U.S. Must Demonstrate Commitment to Mideast, Mattis Says
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2013 Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis testified today about the potential for a perceived lack of U.S. commitment to the Middle East as forces draw down in Afghanistan.
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee here, the commander of U.S. Central Command explained his concern and suggested ways how the U.S. can demonstrate its commitment to the region.
“The drawdown of our forces can be misinterpreted as a lack of attention, a lack of commitment to the region,” he said. “Obviously that's a misinterpretation of what we're doing. Those forces were sent there for missions that are going away.”
The U.S. should conduct military exercises through its military-to-military contacts with Middle East countries, Mattis said, and have their officers attend U.S. military schools to help demonstrate an unwavering U.S. interest in this critical part of the world.
Mattis also said Middle Eastern leaders cite U.S. “budget ambiguity” as “probably the single greatest factor” at the moment.
“I'm asked about it everywhere I go in the region by the regional leaders [and] the national leaders there,” Mattis said. “And I think we're at a point … [where] budget ambiguity is now starting to drive our strategy.
“What we could use most is some degree of budget predictability,” he added, “like any household or business in America needs to run an operation.”
The U.S. military also requires “some time to make those [budget] cuts right,” Mattis said, as well as “a certain amount of flexibility for the service chiefs so that they can make the cuts in a way that has the least risk.
“Combined with that, and a continuing straight message that we are committed, I think we can weather this current situation and reassure our friends and make certain none of our adversaries think this is an opportunity,” he added.
Mattis noted he believes “the most important point” is that open lines of communication are maintained with regional partners.
“They want to carry their share of the burden, in many cases,” he added. “They are eager to do so.
“And by good intelligence sharing, by good cross-component training with our various components and their components,” he continued, ”we can put ourselves in a position where we're not carrying this entire burden ourselves.”
Mattis also addressed the pace of the drawdown, praising President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan leading up to December 2014.
“The way we are drawing down right now with the president's plan allows us to keep our troop strength in the field for the next year,” Mattis said. “[This] sends a message in itself, and we will then draw down after this fighting season.
“Further, we're going to maintain about half the troops we have there now through the [Afghan] election,” he continued. “[This] shows a commitment to an election that will get the country on the right path, I think, in terms of showing a sustained commitment to democracy and solving our problems through the democratic process rather than picking up AK-47s.”
Mattis noted there hasn’t been a specific date set for the Afghanistan election, but it will likely be in April or May 2014.
Meanwhile, he said, there’ll be “approximately a 34,000-person drawdown [in U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan] between now and February of 2014. So that will keep the bulk of our troops there through the fighting season this year.”
Another drawdown, Mattis said, “will probably commence after the Afghan election in April or May to help them get through their election in April-May of 2014.”
A third point, he said, is although Afghan President Hamid Karzai hasn’t yet decided when the Afghan election will be held, there will be an enduring force there.
Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have both said there will be a continued coalition presence in Afghanistan, Mattis said.
“Enough to buttress the Afghan security forces and keep them strong and on the right track as they continue to mature,” he added.
Yesterday, the Senate confirmed that Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, currently the vice chief of staff of the Army, will succeed Mattis as the next commander of U.S. Central Command. Mattis is slated to retire this year.