The long-term challenges we face in the CENTCOM AOR are the destabilizing and escalatory actions of the Iranian regime. The Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons, coupled with its hegemonic ambitions, misbehavior, and threats to the United States and its regional partners have been consistent elements of its policy for decades. Deterring Iran from its destructive and destabilizing activities in the military domain underpins everything we do, and is CENTCOM’s top priority. Until such a time as the regime in Tehran decides to be a responsible member of the international community, CENTCOM must work to establish and maintain military deterrence with Iran, notably within the context of the ongoing economic and diplomatic maximum pressure campaign.
Since May 2019, Iranian-supported groups in Iraq have attacked U.S. interests dozens of times and conducted scores of unmanned aerial system (UAS) reconnaissance flights near U.S. and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) bases. The Iranian regime has attacked or seized foreign vessels in the Gulf, facilitated attacks by Houthi forces from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, continued to export lethal aid to destabilizing groups throughout the region including those aiming to attack Israel, supported the Assad regime’s brutal conflict against its own people, and carried out an unprecedented cruise missile and UAS attack in September against Saudi oil facilities that destabilized international energy markets. In early January, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles in a deliberate attack against U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq. This state-sponsored missile attack, in response to the U.S. killing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani crossed a threshold compared to previous “grey-zone” attacks and may set a lower bar for future actions by the regime. While periods of decreased tension may provide the illusion of a return to normalcy, ample intelligence exists indicating the Iranian regime’s desire to continue malign operations that threaten lives, disrupt the internal matters of sovereign nations, and threaten freedom of navigation, regional commerce, global energy supplies, and the global economy.
CENTCOM recognizes that so long as the United States continues to apply diplomatic and economic pressure against Iran, the Joint Force must be postured to deter Iran from using the military element of power to counter our actions. While our steady-state posture does not require offensive forces in theater to achieve overmatch or unintentionally provoke Iran’s regime, our presence sends a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities and, most importantly, the will to defend partners and U.S. national interests. This exemplifies the concept of deterrence.
Deterrence is not a military concept, but a diplomatic and political construct obtained from the effect demonstrated capabilities have on the mind of a potential opponent. Deterrence can be contested – Iran’s regime retains the ability to interfere with our efforts to deter. Historically, Iran has never doubted the U.S. capability to respond, but frustrates our ability to do so by focusing on deniable, hard to attribute activities. Targeting the Kata’ib Hezbollah group and Soleimani clearly demonstrated U.S. will. Our posture – the bases, forces, and activities that we undertake – maintains the other half of the deterrence equation: capability.
Reduction of U.S. forces in the AOR combined with a perception of U.S. disinterest in the Middle East fueled thinking in Iran in the spring of 2019 that the U.S. was no longer committed to defending our national interests in the region. That misperception led directly to the cycle of escalation that crested in January 2020. In order to maintain the contested deterrence our recent military actions have re-established, Iran’s regime must continue to see the U.S. has enough forward-deployed forces for a credible military capability, that we are willing to employ that capability for defense of U.S. interests with conviction, and any decision to contest our actions will not yield a positive outcome.
Deterrence can be difficult to establish and measure, and costly to maintain. CENTCOM prosecutes numerous missions simultaneously, scattered across the breadth and depth of the region, all in areas suffused with Iranian-backed forces continuing their decades-long struggles against us. While the cost of regaining and maintaining deterrence is expensive, it is less expensive than the deployment of forces required to fight in full-scale conflict: the failure of deterrence. CENTCOM’s objective is therefore to posture forces with operational depth in the region to achieve a sustained state of deterrence against Iran’s regime without undue provocation, and to be adaptable to future Iranian threats while the U.S. maximum pressure campaign continues. In addition to posture, a key part of deterrence is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). While presence can fluctuate based on deterrence needs, consistent ISR is necessary to identify subtle changes that shape posture and ensure we align our presence appropriately.
Negotiated Resolution of the Conflict in Afghanistan.
All wars must have a political end. Reconciliation between the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan represents the best option for bringing the 18-year-long fight in Afghanistan to a favorable conclusion, while meeting long-term U.S. security requirements. CENTCOM efforts support the U.S. South Asia Strategy and remain fully aligned with the efforts of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Our military mission in Afghanistan continues in support of our overriding national interest: preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Safeguarding this means we must remain focused on retaining a counterterrorism platform under any of the multiple political eventualities that may take shape. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan continues to examine efficiencies in force structure to reduce our military footprint and reduce costs while maintaining counterterrorism pressure on VEOs and provisioning the capability to do so in the future. We also continue to help the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces develop and refine their force generation processes for campaign sustainability. Without continued pressure, groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) will regain the ability to mount or sponsor a transnational terrorist attack within a few years. Your support to our critical authorities such as the Afghanistan Security Forces Funding, Commander’s Emergency Response Program, Coalition Support Fund, and others have remained paramount during this transition.
Maintaining Defeat-ISIS Campaign in Syria and Iraq.
