By Jim Garamone
BAGHDAD, June 19, 2006 – U.S. Central Command is responsible for more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and CENTCOM officials emphasize they are not ignoring the challenges in the rest of their area of operations. A senior CENTCOM official, speaking on background June 12, said the major enemy in the region is al Qaeda and associated movements, and defeating that threat is the command's major mission.
"It's simply stated, but not so simple to do," he said.
CENTCOM's area of responsibility goes from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to Kenya on the Horn of Africa. It reaches from Egypt to Pakistan. Besides operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, CENTCOM is responsible for defending the sea lanes through which 65 percent of the world's oil passes. A major drought in Africa places 12 million people at risk. There are tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea; an earlier war between the two countries resulted in 100,000 deaths. Genocide in Sudan's Darfur region and the threat of nuclear proliferation from Iran add to CENTCOM's challenges.
And in the midst of this is an al Qaeda network that stretches its tentacles across the region, into Europe and even to North and South America. The official said al Qaeda translated means "the base," a perfect name for the terrorist movement. "It is a radical Islamist, solophist-based ideology that is not generally held, but because of its capability to intimidate and murder, it holds hostage the vast majority of moderate Muslims," he said. "Because of that it has great power."
The command works to destroy the terrorist cells where it can. CENTCOM servicemembers also work to improve conditions in the region so new terrorists don't take the place of those killed or captured. But the answer to the threat in the region is not something America can provide. "The answer in the long run has to be 'we' vs. 'they' - and 'we' has to incorporate moderate Islam," the CENTCOM official said. "Islam has powerful antibodies against radical Islam. You see some moderate leaders stepping up to the plate. They haven't done this in the past."
The official said heretics are found in every religion, but the rise of the radical element in Islam is a danger. "They are trying to co-opt the rest of Islam, and it is a tiny, tiny element," he said. "But it is very vocal, and it is very violent, and it has adherents who are ready to die." The power of that tiny element far outweighs its number. With billions of Muslims worldwide, small numbers of fanatics can make a difference. There were hundreds of suicide bombers in Iraq in 2005, he said, adding that al Qaeda could increase the effort and scope of suicide bombing attacks in a hunt for headlines and more influence.
"The whole idea of suicide bombers is to shock the world -- get high casualty rates and get onto television and the front pages of newspapers," he said. "Look what happened in London. They killed 23 people, and for two solid weeks the world media was fixated. Think what would happen if they could do that in other European and American cities." The al Qaeda strategy is all about media impact, he said. "These are 'super-empowered individuals," he said. Osama bin Laden can reach 2 billion people in 12 hours. He releases something on the Internet, and it is immediately dragged up. Stalin couldn't do that, Hitler couldn't. The power of the Internet has super-empowered these terrorists."
The command combats these statements with the truth, but the official said the truth doesn't get the coverage the terrorists do. "(The terrorists) can say whatever they want, and whatever they say is immediately characterized as the truth," he said. "You can't question them. They just put something out, (and) it is taken for the truth and reprinted everywhere." But on the other hand, he noted, what the coalition does is immediately questioned. "The story is always questioned on our side, never questioned on the other," he said.
Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally and a bulwark in U.S. policy in the region, the official said, and has stepped forward and made the tough choices to side with the moderates in the struggle against extremism. CENTCOM is supporting training the Pakistani military and shares intelligence with the nation. "The army works in Pakistan, and is one of the foundations of their society," he said. "Pakistan is stable, and the government is committed to the global war on terror. However, all that can change overnight if something happens to (Pakistani President) Purvez Musharraf."
The Central Asian republics have a series of problems. Kazakhstan, with an educated work force, natural resources and the infrastructure of the Soviet spaceport on its soil, is in the best shape among countries in that region, the official said. "We have outreach programs with all the Central Asian republics," said he added. "Some are more successful than others." Uzbekistan is trying to change Stalin-era policies that tried to turn a desert into an agricultural area. Cotton is the major crop in the nation, and it is draining water reserves and contaminating the soil.
In Africa, Somalia is in the news with an Islamist group taking control of Mogadishu, the capital. "There is the potential in Somalia for negotiation, now that that group has taken over Mogadishu," he said. "Islamist doesn't mean enemy. We allow too many people to box us into corners." The Palestinian problem affects everything in the region. People throughout the region are following the travails of Hamas forming a government in Palestine. "It's interesting that no Arab government is running to their aid," the official said.
But the main battles are in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Despite people saying there was a civil war in Iraq or a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, there has been no tactical scenario where anyone has beat a squad or platoon of coalition forces in five years of warfare," he said. "It just hasn't happened. The only thing that can defeat us is ourselves." In Afghanistan, this is the campaign season, he said, but people are overestimating the power of the Taliban. "I'm still waiting to see any kind of capability that they have exhibited other than planting (roadside bombs)," he said.
"Now they can get lucky and kill 500 people tomorrow, but where is the tactical capability?
"All they are doing is murdering some people in a campaign of intimidation," he continued. "They are not going to take over Kandahar, and their capability largely comes from their ability to convince people the coalition is trying to take away their livelihoods - opium and drugs." Other critics point to an increase in incidents in Helmund province as an indication of the rising power of the Taliban. "Last year there were only five incidents in the province. This year there are already over 120," he said. "Last year we had five soldiers there in a small provincial reconstruction team. This year we have 1,100 British paratroopers going after these guys, and yes, we have more incidents. I don't call that a resurgence of the Taliban."
Officials said that many incidents are attributed to the Taliban, but often are caused by drug lords, tribal fighting or gangs. The same is true in Iraq. People outside the country often exaggerate the amount of sectarian strife in the country, the official said -- while sectarian incidents are occurring, all violence is not tied to strife between Sunni and Shiia. More often, he said, what looks like sectarian violence is really a tribal struggle over smuggling routes. "There were 78 incidents last week that were reported as sectarian violence, and we categorized eight of those as real instances," he said. "So much of the violence is historically tribal-based and we can't relate to that.
"There are, of course, people in the country who are trying to use sectarian divisions for their own purposes," he said. "It is very much like a mafia war, and the prize is power. And they can cloak their deeds in sectarianism." A democratically elected government is absolutely anathema to these terrorists and gangs that are striving for power in the nation, the official asserted. "Democracy is the opposite end to the Caliphate, which is what al Qaeda is trying to establish," he said. "They will fight any step toward security and stability."