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INHOFE: Good morning. The committee today will receive testimony from the United States Central Command. I’d like to welcome our witness, General Joseph Votel, commander of the United States Central Command. Welcome here. General Votel will hand over the Central Command at the end of March, and I want to thank him for his outstanding service to our country over his 38-year career. General, you’ve had a tough job at CENTCOM, and with the rise of ISIS, and the spread of Iran’s proxies, and the return of Russia to the Middle East, you and the president have grappled with some of the very hard decisions. Thank you for all you’ve done to keep America safe.
The Senate Armed Services Committee top priority is to ensure the effective implementation of the National Defense Strategy, which identifies competition with China and Russia as, quote, “the central challenge to the United States’ prosperity and security.” Clearly we don’t want to be the world’s policemen, but without any U.S. presence our strategic competitors will rush to fill the void. We have seen this repeatedly in the Middle East, and when we step away from partners, Russia steps in. When our military pulls back, Russia pulls forward. When we don’t enforce our red lines, Russia tries to create its own.
The NDS also makes countering terrorist threats a top priority. Part of this strategy has been achieved. The ISIS caliphate has been defeated. But ISIS and al-Qaeda are still active in the region and threaten our homeland. Both priorities, competing with Russia and countering terrorists, are at stake in Syria. As we draw down in Syria, we must continue to support our partners and friends, and I am also interested in how we’re going to prevent ISIS resurging. It’s one thing to come out, but then of course to stop them from coming back up. And we believe that’s going to happen, and the right person is here to explain that to us. So we welcome you, General Votel. Senator Reed.
REED: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. And General Votel, welcome back, which will likely be your last hearing before the committee. Let me thank you for 39 years of exemplary service to the nation. We owe you and your family an incredible debt of gratitude for the contributions you have made to our national security throughout your career, but especially during your leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command, the Special Operations Command and now Central Command. So we sincerely thank you, general.
The focus of the National Defense Strategy is rightly a return to great power competition and a more resource-sustainable approach to counterterrorism. However, this has led to some uncertainty about the U.S. military’s continued role in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. As we consider this question, it is important that we remain clear-eyed about the continued threat to the homeland posed by ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, the malign behavior of Iran and the objectives of Russia and China in the region.
Each of these issues are relevant to current discussions about our military presence in Afghanistan and Syria. In addition to a complicated military situation, resolutions to broader stabilization, diplomatic and political challenges have been far more difficult to come by. Bringing our troops home should always be our objective, but it must be done in a deliberate and well-thought-out manner in concert with our partners and allies. In the case of Syria withdrawal, contradictory statements by the president, his national security advisor and other administration officials have only served to underscore that this decision was anything but thoughtful and deliberate. If public reports are accurate, the president may be about to make similar quick decisions with respect to Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan has occurred at great cost in terms of both lives and resources. However, in considering the prospect of conflict termination, we must also weigh the cost of getting it wrong. ISIS, al-Qaeda and an estimated 18 other terrorist groups are still present in the region, and some within the intelligence community assess that external plotting would surge upon our withdrawal. We must also consider our allies and partners that have fought alongside us. As former Secretary Mattis said, our strength as a nation is inexorably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. The allies and partners who joined us after 9/11, have sacrificed with us in Afghanistan, deserve to be included in conversations with respect to the future of the conflict.
Regarding the decision in Syria, the president’s statement that ISIS is defeated may be premature. According to the intelligence community assessment released last week, ISIS, in their words, very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States. General McKenzie made a similar point in December when he said ISIS probably still is more capable than al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak, suggesting it is well-positioned to reemerge if pressure on the group is relieved.
The security and stability of key partners in the region, most notably Iraq, Israel and Jordan, is bolstered by our continued presence. While our deployed forces do not have a military mission to counter Iran, I agree with our military leaders that there is a derivative benefit associated with their presence and the reassurance it provides. We should not take these partners for granted. If we withdraw precipitously from the region, we would risk the reemergence of ISIS, squandering gains made in Iraq, destabilizing Jordan and increasing the pressure on King Abdullah, and allowing Iran and its proxy to become further entrenched, thereby posing a greater threat to Israel.
No one, myself included, is in favor of endless wars or indefinite deployments of U.S. troops to dangerous parts of the world. Far too often we view the use of U.S. military as the solution to every problem. I share the frustration America—Americans that we have thus far (INAUDIBLE), unable to fully achieve our foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. However, just as decisions to employ the U.S. military must be given great consideration, so too must decision to disengage military, with particular attention paid to the second and third order effects such a decision will have on our security and foreign policy interest. I do not think sufficient consideration has been given to these issues today. General Votel, we look forward to hearing your views on these and other issues. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Reed. Now that a quorum is present, I would ask the committee to consider and approve a Senate resolution authorizing funding for our committee for March 1 through February 28. The funding resolution is complete and consistent with the majority, in majority, and leader January 9--the January 9th agreement.
INHOFE: On the matters—matter of (INAUDIBLE) entertain a motion. Is there a motion?
UNKNOWN: (INAUDIBLE) Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: And all in favor say aye. Opposed no. The ayes have it. All right, General Votel, you are recognized for your opening statements, and (INAUDIBLE).
VOTEL: Senator Inhofe, Ranking Member Reed, distinguished members of the committee, good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee today. I come before you representing the over 80,000 men and women working tirelessly across the Central Command area of responsibility. They represent the very best of our nation, and I am proud to stand among them as their commander. All of these great Americans have families in communities across our country that support their service members from near and far, and we are equally proud and appreciative of their service and sacrifice. I’m honored to be joined today by the CENTCOM senior enlisted leader, United States Army Command Sergeant Major Bill Thetford. Command Sergeant Major Thetford has been with me my entire tour at CENTCOM and for the five years we served together in other commands before that. He is the most experienced soldier in our outfit, and his support and steady leadership helped us navigate very treacherous waters over the years. He is representative of the people we have across this command, and indeed throughout the armed forces of our nation. Command Sergeant Major Thetford and his wife, Allie, will retire after 38 years of service later this spring, and our nation owes them an incredible debt of gratitude. We could not have been served better.
There is no other region in the world as dynamic, hopeful, challenging and dangerous as the CENTCOM area of responsibility, made up of the areas we typically refer to as the Levant, the Middle East and Central and South Asia. It is an area of great contrast and contradiction. It is an area rich in history, culture and resources, but also an area pulsing with sectarianism, violence, poor governance, corruption, disenfranchisement, profound human suffering and economic disparity. It is also an area where we retain vital interests, preventing attacks on our homeland, countering malign and destabilizing influence, containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ensuring freedom of navigation and commerce through critical international waterways. It is worth noting that four of the five major competitors, or threats, identified in the National Defense Strategy, China, Russia, Iran and violent extremist organizations reside or are contested in the CENTCOM area of responsibility every day.
In the final two weeks of 2018, CENTCOM supported the UN special envoy in the establishment of a nascent cease-fire in Yemen, enabled the efforts of a U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, began planning for the orderly and professional withdrawal under pressure of U.S. forces in Syria, while maintaining our coalition efforts to support the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces in addressing the remnants of ISIS in that country.
We monitored and mitigated the unprofessional acts of Iranian Naval Forces in international waters and observed the professional mature actions of the U.S.-advised Lebanese Armed Forces as they maintained stability along the border with Israel. Those two weeks were not an aberration for the command, they were business as usual as they have been in CENTCOM nearly every day since its inception in the early 1980s.
Today in Afghanistan the conditions-based South Asia strategy is working and we continue to use military ways and means to advance our end-state of reconciliation. We recognize this conflict will not be resolved solely by military force but our military pressure serves as an enabler through a whole of government process and more directly supports diplomatic efforts led by Ambassador Khalilzad. While these efforts have had recent promise our mission has not changed. We will continue our military pressure in support of our national objectives until they are met.
In Syria and Iraq the unrelenting work of the 79-member Defeat ISIS Coalition, the determination and bravery of our Iraqi security forces and Syrian Democratic Force partners and the support of multiple international government organizations has largely liberated the so-called physical caliphate of ISIS, an area of 34,000 square miles of territory which they once controlled is now reduced to an area less than 20 square miles. The successful partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi security forces was instrumental in these gains against ISIS but it is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed.
The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against a now largely disbursed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts. As the Defeat ISIS Campaign in Syria transitions from liberating territory to enabling local security and addressing the ISIS clandestine insurgency, U.S. ground forces will depart Syria in a deliberate and coordinated manner while we concurrently consult with allies and partners to implement stabilization efforts. These details are being developed now and will ensure campaign continuity and capitalize on the contributions of the international community to prevent a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Today in Yemen a fragile cease-fire on the port of Hodeida is a promising, albeit challenging to implement, step demonstrating a willingness by both sides to negotiate and which will hopefully allow the United Nations to expand efforts to end this humanitarian disaster. Towards this end, CENTCOM supports the international diplomatic efforts and the work of the UN special envoy to facilitate the peace process by providing advice and assistance and serving as an interlocutor through our trusted relationships in the region to help ensure transparency, cohesion and positive momentum.
We also remain steadfast in reminding the Saudi-led coalition partners of their obligations under the law of armed conflict and ensuring that the fight in Yemen does not spread across the region sowing more instability and threatening critical infrastructure and U.S. lives and interests. And so it is in the central region today and every day great promise and opportunity mixed with contradiction and conflict.
Let me conclude my remarks where I started with our people and their families. In an era of great change when we consistently ask our people to do more with less the service and sacrifice of these men and women and their families in support of our nation is both humbling and inspirational. For over 17 years of sustained conflict across the CENTCOM area of responsibility, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civilians have answered the call with unwavering commitment and devotion matched only by the families who support them. We could not have accomplished what we do without all of them and they deserve the very best capabilities and support we can provide from weapons and communication systems to health care and housing.
I ask for continued strong support from Congress and from the American people to provide our servicemen and women everything they need to accomplish their vital missions and lead healthy fulfilling lives in continued service to our nation. Thank you again for allowing me to represent the men and women of CENTCOM before you today. I look forward to your questions.
INHOFE: Thank you very much, General Votel. I am going to bring up three things that have grown into some controversy and they should not have and just very briefly get your opinion on that. First of all as we draw down, I had made some statement about the characterizing what the president’s position was in Syria and I was challenged by some not too friendly media on this and I’d like to quote what the president actually said and initially. He said we’ll have a slow and highly coordinated drawdown and we will, this is all a quote, we will be leaving at a proper pace at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary. Do you think these are the proper conditions and this is your understanding also of his position?
VOTEL: In the instructions that I’ve been given and that we have issued down to our organizations in Syria, that represents our approach, a very deliberate approach to how we depart Syria.
INHOFE: Yeah, I think that was certainly our understanding. Do you believe that the territorial state of ISIS will be eliminated by the time that U.S. draws down?
VOTEL: I do, Senator, or Chairman.
INHOFE: And what’s being done to prevent ISIS from reemerging at this time?
VOTEL: We continue to work with our Iraqi security force partners and international coalition here to continue to keep pressure on—on ISIS and we continue our efforts by, with and through our partners in Syria. In some cases for them to keep pressure on ISIS as they continue to present threats to us. We should expect that they will attempt to attack us and continue to regenerate themselves and we will continue to put pressure on them to prevent that.
INHOFE: All right, very good. The second area that could be subject to some misinterpretation has to do with Yemen. I am concerned that disengaging our partners in Yemen will undermine Israel, bolster Iran and increase human suffering. In your assessment what are the costs of disengagement from our partners in Yemen?