Similar to Afghanistan, most of the U.S. intelligence community predicts that without sustained pressure levied against it, ISIS has the potential to reconstitute in Iraq and Syria in short order, beyond the current capabilities of the U.S. to neutralize it without a capable, partnered ground force. Syria remains a dynamic situation with multiple parties and agendas involved. The Syrian regime, with support from Russia and Iran, continues to seek a military victory. We are seeing this play out in northwest Syria as the Assad regime, Russian, and Iranian campaign of violence has escalated since December, resulting in almost one million more displaced persons, innumerable people injured or killed, with many more in critical need of assistance, and dangerous clashes between our NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian regime. We likewise see the Assad regime continuing its use of chemical weapons in blatant violation of its commitments to the Chemical Weapons Convention – deterring this use in the future remains a CENTCOM priority. In eastern Syria, U.S. and Coalition forces under command of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve assist with ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS, including safeguarding energy sources to prevent their seizure by ISIS for revenue generation. Moving forward, we must continue our support to NATO ally Turkey and our D-ISIS partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while maintaining deconfliction with Russia, which, along with the Assad regime, aggressively challenges the Coalition mission in various ways.
Despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October, ISIS remains a threat in Syria, with most of its activity focused on reestablishing networks; assassinating and intimidating local leaders and security forces; and extending its influence in rural areas throughout eastern Syria and Iraq.
Iraq remains a strategic partner in the fight against ISIS and is key human and geographic terrain. We remain in Iraq at the request of the Government of Iraq (GoI) for one mission: the defeat of ISIS. Hindering our ability to work with the ISF toward this objective are rogue elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces more beholden to Iran’s regime than the GoI. Some of these militias smuggle advanced weapons into Iraq from Iran, not to defend the country from ISIS, but to undermine existing security and threaten U.S. and Coalition forces partnered with the GoI. Given ISIS’ demonstrated tenacity and ability to reconstitute, we cannot afford to divert focus from the D-ISIS mission, understanding that the territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean the absence of ISIS. The years ahead will not be bloodless. Attacks may continue in the form of an insurgency, but the goal is to develop and enable the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to contain and defeat ISIS without external assistance.
Countering the UAS Threat.
In the aggregate, the U.S. maintains air dominance across the AOR but lacks a comprehensive joint solution to counter the growing Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) threat. Inexpensive and easy to proliferate, UASs provide adversaries the operational ability to surveil, target, and attack U.S. and partner facilities, providing the means to engage in mass-casualty or large-scale, critical infrastructure attacks with cheap, off-the-shelf technology while affording deniability and a disproportionately high return on investment.
CENTCOM employs current systems and tactics to best equip and enable U.S. forces to meet this challenge, but the growing threat posed by UASs, coupled with our lack of dependable, networked capabilities to counter them is the most concerning tactical development in the CENTCOM AOR since the rise of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Just as the IED threat galvanized operational, industrial and scientific communities in the U.S. toward the development of solutions like the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP), we are fast approaching a juncture requiring a similar mobilization to counter the UAS threat. Your support and funding of Science and Technology is vital to our success in the Great Power Competition.
Weaponization of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Refugees.
The manipulation or co-opting of IDPs and refugees by an adversary to gain a political, military, or economic advantage is not historically uncommon. However, in vast swaths of Syria and Iraq the systematic indoctrination of IDP and refugee camp populations who are hostages to the receipt of ISIS ideology is an alarming development with potentially generational implications.
There is no known, successful methodology of de-radicalization for hard-core ISIS believers. This radicalized population currently numbers in the thousands and preys on the disenfranchised and weak IDP and refugee populations already highly susceptible to extremist indoctrination. The longer these IDPs remain in refugee camps, the more likely they are to become radicalized. While there is no military solution for de-radicalization, the military can set the conditions for stability and security necessary for these populations to return to their original homes and begin the process of regaining power over their own lives. The sheer number of IDPs and refugees presents a challenge to the timeline along which necessary levels of long-term stabilization can take root.
Also concerning are near- and long-term implications of SDF detention facilities in Syria and the disposition of foreign-terrorist fighters (FTFs). While CENTCOM and our coalition partners are working to address and mitigate security challenges at the facilities, this serves only as a tactical-level band-aid, not a long-term solution. The United States can mitigate the risks associated with these populations by facilitating repatriations, training and equipping guard forces, and providing the funding required to improve prison infrastructure. Ultimately, the best way to alleviate this problem is to reduce the numbers of detainees through repatriation. The ISIS detainee and IDP populations represent more than 60 nations. While some countries have made efforts to reclaim their foreign fighters, full resolution requires a comprehensive diplomatic and international effort. This problem will not go away by ignoring it, and can only be addressed by the international community working together to accept its shared responsibilities.
As noted, military solutions do not exist for the issues of de-radicalization and repatriation of FTFs. They are international problems requiring international solutions. The longer these conditions persist; the IDP population becomes more and more ensconced in ISIS philosophy creating a petri dish of future terrorists. Action now by the international community is imperative to protect our homeland and our allies. Left unchecked, these issues are a ticking time bomb with the potential to spark the resurgence of ISIS, despite the destruction of the physical caliphate we and our allies and partners have worked so hard to accomplish. Your support to increase Special Immigrant Visas in Afghanistan and stabilization funding is much appreciated by me, our troops, and our partners.