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CENTCOM Assumption of Command

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It is a pleasure to be here as we pay tribute to the outstanding officers who have led this organization over the past two years, welcome a new commander, and reflect on the important work being done by the men and women of CENTCOM at a time of war and daunting security challenges in the Middle East and Central Asia.

General Petraeus obviously can’t be with us tonight – as you are aware he’s somewhat busy somewhere else.  But I’d like to start by saying a few words about the achievements of CENTCOM on his watch.

We have seen dramatic improvements in the U.S. military relationship with Pakistan, overcoming more than a decade of distrust and estrangement.  With our security assistance, the Pakistanis have recognized the Taliban threat from within, driven militants out of long-time safe havens and killed or arrested numerous extremist leaders. 

We also saw a robust effort to build the counter-terrorism capabilities of the Yemeni government, in order to prevent that country from becoming a safe-haven and base of operations for Al Qaeda.

Working with and through General Odierno, General Petraeus oversaw the successful drawdown of our forces in Iraq and the transition to full Iraqi security responsibility – developments made possible by his inspired leadership during the surge three years ago that turned the tide.

General Petraeus has deepened our joint efforts with partners in the Gulf in areas of missile defense, infrastructure protection, and counter-piracy – cooperation that has strengthened the determination of our allies to stand together with us against common threats.

Last year, I counted on Dave’s judgment and expertise born of a proven record of success in making my recommendations to the President on our way ahead in Afghanistan.

As you are all aware, a little more than month ago we had to quickly call upon General Petraeus to bring his considerable talents to bear more directly in Afghanistan by assuming command of the International Security Assistance Force.  And I too would like to especially thank Lieutenant General John Allen, who so ably assumed command responsibilities of this organization on short notice.   As General Mattis said during his confirmation hearings, under General Allen CENTCOM suffered no loss of momentum and our allies have been amply assured of our commitment and capability.   So John, thank you for your outstanding leadership under difficult circumstances.

Which brings me to General James N. Mattis.  Jim was looking forward to a very well earned rest in Washington state – my adopted home – after a brilliant and eventful military career spanning nearly 40 years.  Instead, he has answered his country’s call once more.   

We are fortunate that he has done so, as General Mattis is one of our military’s foremost strategic thinkers and combat leaders, with extensive experience within the CENTCOM area of responsibility.  That experience includes:

  • Commanding a battalion that liberated Kuwait in the first Gulf War; 
  • Leading the first major conventional ground forces inserted into Afghanistan shortly after 9/11; 
  • Commanding the 1st Marine Division during the initial combat and stability phases of the Iraq War; and
  • Later leading all Marine Corps forces in Central Command. 

General Mattis is one of the most formidable warrior-scholars of his generation.  His intellectual achievements include collaborating with General Petraeus on the historic Army-Marine Corps counter-insurgency manual and developing new operating concepts for our military at JFCOM.  His insights into the nature of warfare in the 21st century significantly influenced my views about the shape and posture of our armed forces for a complex and unpredictable future.

Before closing, I would like to say a few words about the work of this command, and its vital importance to our nation – an importance recognized by multiple presidents of both political parties going back several decades.  As a National Security Council staffer in the Carter Administration, I recall the discussions about the need for a sustained and credible U.S. military presence in the Middle East, deliberations that ultimately led to the creation of this command in 1983.  Our basic goals have not changed since that time – to defend America’s vital national interests and deter aggression in this region; whether from:

  • The Soviet Union and its client states;
  • Saddam Hussein’s aspirations for oil and empire;
  • Violent terrorist and militant groups; or
  • Iran’s meddling and quest for nuclear weapons.

We meet today in the ninth consecutive year of major combat operations in this command, with more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, and coast guardsmen deployed in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.  More than 5,500 have made the ultimate sacrifice, with tens of thousands more wounded in ways both seen and unseen.  To all the young men and women in uniform giving everything of themselves in this fight, and to our adversaries looking for weakness in our resolve, know this:  The United States will continue to stand by our allies, defend our vital interests, and honor the sacrifices of so many who have fought and fallen wearing our nation’s uniform.

Thank you.

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