to do that.

DUNFORD: Sure. Sure. Look, let me—I’m glad you asked me that question. It’s a good question. And the first thing I’d tell you is no advice I’ve provided is founded on trust of the Taliban. So I want you to understand that up front. And nor is any advice I provide based on an assumption that the Taliban can protect us from the over twenty extremist groups in South Asia. Here’s what’s important. You recall earlier I spoke about sustainable level of effort against violent extremism, not just in Afghanistan but globally. And the level of effort that we have to have to deal with the terrorist threat in South Asia is inextricably linked to the level of violence associated with the insurgency in Afghanistan. So if the level of violence in the insurgency can be reduced, the Afghan National Defense Security forces, and those coalition allied U.S. forces that are in Afghanistan can be more focused on the terrorist threat than on the insurgency.

So in my view, without introducing the element of trust to the negotiation, two things could happen that I think are relatively modest, possible if not—you know, I’m not suggesting probable. One would be an agreement that does in fact reduce the level of violence associated with the insurgency, because that will—that will adjust the level of resourcing that we have to have to deal with the terrorist threat in the region. And the other is what I mentioned earlier, is that a negotiation could result in intra-Afghan dialogue and potentially some good could come out of that in the future.

Look, what I would—what I would tell you is that absent something to disrupt the status quo, we will see the status quo for some period of time to come. So if you asked me what I would view as a successful negotiation right now, it would be a negotiation that does two things, those two things I just mentioned. It reduces the level of violence associated with the insurgency and it sets up the Afghans to have intra-Afghan dialogue. If just those two things happened, and then we’re on a path, even if it lasted for years, where the Afghans themselves then develop a framework within which the future politics—the future body politic in Afghanistan could be established, that to me would be successful negotiations, and make a difference to me looking at the problem through the military dimension.

SANGER: Would you have defined that as successful in 2005? Are we defining down success here?

DUNFORD: You know, it’s hard for me to say what I would have said in 2005. I think in 2005 I don’t know that we were as clear-eyed about knowing that this could only end in a negotiation—in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation process. There might have been conventional wisdom at the time that there was a military solution to Afghanistan. I have been under no illusion for a long period of time, certainly all of my time in Afghanistan when Jim Cunningham and I were there, we never thought that there was a purely military solution in Afghanistan, certainly going back as recently as 2013—or, as far back as 2013.

SANGER: Michael.

Q: Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal.

General, you talked about the Russian military nuclear capabilities. There are a number of ways to deal with that: fielding American capabilities or agreements. The New START accord expires in February 2021, which is not a lot of time from now. And it has provisions for onsite inspection, for telemetry sharing, for notifications. From a military perspective, what would be the implications for your force planning, for strategic stability if that agreement were to lapse and you had to do without all of that monitoring and verification? What would be the effect on—for you, and for strategic stability? And would you favor retaining or extending that arms control regime until some successor agreement can be negotiated, instead of having a lapse, and having no accord, and no verification at all?

DUNFORD: Yeah. Let me answer the second question first, is that I would be in favor of extending the agreement, provided all parties were going to comply with the agreement. It’s difficult for me right now, in the wake of the violation of the INF Treaty, to say automatically that I support extending START. I think we have to address the violations of the INF Treaty and revisit compliance issues with regard to START before we move forward. There’s also, without—

SANGER: Is there any problem with compliance with START right now, are you seeing?

DUNFORD: No, what I said was—

SANGER: Yeah, I heard on INF, but—

DUNFORD: Yeah. So international agreements are based on compliance. I’m suggesting that the Russians haven’t complied with one treaty. We would have to be satisfied that we addressed that issue, and also compliance with any extension of the other treaty.

Q: Can you—what are the implications of not having the verification and monitoring?

DUNFORD: Look, in general terms, our nuclear enterprise, our command and control, our ground-based deterrence, sea-based deterrent, and our bomber are all—our force is designed to establish deterrence. And it’s in the framework of an adversary’s capabilities. And so we would obviously have to look, to the extent that Russia’s capabilities change, we would have to look at the framework within which we established deterrence. And that would have implications for capability development as well.

SANGER: Are you concerned that we are headed back to a period, if START does lapse, where you’re going to see both powers back into an arms race?

DUNFORD: Look, I don’t think we’re there yet, right? So I’m not going to speculate on what may happen. I mean, that’s one of the—that’s the driving motivation behind trying to figure out a way to move forward which, at the end of the day, will be fundamentally a policy choice to make.


Q: I’m Henri Barkey from the Council on Foreign Relations and Lehigh University.

General, you agreed with Mr. Sanger’s description of the situation in Syria and Iraq in terms of the presence of ISIS, whether it is in detention camps or—(inaudible). Does this mean that you expect that the U.S. involvement in Syria will continue for an extended period of time, since ISIS is still doing quite well? And to what extent are you worried about the Turkish plans of invading in northern Syria? There was a—(inaudible)—yesterday saying that very soon Turkish troops will cross into Syria.

