|Commander’s Posture Statement|
STATEMENT OF GENERAL LLOYD J. AUSTIN III COMMANDER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND BEFORE THE HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE – DEFENSE COMMITTEE ON THE POSTURE OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
5 MAR 2015
Introduction: We are in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in history. There is growing unrest throughout much of the world, while a vast array of malevolent actors seek to capitalize on the increasing instability to promote their own interests. This trend is especially pronounced in the Central Region, where state and non-state actors are in conflict, and the resulting turmoil impacts the affected countries and also directly affects the global economy and the security of the United States. In light of this, the U.S. must continue to exert strong leadership and act vigorously to protect our core national interests in this strategically important region. An effective ‘whole of government’ approach is essential. At U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), our aim is to see a positive transformation of the region over time, achieved by, with, and through our regional partners. Despite the challenges that exist in our area of responsibility (AOR), we do see progress being made in some areas, along with many opportunities. We are confident that our actions in pursuit of these opportunities will continue to produce positive results in the coming days.
Looking ahead, our partners will need to assume a larger share of the burden for providing improved stability in the region. Given the stakes involved, we must keep on assisting them in their efforts. At the same time, we have to find additional methods for dealing with the convergence of compound threats under increasing budget and resource constraints. We must be judicious in our decision-making. Particularly during this volatile period, we cannot afford restrictions or reductions that would degrade our military posture and put our core national interests at greater risk. Simply stated, if we hope to achieve improved security which provides for greater stability and prosperity around the globe, then the Central Region must remain a foremost priority.
A Retrospective Look: This past year has been especially busy for USCENTCOM. In Afghanistan, we completed our transition from combat operations to our train, advise, and assist (TAA) and counter-terrorism (CT) missions. The Afghans are now in the lead for all security operations. They continue to demonstrate significant capability and a strong desire to build upon the progress achieved over the past 13+ years. In recent months, we also saw significant advancements made on the political front as a new unity government was established. President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah have indicated a strong desire to work closely with USG leadership in pursuit of shared objectives. While much work remains to be done in Afghanistan, I am optimistic that developments will continue to trend in the right direction. At the same time, we are focused on the situation in Iraq and Syria. We responded quickly and effectively to the rapid expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the early summer of 2014. We continue to take the necessary measures to counter this barbaric enemy which operates out of ungoverned and under-governed spaces in both countries. We are currently executing our regional campaign plan to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and we are doing so with the support of a broad Coalition consisting of 62 other countries and organizations. However, as was clearly stated at the outset, this will take time and we must maintain strategic patience.
We also continue to closely monitor Iran’s actions. Our diplomats are working diligently to negotiate an acceptable agreement with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, and we hope that they will be successful. But, regardless of the outcome of the P5+1 discussions, our relationship with Iran will remain a challenging one, as we are very concerned by their unhelpful behavior in a number of areas. We also are paying especially close attention to the situation in Yemen.
Recent actions by the Huthis and also al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula coupled with the resignation of President Hadi and the subsequent upheaval in the government are cause for significant and growing concern. If the situation continues to erode, and it remains on a negative trajectory now, Yemen could fracture and we could end up losing a key partner in our counter- terrorism (CT) fight and cede additional ungoverned space for our adversaries to operate out of. Meanwhile, we are also watching with interest what occurs in Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, and other parts of the region.
Without a doubt these are challenging times. There is a great deal at stake for the U.S. and our partner nations. At USCENTCOM, we remain confident that we have the right strategy in place to safeguard our interests, to effectively address challenges and pursue opportunities, and ultimately to accomplish our mission on behalf of the Nation. That said, we depend upon the authorities and funding provided by Congress to execute our strategy and to do what is required to defend our core national interests at home and around the globe. Without question, our ability to do so and our overall readiness are put at grave risk by the continued reductions made to the defense budget, and specifically as a result of the Budget Control Act. We are in the midst of a tumultuous and unpredictable period. We are constantly responding to unforeseen contingencies and facing multiple threats from a wide range of actors that include nation states and transnational extremist groups. We cannot afford to constrict our ability to do so effectively by maintaining across-the-board spending cuts that severely limit our flexibility and authority to apply critical defense resources based on demand and the current security environment. If Sequestration goes back into effect in FY 2016, we will be increasingly vulnerable to external threats.
