FPI Bulletin: General Warns Congress of Growing Middle East Threats

March 7, 2014

Even as Washington focuses on the crisis in Ukraine this week, our top general for the Middle East warned Congress about growing threats in his area of responsibility.  U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin (USA), who heads the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told the House Armed Service Committee on Wednesday that the region has reached a “strategic inflection point,” with looming dangers emanating from Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda affiliates.  U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should heed four key takeaways from General Austin’s testimony.

(1) Iran’s regional security threat continues to grow.  While it remains to be seen whether U.S.-led diplomacy and pressure will succeed in reversing the Iranian nuclear threat, General Austin cautioned that Iran’s growing counter-maritime, missile, and cyber capabilities together pose “a very real and significant threat to U.S. and our partners’ interests.” 

What’s more, CENTCOM’s commander warned that the regime in Tehran has increased its support of terrorists and violent extremists in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East—thereby “contributing to the humanitarian crisis and significantly altered political-societal demographic balances within and between the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.”  In particular, General Austin noted that “Iran presents a number of other threats to the region. Their ability to mine the straits, their ability to conduct cyber attacks, their ballistic missile capability, and of course… the activities of the Qods force and their efforts to spread malign activity not only around the region but across the globe.” In a clear demonstration of this threat, Iran this week claimed that it has acquired missiles with multiple warheads, while Israeli security forces intercepted an Iranian missile shipment bound for Gaza on Wednesday.

(2) Syria, which lies at the center of a worsening regional conflict, is now a strategic threat and humanitarian catastrophe.  General Austin cautioned lawmakers that “[t]his growing crisis must be addressed,” adding that if it is “[a]llowed to continue unabated, it will likely result in a region-wide conflict lasting a decade or more.”  As the crisis in Syria worsens, waves of refugees and spillover violence are pouring into neighboring nations.  Non-governmental observers estimate that as many as 140,000 Syrians have died in the three-year conflict.  The United Nations now reports while more than 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Syria and more than 9.3 million people in Syria require humanitarian assistance, over 2.5 million Syrians have fled and sought refuge in neighboring countries.

In particular, CENTCOM’s commander warned about the real dangers posed by safe havens for terrorists in Syria.  While the United States estimated that only 800-to-1,000 jihadists were in Syria a year ago, he believes there could be as many 7,000 or more violent extremists there today.  Still, some independent analysts worry that’s a lowball number.  Washington Institute’s Aaron Y. Zelin estimates that as many as 11,000 Islamist extremists have entered Syria over the last three years, adding:  “Even the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s didn't attract as many foreigners as Syria in the same period of time.”

Western intelligence and security agencies are also increasingly concerned that extremists who left the United States and Europe to fight in Syria may eventually come back with plans to cause harm at home.  Last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ominously warned that Syria also “has become a matter of homeland security,” with al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorists in that failed state now “actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission.”

(3) Complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would be catastrophic.  General Austin warned lawmakers that “in the wake of such a precipitous departure, [the Afghan government’s] long-term viability is likely to be at high risk and the odds of an upsurge in terrorists’ capability increases without continued substantial international economic and security assistance.”  CENTCOM’s commander should know—he played a critical role in the U.S.-led surge in Iraq and, in the aftermath of America’s complete withdrawal, has watched Al Qaeda reassert itself in that country.

To be sure, the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) has demonstrated impressive capability during its first fighting season “in the lead” for providing security, and nearly reached the brim of its authorized level of 352,000 soldiers and police.  Still, the ANSF is a force that relies heavily on U.S. intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and logistics assets.  General Austin thus cautioned  that if the United States completely withdraws from Afghanistan—a contingency the Pentagon is now planning for given outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral pact that would permit a residual U.S. military presence after 2014—then the ANSF likely “would fracture because of a lack of support both fiscally and our inability to provide advice and counsel to the Afghan security force.”

(4)  The terror threat posed by Al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates persists.  As General Austin told lawmakers, “While AQ core is less capable today, the jihadist movement is in more locations, both in the [CENTCOM] region and globally.  This expanding threat is increasingly difficult to combat and track, leaving the U.S. homeland and our partners and allies more vulnerable to strategic surprise.”  Twelve and a half years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the threat of the al-Qaeda network has evolved.  The American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman has assessed that “the decentralization of the al-Qaeda network has not made it weaker,” adding:  “Al-Qaeda affiliates have evolved and now threaten the United States as much as (if not more than) the core group; they can no longer be dismissed as mere local al-Qaeda franchises.”

Conclusion

Across the Middle East, threats to the security and interests of the United States and its allies are growing.  As Congress considers the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2015, it should remember General Austin’s caution that a shrinking U.S. defense budget raises doubts about “whether or not the [U.S. armed] services would have what they need to provide trained and ready forces” in the event of another conflict in the region.  Indeed, CENTCOM’s commander urged decisionmakers in Washington that “it is critical that we do what is necessary to bolster security and stability in this most important part of the world.”

Americans appear to understand instinctively the importance of U.S. land forces in defending America’s security and interests in the Middle East and around the globe.  A recent Fox News poll found that “by a 59-36 percent margin, voters oppose cutting Army troops to reduce military spending.”  U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should heed General Austin’s warnings, and give the U.S. military the resources and tools that it needs to advance America’s core national security interests in an increasingly dangerous Middle East.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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