Austin: Partners Taking More Responsibility in Centcom Region

March 8, 2016 | BY Cheryl Pellerin , DOD News

Despite an especially challenging year for the governments and people in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, progress is being made in several areas, Centcom’s commander told a Senate panel here today.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said one positive development is that regional partners are taking more responsibility in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“Our decades of investment are paying off, and we're seeing our regional partners assume a greater share of security responsibilities in the region,” Austin said. The partners effectively deal with extremist threats in their own countries, he added, while conducting military operations as a part of the counter-ISIL coalition in Iraq and Syria.

Taking Responsibility

“We are encouraged by what we are seeing,” Austin said, “and we remain committed to working with our partners in support of our shared goals and objectives.”

Centcom is involved in or supporting multiple military operations, Austin said, including the campaign to counter ISIL in Iraq and Syria and U.S. contributions to NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

“We're providing limited support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and we continue to prosecute the fight against terrorism and extremism throughout our area of responsibility,” the general said, noting that Centcom also is dealing with “mischief that we see throughout the region caused by Iran.”

On the fight against ISIL, Austin said the international coalition is defeating the enemy in Iraq and Syria and is pressuring ISIL on more fronts than at any time in the past 18 months.

“We’re … degrading the enemy's capability by taking back territory, diminishing his economic resources and removing his senior leadership from the battlefield. We're also slowing the flow of foreign fighters joining his ranks,” he told the senators.

ISIL Expansion

ISIL’s increased efforts to expand into North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia are happening in part, Austin said, because the enemy “knows that he's losing in Iraq and Syria and he needs to find other ways to maintain his legitimacy.” Halting ISIL’s expansion will take a concerted effort by the international community, he added.

In Iraq, Austin said, the Iraqi security forces are performing better with time, thanks to coalition capacity-building efforts. And Kurdish peshmerga forces are critical to efforts on the ground in northern Iraq, he added. The peshmerga fighters “are irreplaceable, and we must do all we can to support them,” the general told the committee.

Local Partners

In Syria, the general said, the coalition continues to work with indigenous forces, including Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others. Together they are achieving tremendous results, Austin said, including securing more than 18,000 square kilometers of territory previously held by ISIL.

Austin said he has asked for permission to restart the train-and-equip mission in Syria, using a different approach from the first effort begun in 2014. The adjusted approach would focus on smaller numbers of people trained for a shorter time, and in specific skills that they could take back and pass on to their larger groups of fighters, he told the panel.

“The fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria remains incredibly complex and, while the defeat of ISIL will take time and it will not be easy, you can rest assured that we will get it done,” the general said.

Maintaining Momentum

In Afghanistan, Austin said, the security forces have come a long way over more than 14 years, and the NATO mission wants to ensure that they maintain that momentum.

Over the past year, the Afghans have experienced multiple transitions that together have shifted the operational environment, he said. “I still assess that the Afghan security forces are capable of holding their gains against the Taliban,” Austin told the panel, adding that changing conditions on the ground may call for new planning assumptions.

“We have invested a great deal in that county,” he said. “It is an important country for a number of reasons, and we want to do what's necessary to help the Afghans be successful long-term.”

Eyes on Iran

In his remarks to the senators, Austin cited Iran as a significant destabilizing force in the region.

“While we're hopeful that the implementation of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and the results of the recent elections will lead to more responsible behavior by the Iranians,” he said, “we've not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path.”

Recent Iranian behavior, such as the launch of ballistic missiles by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Austin said, “is certainly not the behavior that you would expect to see from a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a respected member of the international community. So we will continue to keep a close eye on Iran going forward.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)