USCENTCOM’s Mission. USCENTCOM’s mission statement is: “With national and international partners, USCENTCOM promotes cooperation among nations, responds to crises, and deters or defeats state and non-state aggression, and supports development and, when necessary, reconstruction in order to establish the conditions for regional security, stability and prosperity.”
Strategic Environment. The Central Region is an area rich in history, culture, and tradition. It is one of the most strategically important regions, holding well over half of the world’s proven oil reserves and plentiful natural gas deposits, which are crucial to the global energy market.
The U.S. and our partners have core national interests in this part of the world; interests that include the free flow of resources through key shipping lanes; the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and, the defense of our homeland against the very real and persistent threat of terrorism and extremism. Unfortunately, it also is an area that is plagued by violence and instability, political discord, economic stagnation, resource shortages (e.g., water), ethnic and religious tensions, and wide expanses of ungoverned or under-governed space. Alone or in combination, these provocative factors often make for a volatile environment that puts our interests and those of our partners at risk. Indeed, when things go badly in the Central Region, it has a clear and sizeable impact on the affected countries and other parts of the globe. For this reason it is an area of the world that merits our continued focus.
Of note, more so than in the past, individuals and groups today are coalescing around ethnic and sectarian issues, rather than national identity. This is fracturing institutions (e.g., governments, militaries) along sectarian lines and creating factional rifts within populations. This growing strain, coupled with other “underlying currents,” fuels much of the tension and conflict that is present today across the USCENTCOM AOR. The principal currents include the growing ethno- sectarian divide; the struggle between moderates and extremists, particularly Islamist-based extremists; rejection of corruption and oppressive governments; and, the “youth bulge,” which reflects the many young, educated, unemployed or under-employed and disenfranchised individuals in the region who are ripe for recruitment by extremist groups. To be effective, our approach in dealing with the challenges that exist in the region must address these complex root causes. In particular, the governments and people of the region must bridge the growing ethno- sectarian divide, elevate the voice of moderates, rid governments of corruption, guard against ungoverned and under-governed spaces, and make sure that young people have better opportunities and are able to contribute to society in meaningful ways.
Of course, change will not occur overnight. It will take time to adjust peoples’ mindsets and to counter deeply-engrained prejudices. But, it must be done by the governments and people in the region. Only they can bring about enduring, positive change, with our engagement and support. Indeed, we do have a critical role to play in this important endeavor and we must take action where necessary to counter exigent threats. We are helping our partners to build additional capacity and also foster stronger military-to-military relationships. The goal is to enable them to assume a greater share of the responsibility and do what is required to bring about improved stability in the region.
There are a number of challenges present in the Central Region that require our engagement to mitigate the potential negative effects. These include ongoing operations in Afghanistan, our activities in Iraq and Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, and our efforts in a host of other locations in USCENTCOM’s AOR. Ultimately, our goal in all cases is to move things in the direction of greater stability and to ensure assured access and freedom of movement, recognizing that a secure, stable, and prosperous Central Region is in the best interest of the United States and our partners and allies.
USCENTCOM Priorities. Looking ahead, USCENTCOM will remain ready, engaged and vigilant—effectively integrated with other instruments of power; strengthening relationships with partners; and supporting bilateral and multilateral collective defense relationships to counter adversaries, improve security, support enduring stability, and secure our core interests in the Central Region. In support of this vision, the command remains focused on a wide range of issues, activities, and operations, including our priority efforts:
Critical Focus Areas. While we remain focused on the broad range of challenges present today in the Central Region, there are particular areas that merit a sizeable portion of our attention and resources. These areas are strategically important because of the potential impact on our core national interests and those of our partners. Below are descriptions of the current critical focus areas, along with a listing of some of the key opportunities that we are actively pursuing in an effort to improve stability in USCENTCOM’s AOR.