DUNFORD: Sure. No, I’ll address Syria. Let me come back at you a little bit, though. I didn’t say ISIS was doing quite well. I don’t think that’s actually true. They’re not doing quite well. I think it’s fair to say that they still have a significant presence in Iraq and Syria. They’re certainly nowhere near as strong as they were in 2017 and 2018, so they’ve been significantly degraded. Again, still maintain the ability to conduct insurgent guerilla-style operations, and that’s what we see today. And I do, as you mention, share the concern about the detainees we hold and making sure we have proper disposition of the detainees, and in dealing with the internally displaced persons and the refugees that are there.

When you talk about U.S. presence, there are many ways to deal with those. In fact, the large—the larger problem of detainees and internally displaced persons and the people in refugee camps is actually being led by the State Department, not the Department of Defense. And so those are the tools that we’re using to address that particular problem.

I do believe that in the current environment the Syrian Democratic Forces—now I’ll talk east Syria, northeast Syria—continue to need the support of the coalition to be effective in dealing with the residual ISIS presence. But as importantly, training local forces to secure that territory that has been cleared by ISIS previously, so there’s still work to be done. And we estimate some fifty (thousand) or sixty thousand local security forces in total would need to be trained to hold that ground, and we’re probably some 50 percent of the way through—I say “we” collectively, the coalition.

With regard to Turkey, you know, Turkey clearly has very legitimate security concerns on the border between Syria and Turkey, and we have been in constant negotiation and dialogue with the Turks for years. I think in the time I’ve been the chairman I’ve visited Turkey no less than twelve times. We have worked very hard in recent weeks to come up with an acceptable framework where we could continue to prosecute the campaign against ISIS, and at the same time address the concerns the Turks have along their border. We established about ten days ago a center to coordinate operations with the Turkish General Staff. I talked to the chief of defense of Turkey about ten days ago. I’ll talk to him again this Friday. At the three-star level we’re communicating with them every day. So I think we have in place now measures to address Turkey’s concerns.

Is there a possibility—you’ve heard the political rhetoric—that Turkey could move into northeast Syria? There is that possibility. I don’t believe that’d be helpful to our mutual interest, and I think that’s why we’re so focused on finding an acceptable way to address Turkey’s concerns and at the same time maintain campaign continuity against ISIS in northeast Syria.

SANGER: A few days ago you had one of your periodic calls with General Gerasimov. I assume that this topic you’re just taking up is a frequent subject of conversation with the Russians. How will they help you out on this?

DUNFORD: Yeah, look, we established—first of all, I have really tried to keep the specific substance of conversation with General Gerasimov out of the public space, and we made an agreement in 2015 when we opened the line of communication that we would never publicly share the details of our conversations. That’s kept our relationship from being politicized and it’s put us in a position to mitigate the risk of miscalculation and manage a crisis. I also think a byproduct of that relationship—professional relationship has been the deconfliction channel that we have in place. And so we do speak routinely and did this week speak about deconfliction, but we speak daily at the operational level—three-star level and below—on deconfliction, and we also have a direct link to the Russian General Staff from the Joint Staff. And so we’ve got three levels of very robust communications, and one of the primary focus areas is deconfliction in Syria, but also making sure that we have safety of flight and safety at sea outside of the Middle East. And that’s another area where we are constantly focused on making sure we have protocols in place to mitigate the risk of miscalculation in the air or at sea. We are operating, obviously, in close proximity to Russian forces in many places around the world, and having those frameworks in place is very, very important.

SANGER: We have time for just a few more, so we’ll do a couple right here.

Q: Thank you. General, Jill Dorian (sp) from Georgetown University.

Quick question, and actually a very simple one. At the beginning you mentioned space. Could you just give us a primer—(laughs)—in how militarized it is at this point—


Q: —and the strategic significance going forward. Thank you.

DUNFORD: Yeah. You know, the one thing I think I’ve learned more than anything else as a senior leader is the importance of assumptions, right? So in the 1990s, when we fielded a lot of capabilities in space, we assumed that space would be uncontested. And space today is contested. And adversaries, to include North Korea, to include Russia, to include China, and to include in a developmental way Iran, have all developed capabilities that threaten our space capabilities. Everything we do every day is somehow affected by space. We know that, both in the commercial sector and in the military sector. In the military sector, our command and control systems, our ability to deliver precision munitions, our ability to navigate, all dependent on space.

And so, in recognition of the fact that space is no longer uncontested, number one, that’ll inform the capabilities we field in the future, to ensure they’re fielded in a way that will allow them to survive in a contested area. And obviously, now we’re trying to make sure that we have the redundancy in place and the protection in place to be—to be able to sustain the capabilities that we have in space in the near term against the threats that exist.

So I think the short answer to your question is there is a very real threat to the capabilities that we have fielded in space, and therefore a very real threat to our commercial and military interests that are dependent—inextricably linked—to space.

SANGER: Well, General Dunford, very little of the Council on Foreign Relations is run with military precision, but the one thing that is, is that when the hour strikes we let our guests go, and we know you have much to do today. I just want to thank you for spending the time, for going into such depth and such breadth of area, and thank you for the many years you’ve had of service and for your continued willingness to talk to all of us journalists, the policy community along the way. Appreciate it. Thank you very much for coming.

DUNFORD: Thanks. Thanks, David. Thanks. Thanks. (Applause.) Thanks. (Applause.)


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