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.
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,
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
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.
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
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 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.”