By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 22, 2008 - Army Gen. David H. Petraeus gave senators his view of the U.S. Central Command during confirmation testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee here today. Petraeus, nominated to be the next CentCom commander, currently commands Multinational Force Iraq.
The general spoke of the challenges in the diverse and strategically important CentCom area, which he described as "a region of regions," and spoke frankly on the threat Iran poses to the region and the world.
Violent extremism is the biggest threat in CentCom, where U.S. servicemembers are engaged in two wars, Petraeus told the committee. "Al-Qaida is, of course, the highest-priority terrorist threat to many states in the region as well as to the United States and many of our allies around the world," he said.
But there are other extremist groups in the region, and the governments in Tehran, Iran, and Damascus, Syria, support militant groups and proxies in the region, he said.
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, delivery systems and the spread of technical expertise is another worry in the region, Petraeus said.
"The lack of transparency in efforts by countries such as Iran and Syria to develop their nuclear programs is a major concern to states in the region and could spark a destabilizing regional arms race," he said. The command also worries about terrorist groups getting nuclear weapons, he added.
Though CentCom is a combatant command, its leaders also are concerned about the lack of sustainable economic development in some countries of the region, the general said. Per capita income ranges from $200 in the Horn of Africa and some countries of Central Asia to more than $70,000 for the citizens of the Persian Gulf states, he noted.
"This is not just a domestic social or humanitarian issue; it is a serious security concern, as well, for without economic opportunity, poor and disenfranchised communities can serve as hotbeds for the spread of violent extremism," the general said. "We have seen this in a number of areas in the region in recent years."
Narcotics and arms trafficking, piracy and smuggling are also transnational threats in the region. "These damage societies, threaten legitimate commerce and the flow of strategic resources, and often benefit terrorist networks," he said. "These activities must be addressed if international efforts to combat terrorist financing are to succeed."
Petraeus gave the senators a rundown of key issues in CentCom's area of responsibility.
"In Iraq, Iraqi and coalition forces continue to build on the security gains of the past 15 months as we also continue to reduce U.S. forces and transition responsibility to Iraqi security forces, strive to maintain the conditions necessary for political progress, help build governmental capacity, and seek to foster economic development," he said.
Last week saw the lowest number of security incidents in the country in more than four years, Petraeus told the committee.
"It appears that the week that ends tomorrow will see an even lower number of incidents," he said. "This has been achieved despite having now withdrawn three of the five brigade combat teams scheduled to redeploy without replacement by the end of July and also with the reduction of the two Marine battalions and Marine expeditionary unit."
Operations in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City have demonstrated the Iraqi forces' training, resilience and resolve, Petraeus said.
"As always, tough fights and hard work lie ahead," he said. "Nonetheless, I believe that the path we are on will best help achieve the objective of an Iraq that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, that is an ally in the war on terror, that has a government that serves all Iraqis and that is an increasingly prosperous and important member of the global economy and community of nations."
Iran is a destabilizing force in the region, the general said. Iran continues its nuclear program and continues to fund, train and arm dangerous militia organizations, he said.
"Iran's activities have been particularly harmful in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan," the general said. "In each location, Tehran has, to varying degrees, fueled proxy wars in an effort to increase its influence and pursue its regional ambitions."
Afghanistan has been and remains one of the poorest countries on Earth. NATO's International Security Assistance Force is helping Afghanistan build and rebuild. Allies are helping the country provide basic services, develop infrastructure and create legitimate alternatives to poppy farming, Petraeus said.
"Due to the scale of the challenges involved and the difficulties in the security arena in particular, we should expect Afghanistan to require substantial international commitment and support for many years to come," the general said.
Pakistan remains an important partner in efforts to combat terrorism, but its newly elected government "faces serious economic difficulties and energy shortages, and it is still solidifying its coalition and coming to grips with how to respond to internal threats that have global implications," Petraeus said.
Taliban and al-Qaida capability and control in the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province continue to grow. "Foreign fighters continue to flow from Pakistan into Afghanistan, where they're a violent and destabilizing influence," the general said.
The countries of Central Asia have abundant opportunities for building security and economic partnerships and for pursuing common interests, Petraeus told the committee.
Terrorist activities and instability continue in Lebanon and Syria, while the United States continues building security partnerships with Jordan and Egypt. "In Lebanon, the government is grappling with the political and militia activities of Lebanese Hezbollah," he said.
Petraeus told the senators that if he is confirmed as CentCom commander he will seek to strengthen international partnerships.
"We will continue to pursue strong bilateral and multilateral partnerships and to identify, further develop and pursue mutual interests," he said. "Engagement will be a central aspect of my responsibilities as the CentCom commander if confirmed."
The command also will seek to partner with other departments and agencies within the U.S. government, "taking a whole-of-government approach to the challenges and opportunities," he said.
"In most of the issues we'll address, a purely military approach is unlikely to succeed," he noted, "and our strategy must recognize that."
He said he'd seek to deal with the underlying causes of challenges in the region.
"Finally, we should both support the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure readiness for possible contingency operations in order to be prepared to assist in the event of natural disasters to ensure sufficient deterrence of actions that might threaten regional partners and, if necessary, to be ready to defeat aggressors that threaten our vital interests in the region," he said.