U.S. operations in Middle East and Africa more likely to ramp up than end

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing earlier this week to discuss the posture of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), as U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Africa shift to face existing and emerging threats.

In particular, witnesses before the panel noted that the Islamic State maintains a presence in the Middle East and also on the African continent, which continues to threaten U.S. and allied interests in both regions.

“As we turn our attention to the central challenge of great power competition, the National Defense Strategy challenged us to think about our efforts in the Middle East in new and in different ways,” said a statement read into the record on behalf of Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., “With all of the recent success in the fight against ISIS, we must work to consolidate our gains and move forward with the — with a coherent regional strategy to ensure security and stability.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, noted that his concerns lie primarily in the Trump administration’s “marginalization of our diplomatic corps,” which he says “undermines our ability to stabilize the areas once held by ISIS, as well, as the broader region.”

“Military power alone will not be enough to address the national security challenges we face in these complicated regions in any enduring way,” he added.

Reed also said that President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” would create a “foreign policy crisis” in the Middle East, thereby creating new challenges for CENTCOM.

“Iran continues to destabilize the region through its development of ballistic missiles and its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. Iran behaves this way without a nuclear weapon, imagine how much worse it would be with a nuclear-armed force,” Reed said.

Meanwhile, Gen. Joseph Votel, CENTCOM commander, told the committee that the U.S. military has made solid gains and progress against ISIS and other regional threats over the past year. But, he continued, “as we consolidate our gains in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, we remain clear-eyed about the challenges that the region continues to present.”

He added: “Now we must consolidate gains by investing in the security forces, relationships, and capabilities that will hold the territory and keep ISIS from returning.”

Votel outlined three objectives for CENTCOM:

— Wrap up major combat operations in Iraq and Syria, bringing the campaign against ISIS to a close

— Prioritized implementation of Southwest Asia strategy in Afghanistan and reaffirming U.S. commitment thereby reinforcing the NATO-led train, advise and assist mission, and the U.S. counterterrorism mission

— Ensure that the U.S. has aligned its military efforts “with our broader interagency and international activities to neutralize, counter-balance and shape the stabilizing impact of Iran.”

“Make no mistake: Iran’s malign activities across the region pose a long-term threat to stability in this part of the world,” Votel warned.

He also told the panel that CENTCOM is assessing three dynamics that are vital if the U.S. is to prevail in the Middle East.

“First, in the conduct of our campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt, we have adopted a ‘by, with and through’ approach that places a heavy reliance on indigenous partner forces. Second, successful pursuit of U.S. objectives in this region comes only from an integrated approach aligned with inter-organizational partners. Defense of the nation is a team sport. Finally, we could not do what we do on a daily basis without the support of Congress,” he added.

AFRICOM Commander Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser said that his command, “with partners, strengthens security forces, counters transnational threats and conducts crisis response in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity in Africa.”

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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