ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT (December 17, 2011) — It’s too soon to calculate how the end of U.S. Forces Iraq will affect the region’s military dynamics, but the U.S. focus on the Middle East and its partner countries there is unwavering, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey is traveling with a USO holiday tour and taking time to meet with his counterparts and officials in several countries, including Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Right now I think there are concerns, maybe some that would rise to a level of skepticism about the future [in the region],” he told reporters who are traveling with him.
“But I think that’s why our presence here is so important,” the chairman said, “to help ease those concerns and reduce that skepticism.”
Dempsey added, “We’ve got to make sure we maintain our vigilance, our deterrence and our engagement in the Middle East.”
The focus for the Defense Department in 21 countries that make up the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility include Afghanistan, Iran and its nuclear aspirations, and regional instability associated with the Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave of protests and violence that erupted Dec. 18, 2010.
The unrest most recently includes a nationwide revolt in Syria, with protesters demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the government responding with deadly violence, which according to the United Nations this week has so far taken nearly 5,000 lives.
“We’re trying to think ahead about what it will mean to the people when the regime in Syria changes, as we think it will,” Dempsey said.
Related to that, he added, “is the enduring relationship with Turkey and their role. They’re a [U.S. European Command] nation from our perspective but they currently have a positive influence in that part of the Arab world.”
Iran is another critical defense challenge in the region, the chairman said.
“Iran continues to be provocative both in terms of its nuclear aspirations but also the activities of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Force,” which is said to responsible for operations outside Iran, Dempsey said.
The most recent manifestation of such provocation, he added, was a plot uncovered in October that involved Iranian officials and Iranian-American used car salesman Mansour J. Arbabsiar’s botched attempt to hire assassins to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.
For DOD, the chairman said, the challenge is “Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and how we can build a consensus within the region and globally that this is unacceptable, and then [determine] what to do about it.”
The U.S. presence in the Middle East is an especially important buffer to the challenge with Iran, Dempsey said, adding, “I do believe that what Iran needs to see in this region is a more coherent Arab world, so their aspirations are tempered.”
But of all the challenges in the region, Afghanistan is a primary focus.
“That’s No. 1 because we have kids in harm’s way,” Dempsey said. “That’s always going to be job No. 1.”
The department is working to review its strategy in Afghanistan with Centcom Commander Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and others, the chairman added.
“We know the surge [of combat troops to Afghanistan] will be off-ramped in September 2012,” he said. “That’s when we’re back to the 68,000 [troops] that was kind of the standard at the start.
“The question we’re grappling with is, given the Lisbon objectives, how do we get from September 2012 to December 2014?”
In November 2010 in Lisbon, Portugal, NATO leaders agreed to halt combat operations by international troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the summit of leaders who crafted a transition strategy directing coalition troops to begin this year turning over security responsibility for the nation’s provinces to Afghan security forces.
“What we aspire to over time is to approach the entire issue of engagement differently,” Dempsey said, adding that there are opportunities for the U.S. military services in smaller engagements.
“Most countries don’t want us to be flopping a brigade combat team in and among their population, so I think we have to find a way to think that through too,” the chairman said.
“It’s really about what we have learned in the last 10 years [of war], and how to establish new relationships not only in [the Middle East], but worldwide.”