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.
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.