Mattis Defends Afghan Strategy, Warns of Iran, Al-Qaida Threats
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2012 The commander of U.S. Central Command staunchly defended the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan before Congress today, saying that, despite recent violence over the Quran-burning incident, he believes it is bearing fruit.
“I’m delighted to defend our strategy. I believe it is working,” Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We should not allow a few criminals, malcontents, to define the Afghan security forces,” he said. “Even their performance during these last two weeks -- disciplined, restrained, standing by us -- is an indication that this is a force that’s come a long ways.”
He noted that no vetting process can totally eliminate insider threats. “No force is perfect,” he said. “I would just remind everyone that even Jesus of Nazareth had one out of 12 go to mud on him.”
What particularly stands out following “a very disappointing and unintentional mistake by U.S. forces” was that it didn’t shake the Afghan security force’s confidence in them.
“It did not shake the teamwork,” Mattis said.
The general noted that Afghan security forces are within 60 days of reaching the 352,000-man goal that had been set for October 2012.
In his opening statement to the panel, Mattis said Iran and al-Qaida remain the two biggest threats in the Centcom area of responsibility.
He told the panel he’s never seen the region so tumultuous in the 30 years he has supported U.S. efforts there.
He noted challenges posed by radicals, violent extremists, malignant networks and state-sponsored agents and unconventional proxies who seek to violently exploit differences there.
But the general singled out Iran as the No. 1 threat to regional stability and security. “They're fighting basically a shadow war every day,” he told the panel, asserting themselves in destabilizing ways throughout the region, and beyond.
He noted that although Iran has never gotten along particularly well with the Taliban, “they’re willing to help the Taliban to some degree to fight us in Afghanistan,” he said.
Mattis also pointed to Iran’s efforts to take advantage of turmoil associated with the Arab Awakening movement. “It’s highly concerning,” he said.
Meanwhile, despite security gains in the fight against terrorists, “the threat remains,” he said.
“Al-Qaida and associated groups continue to kill innocents from the Levant to Yemen and are adapting in the face of U.S. pressure,” Mattis said. He noted a troubling development as al-Qaida begins to make a comeback in Iraq. It’s evident “notably in the western Iraq area,” he said. “But the threat is extending into Baghdad.”
Mattis emphasized during his testimony that his overarching goal is to prevent further conflict, and he reaffirmed that the U.S. won’t waiver in defense of its allies, partners and national interests.
The region “remains of great strategic importance to other world powers and is vital to many of America’s most enduring national interests,” he told the panel.
Centom is postured to address the challenges, Mattis said, as it works closely with the State Department and other agencies to promote peace and stability. “The military challenge will be determining how we retain a sustainable presence and operational flexibility in a fiscally constrained environment,” he said.
“Although we are withdrawing some ground forces from the region, we are not withdrawing our support for long-time allies and partners,” he said. “Nor are we pulling back our commitment from a region that too many times has taken a commitment of American blood and treasure to restore stability.”
Mattis recognized the “grim cost” the defense of U.S. interests in the region has taken during more than 10 years of war. He noted that 612 Americans have died and 8,251 have been wounded since he took command in August 2010.
“Through persistent military-to-military engagement, our troops reassure our friends and temper adversary intentions,” he said.
Mattis called other security cooperation activities “cost-effective means for building our friends’ defensive capabilities, allowing us to operate in concert with our allies and friends and to rapidly respond in times of need.”
Looking to the future, Mattis said Centcom is appropriately funded to carry out its mission. He did, however, identify some needed capabilities: improved counter-improvised explosive device protection; information operations and voice programs to counter adversary propaganda on the Internet; and improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, among them.
Mattis also noted the need for specific resources vital to the Afghanistan campaign. He cited coalition support funds, the command’s emergency response program, Afghan infrastructure fund and reintegration authority.
These funds “enable us to meet urgent humanitarian and infrastructure needs of a population that is increasingly secured by its own forces -- forces we have been building and training through the Afghan security forces fund,” he said.