Protection of Nation States. Historically, nation states have been the dominant players globally. However, in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of transnational extremist groups that desire and, in some cases, demonstrate the ability to operate as major players with unfavorable intentions. In many ways they are attempting to behave like nation states and, in so doing, they threaten the structures, rules, norms, and values that define the sovereignty of our nation-state based international system.
These transnational violent extremist organizations (VEO) are ideologically opposed to and target the nation states of the Central Region. They conduct attacks and terrorize local populaces in an effort to gain power and influence. This, in turn, weakens the nation states and generates increased instability. This is of obvious concern to us, given that nation states are typically anchors for stability across the globe, with some exceptions (e.g., Iran, Syria). Thus, the U.S. has a vested interest in buttressing our partner nations in the Central Region when necessary as part of a larger ‘whole of government’ effort to build regional stability through effective security assistance and support for inclusive governance.
As directed, we intervene to counter external threats, such as al Qaeda and ISIL. While our primary purpose for doing so is to protect U.S. interests, we also take action to allow time and space for the nation states in the region to build sufficient capacity to protect their own sovereignty. And, we support them through our planned regional engagements, our training and exercise programs, and foreign military sales (FMS) and foreign military financing (FMF) programs; all of which are designed to further enhance our partners nations’ military capacity.
One of the key opportunities that exist amidst the challenges posed by transnational VEOs is to persuade our partners in the region of the urgent need to build their military capacity so that they are better able to defend their own sovereign territory against such threats. Our regional partners are very concerned about the threat posed by ISIL and other VEOs. More importantly, many in the region recognize that if they do not do something to address the root causes of the growing instability, they can all but guarantee continued political upheaval and anarchy. Again, transformational change can only be achieved by the governments and people of the region.
They must decide that the instability caused by the “underlying currents” merits greater action on their part, and they must do more to address the root causes of many of the problems that exist in their region. We can and will support them; but, they must lead the effort.
Iraq-Syria (Operation Inherent Resolve). We remain highly focused on the crisis in Iraq and in Syria. Since launching its major offensive from eastern Syria into Iraq in early June, ISIL, which is commonly referred to by our partners in the region as “DA’ESH,” has largely erased the internationally recognized boundary between Iraq and Syria and has sought to establish a proto state in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. ISIL’s goal is to spur regional instability in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate. To achieve this end, ISIL has employed three primary lines of effort: 1) instill fear and shape the operational environment using unconventional warfare and traditional terrorist tactics; 2) seize and hold territory; and 3) influence, shape, and define the conflict using sophisticated information operations. Importantly, although significantly degraded in recent months, ISIL still possesses the resources and organizational structure to pose a credible threat to the Government of Iraq (GoI). The erosion of Iraqi and regional stability caused by ISIL places extreme political and economic strain on Jordan, Lebanon, under-governed border areas, and, by extension, the broader Gulf and Levant sub- regions.
That said, ISIL is not a monolith; rather it is a symptom of the larger problems that continue to threaten the Central Region. In particular, the growing divide between ethno-sectarian groups and between religious moderates and radical Islamists, have created ideal conditions for a group like ISIL to take root. Over a period of years the previous government alienated important segments of its society, notably the Sunni and Kurdish populations, which resulted in growing disenfranchisement among these groups. ISIL capitalized on this opportunity and launched a successful blitz into Iraq absent much resistance and with support from local Sunnis who viewed ISIL as a means for bringing about a change in their government. The Sunnis simply refused to fight; and, in so doing, they facilitated ISIL’s offensive. The remaining Iraqi security forces were largely incapable of mounting a credible defense against ISIL. After we departed Iraq in 2011, the leadership of the country made a series of poor decisions. Among them was the decision to stop training the security forces, to stop maintaining their equipment, and to assign leaders based on sectarian loyalty rather than competence, merit, and experience. As a result, the security forces’ skills atrophied and the condition of their vehicles and weapon systems deteriorated. This precipitated a number of defeats early on in ISIL’s push towards Baghdad.
