By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
March 16, 2010 - While the United States draws down in Iraq and builds up in Afghanistan, "we must not lose sight of our other challenges" in the Middle East, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here today. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States must remain vigilant in overseeing broader security challenges throughout the region.
Petraeus called Iran the "primary state-level threat" in the Middle East. He told the panel that Iran undermines security throughout the region in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons, which threatens a broader arms race, and uses its paramilitary force to influence Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan and the Gulf region.
Petraeus confirmed that President Barack Obama "has not taken the military option off the table" with regard to Iran. "No one can say Iran has not had every opportunity possible to them," he said. "Our hand was outreached, and they didn't grasp it. The focus is shifting to what is known as a pressure track, but I don't want to get ahead of the administration."
The general noted the capabilities of the U.S. military and its strong partnerships in the region. "Together with our many coalition partners, we are bringing security to the region," Petaeus said. "This is the most experienced, most capable military in our history. They and their families made tremendous sacrifices."
Turning to another pivotal country in the region, Petraeus said the Pakistani people now realize that extremist groups such as the Taliban are their biggest threat. "They realize the Taliban wanted to take Pakistan back several centuries, not forward," he told the senators.
The Pakistani military carried out "several impressive operations" against the Taliban in recent months, particularly in the northwest tribal regions and down to South Waziristan, Petraeus said, adding his support for increased funding to the Pakistan military.
In Yemen, Centcom is implementing a plan he developed last year and that the Yemeni government accepted last summer to quell rising extremism there from a group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Petraeus said.
A counterinsurgency tactic Centcom used successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan and hopes to expand, Petraeus said, is to counter extremists' messages to the public. A regional task force is needed to expand Operation Earnest Voice, a joint mission with the State Department used in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
"We were the first in coming forward with the truth," Petreaus said. "We can't let the extremists get the upper hand in cyberspace. Clearly, this is an area in which we will need additional policies, capabilities and resources."
Enemies of the United States have become adept at using the Internet in achieving their aims, the general said. "Extremists recruit there, they proselytize there, they share tactics and strategy there," he explained. "We have to ask ourselves if this is something we can allow to continue. If not, then we must figure out how to stop it without infringing on free speech."