NEWS | April 4, 2016

Austin reflects on CENTCOM’s achievements during ‘tumultuous times’

WASHINGTON (April 4, 2016) — U.S. Central Command has responsibility for American military interests in the most volatile area of the world: the Middle East and Central and South Asia.

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III -- who took command of CENTCOM in 2013 -- has had responsibility for the region during a particularly turbulent time.

On the eve of his retirement, Austin looked at the area and the way ahead for U.S. Central Command. Last week, Austin passed the U.S. Central Command flag to Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel during a ceremony at the command’s MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, headquarters.

Region’s Importance

That the region is important to America is undisputed. “[The region] holds over half of the world’s proven oil reserves and plentiful natural gas reserves,” Austin said in an interview. “There also are three strategic maritime choke points -- the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and Bab el Mandeb Strait.” If freedom of movement within these waterways is obstructed it can have a significant impact on the global economy, he added.

The region has a deep history and culture, and three of the five major religions -- Christianity, Islam Judaism -- sprang from its soil. “The Central Region is also the most volatile, dynamic and chaotic region of the world, and this is the result of poor governance, political instability, poor economic development, large amounts of ungoverned space and a host of other factors,” the general said.

The United States has core national interests in the CENTCOM area of operations, and they cannot be ignored, Austin said. These interests include the protection of the U.S. homeland, the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the free flow of commerce.

Cooperation, Stability

Stability in the region is the goal, he said, and the command stands with international partners to promote cooperation among nations, to respond to crises, to deter or defeat state and nonstate aggression, and to support development.

The command pushes three simultaneous efforts. “First, you have to manage the crises at hand,” the general said. “Equally important are our efforts to prevent other confrontations and situations from becoming crises. Finally, what you really want to do is to shape outcomes and help to steer things in that strategically important region in the direction of increased stability and security.”

CENTCOM works closely with interagency partners -- the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies -- and with international partners. Austin also has been tireless in interacting with his military counterparts throughout the region, hosting numerous chiefs of defense conferences that bring the region’s senior military leaders together to discuss important issues. “Needless to say, [CENTCOM] is viewed as a very influential and an important partner throughout the Central Region,” he said.

Arab Spring

Since the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, the region has been in turmoil. “We are currently supporting the efforts of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Austin said. “We maintain pressure on extremist networks and actively pursue terrorists wherever they are in the region on a daily basis.”

The command continues to support coalition operations in Afghanistan, “where we are helping our Afghan partners to build additional needed capability, while at the same time preventing that country from once again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida and other extremist groups,” the general said. “We continue to keep a close eye on Iran.”

Finally, he said, the command is fully engaged in the ongoing operations in Syria and Iraq against the terrorist organization operating there, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Austin said the campaign against the terrorist group is making significant progress. “Indeed, we are now pressuring ISIL on more fronts than at any other point in the campaign,” he said. “And, we are going about it the right way and that is by using indigenous forces and supporting and enabling their efforts on the ground.”

The campaign has helped to create opportunities for Iraqi and Syrian forces to take back territory. The support the 66-nation coalition provides has hit ISIL where it hurts, killing dozens of the terror group’s senior leaders, smashing the group’s financial infrastructure and slowing the flow of foreign fighters joining the group. Austin is quite proud of the counter-ISIL coalition, calling it “the largest coalition since World War II united against a common enemy.”

ISIL Demoralized

ISIL is becoming less capable and increasingly demoralized, paranoid and prone to defections, the general said. Setbacks in Iraq and Syria are also causing them to revert to terrorist attacks like the ones launched in Paris; Ankara, Turkey; San Bernardino, California; and most recently, Brussels.

“While the fight against ISIL remains incredibly complex, and while the defeat of this enemy will take time and it will not be easy, we will get it done,” he said.

Austin said the command has dealt with these challenges and more -- as CENTCOM confronted the tumult of the Middle East, there were budget challenges at home.

“In addition to managing a significant number of challenges throughout the region, we also have made great strides in our efforts to help our regional partners to build much-needed capacity, and our efforts are paying off,” he said. “Our regional partners are assuming a greater share of the security responsibilities in the region.”

Austin noted that five Sunni Arab-led nations took part in the first airstrikes against ISIL inside of Syria on Sept. 23, 2014. “It was remarkable to witness, and it was no small feat,” he said. “But they did a remarkable job, and that was, in large part, a reflection of the increased interoperability and trust between nations that is achieved through our building-partner-capacity efforts.”

These partner-building efforts will continue into the future, he said.

“Much of what we have set in motion throughout the Central Region through our various efforts will continue to bear fruit in the coming months and years,” Austin said. “The fact is that at a strategic-level command, you necessarily manage sometimes numerous conflicts or crises on a daily basis. But, beyond that, much of what you’re doing -- the levers that you’re pulling, the seeds that you’re planting, with the goal of shaping outcomes for the future -- you won’t likely see the effects of those efforts for months, or even years.”