This past September, President Obama announced to the American people that the United States, with the support of a broad Coalition, would take action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy. We are currently in the early stages of our counter-ISIL campaign, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Our military campaign plan is comprised of five key elements. They will be achieved in a logical progression; although many of the efforts will occur simultaneously or near-simultaneously. First, we must counter ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Our intent is to employ a Coalition effort in Iraq to halt the advance of ISIL and to enable the Iraqis to regain their territory and reestablish control over their border. Once we’ve halted ISIL’s advance in Iraq, which we have done, we said that we would need to contain ISIL, and we are doing so with the assistance of our Coalition partners, including Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. We are working with them to ensure they have the capacity to secure their sovereign borders. We also said that we would need to enable the moderate Syrian opposition forces through our train and equip efforts. Our goal is to develop a reliable partner that can assist in countering ISIL on the ground inside of Syria. Eventually we want to eliminate ungoverned spaces out of which ISIL and other terrorist groups have been operating by enabling the indigenous security forces to defend their own sovereign territories. Once we do all of these things, we will have defeated ISIL through a combination of sustained pressure, a systematic dismantling of ISIL’s capabilities, and by effectively expanding our regional partners’ CT capacities.
Our military campaign is having the desired effects. Iraqi security forces, to include Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and tribal elements, with the support of U.S. and Coalition air operations, have halted ISIL’s advance in Iraq. The enemy is now in a “defensive crouch,” and is unable to conduct major operations and seize additional territory. We can expect that ISIL will continue to conduct ineffective counter-attacks and leverage their information operations to amplify the significance of these attacks. However, they are unable to achieve decisive effects. The effort in Iraq continues to represent our main focus. The actions that we are taking now in Syria against ISIL are shaping the conditions in Iraq. Specifically, our precision air strikes are disrupting ISIL’s command and control, attriting its forces and leadership, slowing the flow of reinforcements from Syria into Iraq, and interrupting the resourcing of their operations. The more than 2,600 total air strikes conducted in Iraq and Syria over the past several months have been extremely effective.
Of course, the United States is not doing this alone. Our efforts are intended to enable the broader, ‘whole of government’ approach that is currently underway among various departments and agencies in the U.S. government. Equally important are the contributions being made by our Coalition partners. Indeed, the Coalition represents the strength and cohesion of our campaign. In particular, the active and public involvement of five Arab-led nations, specifically Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, has greatly enhanced the fight and sends a clear message to ISIL and other VEOs that their actions will not be tolerated.
Ultimately, the intent of our regional campaign is not simply to destroy ISIL, although that is a primary objective. Even more importantly, we want to do what we can to help change the conditions inside of Iraq and Syria so that what we see happening there now, does not happen again in the future. The key to doing so is enabling indigenous forces to defend their own borders and provide for the security of their sovereign territory. This is the goal of our advise and assist and build partner capacity efforts currently underway in Iraq, and soon in Syria. We are also working with the Government of Iraq (GoI) to train Sunni tribal elements. Equally important, we are providing, in coordination with the GoI, support for the Kurds who continue to play a significant role in the fight against ISIL.
All that said, the effects of our military efforts will be short-lived if the Iraqis do not effectively address their political problems. The crisis in Iraq will not be solved through military means alone. The Iraqis have a new government and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to be more inclusive of the Sunnis and the Kurds and other minority groups. We are encouraged by the early steps he has taken to reach out to the Sunnis and Kurds and we are urging him to follow through on pledges made in the near-term. This is not a minor issue, as the government cannot succeed long-term without that support. National reconciliation is absolutely critical to the success of the counter-ISIL campaign.