VOTEL: Certainly, it’s a very significant humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but I do believe that departing from our partners there removes the leverage that we have to continue to influence them, which I think we have used in a positive manner, and I think it further endangers Americans in the region.
INHOFE: Yes. Yes, I appreciate that. And the third one has to do with IMET. The IMET program — I’ve always been very partial to that. Primarily, my activity has been in Africa has been so successful not just in Africa but around the world that we see China and Russia both particularly China trying to beat us to the punch in the IMET program recognizing that some of our middle officers are getting training in a country that they are wed forever. We’ve seen this happen but the thing that is disturbing right now is China is starting to do the same thing. So what do you see as far as the benefits of IMET and is China moving in on us?
VOTEL: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I think China is opportunistic and they are going to look for places that they can step in where we or others may create voids. To your comments on IMET I think IMET, International Military Education Training, funding dollar for dollar is perhaps one of the best tools that the Department of Defense, Department of State, can wield in building our partnerships throughout the region. Typically the people who take advantage of these resources and come to our schools in the United States often rise to positions of leadership in their countries. They don’t forget the experience they had in our military schools and, most importantly, they don’t forget the American people and I think this is an extraordinarily wise investment for us to continue to make (INAUDIBLE).
INHOFE: I would sure agree with that and you are probably aware that in Africa, China has invited in one meeting 50 of the leaders of the 52 nations in Africa to China wining, dining and all of this trying to move in on the program. So one we have to be all very sensitive to because they realize the benefits that we’ve received from that program. Senator Reed?
REED: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. First, General Votel let me join you in recognizing Sergeant Major. Thank you for your service Sergeant Major. Generals only become generals if they listen to their first sergeants and sergeant majors. (LAUGHTER) So we both (INAUDIBLE) the truth for the moment here. General Votel thank you again for your extraordinary service in so many different ways. When General McKenzie was here, he stated that ISIS probably still is more capable than al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak suggesting he is well-positioned to reemerge if pressure on the group is relieved. And our—you point out, staged withdrawal from Syria almost in effect lessens some of the pressure that’s on ISIS. So do you concur with the general that there will be some renewed vigor with respect to ISIS?
VOTEL: I do agree, Senator.
REED: And we are trying as an alternate approach to at least posit the idea that we can conduct the airstrikes from Iraq and we can have forces in Iraq. Is that the fallback position?
VOTEL: Senator, right now we are working through a variety of planning scenarios for how we would potentially continue to maintain pressure on ISIS as we withdraw out of Syria. I would be happy to—I think that’s probably a discussion more appropriate for the closed session, but we certainly are looking at all options for how we might do that.
REED: And, again, this might be something that you can touch upon later, but there have been some indications that the SDF, given the announcement which is rather sudden of our plans to pull out have made approaches to the Assad regime to work out a kind of understanding of how they might cooperate or at least tolerate each other, is that something that’s been happening?
VOTEL: Senator, I think something we’ve learn in our experience or certainly in my experience there is that all of these parties talk to each other all of the time and so I—we do expect that that is occurring.
REED: Turning to Afghanistan, there is two major functions. One is train and equip and the Afghan forces and counterterrorism. If we withdraw presumably the first elements that will go would be the train and equip and the last elements would be counter terrorism because we have threats in the region. Is that a fair summary of the sort of the process?
VOTEL: Senator, again, I think this is probably something we would be better discussed in a closed session, but I think we have a more sophisticated way of looking at that. We understand the importance of both of those missions.
REED: Turning then to the situation of Afghanistan again if we were to withdraw and there is mounting pressure and mounting sort of evidence that is a path that might be pursued, we still provide the Afghan security forces about $4 billion a year in sustenance. So, if we were to withdraw our forces, we would still have to maintain the $4 billion a year contribution or those Afghan forces would disintegrate. Is that an accurate assessment?
VOTEL: There certainly would need to be continued support to the Afghan forces. The amounts of—certainly we have to look at but yes, I think that’s accurate, Senator. Again,that money there, without us, I think it does make it does make it challenging.
REED: Indeed, because I think one of the things we provide with the presence is, to a degree at least, the money is being spent appropriately. I think the experience we’ve had elsewhere is if we just send money, it gets to places we don’t want to go and that’s another—again, I think, as you’re doing, this has to be a very, very careful, thought out second order effects, third order effects. And indeed, I think the issue is not just it’s a such a complicated multinational, multi-factor analysis. We have not yet gotten the government of Afghanistan in negotiations. They’re still on the sidelines, that’s correct?
VOTEL: That’s what Ambassador Khalilzad has reported.
REED: And long term, I think our instincts, and we been dealing with this for almost—for 17 years is that unless there’s some type of regional buy-in, which would include Pakistan, Iran to a degree, China because of its influence, Russia because of its influence, the Stans because of their influence, the likelihood of something stable is probably minimal, is that accurate?
VOTEL: Absolutely. A key part of the strategy has been the regionalization. And I would add, Senator, that Pakistan in my estimation has played a more helpful role and a more constructive role in helping us move forward towards this objective.
REED: Just one quick question, we were able to identify, through great staff work by the both sides, that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE owe the United States $331 million for refueling. Have you received a definite commitment that they are going to repay that money they owe us?
VOTEL: Senator, we are working through that. Both those governments have acknowledged the bills that we have provided them, have indicated to us that they will meet the payment schedule in accordance with the ACSA and we have teams from CENTCOM, from AFCENT, from DLA that are working to resolve that satisfactorily.
REED: And you have looked at other beneficiaries in your command to ensure there aren’t other areas where they are deficient in paying?
VOTEL: We have, Senator.
REED: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Reed. Senator Wicker.
WICKER: Mr. Chairman, I want to associate myself not only with your opening statement, but with the very fine opening statement of the ranking Democrat on this committee. And that—and particularly thank Senator Reed for pointing out that—the cost of getting it wrong as we withdraw from both Syria and Afghanistan. I want to enter into the record at this point, Mr. Chairman, an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post on January 29 by Ambassador Ryan Crocker entitled “I was Ambassador to Afghanistan. This Deal is a Surrender.”
INHOFE: Without objection.
WICKER: General, thank you for your service. Just to follow up on a couple of points that Senator Reed made, with regard to the $4 billion a year contribution, you’re not quite sure that it would still be that amount but it’s close to that amount that we would still be obligated to pay and we still need to contribute and we would not have the oversight on the ground that we have now?
VOTEL:That would be correct if we departed, Senator.
WICKER: And, I think also, Senator Reed pointed out that this agreement with regard to the Taliban in Afghanistan has been made without the participation of the government of Afghanistan. That is correct, is it not?
VOTEL: Senator, the work of Ambassador Khalilzad, first of all, there have been no agreements that have actually been finalized.
WICKER: There’s been a framework agreement.
VOTEL: What I would describe as work is creating a framework for continuing discussions moving forward here. Ambassador Khalilzad’s efforts are done with the knowledge of the government of Afghanistan. They are aware that we are doing this and they have supported our efforts to get this process started. Ultimately, we need to get to a Taliban-Afghanistan discussion. Only they will be able to resolve the key issues involved in the dispute.
WICKER: In the op-ed that I’ve entered into the record, Ambassador Crocker points out the framework was reached without the involvement of the Afghan government. He goes on to say that the Taliban has said all along that it refuses to negotiate with the government, considering the government the illegitimate puppet of the United States occupation. His opinion is by ceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support. He goes on to say this current process bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam war. Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table, we were surrendering. Further, Ambassador Crocker says the United States could announce that talks won’t proceed beyond the framework to matters of substance without the full inclusion of the Afghan government. Right now the inclusion of the Afghans is only theoretical and I think you touched on that, General. We could also note that unless some other solution is found, the U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan as long as the current government wants them. The current government of Afghanistan wants us to continue our presence there. Is that right, General Votel?
VOTEL: That is my understanding, Senator.
WICKER: And then, the ambassador concludes, President Barack Obama proved in Iraq that the United States cannot end a war by withdrawing its forces. The battle space is simply left to our adversaries. I’ve asked you a question or two about specifics but would you—had you read this op-ed before and I’ve read to extensively from it, would you respond to that for the but if it of the committee?
VOTEL: Senator, I have read Ambassador Crocker’s article here, or his editorial, and I know Ambassador Crocker, I deeply respect him, he is certainly one of our leading experts on the region here and a keen observer of what is happening out there. From my position as the CENTCOM commander and my discussions with Ambassador Khalilzad and with General Miller on the ground here, I would characterize where we are in the process as very, very early in the process.
As I said, Ambassador Khalilzad has attempted to create a framework by which we can move forward with discussions that would be certainly involving the government of Afghanistan. We clearly recognize that they have to be part of this solution and must be in the negotiation aspects of this. We can’t do that on their behalf. But I do recognize also that the government of Afghanistan is being consulted. As Ambassador Khalilzad does his work they are being kept informed of this and are aware of the work that we are doing to move forward on these talks.
WICKER: Well, let me just say I appreciate your answer. I hope that turns out to be true and I just want it to be said that the concerns in this city are bipartisan concerns and, based on advice and counsel that we received from—from people who been involved in this for a long, long time and who understand how important it is for us to get this right. Thank you, sir.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Wicker. Senator Reed presiding for the next 20 minutes or so. Senator Shaheen.
SHAHEEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you General Votel, for your many years of service to this country. I heard former Afghanistan commander Nicholson being interviewed this morning and he was asked about the circumstances under which we should withdraw from Afghanistan. And he talked about the fact that it should be conditions-based. It should not be based on an arbitrary timeline or numbers of troops that we want to leave there. So, have you and General Miller been given conditions whereby we should withdraw troops from Afghanistan? And if so, what are those conditions?
VOTEL: Senator, I think some of that discussion is best left for a different forum here, but certainly General Miller and I speak very frequently about the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and the circumstances that we are trying to create to support Ambassador Khalilzad and to move forward with the reconciliation process.
SHAHEEN: I share the concerns that have been raised by Senators Reed and Wicker about what’s happening right now in Afghanistan, and particularly the framework that’s being put in place without the engagement of the Afghan government. Can you tell me how the framework addresses the rights of women in Afghanistan, given the horrific treatment by the Taliban of women during the years in which they were in control?
VOTEL: Senator, I think that perhaps is a question best posed for Ambassador Khalilzad at this particular point. I do agree that the progress that has been made in Afghanistan with women and improving their ability to be part of the Afghanistan is an important one that has to be incorporated in this. And I would envision that this would be part of the more detailed discussions that will take place between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. But certainly we acknowledge that and we see the goodness that that has brought to the country of Afghanistan.
SHAHEEN: And I would point out that we have actually passed legislation in this Congress that says women should be at the negotiating table when conflicts are being resolved around the world. So, is it your understanding that that is a basis on which we are looking at negotiations?
VOTEL: Well, certainly. Again, Ambassador Khalilzad and our diplomats work with—work with the Government of Afghanistan on that, I would imagine they are emphasizing that legislation.
SHAHEEN: To move to Syria, there is the report of—a new DOD inspector general report relative to ISIS. And the report says that the command organization for ISIS is intact and its fighters are battled hardened. That’s the quote from the report. And it goes on to say that, within a year, U.S. military commanders told the IG that ISIS would be resurgent in Syria. Can you talk about how we can prevent ISIS from becoming resurgent if we have no troops in Syria and if Iran and Russia and Assad are in control in Syria?
