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Officials Outline Policy, Posture in Middle East

By Claudette Roulo DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, March 3, 2015 — Defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorist organization and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon are the top two issues that must be addressed in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, the undersecretary of defense for policy told Congress today.

Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee alongside Centcom commander Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Christine E. Wormuth said new realities have forced the Defense Department to take a hard look at its near and long-term goals for engagement in the Middle East.

Rapidly Changing Region

Centcom’s area of responsibility is today more volatile and chaotic than ever before, Austin said, “and the stakes have never been higher."

Forces of evil thrive in the region’s poorly governed areas, the general said. "And therefore,” he added, “it is essential that we be present and engaged and that we cultivate strong partnerships and continue to do our part to address emerging threats and to move the region in the direction of greater stability and security."

In Iraq and Syria, the department is working with partners for a whole-of-government effort toward degrading and ultimately defeating ISIL, Wormuth said.

"At the same time,” Austin said, “we've dealt with a number of difficult challenges in Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon and in a host of other locations throughout our area of responsibility.”

Operation Inherent Resolve

As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, more than 2,600 U.S. service members are in Iraq working with the government and training Iraqi forces, and more than 60 countries are participating in the global coalition against ISIL, Wormuth said.

“This is going to be a long-term campaign and we need to be patient, but we are making progress,” she noted.

"This barbaric organization must be defeated, and it will be defeated," Austin said.

“Since commencing our operations in early August -- just seven months ago -- we've killed more than 8,500 ISIL fighters and we've destroyed hundreds of its vehicles, along with tanks and heavy weapons systems,” he said.

Coalition efforts have stalled ISIL's momentum, degraded its ability to mass and maneuver forces, pressured or eliminated its leadership cells and disrupted its command and control and supply lines, Wormuth said.

“In short, we've put ISIL on the defensive,” the undersecretary said.

Partner Nations Key to Success

These successes would not have been possible without local partners in the lead, Wormuth noted. In Iraq, advise-and-assist teams began partnering with local forces last summer, and earlier this year training of these forces began at four different sites, she said.

“We are also working with our coalition partners in Syria, and we are also working to build the capabilities of the moderate Syrian opposition there,” the deputy undersecretary said. Training of the first class of vetted opposition elements is expected to begin later this month, she added.

“Our forces in the region are strengthening our partners’ ability to fight terrorism locally, but, ultimately, it's going to be Iraq forces and Syrian fighters who will secure the gains against ISIL and inflict a lasting defeat,” Wormuth said.

Preventing a Nuclear-armed Iran

“The president has made clear his top priority is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Wormuth said.

The department hopes that continued “P5+1” discussions will result in a “comprehensive and verifiable agreement that will ensure the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program,” she said. The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France -- plus Germany.

But, the undersecretary noted, the Defense Department’s job is to remain vigilant. “And we do that by helping to underwrite negotiations with our robust posture and capabilities in the region,” Wormuth said.

“As the president has said publicly, we will do whatever's necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon -- including the use of military force if necessary. And we're postured to do that in the region today,” she said.

Fiscal Year 2016, Return of Sequestration

The president's budget request for 2016 supports the department’s strategy for the region and enables the services to continue to address the nation’s most critical needs, Wormuth said.

“If sequestration returns, however, in 2016 and beyond, the department's readiness would deteriorate markedly, which would harm our ability to respond promptly and efficiently when called upon,” she said.

“We are constantly responding to unforeseen contingencies and facing multiple threats from a wide range of actors that include nation states and transnational extremist groups,” Austin said. “We cannot afford to constrict our ability to do so effectively by maintaining across-the-board spending cuts that severely limit our flexibility and authority to apply critical defense resources based on demand and the current security environment.”

“We are clear-eyed about the fiscal constraints that we're facing, but we believe it's necessary -- even in the face of those constraints -- to maintain our commitment to protect our interests in the region and to combat the threats that we face there,” Wormuth said.

(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)