A key opportunity that exists amidst the challenges posed by ISIL is to create conditions that reduce ungoverned spaces and allow for inclusion, security, and good governance in both Iraq and Syria. We pursue this opportunity, in part, by training, advising, and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces, helping them to re-build their capacity, and restructuring them to ensure greater inclusiveness. With your support, we have also have established a program to train, equip and sustain elements of the Syrian moderate opposition. We anticipate that these forces will make important contributions toward degrading and defeating ISIL, and they also will help to guard against ungoverned spaces, protect local populations, and help to create the conditions for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria that leads to more responsible and responsive governance.
Afghanistan (Operation Freedom’s Sentinel). The engagement in Afghanistan remains a top priority. We conducted a successful transition from combat to stability operations, and we continue to help the Afghans to build and mature a capable and sustainable Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). Today, the ANSF consists of approximately 326,000 Afghans. They, not us, are in the lead for all security operations and they are managing to keep the levels of violence comparatively low across the country.
It is also worth noting that the Afghan National Army (ANA) consistently ranks as the country’s most respected institution. This popularity largely reflects the improved quality of life that many Afghans are experiencing now as the country becomes increasingly safer and more stable. In recent years, life expectancy rates for Afghans have improved and the infant mortality rate has declined. Opportunities for Afghan women also have expanded; women now represent one- quarter of the labor force and 28% of the National Parliament. And, education and literacy levels have increased. In 2001, 900,000 Afghans were enrolled in primary and secondary schools. Today, there are more than 8.0 million students enrolled in school; and, 39% of them are females. Unemployment or underemployment has also decreased from 50% to 35%. By almost all metrics, progress in Afghanistan has been significant over the past 13+ years. Numerous polls conducted in 2014 indicate that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) enjoys tremendous popular support. Polling reports have shown that more than 80% of Afghans believe their lives are improving. This is positive news; however, there is still much work to be done and the Afghans will need to continue to build upon the progress achieved thus far. They recognize this and clearly demonstrate their intent to do the right things going forward.
The Afghans have the capability to provide for the security of their people and they demonstrate this on a daily basis. However, they do still need some help with sustainment; and, that includes resupply operations, particularly to remote or mountainous areas. They need help with fixed- wing and rotary-wing aviation; and also with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support. Additionally, due to the delay in government formation, some key leaders who will see the Afghans through the upcoming fighting seasons have only recently assumed their new positions. We will need to work closely with them to enable their success and aid them in building additional needed military capacity. We cannot afford for Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for extremist groups. Increased instability and diminished security would not only affect Afghanistan, but also the Central Asia region as a whole.
Of course, enduring stability in Afghanistan will not be achieved through military means alone. There must be a credible, reliable, and responsive government in place. Fortunately, after a challenging election, Afghanistan has begun to move forward politically under the National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Both leaders share similar priorities and beliefs, and they have signaled a strong desire to see the government succeed. They also are actively countering corruption, which represents a principal inhibitor of GIRoA success. Theirs is not an easy undertaking; however, I do believe that they can be effective together.
There is challenging work ahead for the government and people of Afghanistan. However, as I look at the country, I remain cautiously optimistic that developments will continue to trend in the right direction. We have been in Afghanistan for more than 13 years, representing the longest period of continuous conflict fought by our Nation’s all-volunteer force. Together with our Afghan and Coalition partners, we have invested many lives and other precious resources with the goal of improving stability in that country, and we want to do all that we can to preserve those hard-earned gains.
Amidst the challenges posed by the current situation in Afghanistan is the opportunity to foster a strong relationship between the United States and Afghanistan and with other partner nations in the Central and South Asia (CASA) sub-region. In particular, this would contribute to improved Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, which would allow for increased counter-terrorism cooperation in the region, along with possibilities for reconciliation. President Ghani, CEO Abdullah, and their new government have indicated their strong desire to work with us and to continue to strengthen our partnership in the coming days. Looking ahead, our intent is to maintain a close relationship with the Afghan government and military as we work together to preserve improved security and stability in the region. At the same time, while the size of our footprint will decrease in the coming years, our continued presence in Afghanistan will allow us to maintain much-needed pressure on al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO). As I travel around the region, I routinely hear from senior military leaders that they do not necessarily fear groups like ISIL’s military prowess so much as they fear the groups’ ideologies. These groups clearly demonstrate their ability to inspire extremist behavior and to recruit individuals in support of their causes.