VOTEL: Well, Senator, as I mentioned in my opening comments, that is an aspect of the ongoing planning that we are pursuing right now. The answer to the question is that we do have to keep pressure on this network, that it is a resilient network. It does have certain components that are still left in it. Although they are dispersed and disaggregated, they have the capability of coming back together if we don’t. And so, there are a variety of different things, and I’d be happy to talk about some of the things under consideration as we get into the closed session here. I won’t speculate publicly here about things that we might do, but there certainly are different ways that we could do this working with partners, working with our own capabilities to continue to keep pressure on this network, which I think is absolutely vital.
SHAHEEN: So, you do agree with the inspector general that ISIS is a scourge that’s latent in both Syria and Iraq, and it has the potential to resurge if—
VOTEL: I do—
SHAHEEN: If not addressed?
VOTEL: I do agree.
SHAHEEN: Thank you. As I know you’re aware, when we provide or sell U.S. weapons to end users, there are requirements which prohibit the transfer of any of those weapons to third parties without prior authorization from the U.S. government. In legislation that we passed relative to Yemen, there are requirements for us to certify how the Saudis are using weapons. And so far, we have not gotten authoritative certification of how those weapons are being used, and there is a—again, a recent CNN report that suggests that weapons that have been provided to UAE and to Saudi Arabia have wound up in the hands of Houthis, that they have been traded and been used on both sides of that conflict. Can you talk about what DOD is doing to address that?
VOTEL: Well, Senator, I am aware of the references that you’re making to that. And we have not authorized Saudi Arabia or the Emirates to retransfer any of this equipment to other parties on the ground in Yemen. And as you are well aware, when we do provide equipment, whether it comes government-to-government or commercially provided, that the recipients do have to agree to certain stipulations on the use of those, and that we do have monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that sometimes go through the Department of State if it’s commercially provided, through the Department of Defense if it’s government-to-government provided, and requires us to conduct surveys. It requires us to conduct inventories of this type of equipment so we know where it is. So, there are processes in place with this. I would also highlight that in some of these cases, again, I think we have to look more closely at the allegations in this particular situation to find out what happened. As we’ve seen in Iraq in the past, where we saw our partners overrun, we have seen American equipment provided to them, lost in the course of a fight, end up in the hands of our adversaries out there. And so, I think we will have to examine that better. But, to your point of our responsibilities in terms of ensuring proper end use of the materials, we absolutely get that and emphasize that with our partners all the time.
SHAHEEN: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
REED: On behalf of the chairman, let me recognize Senator Cotton.
COTTON: Thank you, General, for appearing to testify one last time. I know it breaks your heart that this will be your last time to testify. Most importantly, thank you for your many years of service, and thanks to your whole team for their service as well. We’ve heard a lot about what might happen in the future against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but I don’t think we’ve heard yet just a simple answer about how the fight’s going. So, could you tell us how the fight is going against the Islamic state right now?
VOTEL: In Syria, as you know, we are focused on completing the liberation of the physical caliphate. That is—
COTTON: And where-where in Syria are you doing this right now?
VOTEL: In the Southern Euphrates Valley, up against the border with Iraq right now. That fight is progressing as we envisioned it. As I mentioned in my opening comments, it is limited to a relatively small area. It’s very dense. It’s dense urban terrain. And certainly, there is a lot of pressure on ISIS in there. The area is laden with the extreme explosive hazards that pose significant threats to our partners on the ground. So, they’re having to proceed very closely.
And I would add, Senator, that there is a civilian component to this. There are families of fighters. There are civilians left in the town. There are refugees that are attempting to part this area. So, what we have seen as we’ve kind of closed into this last area here is our Syrian Democratic Force partners with Coalition Assistance, moving very deliberately, fully recognizing the situation on the ground and making sure they don’t exacerbate this any more than it already is. But, we remain confident that we will finish this aspect of it. When we get done with this, what we should expect that we will do, you know, what you would remember as back clearance, going back and re-clearing areas, removing explosive hazards, instituting local security, and then continuing to keep pressure on the remnants of the network that have gone to ground and are operating in a much more insurgent-insurgent aspect. In Iraq, that-that is the case. We do see ISIS operating in a guerilla or an insurgent fashion. They are at a level where, for the most part, the Iraqi security forces, with the assistance of the coalition, are able to address those threats. That will be important to continue to do that in the future. So, in Iraq and Syria, that’s where we are with the current fight right now, Senator.
COTTON: In Syria, I’ve heard it said that we’ve taken back about 99 percent of what was once the territorial caliphate. Is that number correct?
VOTEL: That’s right. We’re-we’re down to about -20 square miles that they still control.
COTTON: I’ve also heard estimates of about 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State fighters remain. Do they remain in that 1 percent of territory, or is that only a fraction of what’s left?
VOTEL: No, no, those fighters—those fighters are-are geographically dispersed across—across Syria, across the open areas of—
COTTON: Just some are dug in, in the defense of that one percent. Others, as you say, are spread out—
COTTON: Conducting insurgency or guerilla-type attacks?
VOTEL: There’s probably 1,000 to 1500 fighters that are left down in this small area right now that we’re fighting over. But, the remainder have-have dispersed and are disaggregated in a variety of different areas, and for the most part, have gone to ground.
COTTON: In Iraq and very soon, we hope, throughout Syria as well, as you talked about countering that insurgency or those guerilla tactics, the back clearance, could you give the American people a little bit of sense of what our troops in Iraq are doing, or is it more like, you know, the Rangers that you once led kicking down the doors and shooting bad guys? Are we providing them intelligence, logic, aerial support?
VOTEL: The technique that we have used in-in both Iraq and Syria is what we refer to as by, with, and through. And we have relied on our partners, the Iraqi security forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to do the fighting. And our job has been to enable them with our fighters, with our ISR, with our advice. Sometimes we do employ our fighters in support of them and directly engage the enemy, but our-our people are not actually, as you suggest, kicking in doors in this case. By, with, and through puts the emphasis on our partners to do this, and then we-we enable them with our capabilities to do this. And this has been I think a very effective approach over the last several years, and I think it, in the end, our partners own what is left behind. We don’t. They own it. They own the security. They own the responsibility for this. This has been a different approach for us, but it is one that I think has worked very well for us.
COTTON: Thank you. One final question about the implications for the future. Syrian Democratic Forces currently are detaining several hundred ISIS fighters. Is that correct?
VOTEL: That is correct.
COTTON: We won’t get into any more details in the open setting here about the exact numbers or locations, but is it safe to assume that some of those are what ISIS leaders would call just cannon fodder troops to be thrown into the maw? And—but, some are like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, terrorist masterminds, or Ibrahim al-Asiri, master bomb makers, who pose a serious threat to the United States?
VOTEL: I think that’s accurate, Senator. They come from all aspects of ISIS.
COTTON: So, what’s going to happen to those detainees, especially those extremely dangerous detainees, in the future if the United States is not present in Syria.
VOTEL: Well, Senator, for-for those that we kind of characterize as foreign terrorist fighters, our-our-our focus needs to be on returning them to the countries of origin. And that is the work of our partners in the Department of State, Department of Justice, and others who are working with their counterparts in these countries of origins to make sure they have the evidence, the details, and we can make arraignments. Our-our responsibility at this time is to make sure that the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to treat detainees with—in accordance with-with our values, with the law of armed conflict, and then to facilitate the—the movement of these fighters back to these countries.
COTTON: Thank-thank you, general. I hope we can do that with most of them. I would observe there’s a lot of empty bed space at Guantanamo Bay.
REED: Thank you. On behalf of Chairman Inhofe, let me recognize Senator Heinrich.
HEINRICH: Welcome, General Votel. A moment ago, you described—in describing by, with, and through, you mentioned partners left behind. And I want to ask about one of those partners. As our troops withdraw from Syria, what efforts and being made to ensure the safety and security of our Kurdish allies?
VOTEL: Well, certainly this is a key aspect of the ongoing planning right now, Senator, and you know, of the many tasks that we have of defeating ISIS and withdrawing our forces, certainly we add to that list the protection of Turkey and making sure that they don’t have threats that would emanate from them, and I would say the added task of making sure that we protect those who have fought with us. And so a key aspect of our ongoing planning efforts right now, both of the diplomatic and the military level, is to address that very issue and make sure that those that have fought with us, that have helped us accomplish the mission, are safeguarded as we depart Syria.
HEINRICH: I agree with you that that should be a priority. I’m asking what are those specific plans?
VOTEL: Senator, I think it would be more appropriate for us to talk about what is under consideration in a closed session right now, but we certainly are looking at a variety of different options.
HEINRICH: I’d be happy to do that. I worry that there’s a lot of lip service right now about making good on our promises to the Kurds, and it seems that we are short on plans. I hope that that is not accurate, and I certainly hope that we have a plan for how to de-conflict Turkey and the Kurds because I think the consequences could be morally terrible if we don’t. Do you believe that currently the efforts in this area are adequate?
VOTEL: I do right now. I think we have the leadership up and down the chain of command, both in the Department of Defense and the Department of State fully aligned in our approach as we work through what is arguably a very complex problem here. But I think we are very well aligned, and we are very focused on exactly the challenge that you have outlined, Senator.
HEINRICH: All right. I look forward to hearing more about that in a closed setting. General Votel, on February 3 President Trump announced that we would keep troops in Iraq to, quote, watch over Iran. Has our military focus there shifted from ISIS to Iran?
VOTEL: It has not, Senator.
HEINRICH: Glad to hear that. I am concerned with the response in Iraq. As you probably know, Iraqi President Salih responded very quickly saying that the president and the United States didn’t ask Iraq about this. Are you at all concerned that Iraq will now be skeptical of our motivations for being there, and how will that perception affect our ability to relocate U.S. troops from Syria to Iraq?
VOTEL: Senator, I am, but this is not particularly newfound. I think the government of Iraq understands the relationship with the view that we have on Iran and understands our concerns with Iran and the variety of destabilizing activities that they conduct around the region. But having said that, our mission, our military mission on the ground remains very focused on the reason that the government of Iraq asked us to come there, and that is focusing on the defeat of ISIS and now preventing the resurgence of that particular organization.
HEINRICH: Let me pivot just a little bit to Russia. General Votel, as you know on January 30 Russia pledged to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS in preparation for the United States’ withdrawal from Syria. What’s your current perception of Russian influence in Iraq?
VOTEL: I think right now Russia has limited influence right now in the country of Iraq.
HEINRICH: Do we have plans or a strategy for maintaining—for countering that Russian influence once withdrawal from Syria is complete?
VOTEL: Well, I don’t have any specific military tasks that are related to that, Senator, but what I would highlight is that one of the most effective tools that we have is being good, reliable partners on the ground, and that is what we intend to do, and that has always been our approach with the country of Iraq, focused on what they have asked us to do and then being very reliable—reliable partners to them.
HEINRICH: Chairman, I’m going to yield the remainder of my time.
REED: Thank you, Senator Heinrich. On behalf of Chairman Inhofe, Senator Scott, please.
SCOTT: Thanks for all your hard work. Thank you—thank you for your service. We met—I met the other day with some opposition leaders from Syria and, while they expressed some concern about exactly how the withdrawal would happen, they did ask if—what the ability would be to do a no-fly zone afterwards, which they thought would have a positive impact of keeping Turkey in place. Have you considered that? Is that doable?
VOTEL: We’re looking at a variety of options that I’ll be happy to talk about in a closed session right here. I would not characterize what we’re looking at right now as a no-fly zone.
