U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander, U.S. Central Command, speaks with coalition force service members during a visit to the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Richard Andrade)
WASHINGTON – Decisions made today regarding the Middle East will have far-reaching impact on future security, not only in the immediate region, but also around the world, the commander of U.S. Central Command said Oct. 22.
Speaking here at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ annual policy-makers conference, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III emphasized the shared responsibilities in the region.
“Each of us has an undeniable stake and a clear role to play in the universal pursuit of improved stability and sovereignty and greater prosperity and security,” he told the forum. Conceding the “incredibly dynamic and volatile, and often chaotic” nature of the region, Austin said that “when things go badly there, it has a clear and considerable impact.”
“The past has shown that when the region experiences any degree of strife and bloodshed or increased instability, every country there and others around the globe feel the effects,” he said.
“And of course, security and stability in the Middle East and in South and Central Asia are important to us and to our partners because of the potential impact on our vital interests.”
Those interests include the free flow of resources through key shipping lanes, the defense of the U.S. homeland against the threat of terrorism and extremism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he said.
Austin said he’s particularly concerned about the spread of ethno-sectarian violence throughout the region, as well as the growing threat posed by radical Islamists and other extremist groups. “If these activities spark further aggression or if the events become linked, it could lead to a region-wide crisis lasting a decade or more,” he warned.
These challenges are exacerbated by the availability of ungoverned spaces and other adverse conditions that contribute to increased unrest and malign activities, he said.
“And so, as leaders, we must study and understand the unique dynamics at play, along with the trends or currents that connect the various events and crises together,” he said. “Without this knowledge and appreciation of history, we can’t hope to effectively influence outcomes or bring about a peaceful end to conflicts and situations as they arise.”
Since assuming command of CENTCOM in March, Austin said, he has focused on managing current conflicts, preventing confrontations from escalating and ultimately, promoting conditions that lead to a lasting security and stability.
Doing so depends largely on the might and preparedness of the U.S. military, working in concert with other elements of U.S. power and influence, he said. “Our civilian leadership stands ready to employ all these instruments of power in order to secure our vital interests across the Middle East and beyond,” he added.
Meanwhile, Austin emphasized ongoing efforts to promote partner capacity, largely through joint training exercises, education, foreign military sales and financing programs. The continued U.S. presence in the region and through the strong regional relationships established and strengthened through it is particularly important to this effort, he said.
While focusing on the future, Austin said, decisions made and actions taken today will have a long-term effect. He identified three major challenges now facing the region: the conflict in Afghanistan, the civil war in Syria and activities by Iran.
“The fact is that together we have accomplished a great deal in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have improved the conditions there, and we have given the Afghan people a real chance and hope for a better life.
“That said, there is still more work to be done,” he acknowledged, emphasizing U.S. interest in an enduring relationship with Afghanistan and a security agreement that provides a continued U.S. presence there. “We want to do all we can to help preserve the hard-earned gains achieved over the years by the Afghans and by the U.S. and coalition forces,” he said.
“Afghanistan has the potential to thrive and prosper,” he said, encouraging Afghan leaders to make the decisions needed to ensure the opportunity afforded them isn’t squandered.
Austin called the civil war in Syria one of the most complex and challenging he has seen in his 38 years of military service. The conflict, driven by sectarian issues rather than ideology, is further complicated by the presence of chemical weapons and the proxy activity by Iran and other nation states, he said.
He expressed concern about extremist activity within Syria that threatens to spill beyond its borders and negatively affect the broader region.
Austin said he’s hopeful Syria will make good on its pledge to eliminate its chemical weapons, but emphasized that the military option remains on the table if it doesn’t. “We remain postured and ready to take action if called upon in the event that the regime does not fulfill its obligations during the agreed-upon timeframe,” he said.
Ultimately, the civil war in Syria won’t be resolved militarily, and will require a diplomatic or political solution, Austin said.
Warning that the situation could grow into a long, drawn-out conflict that extends across the region, he said, “all of us have a vested interest in seeing a stable and secure Syria achieved.”
Meanwhile, Austin also expressed hope that a diplomatic solution can be reached regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
President Barack Obama has been clear that the United States will not tolerate Iran’s development or use of nuclear weapons, Austin told the forum. “All options required to enforce this policy remain on the table, to include the military option,” he said. “And we at U.S. Central Command stand ready to support any and all policy decisions made by our president and our civilian leadership.”
But Austin said other malign and destabilizing activity by Iran remains a concern not only by the United States, but also by its partners in the region.
“As I have told our partners in the region, with or without a nuclear threat, the United States has been and will remain a force for stability in the Middle East,” Austin said. Although hopeful that Iran will change its current course, he added, “We, like our friends and allies, will always listen to what Iran says while paying even greater attention to its actions.”
Meanwhile, he said, the United States and its partners will continue to stand ready to respond in the event that Iran poses a threat to the security of their people and their interests.
How the international community responds to these and other challenges in the Middle East will have long-term historical impact, Austin said.
“These are important and historic times,” he said. “The challenges before us are undoubtedly great, and the consequences of failure are significant and lasting.”
Recognizing that some people believe it’s time to disengage from the Middle East to focus elsewhere, Austin said that likely never will be a viable option.
“We must and we will remain present and engaged,” he said. “The Middle East is extremely important, because … what occurs there, good and bad, has shown to have an indelible impact on the global economy and security and stability in other parts of the world, to include here in the U.S.”