In recent years, VEOs have increasingly exploited ungoverned or under-governed spaces in USCENTCOM’s AOR. The extremists’ use of these areas threatens regional security, as well as U.S. core national interests. They are able to plan and launch attacks, undermine local governments, and exercise malign influence from these spaces. At the same time, VEOs and other militant proxies continue to exploit security vacuums in countries experiencing political transitions and unrest, namely Iraq and Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon. Chronic instability, disenfranchised populations, and weak regional governments provide new footholds for a resilient and expanding global jihadist movement and an ideal environment for Iran and its allies to aggressively undermine U.S. regional goals.
Of note, ISIL’s rise as a competitor to al Qaeda (AQ) has significantly impacted the jihadist landscape. The two groups are now competing for recruits, resources, and publicity. This will likely result in increased terrorist attacks in the near-term as ISIL, AQ, and other elements attempt to out-do one another.
Meanwhile, the AQ movement is becoming more diffuse and decentralized as compared to pre- 9/11. The risk of affiliates and allies operating in more areas and increasingly collaborating and coordinating with one another as a transnational loosely-confederated ‘syndicate’ is cause for concern. The AQ ideology remains persuasive, attracting and radicalizing susceptible individuals in the region. Thus, it is critical that we maintain our vigilance in countering the group and its narrative.
We must also continue to look for ways to effectively counter ISIL. As noted earlier, ISIL seeks to broaden its reach beyond Iraq and Syria, and will try to leverage regional instability to revive a caliphate stretching from Europe to North Africa to South Asia. ISIL has already received pledges of allegiance from smaller jihadist groups in Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, and they have inspired lone-wolf attacks in Algeria and the West.
Other extremist groups have leveraged Syria’s security vacuum, including the AQ-affiliated Al Nusrah Front (ANF). As the civil war in Syria continues, ANF will threaten neighboring states, particularly Israel and Lebanon, where the group has launched anti-Hezbollah attacks. The ongoing Syrian conflict has also created a safe haven for the Khorasan Group, a network of veteran AQ operatives, providing them with territory to plot and train for attacks against the West and the U.S. homeland.
The Iraq-Syria area of operations is the premier destination for jihadist foreign fighters, with over 15,000 coming from around the globe, and particularly Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. The majority of these fighters are joining ISIL’s ranks, although some have joined ANF and other Syrian opposition groups. As these conflicts carry on, returning battle-hardened foreign fighters will pose increasing risk to their home countries, including the United States. We must sustain our active measures to address this growing threat.
An important opportunity that exists in the Central Region is to limit the overall reach and effectiveness of VEOs, while also reducing the amount of ungoverned or under-governed space in which these groups typically operate. To do so, many of our partners acknowledge the need to counter radical extremists’ ideologies, in part by helping to amplify the voice of moderates in the region. They also recognize the need to limit access to ungoverned and under-governed spaces; thereby diminishing the reach and effectiveness of violent extremists operating in the region. By setting the right conditions and helping to promote the efforts of moderate and influential regional leaders, we may achieve significant and lasting improvements. And, these improvements are likely to have pervasive positive effects on the global security environment.
Iran. Iran represents the most significant threat to the Central Region. Our diplomats have been hard at work, trying to reach an agreement with Iran with respect to its nuclear program. The most recent extension allows for continued negotiations through 1 July 2015. While we remain hopeful that the two sides will eventually reach an acceptable deal, it is presently unclear how things will play out. We have to be prepared for what comes next. We will be prepared.