SCOTT: Okay, all right. What do you think—why do you think believe Russia has continuing to be involved in Syria? What’s their strategic advantage for them to be involved? Is it just to cause problems for us or is there a strategic interest they have?
VOTEL: Russia does have some long-term interests that they have had in Syria that go back some ways. But certainly part of their motivation is by making sure they have warm water access into the Mediterranean and the access that that provides, they are interested in preserving that. They are interested in preserving a regime that is friendly and supportive to their motives and interests and I also believe that they share an interest in trying to subvert our influence and interests in the region. And so I do think they see that as an opportunity for them and I think they are attempting to exploit that.
SCOTT: After President Trump made the announcement that we would do a withdrawal, have you seen Turkey take different action on the ground question mark is there anything there—they’re doing that causes you concern?
VOTEL: Well, I think, Senator, I think we probably could talk a little bit more about that in the closed session, but I, in general, what I would tell you is we’ve seen all actors, you know, begin to posture themselves for what might come and we’ve seen that on all sides.
SCOTT: Okay, thank you. Thanks, General. I’m finished, Senator Reed.
REED: Thank you, Senator Scott. We’re not used to such subtle and penetrating questions. (LAUGHTER) Thank you. Senator Jones on behalf of Senator Inhofe.
JONES: Thank you, Senator Reed. Thank you, general, for your service. I echo that and also for all of the team that is behind you, I’m well aware that your success is only as good as the success of those that serve with you. And I use that term appropriately as opposed to the chain of command below you. They serve with you and I appreciate all of the folks sitting behind you and all of those that are still over there. So I want to follow up briefly with kind of a question that Senator Shaheen asked about the CNN report of our military equipment somehow getting into the hands of others, but I want to come at it a little bit different way. Last year, you stated that, due to political considerations, cost, or delivery speed, some of our partners are seeking alternate sources of military equipment from near peer competitors like Russia and China. When our partners go elsewhere, it reduces our interoperability and challenges our ability to incorporate their contributions and to theater efforts.
I think it’s critical that we align our practices what is necessary to achieve these goals, as you alluded to. And we want our partners to—to come to us. We particularly are concerned when they are going to communist China, communist Russia, to get that because we’re staying around the world the influence of—of those countries. So my question is, does this challenge persist today? And if so, could you please talk a little bit more about those challenges or barriers that exist to our partners coming to us for equipment and what steps you believe we need to take in order keep them coming to us rather than Communist Russia and Communist China?
VOTEL: Senator, thank you. To some extent, they do continue to exist today. I certainly recognize that our foreign military sales, foreign military funding process must be a deliberative one. We should make very deliberate decisions about the things that we sell to people and—and that has to go through a process. I am concerned that the process is lengthy and is not as responsive as our partners require on the ground. And so I am very much in support of trying to look at how we make those processes more responsive to the needs that they have on the ground. I think we should always strive for that. There are a lot of steps that we go through to provide equipment to people, some of them are within the Department of Defense, some of them are within the Department of State and, certainly, some over here in Congress. And so, to the extent that we can have a more rapid process to answer the requirements of our partners, I think that would be beneficial.
In some cases, if we are not going to provide things to them, we should be very honest with them, upfront and tell them we are not going to be. I think it’s always better to give them a yes or no answer than it is to string them along because I think that leads to more frustration for our partners and it does cause them to go do other things. I also think the key part of this is our work on the ground beforehand with our partners. This is within the military here is making sure that the things that they are asking to meet the needs of each of their countries in their own defense. And we should try to steer them away from just buying things they can’t maintain, they can sustain, they can’t man long-term and we should be focused on the equipment that they can and equipment that can be integrated with us and other partners in the region to provide a more formidable deterrent effect or a defense if needed.
JONES: All right, great. Thank you. Thank you, sir. So with regard to the Iran nuclear deal, it looks like we are out. How will U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal affect our posture in the CENTCOM area of responsibility?
VOTEL: I don’t know that withdrawal from the Iran deal will specifically impact our posture. Our posture will be more driven by the National Defense Strategy than it will be by a decision to depart from the JCPOA. I would just add that, as I look across the region, Iran does continue to present concerns to me. It is one of the major destabilizing factor in the region and so, while the nuclear weapons program was one aspect of the threat that they presented, their facilitation of ballistic missiles, of unmanned aerial systems, of other lethal materials to their proxies in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, other places here, I think should give us very, very significant cause. Their continued efforts to exercise control over critical waterways I think should give us continue to cause here. So Iran continues to present threats to us across the region. And as we look at the implementing the National Defense Strategy, and I agree with the focus on great power competition, my best advice back up through my chain of command will be to ensure that we do retain sufficient capabilities and sufficient response capabilities to deal with the threats that remain in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.
JONES: Great. Well, thank you, sir. Thank you very much.
REED: Thank you. On behalf of Chairman Inhofe, Senator please.
HAWLEY: Thank you very much. General, thank you for being here and thank you again for your service. I want to stay on that same topic about the National Defense Strategy and Iran and just explore some of the tensions that the National Defense Strategy creates for your area of operations. So can I just ask you, in your judgment, are we in a position to remove drawdown forces, move forces from your area of operation to Asia or Europe in accord with the National Defense Strategy’s priorities on great power competition with China and Russia? Are we in the position to do that and also engage, if necessary, Iran, should that nation provoke a conflict with us or should they continue to accelerate further their uranium enrichment program?
VOTEL: Senator, the National Defense Strategy necessarily puts focus on the United States regaining its competitive advantage against great powers, Russia and China in this particular case. I agree with that, and we are absolutely supportive of that from a CENTCOM standpoint. And we do recognize that that will necessitate some change in our posture in the region. And as we kind of go through the discussions and the planning aspects of that with the joint staff, with OSD and certainly with the services, we will seek to maintain the capabilities that we need to and then ensure that we have the right response capabilities to address threats as they present themselves in this area.
HAWLEY: Let me just ask you a little bit more about that. The National Defense Strategy calls for more efficient ways of operating in the greater Middle East in your area of operational authority, the idea being, again, to maintain—enable us to maintain a focus on Iran and terrorists there and also to shift attention towards a great power conflict. Can you tell me about your plans to make operations in your area of responsibility more efficient? What does that mean? What does that look like? Can you give us a tangible sense of it?
VOTEL: Certainly. So certainly one of the areas where we can continue to be more efficient is how we operate along our seams, our bureaucratic, you know, combatant commander seams. With me I share a boundary with EUCOM to the north. I share one with AFRICOM to the west and with INDOPACOM to the east. So I think it is extraordinarily important as we look at managing resources that we look at positioning and employing these resources in a way that they can be of the maximum utility to multiple combatant commands. And today we actually do that with some of our resources in the region. You might be aware, for example, that AFRICOM supports us with basing that we require for our activities in the Arabian Peninsula, and the resources that we have there benefit both General Waldhauser and his command, and they benefit me. So I think there are some smarter ways of doing this. Certainly the department’s focus on dynamic force employment where we exercise strategic predictability but operational unpredictability, I think is a good concept of this where we are able to move resources in a more agile fashion into areas where we see opportunities with this. I think this is another area that we need to continue to focus on.
HAWLEY: In this same vein, we’ve heard some and I’ve read some about light-attack aircraft and Security Force Assistance Brigades. Can you give me your sense about the progress on those initiatives and what else you might propose in that vein?
VOTEL: So on both of those initiatives, the Security Force Assistance Brigades, you know, my service, the Army, I think, did us a significant service by establishing this organization and as—what this essentially did, we talked about by, with and through, but what this really allowed us to do is it gave us a purpose built organization that was specifically focused on this type of advising and the type of—the type of relationship we wanted to have with our indigenous partners on the ground. And over the deployment of the first Security Force Assistance Brigade last year in Afghanistan, we saw significant improvement in our ability to do that, a higher level of capability, a much more focused organization, and I think we helped the Army preserve it’s readiness, frankly. We didn’t take a brigade, break it apart just to pull the leaders out to do advise and assist. We actually had a purpose built organization that did that. So I think this is a very positive thing.
The light attack aircraft, being able to train our partners in terms of employing those things, I think, reduces the burden on us, and it provides self-sufficiency for them. And it does it without creating a significant logistical burden. So whether it’s A-29s that we see with the Lebanese Armed Forces or A-29s that we see with the Afghan Security Air Force, these I think are good investments, and in both cases there we have seen those resources be directly responsible to their forces on the ground. It’s nascent. It is growing. We have to continue to support this. But I think this is exactly the direction we need to go to really enable our partners.
HAWLEY: And you’re—last question. You’re satisfied, general? I mean, you think that those programs, for example, are on track? You think that we’re making good progress in both of those initiatives?
VOTEL: I do. I think both of those are excellent programs.
HAWLEY: Yeah, thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
REED: Thank you. On behalf of Chairman Inhofe, Senator Peters, please.
PETERS: Thank you. Thank you, General Votel. Thank you for your testimony here today and your many years of distinguished service. General, in your written testimony you describe Jordan as, quote, one of our most committed partners in the Middle East and one of the most critical voices of moderate Islam in the region. Your testimony goes on to discuss the role that Jordan plays in hosting over 750,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, and Jordan’s contributions to the fight against ISIS, and Jordan’s role at hosting exercise Eager Lion, which includes nearly two dozen countries training in the counterterrorism mission.
Today in the Senate we’re debating S.1, strengthening America’s security in the Middle East, and it includes a United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act. The premise of the legislation is that Jordan is playing a critical role in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the fight against ISIS, and therefore extends our defense cooperation agreement. Could you describe and talk a little bit about—more about the contributions that Jordan is making, what are some of the challenges Jordan faces in making these contributions, and why this extension is important?
VOTEL: Thank you, Senator, and I would just share everything that you just said there about what a great partner they are. Certainly Jordan is not a rich country, so they face economic challenges by virtue of where they are. His majesty is working through that aspect with his Parliament right now and with the international community, and I think we should continue to be supportive of that. As you’ve said, they—when given the chance to say no, they say yes every time to everything that we see. I would share with you, Senator, last week I was in Jordan. I had an opportunity to visit the border, up along the border between Jordan and Syria, and I had an opportunity to witness the investments that our country has made in their border security initiatives. Equipment, training, command and control for this, and what I witnessed there I think would make any member of Congress or indeed any American very proud to see. It was extraordinarily professional. It was very effective. They had very good situational awareness and understanding of what was happening along their border. And everything that they were doing was sustainable. And they’ve been doing it for several years, and with the prospect of continuing to do it in the future. This is the kind of investments that we need to be making in these very good partners right here like Jordan.
PETERS: Thank you, General. Today in this bill it also includes the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. It’s a bill named after a defector from the Syrian army who shed light on Assad’s atrocities, revealing photographs of torture and significant human rights abuses that I know you’re very aware of. The legislation imposes sanctions on individuals who support Assad’s regime in Syria by providing financial material or technological support. This includes sanctions on those who provide aircraft or spare aircraft parts for military purposes, sanctions on those who collaborate with mercenaries, military contractors, paramilitary forces operating on behalf of Syria, Russia or Iran, and sanctions on those who help the Government of Syria maintain or expand its production of natural gas and petroleum.
Your written testimony describes the Assad’s regime’s use of starvation as a weapon of war by denying humanitarian aid to be delivered where it is critically needed. So my question to you, general, is to what extent do you believe that imposing additional sanctions on the Assad regime, including limiting access to aircraft and aircraft spare parts will degrade Assad’s ability to attack innocent civilians and exert pressure in a positive direction towards improving the horrible humanitarian situation that we have there?
