Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett is the commander of U.S. Army Central, based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. The three-star command is housed in Patton Hall, the modern, super-secure building screened from busy U.S. 378 by a pine thicket, high razor wire-topped fences and heavily armed guards.
From there, Garrett and his staff of about 4,000 provide all of the support – from ammunition, to medical care, to helicopters – for the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as operations in 17 other countries from Yemen to Kazakhstan.
The command, also known as Third Army or ARCENT, is a component of U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., which plans and commands the wars and operations in the region. Garrett was chief of staff for CENTCOM, as it is called, for nearly three years before taking over the reins of Third Army in November 2015.
A three-star general, he is the highest ranking military officer in South Carolina. In this exclusive interview, Garrett talks with The State newspaper about his job, the challenges of the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and functioning in an age of deep military budget cuts.
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What is your job?
I spend almost 60 percent of my time in Camp Arifjan (Kuwait).
As Gen. (Joseph) Votel, commander of United States Central Command, executes his plans for the theater, (to ensure) stability and security in a very difficult region to protect the vital national interests of protecting the homeland, the free flow of resources and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we are there with 20,000-plus soldiers that provide everything from personnel to every war effort you can think of.
I do not direct combat operations. There is a three-star joint task force commander in Iraq who provides mission control, command and control, in Iraq and Syria, and there is a four-star general in Afghanistan.
I support them with everything that they need. We provide medical capability. We provide logistical capability. We provide communications. We provide engineering. We provide rotary wing aviation support. We also do a lot of the contracting work and oversight that is required in the theater.
And then we provide support to other services.
Are we winning against ISIS?
You know the reason I even pause when you ask me if we’re winning (is that) it depends what our goals and objectives are: to go back to our vital national interests of protecting our homeland? Absolutely. We still have (threats). We are sorting our way through new threats to the homeland. We weren’t talking about lone wolf attacks. We weren’t talking about the impacts of ideology before, but we certainly are now.
Look at the movement of terrorist and violent extremists in the region back to the United States? We do think we have reduced that flow. And with our presence in Afghanistan, our presence back in Syria, our presence in the Middle East, (we) keep pressure on these organizations.
The other piece in this is (that) our goals in Iraq are clearer than the goals in Syria. One of the things that will be interesting is the direction we get in Syria from the new administration.
But the bottom line is our partners are getting better. They are becoming more capable. Our relationships, our personal relationships, with our partners are better. And those are the things we need to be doing today to avert a major confrontation in the region.
Can we defeat ISIS in Syria?
Absolutely we can defeat ISIL in Iraq. Syria will be a little more problematic, only because it’s a very complicated battle space today. It’s not just the coalition against ISIL. It’s the Turks and the Syrians. It’s the Russians and the Syrians. It’s the Russians and the Turks. It’s the Kurds and the Iraqis. It’s the Kurds and the Turks.
And what’s amazing about all of this is (that) where there is convergence, we’ve made great progress. But you quickly get to a point where national interests start to diverge, and that’s where the commanders ... are spending a lot of their time working through – how do we deal with that?
Iran is our principal adversary in the region. Isn’t it ironic that we have boots on the ground in Iraq, and the Iranians have boots on the ground in Iraq with the same goal, defeating ISIS?
It gives you a sense of the complexity of what we’re doing. … The plans we are executing today were written almost three years ago. They have certainly been refined, but the methods have not changed: (The plan) has been (executed) by, with and through our partners, through a coalition. If we want this to endure … we really have to do this by, with and through our partners or else it won’t be durable.
Will we ever get out of Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is our primary focus and has been since 2001. We went in in response to the 9/11 attacks and we’ve been there ever since. Under the vital national interest of protecting our homeland, Afghanistan is going to be important going into the future, based on the number of terrorist organizations (and) the fragility of the Afghan government.
When last we spoke in 2015, you said that you had to slash staffing due to across-the-Army budget cuts. How is that going?
I told you we were going to take a 54 percent reduction in the size of the headquarters, and guess what? We’re working our way down to that. As you remember, there was a little bit of angst here in the command as we identified and tried to work our way through the mitigation. And I tell you, back then we knew that there were opportunities that we could take advantage of and today we’re seeing that.
At my forward headquarters in Kuwait we had about 500 or 600 folks doing the day-to-day ... logistics and the other things I mentioned to you. Today we have about 150 folks forward in headquarters, so the Army sourced us with (the Virginia National Guard 29th Infantry Division headquarters) that we put into command at Camp Arifjan in the beginning of December. So they’ve been there now for six weeks and they are doing a great job.
Do you feel hamstrung?
What is the National Guard’s place in today’s Army?
You won’t hear me, and I don’t think you’ll hear many senior leaders in the Army anymore, (draw) any big differences between components. When (Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley) talks about the Army, he talks about total Army. Today, there’s a little less than 1 million of us – active, Guard and Reserve. Inside of this headquarters we have Guard, Reserve and active. In most of the units I have forward, we have Guard, Reserve and active. We have Guard, Reserve and active inside of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Without the total Army, we would fail.
Can you explain the difference between operations in Kuwait and operations here in Sumter?
The main command post for U.S. Army Central is at Shaw Air Force Base.
We’ve always said the physical structure is at Shaw Air Force Base. But I think there was a natural division of labor in the past. And that division of labor was the portion of the headquarters that was at Shaw in the Eastern Time Zone primarily focused on our responsibilities to the Army in Washington, D.C., and the training of forces that are deploying to the (Area of Responsibility).
(Now) the tasks forward are still forward, but they are directed from Shaw. Without having that (National Guard) division headquarters below ARCENT, what you had was the three-star headquarters directing the activities of brigades. You can certainly do that. But the preferred way, the preferred structure of command if you will, is to have a two star division headquarters above those brigades, and have it focus solely on those brigades.
Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett
Title: Commander, U.S. Army Central
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
College: Xavier University
Children: Samantha, attending Lenoir-Rhyne; Michael, attending U.S. Military Academy at West Point