In the meantime, we remain very concerned about Iran’s behavior in other areas. Iran continues to pursue policies that threaten U.S. strategic interests and goals throughout the Middle East. In addition to its nuclear program, Iran has a significant cyber capability, as well as the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. With ranges up to ~ 2,000 km, Iran is able to strike targets throughout the region with increasing precision using creatively adapted foreign technologies to improve its missile arsenal. It also has increased its anti-access area- denial air defense capabilities. Iran is improving its counter-maritime capabilities (e.g., mines, small boats, cruise missiles, submarines), which serve to threaten the flow of global commerce in the Strait of Hormuz. Perhaps most concerning, Iran routinely engages in malign activity through the Iranian Threat Network (ITN) consisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps- Qods Force, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and its surrogates, businesses, and logistics support. Iran also engages in malign activity through support to proxy actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas which threatens the sovereignty and security of Israel.
During the past year, the ITN primarily focused on Sunni groups in the Iraq and Syria-based conflict (including the moderate opposition in Syria) by bolstering the Syrian and Iraqi governments and overseeing engagements involving its own militant forces. Iran also maintains the ability to expand the scope of its activities. This is troubling as Iranian malign influence is enflaming sectarian tensions that are all too often exploited by violent extremist elements in the region. Needless to say, our relationship with Iran remains a challenging one. We will continue to pay close attention to their actions, and we will remain steadfast with our regional partners and do what we can to help improve their capacity to counter Iran and mitigate the effects of their malign activity.
One of the key opportunities that exist with respect to Iran is the prospect of an acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. If the P5+1 are able to reach a long-term resolution, that would represent a step in the right direction and may present an unprecedented opportunity for positive change in the Central Region.
A Regional Perspective. In many ways our military-to-military relationships continue to represent the cornerstone of America’s partnerships with the nation states in the USCENTCOM AOR. Below are synopses of the status of those relationships, along with the current state of affairs in each of the 20 countries, minus Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Iran which were addressed in the previous section, “Critical Focus Areas” (see pages 8-21):
The Gulf States – The Gulf States have proven to be valuable Coalition partners, engaging in and supporting offensive operations against ISIL and providing the indispensable access, basing and overflight privileges that are critical to the conduct of operations in the region. In recent months, we have seen some improvement in relations between and among the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar after a period of increased tensions. A convergence of interests, namely the need to counter the increasing threat posed by ISIL and other violent extremists groups, has afforded a unique opportunity to strengthen the Coalition and also contribute to improving stability and security in the broader Middle East region. In many ways, ISIL’s expansion in Iraq has forced the Gulf States to take more seriously the threat posed by ISIL and other violent extremist groups. As a result, they have begun to take a more proactive approach to countering extremist financing and foreign fighter facilitation. They must maintain their focus and continue to make much-needed progress in these areas. At the same time, we are strengthening our partners’ military capacity as part of a collective security architecture designed to deter and, where necessary, counter Iranian hegemonic ambitions. Going forward, we will play a key role in making sure that our partners remain united on common interests and security challenges.
In late January of this year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) saw a smooth transition of power, as King Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne after the death of his brother, King Abdullah. King Salman comes to power during a very challenging period. The threat from ISIL, particularly along Saudi’s northern border, and from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Huthis in the south, has led KSA to take a more proactive role in safeguarding the Kingdom’s interests in the region. In particular, KSA’s prominent role in the campaign against ISIL, to include its participation in air operations in Syria and in support of the Syria Train & Equip program, has paved the way for other Arab nations to join the Coalition efforts to counter ISIL. Recognizing the need for enhanced maritime security in the Gulf, the Saudis assumed command of the Gulf Maritime Security Task Force for the first time this year. Their leadership is critically important in demonstrating the cohesion of the Combined Maritime Forces generally and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations in particular. Of note, the Saudis have taken a lead role in reconciling the Gulf States. Looking ahead, our continued support of advanced Saudi defense competencies and further improvements in U.S.-Saudi military interoperability are expected to yield positive impacts, which will in turn contribute to greater stability in the region and beyond.