VOTEL: Senator, my belief is history speaks for itself here with the Assad regime, and we should continue to keep the maximum amount of pressure on them to prevent them from appropriating the atrocities that they have in the past on their own people. So I’m supportive of all measures in that regard.
PETERS: The last question, general. Last week the committee held a hearing on the threats posed by Russia and China. You’ve answered some questions related to what we heard as to how we need to have more efficient use of resources in the Middle East. And what came up was the possibility of a review of the use of aircraft like the B-1 and the F-22 in Afghanistan when those platforms might be better focused on dealing with our near peer competitors. So my question to you is I’ve worked to extend and support A-10s operating and to make sure that they have the wing replacements so that A-10 aircraft can continue to operate. To what extent is the A-10 necessary for you to conduct your mission in places, particularly if we look at moving B-1s and F-22s out of theater?
VOTEL: Well, Senator, I don’t think you’re going to find any army guys or infantrymen that are going to argue against the A-10. It’s an incredibly responsive capability that has, I think, served us extraordinarily well in the past. I know it is an old airplane, and so I share some concerns about its sustainability. But certainly, you know, it has definitely proven its worth to us, and we will continue to require that type of support, some type of very responsive close air support capability well into the future.
PETERS: So you believe Congress should continue to support that program in your estimation?
VOTEL: I think we should continue to support that program, and then we should be looking at other programs that would provide those capabilities in the future.
PETERS: I appreciate it. Thank you, general. (INAUDIBLE)
ROUNDS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General, first of all, thank you for your service. Thank you to your team, as well. The National Defense Strategy makes clear that the department’s focus is preparing to deter and win if necessary great power conflict with China and Russia. But we’ve also got some partners in the region as I think Senator Peters has just mentioned in Jordan is a great ally, so is Israel. Israel has reportedly agreed to allow Chinese government-connected firm Shanghai International Port Group to run commercial operations at the Israeli Port of Haifa. This port reportedly—this port reportedly periodically host joint U.S.-Israeli naval drills and visits from American vessels. From a U.S. military perspective do you have any concerns regarding this deal and if this deal goes forward might it impact decisions to have the U.S. Navy vessels visit the port?
VOTEL: Senator, Israel resides outside the CENTCOM area of responsibility so with regard to that General Scaparrotti would probably be the best one to answer that question. But I would share with you as I look at the region in which I do have military responsibilities in the Gulf, in and around the Straits particularly the Bab el Mandeb and these areas. I am concerned about increasing presence of Chinese maritime activity in the region and their continued outreach to different partners there to kind of—to secure military access that is likely linked to their economic objectives, their One Belt, One Road aspects that they propagate around the world but in particular in the area in which I have military responsibility. So I deeply share your concern.
The United States and a number of our partners have long provided maritime security in this security. Frankly, I think China has been a free rider in this and taking advantage of that and now we see them beginning to develop their own infrastructure in here principally for their own purposes, not for the purposes of broader regional security in the region and I’m concerned about that.
ROUNDS: In terms of how we separate out the different areas of responsibility and I respect the fact that you have specific areas most certainly activity communication with our ally, Israel, is a part of that responsibility though. Can you share with regard to how this impacts your ability and does it or is it simply a matter of we are aware of it and we’ll allow other, other areas of resp—or other individuals responsible in other areas of responsibility to handle it? What’s the (INAUDIBLE)?
VOTEL: We pay particular attention to our bureaucratic geographic seams out here and so General Scaparrotti and myself and our respective staffs are very closely aligned with this and so with his support we maintain a close relationship with Israel so that as we recognize many of their security threats reside within the military area in which I have responsibility. So I think this is another aspect of how we cooperate across our combatant command boundaries here between you know sharing responsibility. So, I absolutely understand what you are saying and I am very confident that the mechanisms that we have in place are helping us address the concerns that all parties have in the region.
ROUNDS: Let me go to another area of bureaucracy. Much has been written and said that about the need to streamline DOD’s acquisition processes. Can you comment on the process and the amount of time that it takes to fill validated requirements in the CENTCOM area of operations and do you believe that we must reform the acquisition process to more quickly fill the urgent and operational needs of our warfighters?
VOTEL: Senator, I absolutely agree. We should continue to do everything that we can to address the needs of the warfighters and try to do it as fast as we can. I am aware of a number of initiatives that are underway to address that whether it is rapid prototyping or other things that we can do. Our view in CENTCOM as we confront emerging threats here is that we have tried to be supportive of the services, bringing in capabilities, trying them out, recognizing some of these will fail, they will not succeed in the way they are. But in the hands of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines on the ground they will begin to provide very direct feedback that will help these programs move along quicker.
So from a CENTCOM standpoint when we are principally concerned about is making sure that we have a system in place where we can bring things forward, we can rapidly test them. We can get them into the hands of our people, they can provide feedback and that goes back into the commercial or the industrial base. They make the improvements and then bring us the improved product out there that we can use. That to me is extraordinarily important in an area like CENTCOM.
ROUNDS: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Rounds. Senator (INAUDIBLE).
KING: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General, were you aware of the president’s intention to order the withdrawal of our troops from Syria before that was publicly announced?
VOTEL: I was not aware of the specific announcement certainly we are aware that he has expressed a desire and an intent in the past to depart Iraq. Or depart Syria.
KING: So you weren’t—you weren’t consulted before that decision was announced?
VOTEL: We were not. I was not consulted.
KING: You mentioned in your testimony that you use the word remnant with regard to ISIS. Can you give us a good—a better number than remnant? What are we talking about here? Senator Cotton mentioned 20,000 to 30,000 fighters scattered in various places around the world. Is that accurate?
VOTEL: I think that is approximately what the intelligence community has estimated that is left behind. I think we would generally share with that. That includes people of a variety of different characters. It includes fighters. It includes supporters. It includes facilitators within that. It includes—
KING: How—how about in Syria and Iraq? What number would you put that?
VOTEL: I think that in general from what I have seen, that is about the number that I have seen of—
KING: Twenty to 30,000--
VOTEL: The—yes. But Senator, I think this is probably a low to moderate confidence number.
KING: Is it a low estimate? Or, I’m sorry, you threw me with that. Do you think it’s a higher number or—
VOTEL: I think we don’t fully know.
KING: You don’t have precise number?
VOTEL: We don’t have that with any specific accuracy. So, it is always going to be a range. The number—
VOTEL: Is always going to be a range.
KING: One of my concerns about the withdrawal with that many ISIS fighters still in the area is that they’ll just wait us out if the president announces a withdrawal. The saying I’ve heard is the Americans have the watches but we have the time. Are they just going to wait and hunker down for a couple of years or a couple of months and then resuscitate their efforts?
VOTEL: Well, with—with—
KING: If you were their military commander, wouldn’t that be what you’d do, say these guys are leaving, we’ll just, you know, bide our time?
VOTEL: Well, certainly, Senator. But our approach here, as I mentioned in my opening comments, as we look to withdraw from Syria, we are in a very deliberate planning process for how we will work with the international community, with our partners on the ground, with the rest of the coalition, to ensure that we can keep pressure on this organization to prevent exactly—
VOTEL: What you are talking about—
KING: I think it’s very important. And perhaps you can share with the committee in a closed session what the strategy is for maintaining that pressure and how its success is defined that will allow us to withdraw. Let me move on with regard to, again, the withdrawal. Senator Heinrich mentioned the danger to the Kurds. I sincerely hope that in your exit interview with your successor, which will take place very soon if not already, that—that you emphasize the importance of protecting the Kurds. If—if they are slaughtered by the Turks within the reasonable proximity of our leaving, it will be a stain on the honor of this country that will persist not only in terms of honor but also in terms of the—our ability to attract allies to—to—to assist us in future projects of this kind. I that’s my biggest fear about what’s going on now, and I believe the Turks are waiting.
VOTEL: Senator, again, I think this is a key task that we are looking at right now. That is the protection of those who have fought valiantly with us and ensuring that they remain safe as our diplomats and United Nations and others pursue a political solution here in Syria.
KING: I certainly hope that’s of the highest priority. You mentioned Iran and listed a whole series of malign activities in the region. Which would you prefer, the current malign Iran or a malign Iran with nuclear weapons?
VOTEL: Well, certainly I think an Iran with nuclear weapons poses a more enduring and serious threat to us long term. So, our approach with them does need to make sure that—that we deny all paths for them to get to a nuclear weapon.
KING: Well, unfortunately, we’ve just abrogated an agreement that did just that. But we can discuss that in another setting. The final question on Afghanistan. I don’t understand that we’re negotiating unilaterally with the Taliban and not involving the government of Afghanistan. That I don’t understand how that is going to get us to a final result if the government of Afghanistan—if we give away things they are not willing give away.
VOTEL: Again, Senator, I think what—the way I would characterize Ambassador Khalilzad’s effort is beginning to—he’s at the beginning of a process here to put together a framework that will allow the Afghans and Talibans to come together at some particular point to conduct some negotiations. All of this is being done with the knowledge of the government of Afghanistan. They understand what he is doing. I can’t speak for the exact process itself since that is Ambassador Khalilzad’s. But I do know that he is in frequent consultation with the government of Afghanistan to ensure that they are best informed on the approaches that he is taking to continue to get this framework in place.
KING: Good. I hope that’s the case. Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you, general.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator King. As a reminder, you made several references as to a different setting for some of the answers to their—your questions. We will be having a closed meeting at 2:15 in the Visitor’s Center to—so you have that opportunity. Senator Sullivan?
SULLIVAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And general, good to see you again. I want to thank you and sergeant major for your outstanding service to our nation, and very, very much appreciate it. I wanted to dive in a little bit more. We’ve had this discussion, I think on both sides, of this idea as we’re refining our force posture in the region, this notion of having a robust counterterrorism force that can still focus on U.S. interests, whether it’s the rise of ISIS, whether it’s the rise again of al-Qaeda, whether it is the malign activities of Iran. I think unfortunately some of my colleagues like to look a blind eye, and I’m going to ask you a couple questions about that.
But what is that—what is that concept of—you know, this is something the president’s talked about. But your predecessor, a general who I happen to have a lot of respect for, General Abizaid, has talked a lot about this idea of a—a raid force component, robust CT element in the Middle East that can continue to focus on our key strategic interests. How would that work? And are you thinking through that, whether it’s in Iraq, whether it’s in other parts of the Middle East? And are—do we have the capability not only to go after our counterterrorism goals but, say for example, control the airspace in northern Syria, which a number of us think is important even if we’re not on the ground there?
VOTEL: Senator, I believe that we do, and we are in fact thinking through the different ways that we would continue to address our enduring concern about violent extremist organizations operating in this region who harbor interests in coming against the homeland.
SULLIVAN: That’s our overriding national interest in the region.
VOTEL: It is. And as we look at all of the activities that we are conducting across the region, I think safeguarding that particular national interest has to be among the very top things that we are doing.
SULLIVAN: But—go ahead.
VOTEL: So, as you know, there are a variety of different approaches that we can take with this. Certainly the by, with, and through approach of using partners on the ground, enabling them to keep pressure on them is one way of doing this. In some instances, it may require us to have some of our capabilities forward in different locations to ensure that we can do that.
SULLIVAN: And are we looking at those options right now—
VOTEL: We absolutely are—
SULLIVAN: To make sure we—
VOTEL: Looking at a variety of different—excuse me—options for how we might address this.
