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CENTCOM Official: Actions Must Match Words in Africa, Middle East

By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2007 – Behind the spotlight on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command is working to bring about “a secure, stable, partnered region” in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, a senior officer in the command said yesterday.

In a call with online journalists and military “bloggers,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes, deputy director of operations for U.S. Central Command, identified five focus areas for the region laid out by CENTCOM commander Navy Adm. William Fallon.

They include:

-- “Set the conditions for stability in Iraq” by engaging states throughout the region, while managing U.S. interagency relationships to support the needs of Multinational Force Iraq;

-- “Expand governance and security in Afghanistan” through similar regional and U.S. engagements as with Iraq;

-- “Degrade violent extremist networks and operations” with a priority on defeating al Qaeda;

-- “Strengthen the relationship and influence the states within our region,” while also working with organizations that contribute to regional stability and the free flow of international commerce; and

-- “Posture a force within Central Command that can build and sustain joint and combined warfighting capability and readiness.”

As a combatant command, CENTCOM’s focus is regionwide, Holmes said.

“A lot of times I think folks forget that,” he said. “That region provides some ungoverned space where bad actors, extreme actors want to grow and do what they can to destabilize the region and ultimately destabilize the international community.”

Because of the size of the area of responsibility and the complexity of the issues facing it, Holmes said, partnerships with states in the region become essential to promoting governance and defeating terrorism in a sustainable fashion.

To that end, he explained, CENTCOM has adopted an outreach regimen to engage “the military and the leaders in the more moderate states” with the aim of increasing the prospects for long-term stability.

Emphasizing the commonality of the threats and challenges facing the region is necessary to ensure success there, Holmes said. Groups like the Gulf Cooperation Council become needed participants in the effort, he said.

“The key is very vocal support and advocacy that we’re committed as a partner in the region,” Holmes explained. “It’s not to put a stamp, ‘Made in the USA.’”

Rather, he said, “I think the encouraging thing we see is dialogue -- with the U.S. being a partner in that dialogue -- for regional actors to bring their powers to bear in the region.”

The U.S. message to the Middle East and Horn of Africa states thus becomes, “We’re not here to do it for you. We’re here to assist and partner,” Holmes said.

Military partnerships, in particular, serve as force multipliers, Holmes explained. As states in the region develop capable military forces and gain the tools necessary to better govern their territories, he said, they can begin to take the lead in killing or capturing terrorists and high-value individuals.

At the same time, Holmes said, humanitarian-relief efforts build bonds of trust with local communities and do their own part toward enabling stable governance.

Regarding the Horn of Africa in particular, he said, “I think it’s very important that we engage there. And the foot in the door there, honestly, is humanitarian operations. I think we cannot understate the importance of the immediate needs of people when they are without governance.”

To assist in that mission, the general explained, 1,300 U.S. military personnel are stationed in the Horn of Africa, working closely with the U.S. embassies there to identify and answer humanitarian challenges.

“Ultimately that is … a softer instrument of military power, which then over time builds capacity with regard to combating terrorism and other challenges,” Holmes said.

“It’s a very effective use of the full range of military capacity,” he added. “I think as we look at the region, you will see Central Command saying, ‘Look, use all of my instruments of power. Don’t just look at me for my kinetics.’”

Given the challenge of religious extremism prevalent in the region, Holmes said, supporting centrist leaders in the target populations is another factor in promoting long-term stability.

When looking for the center of gravity in the fight, he said, “it’s not either or Iraq or Afghanistan. Ultimately it is the moderate voice of the people of the region.”

Neither war front can swing the regional pendulum in favor of freedom and democracy without a more general effort to forge bonds with every country there, Holmes said. The U.S. is committed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, he clarified, but winning in one country without partnering with the region would be “short-sighted.”

Part of that regional message, however, needs to be a commitment to staying in Iraq and Afghanistan until a stable outcome is reached, Holmes said. Our actions there help set the tone for regional relations overall, he observed.

“I’ll be very honest with you,” he said. “I’m not so naive as to think that there (aren’t) many eyes watching from our partners in the Middle East in the CENTCOM region that are saying, ‘What will the U.S. do? What will the military do?’”

Communicating our commitment to the target populations is the function of public diplomacy and strategic communications, involving a joint effort between Central Command and the State Department, Holmes said. This communication also includes the use of information operations as a counter to extremist propaganda, he noted.

“This is an enemy that is extreme; it is violent, and it is going to use information to serve its purpose,” he explained. “On our hand, we look at how we counter that violent information or that propaganda with truthful information.”

The challenge placed before the United States is having our policy and operations match the messages we put to the Middle Eastern and North African audiences, Holmes said, describing a lesson he picked up from the Eugene Burdick, William Lederer novel “The Ugly American.”

“We have to look at what we do and what we say, and they have to be in synch with each other,” Holmes said. “And for years maybe we haven’t done that very well.”

Thus U.S. Central Command’s current doctrine, he said, is to communicate its priorities and stick by them.

(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)

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