Kuwait remains a long-time partner and strong and reliable ally in the region, providing critical support for U.S. and Coalition troops, vehicles, and equipment deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. In addition to providing a permissive environment for our deployed forces in the USCENTCOM AOR, Kuwait plays a significant role in the retrograde of equipment from Afghanistan. They also continue to provide critical basing and access for U.S. forces and capabilities needed to address future contingencies. The Kuwaitis are committed to advancing regional cooperative defense efforts as evidenced by their role as a key interlocutor between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain in response to recent tensions, as well as the extensive preparation they have done to host the Eagle Resolve multi-national training exercise in the spring of 2015. The Kuwaitis also have made significant progress towards reconciling the sub- region’s long-standing issues with Iraq, leading Gulf Arab diplomatic outreach efforts with the Government of Iraq. The Kuwaitis remain committed to accommodating all segments of their population to preserve internal stability, particularly Sunnis and Shia; and, this has made them typically measured in their support for Gulf Arab regional initiatives. Overall, Kuwait continues to provide critical support to the U.S. and partner nations while managing these internal political challenges.
Our military-to-military relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues along its historically positive trajectory. UAE’s growing concerns regarding the spread of extremist ideologies and the threat that they pose to UAE’s internal security and regional stability prompted the Emirates to take an active role in the counter-ISIL campaign. They continue to demonstrate their value as a strategic partner by proactively addressing some of the region’s toughest problems. Their military capability is arguably the best among the GCC states. UAE’s is also the most expeditionary military, deploying forces in support of operations in Afghanistan and Syria. In addition to their participation in the ongoing air operations in Syria, UAE also has offered to send forces and personnel to support the military advise and assist mission and one of the four training sites in Iraq. Of note, the Emirates have a much broader definition of extremism and they want to expand the counter-ISIL military campaign to include a wide range of groups they perceive as extremist, from Islamist political groups to Salafi jihadist groups. Going forward, we will look to further strengthen our security cooperation partnership with UAE through continued engagement and through our FMS program.
Qatar remains one of our most stalwart partners in the Gulf, hosting three of our forward headquarters (USCENTCOM, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Special Operations Command Central) and facilities and providing us with unimpeded access to the region. The Qataris were among the first to offer a site for the Syria Train & Equip program, along with a place to host the now-established Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (CJIATF) headquarters. Qatar also continues to play an active role in the counter-ISIL campaign. Unlike KSA, Bahrain, and especially UAE, Qatar makes a distinction between Salafi jihadist and political Islamist groups, which creates a challenge in terms of how we approach countering extremist groups in the region. That said, the Qataris’ relationships with a wide range of groups, including more moderate elements, could present potential opportunities.
During the past 12 months, the Qatari Armed Forces have concluded extensive FMS equipment purchases and submitted additional requests. All told, 2014 saw the Qataris allocate billions of dollars to arm their forces with cutting edge American weaponry. This show of renewed and expanding cooperation with the U.S. defense industry clearly reflects the Qataris’ drive for greater military interoperability with the United States. Future collaboration with Qatar may see the genesis of a partner force that reflects the United States in organization, arms, and training.
We have a long history of cooperation with Bahrain, to include hosting the headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces in Manama. Amidst boycotting by opposition members, the Bahraini government held elections in November and December of 2014, which resulted in additional Shia representation. However, there is still significant distrust between the Shia majority and Sunni-led government. The government perceives a direct threat from Shia opposition groups, which it believes are deliberately de-stabilizing the country by attacking the security forces and undermining the economy. The government believes these same Shia opposition groups are influenced and supported by Iran, and that Iran intends to eventually overthrow or supplant it with a Shia government.
Bahrain has been a strong member of the Coalition to counter-ISIL, participating in the initial air strikes into Syria in September of 2014. However, the historically strong relationship between the United States and Bahrain is showing significant strain as the U.S. FMS-hold carries into its third full year. Despite this political challenge, Bahrain continues to pursue the re-supply of munitions for some of its aviation systems, and it remains firm in its support for U.S. assets at Naval Support Activity Bahrain.