SULLIVAN: And are you confident we can address this, not only given your role as CENTCOM commander but your previous role as SOCOM commander?
VOTEL: I am supremely confident in both our SOF and conventional forces and the ability to meet the missions that our nation has in this area and in others.
SULLIVAN: Let me talk about Iran a little bit. You know, my colleague from Maine, who I consider a good friend and deeply respect, you know, he mentioned the Iran nuclear deal. The Iran nuclear deal essentially gave Iran the freedom to be on the verge of becoming a nuclear nation within 10 years anyway, so we always forget that. That’s a short time span in the Middle East. That was the agreement. You know, General Dempsey, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs testified in front of this committee that, when the Iranians were supplying—the Quds Force and others were supplying sophisticated IEDs to the Iraqi Shia militias, they were responsible for the killing and wounding of over 2,000 American Soldiers, Airmen, Marines. Do you agree with that assessment?
VOTEL: I do agree that—that Iran facilitated equipment to—to organizations that caused casualties on Americans.
SULLIVAN: Massive casualties.
VOTEL: Massive casualties.
SULLIVAN: So, it often gets forgotten that Iranians were, in my view, directly responsible for killing and wounding over 2,000 American soldiers and other military members on the ground in Iraq, isn’t that—isn’t that correct?
VOTEL: That is correct, Senator.
SULLIVAN: So, the Iran nuclear deal, one of the big selling points was that it was going to moderate Iranian activities. This was sold by Secretary of State John Kerry and even President Obama. Have they moderated their malign activities in Syria?
VOTEL: Senator, they have not.
SULLIVAN: No, it’s gotten worse. Isn’t that true, general?
VOTEL: And it’s my observation that during the time that the agreement was in place, we did not see a modification to their behavior.
SULLIVAN: How about with regard to Yemen? A lot of people on the—my colleagues on both sides of the aisle forget who started the war in Yemen. It wasn’t the Saudis, was it?
VOTEL: Well, I—the Saudis—
SULLIVAN: The Houthis backed by the Iranians?
VOTEL: The Saudis were concerned about the presence of a Iranian backed organization along their Southern border.
SULLIVAN: And with regard to Israel, they certainly haven’t moderated their malign activities, have they, Iran?
VOTEL: I think if you talk to the Israelis they certainly would agree with that.
SULLIVAN: Let me ask one final question. With regard to—Secretary Pompeo gave a speech in Cairo that was laying out what I thought was a very well-articulated, robust counter Iran strategy. How are you looking, as the CENTCOM commander, to execute this strategy, which I think is one of the most important things we can be doing in the Middle East.
VOTEL: Well, Senator, I have responsibility for helping put together the department’s global campaign, the military global campaign fan for Iran. And so, as I look at that, I look at a variety of different things that we have to do as part of that. We have to assure our partners. We have to challenge Iran in the areas where they’re trying to exert their maligned influence. We have to be prepared to deter them. We have to be prepared to delay and respond to their activities in the region. So, as I look at the planning that we are doing against that, those are the types of things that I am trying to incorporate into a comprehensive plan to address the threat of Iran.
SULLIVAN: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Sullivan. Senator Duckworth?
DUCKWORTH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, general, for being here. I also want to recognize that your command sergeant major is here. Sergeant Major Thetford, thank you for all of your years of work as well on behalf of our nation. General, I want to go back to—you—there’s a theme that you’ve talked about a lot in terms of relationship building and setting the groundwork with our partners beforehand and in the region and the like. And you and I touched a little bit on some of the programs that exist that allow us to do that, to build these habitual relationships. I know that the ranking member talked about IMET programs. I’d like to touch on the State Partnership for Peace Programs.
You know, this is a program where when I was serving, from the time I was a second lieutenant and I had a partner nation, in the (INAUDIBLE) case, Poland, that we trained and worked with. And so, I grew up in the military along with my Polish counterpart from being, you know, young second lieutenants all the way up through our command time. And that developed a relationship and-and an understanding of how that worked. Can you speak a little bit about the different types of U.S.-funded military exchange programs that you see implemented in the CENTCOM region and talk about the values of those programs to con-contributing to our war-fighting capabilities?
VOTEL: Thank you. And, Senator, let me just start to talk about the State Partnership Program. This is an excellent program. We have four or five states that are partnered with countries across our region. And in almost every case, these are deeply valued programs by our partners in the region and I believe by the states that orchestrate them. We get a lot of benefit out of that, not just in the countries in the region, but by people from those countries coming back to America to participate in exercises, to build the relationships back here. And I think this is an extraordinary program. It’s long term. It’s enduring. And I think it serves us particularly well. You’ve already talked about the impact of IMET. This is an extraordinarily important program. I won’t belabor that. I also think that the-the-the program of exercises that we continue to orchestrate across the—across the region are extraordinarily important in terms of building interoperability, in terms of building readiness, and in terms of building reliability in our partners.
And as we have kind of continued to move forward, I think this will be, again, continuing investments that we’ll-we’ll want to make. For example, with Egypt, we have started the Bright Star exercise. But, we’ve changed it more to deal with the contemporary threats that-that we are dealing with and that Egypt is dealing with in the terrorism realm as opposed to perhaps the sweeping tank battles of the past. That’s not what we’re doing. So, I think we—through our exercise programs, we have the ability to make these very specific to the needs of the region and-and address it. I would add one final program that I think is extraordinarily valuable, and it is our-our combined maritime force, where we invite different partners in the region, some from outside of the region, to come in and participate as part of our combined maritime forces operating in the Gulf or in the waters of the region.
These are extraordinarily important, and-and we see countries like Pakistan, who stepped forward, provide significant resources in this, and provide leadership to these—to these organizations. And this allows us to make sure that we lev—we share the burden. We leverage the capabilities that everybody brings, and it adds to a much more collective approach to security in the region. So, those are just four key programs of probably several others that-that could be discussed as well.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you, general. That last point speaks a little bit to my logistical officer heart. When I look at a map of the CENTCOM region, I can’t help but wonder how your J4 is able to transport people, equipment, and supplies throughout the theater, especially in light of great power competition and the changing environment as it is. I—you know, it becomes even more (INAUDIBLE) when I think about the potential for Iranians to close the Strait of Hormuz and restrict movement in the Arabian Gulf.
Going back to the exercises that you just mentioned, do you regularly exercise against this threat? And how confident are you that our logistical supply chain will not be gravely impacted should conflict with the Iranians escalate in the region?
VOTEL: Certainly, we do. I mean one of the principal concerns we have is the mining of the straits and the impact that that would have. And so, we do regularly exercise mining exercises, countermining exercises in the maritime environment here. We have a big exercise planned later this fall with a number of different countries that will come in. But, this is certainly something that-that we are focused on.
You are really hitting on the resiliency of our logistics networks in the region. And I do think that our command, our components out there, and our partners have really begun to address this. Certainly, you’re familiar with the Northern Distribution Network that kind of goes up to the Central Asian states. That has been important for us. We continue to exercise that. It certainly does have some influence from Russia in that. It is a more difficult network to orchestrate, but it is not impossible. And we do continue to move materials across that area. Across the Arabian Peninsula, we have what we refer to as the Trans-Arabian Network that links a variety of ports and cities and airports, not only in the Arabian Gulf, but down in the Gulf of Oman and over to the Red Sea, that gives us extreme resiliency in terms of how we can move material, men, forces into the region to respond to capabilities.
So, we’re very much focused on that. And in fact, as we look at implementing the National Defense Strategy and what that might mean for CENTCOM, our focus on these logistic networks and our ability to have agreements, basing, and other things in here, I think even become more important than they already have. And-and we have tried to-to prioritize that, and we will continue to do that as we move forward.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you, vitally important indeed. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Senator Ernst.
ERNST: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and first sergeant major, thank you for your wonderful years of service and commitment to our great United States. We certainly appreciate that. Major Votel, Major Votel, many years ago, a number of your colleagues and your soldiers believed that you would become a great leader, and I have to say, general, that they were correct all those years ago. Thank you so much for your wonderful service. I appreciate that.
One of our most effective resources for building partnerships and capacity while maintaining the-the pressure that we have on those violent extremist organizations is done, obviously, through our special operators. And you’re intimately familiar with that. How do you see the role of our special operators evolving across the CENTCOM AOR with regard to counterterrorism and capacity building as well as their role more broadly nested within—in the National Defense Strategy? If you can talk a little bit about that role, how we’re developing them?
VOTEL: Thank you. So, Senator, as you suggest, the-the special operation forces will continue to play a key role in-in the CENTCOM area of responsibility as we confront violent extremism here. They have developed a level of expertise and proficiency in this that is certainly unmatched anywhere else. And so, we will depend on that. I would add this, that one of the things that I am most proud of as CENTCOM commander is a former SOCOM commander, is how well our special operations forces and our conventional forces are integrated in the areas of which we operate. It—in many cases, it is almost indistinguishable.
VOTEL: There is very little concern with who gets the credit or who is calling the shots here. It is an extraordinarily collaborative environment between all of our forces on the ground and this will be essential as we move forward.
As you know, our special operations capability are limited. They are in great demand not just in CENTCOM, but in other areas as and that will be brought out as we fully implement the National Defense Strategy. So reliance on our conventional forces beginning to do some of these things and to develop the same methodologies that our special operators have developed over the course of many years will become very, very important as we move forward.
ERNST: And general, as we are drawing down the number of troops that we have, whether it’s Syria, Afghanistan, elsewhere, we do continue to maintain, train, advise, assist and in times, accompany missions and do you see that continuing forward as a force multiplier with partners in that region and what more can we do in that area?
VOTEL: I do, Senator. I think this idea by, with, and through and focused on training, advising, assisting, enabling our partners is a proven method for us. And I think it works extraordinarily—extraordinarily well in this particular reason. So I do see that moving forward. Going forward, it will be important for us to maintain these relationships. These are the relationships we depend on in this region are not those that can be put together in the course of a crisis. They have to be developed and they have to be nurtured over time.
As Admiral McRaven often reminded us when he was in the SOCOM commander, you cannot surge trust in times of crisis. That has to be done in advance. And so, I think the lifeblood of what we do out here will be the development of resilient, trustful relationships across our region.
ERNST: I appreciate that, and I appreciate the comments made by my colleagues as well about the state partnership programs, the IMET programs and so on. Those are very, very important in developing that level of trust. Just very briefly because I am running out of time, general, of course we do have some other big players in the region. We see Russia of course in Syria, we see China’s investments in Pakistan, and where else do you assess that China and Russia are involved in that AOR and what is the extent of that and what are their intentions from your perspective?
VOTEL: Thanks. Well, starting with Russia, certainly Russia has, you know, extraordinary interest in the Central Asian states. These being former—former Soviet Republics, they maintain a long-term relationship there and so this will always continue to be something that we will have to contend with in this particular region. You know, we have seen in the past Russia working with countries like Egypt and others to potentially fill in voids there so we have to be mindful of those relationships as well.
When you look at China, I think their motivations are principally driven by their economic objectives. Again, really driven by the One Belt, One Road approach they are taking trade routes back to China and I think the thing we have to continue to be watchful of is their developing relationships with other partners across the region, particularly in the maritime environment in the countries that along the waterways in the region, whether they are some of the Gulf states or whether they are some that are, you know, on the African continent, but which, you know, certainly give them very good access into the CENTCOM waters here. These are the areas I think that we will have to pay attention to in the future.
