WASHINGTON, March 26, 2015 - U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility is more volatile and chaotic than ever, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, CENTCOM commander, told Congress today.
Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin said the stakes in the region have never been higher.
Forces of evil thrive in the region's poorly governed areas, the general said. "It is essential that we are present and engaged, and that we cultivate strong partnerships and continue to do our part to address emerging threats and to move the region in the direction of greater stability and security," he said.
"And we must be properly resourced to do what is required to effectively protect and promote our interests," Austin added.
Managing Future Outcomes, Current Crises
CENTCOM forces are doing all they can to prevent problems while shaping future outcomes, and they concurrently manage real-world crises, the general said.
"Over the past year, we dealt with conflicts in Iraq and Syria," he said. "We transitioned combat operations to a train, advise and assist and [counterterrorism] mission focus in Afghanistan. At the same time, we've dealt with a number of difficult challenges in Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and a host of other locations throughout our area of responsibility," Austin said.
CENTCOM troops in that area of responsibility pursued violent extremist groups and "took measures to counter the radical ideologies that are espoused by these groups," the general said.
"We also dealt with Iran, which continues to act as a destabilizing force in the region, primarily through its Quds forces and through support for proxy actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah," he said.
Despite the number of difficult issues in the region, Austin told the committee, he firmly believes that challenges present opportunities.
"And we make progress primarily by pursuing those opportunities," he said. "And we do pursue them. And I am confident that our broad efforts are having a measurable impact."
ISIL Must, Will be Defeated, CENTCOM Commander Says
The most immediate threat is posed by the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the general said.
"This barbaric organization must be defeated, and it will be defeated," Austin told the senators.
The U.S. and its allies and partners are making significant progress against ISIL, he said.
The group's advance has been halted in Iraq, the general said. Iraq's security forces are regenerating and its national borders are being re-established, Austin said.
The United States is helping its regional partners bolster their defenses against ISIL, and ground forces from the moderate opposition will soon begin training to help fight ISIL in Syria, the general said.
Austin said ISIL can no longer do what the group did at the outset, "which is to seize and to hold new territory." The general said ISIL "has assumed a defensive crouch in Iraq," and while the group has greater freedom of movement in Syria, it is "largely in a defensive there as well."
"[ISIL is] having a tough time governing and this is crucial to [their] claims of a caliphate," Austin said. He said the group has begun to expand into other areas, namely North Africa, in part because ISIL is "losing in Iraq and Syria ... [and] needs to find other ways to maintain [their] legitimacy."
He added, "Going forward, we should expect to see this enemy continue to conduct limited attacks and to orchestrate horrific scenes ... to distract and intimidate."
Though ISIL remains a danger, the terror group is being hard-pressed, Austin said.
"But make no mistake: ISIL is losing this fight. And I am certain that [they] will be defeated," the general said.
All of this progress does not mean that the fight against ISIL is won, he told the committee members.
"We intend to continue to execute the campaign as designed. And I say that because how we go about this is very important," Austin said.
"If we don't first get things under control in Iraq, where there is a government that we can work with and some amount of reliable security forces -- if we don't get things right there first before expanding our efforts in Syria, then we risk making matters worse in both countries," the general said. "But done the right way, in light of the limitations that exist, I believe that we can and we will be successful in our efforts to defeat ISIL."
If the United States is deliberate in its actions in the region, he said, it can "move this strategically important region in a direction of increased stability and security."
Tough Choices Ahead
The nation will have to make tough choices going forward, Austin said.
"We will need to find ways to do more, or at least as much with less, in the current fiscal environment," the general said. "That said, I remain concerned by the fact that capability reductions can and will impact our ability to respond to crisis, and especially in the highly volatile central region. The resulting loss of flexibility makes the U.S. and our interests increasingly vulnerable to external pressures."
He added, "And so, I would ask Congress to do its part to make sure that we avoid sequestration and other resourcing limitations that serve to degrade the readiness of America's military forces."