Friday, October 05, 2018

Centcom Commander Discusses Regional Hotspots

By Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Iran are just a few of the hotspots the commander of U.S. Central Command spoke about this morning as he discussed the range of operations in the area during a Pentagon news conference.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel spoke to reporters from Centcom headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, via teleconference. He reported on his recent 19-day trip through the area of operations.

Votel began with Afghanistan, where he officiated as Army Gen. John Nicholson turned command of the Resolute Support Mission over to Army Gen. Scott Miller on Sept. 2.

The fight in Afghanistan is tough and Afghan forces are suffering higher casualties than they did last year, he said. Still President Donald J. Trump’s South Asia Strategy is sound, Votel said, and Miller is assessing conditions and making tactical improvements that he deems necessary.

The strategy is conditions based, the general noted, and is focused on achieving reconciliation and stability through military, political and social pressure. There is no set end date, and coalition countries are committed to Afghanistan. The Taliban's strategy of waiting the coalition out will not work, he said. Reconciliation with the Afghan government is the only smart choice for the group.

However, there will be no reconciliation with groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria offshoot ISIS-Khorasan, Votel said. “We remain committed to methodically and unrelentingly rooting out and eliminating ISIS-K fighters,” he said. “We continue to work with the Afghan national defense and security forces to develop the capabilities needed to seize and retain the initiative against the Taliban, and to effectively counter ISIS-Khorasan. While this has been a difficult and bloody summer, especially the last several weeks, we are seeing some improvements.”

He praised Afghan troops for allowing their fellow citizens to celebrate a peaceful Shiite holiday of Ashura. Afghan forces are also securing the country for legislative elections later this month. “The taste for peace and reconciliation remains strong following this summer's cease-fire, and we continue to see local reconciliation initiatives around the country,” the general said.

Even as Afghan forces take the fight to the enemy, the training effort continues.

Iraq, Syria

Votel turned to Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, national forces operate independently and they are conducting offensive operations against the remnants of ISIS, he said.

In Syria, local forces “continue to make steady progress in liberating the final remnants of ISIS's physical caliphate,” the general said.

Votel said things are looking up, especially when considered against how far the effort against ISIS has come from 2014, when the terror group was banging on the doors of Baghdad and they had declared a physical caliphate from its “capital” in Raqqa, Syria.

Still, no one should be complacent, he said. “While the territorial defeat of ISIS in these areas is an important milestone, the lasting defeat of ISIS is our ultimate objective,” the general said.

“In Iraq, we are committed to a responsible presence, at the invitation of the government, to continue our support to the Iraqi security forces and ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS,” Votel said. “In Syria, we will remain with our partners to ensure the defeat of ISIS and provide an opportunity for a negotiated political resolution of the Syrian conflict and humanitarian crisis, consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.”

Countries have ponied up for stabilization efforts in both Syria and Iraq, and that is encouraging, he said. “We continue to advocate for greater global burden sharing as part of our ongoing defeat-ISIS military operations, stabilization and humanitarian assistance,” the general said.

But on the other hand, Votel said, Russia and Iran continue to “exacerbate” the seven-year civil war in Syria. Without those two countries, he said, Syrian leader Bashar Assad would have long been deposed.

Votel called Iran “the world's leading sponsor of terror” and says its malign efforts continue to destabilize nations around the region. “None of these activities are helpful or supportive of peace and stability, and all introduce greater risk to an already complex and volatile environment,” he said.

Nations in the region – to include members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt and Jordan – are working together to combat Iranian efforts, the general said. Votel highlighted the growing cooperation and collaboration on integrated air and missile defense, maritime security and countering terrorism among the nations in the region. “And we all committed to moving forward together in these three areas,” he said.


Votel also visited Yemen during his trip, which, he said “is suffering from a toxic combination of civil war, terrorism and malign influence that not only threatens the existence of its people, but also adds to instability in the region and threatens our national interests.”

The general is working closely with United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths on Yemen. “Our interactions with members of the Saudi coalition are focused on providing [Griffiths] the maximum opportunity to bring the warring parties to consultative negotiations aimed at a political solution,” Votel said.

Through all this, he said, Iran continues to export missiles, rockets and unmanned aerial systems to the Houthis in Yemen, which simply prolongs and expands the conflict. This is visiting suffering to the people of Yemen and threatening critical international waterways. “These are not the actions of a good neighbor, but of one that threatens the peace and stability of the region,” the general said.

As a result of the National Defense Strategy, DOD has moved some capabilities out of Centcom, Votel said. “None of these movements had been a surprise to us or to our partners in the region,” he said. “We at Centcom understand we're in a new era of great power competition and we have been planning accordingly, as have our … regional partners.”

This does not mean the United States is leaving the area, nor is it a diminution in American commitment to the region, the general said. “This area remains key to many of our vital national interests and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners there,” Votel said.

U.S. Could Help Pacific Allies Build Capabilities, Navy Undersecretary Says

By Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON -- The United States can help Pacific island nations with security needs, Navy Undersecretary Thomas B. Modly told the Defense Writers Group here today.

Modly just finished a trip through the island nations of Oceania. The trip involved stops in Kiribati and its capital on the island of Tarawa. He also visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. island of Guam.

The area is vast, he said, and there was hardly an island that was not a battlefield during World War II. The undersecretary said he was sobered by the scale of sacrifice and the scale of distance.

“The vastness of the region is matched by the vastness of the issues and the challenges we have in trying to keep it secure,” he said.

Modly met with civilian and military officials in each nation, as well as U.S. representatives. “The overarching theme I got from the government officials I met with there were the paramount value of freedom of navigation and the protection of their economic zones,” he said.

The land area in Oceania is small, but the economic zones are huge, and they are 80 percent water, he said. “They are very far flung,” he added.

The officials are also very clear about their desires to maintain a strong relationship with the United States, Modly said. The United States developed relations with the nations – many of them colonial possessions at the time – during World War II. Those continued through the Cold War to today.

But things have changed, he told the defense writers, and the United States is no longer the only major power operating in the area now.

Expanded Chinese Influence

China is exerting influence into Oceania, he noted. “There is no question China is becoming much more assertive in the region,” he said. “They are looking for a variety of different ways to expand their influence. The Chinese government is making investments tied to loans, as well as grants.”

These projects are largely around infrastructure – extension of runways and construction of buildings and a conference center. “It is apparent they are there and plan to stay there for the long term,” he said.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have a strong partnership in the region, and the moves in the area are complementary. “From my perspective,” Modly said, “it is critical to reinforce these partnerships and look for opportunities to help these nations.”

One opportunity, he said, is to invest in developing capabilities to use, patrol and police their vast watery economic zones. The countries do not have navies, and their coast guards are limited as well. Modly suggested that the United States could work with these nations to develop fusion centers that channel all sorts of information where it is needed and when it is needed. This information could be as simple as weather reports and fishing information or could be warnings about incursions by illegal fishing ships.

The nations don’t have large populations. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets could give them an unmanned way to search their territory and only have patrol boats go out when they are needed, the Navy undersecretary said.

“It’s a pretty modest investment, and the technology is so good right now that it would be helpful,” he told the writers.