ERNST: Absolutely. They have a long game and we do need to pay attention. My time is expired but, general, my best to you and your beautiful family. Thank you so very much.
VOTEL: Thank you, Senator.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Ernst. Senator Blumenthal.
BLUMENTHAL: Thanks. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I join my colleagues in thanking you for your service and thanks for your very forthright and helpful answers today. I want to come back to a line of questioning that Senator Reed began about the $331 million that we are owed by the Saudi’s for aerial refueling. Have we made a demand to the Saudi’s that they pay that money?
VOTEL: Senator, we have presented all those bills to the Saudi-led coalition. They have them there, they are in receipt of them, they acknowledge that, and we are working through to ensure that the products that we have given to them are—they understand what that is and they will be able to respond to us. They have given us every indication that they intend to meet requirements for reimbursement that we have asked for.
BLUMENTHAL: There is no question in your mind, is very, that—that $331 million is owed to our country?
VOTEL: That is reimbursement for fuel that we provided for them and it is reimbursement for the flight hours associated with the aircraft that provided that fuel.
BLUMENTHAL: When will they make that payment of reimbursement?
VOTEL: We expect that in terms of the flying hours, the bills have been presented to both the Saudi Arabia and to the Emirates that we will, force flying hours, we’ll see responses as early as March and then likely for the fuel by the May timeframe. The acts requires that they provide reimbursement within 90 days of notification.
BLUMENTHAL: These are U.S. taxpayer dollars that they owe us, to put it most simply, correct?
VOTEL: They—yes. Yes, Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: And you mentioned, I may have misheard you, that there is the possibility of other instances where they or other countries owe us for similar kinds of expenses?
VOTEL: I don’t think we’ve identified any other that—I think the question was have we looked more broadly across the region to ensure that we have not—we don’t have this problem with others, and we are in the process of doing that, Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: You are reviewing—
VOTEL: To make sure that we have not had an oversight on this.
BLUMENTHAL: And have you found any indications that there have been other failures to repay?
VOTEL: I have not been notified of any thus far, Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: I’d like to ask you about the special operators and Senator Ernst asked you a number of questions. Can they operate as effectively from bases in Iraq as they can from where they are located now?
VOTEL: Senator, I think our special operators are extraordinarily capable. You know, in the beginning of our operations in both Iraq and Syria, there was a time when we did not have anybody on the ground, and yet we were able to have a relationship with our partners on the ground in Syria and we are able to do that from remote locations. And we do that in other places so they are extraordinarily innovative and so we will look at all options that we can use here.
BLUMENTHAL: I guess my question, just to rephrase it, was not whether they can operate at all, but whether they can operate as effectively if they are based remotely. Aren’t they more effective if they are, in effect, in the combat area where they are supposed to operate?
VOTEL: Well, Senator, I would agree with you that it’s always best to be with your partner and to be sharing everything that they are experiencing. So I think that’s optimum. But certainly, I think we have demonstrated in a variety of different areas here that through some level of remote location we can achieve the objectives that we’re focused on.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, knowing how skilled and effective our special operators are I have no doubt that they can operate from very remote location but I take it you would agree with me that the optimum situation from the standpoint of military impact would be to have them actually on the ground where they are supposed to do their work.
VOTEL: Senator, I would agree. I think it’s always best to be with your partners.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman.
INHOFE: Thank you, Senator Blumenthal. Senator Perdue.
PERDUE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General, thank you for your career and dedication and sacrifices. Sergeant major, thank you for 38 years. Don’t ever think it was ever taken for granted. It won’t ever be forgotten. God bless you.
General I’m concerned. In your AOR you have all five threats if you assume that and believe that North Korea and Iran have a particularly good relationship and across at least three domains, probably four domains. So the question I have is relative to what China and Russia are doing longer-term particularly as we think about our future in Afghanistan what China has done in The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is basically handcuffing Pakistan.
As you said earlier Pakistan is a major player in determining the long-term future of Afghanistan. I would argue that India as well as it stands and other players in the region are because of the Pashtun problem. But this debt problem is up to I think it’s $23 billion now, could grow to $62 billion and there’s $90 billion committed there in that effort. That’s huge in terms of Pakistan.
What I’m concerned about is what Pakistan also is representing to China with regard to what China has done with their BRI across that area. You just mentioned the maritime interest with Gwadar and Hambantota. Hambantota is just south of Colombo and Sri Lanka and they have already foreclosed on their partner there. It’s a proprietary debt situation. They have done the same thing in Gwadar and 31 other places around the coast of Africa where you just mentioned that.
The question is how are we as a military I understand this is a diplomatic issue as well. How are you in the military dealing with China’s effort to develop this string of pearls particularly the perspective that Russia with Vladakey (SP) and Tartus with China at Djibouti in this area as we consider our future in both Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan? How are we addressing that China and Russia threat relative to their permanent strategy in that area (INAUDIBLE) India?
VOTEL: Thanks, thanks, Senator, and I think you highlighted a real challenge for us. I think as we look at great power competition, I think we have to recognize and I believe we do that the threat of Russia or that China poses to us isn’t limited to a particular geographic area but in fact, it is global with these partners.
So as we look at our plans to compete with these partners to pursue our national interests, we have to look in all areas where we do this to include the CENTCOM area of responsibility. There will be things that we can do in CENTCOM that can contribute to a broader campaign to compete with China and Russia and so I think as we look at this, we have to look for opportunities where we can do that and how we integrate into a broader plan.
More specifically though what I would tell you I think one of the most important things and I mentioned this a little bit earlier for us to do is continue to be seen by our partners in the region as a valued, as a valued partner. You know, as I look at the recent Iraqi elections site noted that the presence of U.S. and coalition forces on the ground was not an election issue there and I think that is because of the manner in which we presented ourselves.
It was the manner in which we conducted our activities there and so I think preserving our relationships and continuing to be seen as reliable partners is perhaps one of the best defenses that we have against the influence of great power actors particularly in the CENTCOM region. And to the extent, we can continue to do that in the future that I think that will continue to be a key factor of CENTCOM as we move forward.
PERDUE: Well, I think after 17 years we’ve certainly earned that right and I hope we will continue to do that relative to getting our allies to help us in that region and specifically you mentioned the parliament there in Iraq. I have a question about a specific garrison, the Al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria. We had a request from Prime Minister Netanyahu to consider keeping a permanent presence there because of where it strategically located on the supply route between Iran and Hezbollah. There’s a 34-mile exclusion area there. What are the rules of engagement that we currently have with our garrison there and is this currently being considered as a longer-term installation?
VOTEL: Well this is a key part of the ongoing planning that we have going here. So II won’t comment publicly about what we might do there but we certainly understand the impact of that.
Our reason for being at Al-Tanf is principally driven by our Defeat ISIS mission. That is what brought us there, that is what kept us there. We continue to confront it. It’s located in an area where we do see routine traffic from ISIS as they move from the middle Euphrates Valley to the western part of country so it is a very good operational location from that standpoint. It does have the derivative value of being along a principal line of access, line of communication that Iran and her proxies would like to exploit.
So while that isn’t our mission, we do recognize the indirect impact that we have with that and so as we move forward Senator, you know the disposition of Al-Tanf will certainly be something that will be considered very, very carefully as we look at our overall withdrawal plans from Syria.
PERDUE: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
INHOFE: Senator Warren.
WARREN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you General Votel for being here. I appreciated the chance to meet with you last week.
As you know I have serious concerns about our support to the Saudi-led coalition and its military campaign in Yemen and at a hearing like this last year I asked you if the U.S. government knew where the coalition jets went and what targets they bombed after receiving fuel from U.S. tankers and you said that CENTCOM does not track that information.
In late December, the New York Times reported that American military personnel assigned to the coalition’s headquarters in Saudi Arabia readily had access to a quote “database that detailed every airstrike, warplane, target, munitions used and a brief description of the attack” end quote.
So let me just ask you does this database exist?
VOTEL: Today we we do have a database that does have that information and we have the ability to see that.
WARREN: And CENTCOM has access to this database?
VOTEL: We do have access to it today.
WARREN: Okay. This is troubling information because it suggests that we could determine retroactively if coalition warplanes that bombed civilians did so with American assistance. There’s clear evidence that we enable and support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Until recently we refueled their jets, we provide military advice and intelligence support. We continue to sell them American-made bombs, bombs that public reports indicate kill Yemeni civilians. We provide their Air Force with sustainment and logistics support for their American-made fighters.
So I’m asking you questions I want to ask some questions about the details of the help we give the Saudi’s because they continue to conduct bombing runs. They continue to perpetuate one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in the modern era.
During this Civil War, more than 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. This military engagement is not authorized. We need to end U.S. support for this war now. So let me ask you about detainee abuse.
In section 1274 of the FY 19, NDAA required the secretary of Defense to review whether members of the Armed Forces or coalition partners of the U.S. abused or witnessed abuse of detainees during operations in Yemen. DOD submitted this report to Congress last month and in the unclassified summary concluded that quote DOD has determined that DOD personnel have neither observed nor been complicit in any cruel inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees in Yemen end quote. Can you just say a brief word, I just have a little bit of time, about how DOD reach this conclusion?
VOTEL: We principally derive that based on discussions and reports from the people that we do have on the ground and what they have seen. We obviously take this very seriously, Senator, and our individuals that are in positions where they might see some of this are under the obligation to report this. And I do routinely receive reports many of them unsubstantiated and not just linked to Yemen but to other areas in which we operate where our people have received a report of abuse and we have a reporting mechanism for that and so we do take that—
VOTEL: extraordinarily seriously.
WARREN: But this report says neither observed nor been complicit in any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Associated Press, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations all conducted their own investigations and came to a very different conclusion. They determined that our Emirati partners oversaw a network of detention centers that regularly engaged in torture and other of abuse. Now does DOD find these independent investigations credible?
VOTEL: We certainly take all of these independent investigations seriously, Senator. But I think what I’m saying to you is that we have no observations of our own from our people that have actually seen this.
WARREN: Fair enough. Then let me ask it this way. Has DOD reached any conclusions about whether or not our Emirati partners are engaging in detainee abuse when DOD personnel are not present?
VOTEL: I have not reached any kind of conclusion that they are conducting these activities. Certainly in our interaction with all of our partners, in this conflict and across the region, we continue to emphasize the obligations under the law of armed conflict in the proper detention and treatment of detainees across the board.
WARREN: Well, I appreciate your walking me through your assessment of these independent reports, but I remain very concerned about abuses in the region. Turning a blind eye is not acceptable, and I’m going to keep asking questions. Thank you.
VOTEL: Senator, I’m in receipt of your letter, and we will provide a response to you.
WARREN: Thank you.
VOTEL: Thank you. (INAUDIBLE)
BLACKBURN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, general, for your time and to your team who is with you. We appreciate your service and your time. I do have some questions I want to ask you this afternoon when we’re in closed session dealing with the NDS and the competition with Russia and China, and maintaining the right balance in the Middle East, but also being aware of the competition that is there. I think you’re so right. As you’ve said in your comments, this is something we cannot lose sight of.
Let me go to Syria. I will tell you that I think the administration really has sent some mixed messages about the terms of U.S. withdrawal from Syria and whether there is protection for the Syrian Kurds, whether there’s the total defeat of ISIS or the establishment of a safe zone with Turkey and what’s a prerequisite. And Senator Duckworth and I just recently sent a letter pertaining to the Kurds because Nashville has one of—or has the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. And it is for this reason, in addition to their partnership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, that protection of the Kurds is very important to me and to a lot of Tennesseans. And I believe that any withdrawal from Syria must be conditions-based. And clearly there has to be a plan to protect the Kurds. And any plan to protect the Kurds must clearly outline our expectations of Turkey.
So I’d like to just hear from you. The withdrawal from Syria, is it calendar based? Is it conditions based? If it is conditions based, what are those conditions going to be there on the ground? And what has been communicated to the Turks? And what has been communicated to the Kurds?
VOTEL: Thank you, Senator. And I look forward to talking a little bit more about this with you in the closed session. But I would just say I don’t consider this to be either time-based or conditions-based.
VOTEL: The fact is the president made a decision, and we are going to execute his orders here to withdraw forces from Syria. And as we do that, we are going to do that in a very deliberate manner. We are going to do that in conjunction with our campaign plan, and we are going to consider things like protection of our partners, the Kurds. We’re going to consider the concerns that Turkey has along their border, and we are going to consider how we keep pressure on ISIS. And all of that is taking place right now. So I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date, and I have not had any specific conditions put upon me. I look at this as an additional task within the confines of the current campaign plan that we’re operating, and that’s how we’re approaching it.
BLACKBURN: We recently—in the January 16 attack we lost a Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Farmer who was a Fort Campbell soldier, and I will tell you, in Montgomery County, Tennessee and Clarksville, Fort Campbell, this is something that really—it was noted with great sorrow by so many that are there at the post. So—and one of the questions that comes up from Tennesseans who are involved in defense of our nation is did we underestimate the power and the threat of ISIS in Syria?
VOTEL: Senator, I don’t think we do. I think those of us who have had the opportunity to be involved in this and a long time—develop a respect for our enemies, we don’t agree with the things that they’re doing, but we certainly have to respect the capabilities that they bring. And we have always recognized that ISIS is a savvy organization, and they will look for ways to harm us, to hurt us in the conduct of our normal operations or certainly in the conduct of operations that we have coming up as we get ready to depart Syria. So I don’t think we underestimate their capabilities to exact a toll against us.
BLACKBURN: I appreciate that. I’ve got a couple of questions on Yemen. I’ll save those for the afternoon. I yield back my time. (INAUDIBLE)
KAINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chair, am I to interpret after six years on the committee anything negative from the fact that I’ve been moved to a chair without my own microphone? (LAUGHTER)
General Votel, thank you for your great service. You’re a wonderful public servant, and we’re going to miss you on the committee. I want to ask you about an interview that President Trump gave on Face the Nation on February 3, a couple of comments that he made dealing with Iran. He indicated one of the reasons I want to keep it—it referring to a base in Iran, an airbase—is because I want to be looking a little bit—I’m sorry, based in Iraq, an airbase in Iraq—is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem. He was asked a question by Margaret Brennan. He said no because I want to be able to watch Iran. So I’m on the Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committee, and I have not had a briefing, either in open or classified in either committee during my time in the Senate suggesting that we are currently in Iraq primarily to watch Iran. My understanding is that we’re in Iraq right now to help Iraq defeat ISIS. Is that your understanding as well?
VOTEL: That is exactly my understanding, Senator.
KAINE: And as far as you know there is not a change in the definition of the mission at least as far as the Pentagon is concerned?
VOTEL: I have no additional tasks that have been given with me regard to that.
KAINE: If the U.S. were to change its definition of the mission in Iraq to be a mission about watching Iran, wouldn’t it be pretty important to have Iraq agree that that would be the focus of the mission if we were to be having troops in their country to carry out such a mission?
VOTEL: Senator, we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, so yes, I agree.
KAINE: And we were invited in in the summer of 2014 to help them defeat ISIS, correct?
VOTEL: That’s right, Senator.
KAINE: Mr. Chair, I’d like to put into the record an article from the New York Times this morning. Trump’s Plan for U.S. Forces in Iraq met with Unified Rejection in Baghdad. General Votel mentioned that one of the great things about the recent elections in Iraq was U.S. presence was not a political issue, but the recent statements of the president, quote, the problem for Mr. Trump was that the unity was a collective rejection of his proposal and added momentum to propose legislation that could hamper American troops’ ability to operate in Iraq. I’d like to put this in the record.
KAINE: Second, General Votel, President Trump said as follows: I’m going to trust the intelligence that I’m putting there, but I will say this. My intelligence people, if they said in fact Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100 percent. Are you aware of a single U.S. intelligence official of any position who has told President Trump that Iran is a kindergarten?
VOTEL: No, Senator, I’m not aware of that.
KAINE: Nor am I. I’ve been, again, on this committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, over the last years we’ve heard opened and classified testimony again and again and again about dangers that Iran poses. We’ve not heard a single intelligence official say Iran is a kindergarten. We have had General Dunford and Secretary Mattis before us saying that the Iran Nuclear Deal was in America’s national interest and that Iran was complying with the deal. The House heard testimony in open session last week from a variety of intelligence officials saying that Iran was still complying with the nuclear deal that the United States unilaterally withdrew from.
I worry, and I’m not asking you this question, I worry that the president hears testimony like that and equates it with officials saying Iran is like a kindergarten, which I find completely illogical. Third, President Trump said this, “When I came in as president of the United States my first year, I went to the Pentagon two weeks after I came in. A short time after, I was given—because I wanted to know what’s going on with Iran. We were in so many locations of the Middle East in huge difficulty. Every single one of them was caused by the number one terrorist nation in the world, which is Iran.” We did not go into Afghanistan with U.S. military forces in 2001 because of Iran, did we, General Votel?
VOTEL: No, Senator we did not.
KAINE: We did not go into Iraq in March 2002 because of Iran, did we, in General Votel?
VOTEL: We did not, Senator.
KAINE: We did not go into Iraq in August 2014 because of Iran, did we, General Votel?
KAINE: So in terms of where our troops are positioned in the United States Middle East overwhelmingly now, there are some in Syria also fighting ISIS, not Iran, the places where U.S. troops are in your AOR, we are not there because of Iran. And so when the president says this, we are in the Middle East because of Iran, it causes me grave concern. Together with other statements made by this president and other members of the administration, I worry that the president is thinking about military action against Iran as something that would be a good idea.
Let me just put this on the record. In the current state of affairs, I think it would be a horrible idea. I think it will be a horrible idea. In classified I’m going to ask you a few questions about A, what planning has been done and what could potentially be a legal rationale for such a thing. But to think that we are in the Middle East because of Iran when, in these three areas, we’re clearly not there because of Iran causes me great concern. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
MCSALLY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Great to see you, General Votel. Thanks to you for your service and your sacrifice over the years. Very extensive testimony on a lot of issues. As someone like many of you and those with you today has been to your region many times six deployments in my time in uniform, it’s a very complex region, as you’ve talked about and I appreciate in your testimony with the National Defense Strategy, kind of bringing us back home as to why are we there and what are our vital national interests in the region because our longer-term threats, per the NDS, are more of the great state competition and potential conflict.
But many of us, many of you, we spent our entire military careers deploying to the Middle East. Like, this is all we know, right? This is all we know is dealing with Desert Storm and Northern Watch and Southern Watch and OEF and OIF. This is—we’ve invested so much into this, as you know. A lot of blood and treasure, a lot of sacrifice. And it’s part of our nature, I think, to just give us a little more time. Just give a little more resource, a little more and we—we can, you know, fix this situation. And I’m particularly thinking about Afghanistan. It’s just our nature, right, that we want to just—we’re almost there, were almost going to have this where we want it to be.
But think it’s very important, and I appreciate that the administration and—and you testified today, were kind of coming back to, like, what—what are we doing there? What are our vital national interests in the Middle East? There has been tremendous drain on our military over the last 30 years in that region and we’ve got to get back to the core of we have to make sure there is no safe haven for jihadists and terrorists that are going to come kill Americans and we’ve got to make sure that there isn’t a hostile power in the region. That’s in your testimony, right?
So that’s a generational fight against terrorism started before us, is going to continue on, we got to make sure there’s no safe havens in all of these countries. You squeeze them in one place, they’ll go to another place. We’ll find them in other regions, as you know. And then we want to make sure there’s not a hostile power, which is Iran right now. So I just want to bring it kind of back home.
And again, I think it’s hard for us, those who served, because were like no, no, what are we doing there? We want to build more schools, we got to do—I think there’s been a lot of mistakes over the years. We’ve got to build more schools in America. Like, we don’t necessarily need to bring some of these countries to be thriving 21st century democracies, we may hope that happens for them, but that’s not our vital national interest. It is to keep America safe.
So as we’re thinking of that and as you’ve testified about that, when you look at Afghanistan and would you look at still the safe haven they have in Pakistan, the last time I was there three years ago, there’s 12 different terrorist organizations there, our military’s hands were tied. They weren’t able to go after a lot of the terrorist organizations. How can we now moving forward with everything you’ve talked about today with in accordance with the National Defense Strategy, how can we make sure that we achieve that mission in Afghanistan and what does that look like to keep America safe and focusing on our drawdown there while we still make sure that we keep America safe and that’s not a safe haven for terrorism?
VOTEL: Senator, thank you. Thank you very much. I think when I look at what winning and what prevailing in Afghanistan looks like, it looks like two things to me. It looks like a negotiated settlement and it looks like safeguarding our national interests and I think, as you very clearly said here, we have to stay focused on those particular things in our efforts need to be—all our efforts at this point need to be focused on those particular objectives and pass to those objectives.
And I think that is certainly my approach on this and I believe that it is the approach of General Miller, our commander on the ground as well as we try to support this. And so I think the strategy that we have in place is the right one focused on this. We’ve got to stay focused on that and that and I think we will meet our requirements if we can get an negotiated settlement that addresses the instability of that region and we can continue to safeguard our national interests.
MCSALLY: Great, thanks. And then on to Iran, again, this is the largest state sponsor of terror. This is the one that has maligned activity in the region, great destabilization, killing of American troops, so how—what is the focus there as we are—as we are kind of, again, keeping our eye on the ball of this region and the National Defense Strategy because this is the biggest threat. And you talked a lot about working with partnerships but what else can we do and what else are you doing in order to counter that threat?
VOTEL: Well certainly, I think one of the most important things we do is continue to build partnerships and begin to build interoperability across the region. And you know, whether we look at integrated air and missile defense to ensure that we can address the increasing ballistic missile capability that is coming out of Iran, that is an important aspect that we can do or whether we address maritime security issues that allow not just the United States but the countries of the region to better patrol their own waters and prevent the movement of illicit goods and weapons and other things through there. I think these are the types of things that we can do that are very attainable to us as we move forward to not only optimize the capabilities that we remain a place, but more importantly make sure that our partners are bearing the burden and taking responsibility for their own security as well.
MCSALLY: Exactly, thanks. I am out of time. I wanted to say I’m grateful for Senator Peters’ statements about the A-10 Warthog as well. I don’t think we should be using fifth-generation fighters to chase around jihadists on mopeds. We got to make sure that we got the right tools for that mission while we are using our next generation to deal with the larger threats that are out there. So I found a new wingman here for fighting for the A-10 and the re-winging. Thank you, Mr. Chair. I appreciate it. I yield back
INHOFE: Okay, thank you, Senator. We we will recess the meeting until we get back together at 2:15. That’s going to be in the visitor’s center room 217. We want to thank you very much for a long meeting and for your attentive answers. So we will reconvene at 2:15 in the visitor’s center and we’ll recess this meeting. Thank you very much.
VOTEL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.