By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 10, 2013 – Events throughout Africa and the Middle East over the past two years offer opportunities and challenges as the United States and its international partners combat al-Qaida and associated threats, a senior Pentagon official said here yesterday.
Derek H. Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee on how emerging terrorism threats have affected U.S. defense relationships in Africa and the Middle East.
“On the positive side, these developments hold great promise for people long denied freedom, dignity and opportunity,” he said. “Ultimately, we believe the democratic transitions will discredit violent extremists, provide a more enduring foundation for stability and cooperation, and better align our values and our interests.”
But such historic change has significant inherent risks, he said.
“In particular, al-Qaida and other extremist organizations are seeking to exploit the uncertainty to establish new operating environments in ungoverned or poorly governed spaces,” Chollet said.
To mitigate these risks, he added, the Defense Department is strengthening its military-to-military relationships with partners, working to enable effective local capacity and supporting international and regional responses to terrorist and extremist threats.
“In all of these efforts, we are working closely with our allies in the region, as well as Europe, to leverage our collective capabilities, especially as we adjust to the new realities of more austere budgets,” Chollet said.
Citing efforts in Yemen, Mali and Libya, he explained DOD efforts in counterterrorism.
“As part of the whole-of-government approach to combating [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula], DOD is providing training and equipment to Yemeni security forces to build capacity and to conduct counterterrorism operations,” he said. “Also, in concert in with our [European Union] and Jordanian partners, we’re providing advice to the Yemeni military as it reorganizes under a single chain of command under President [Abdu Rabu Mansour] Hadi.”
A unified, professional Yemeni military will be more effective in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, he added, and will contribute to greater political stability.
“We remain supportive of Libya’s transition in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks,” Chollet said, “and seek to assist the government of Libya as it strives to secure its borders, control its various militias and counter violent extremists.”
The Defense Department is willing to expand cooperation with Libyan armed forces, he said, but a heightened security threat and a diminished personnel presence at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli pose challenges.
“As the security situation improves and the Libyans are better positioned to provide funding to support the armed forces modernization, we hope that our relationship will expand,” Chollet said.
Regarding Mali, Chollet said DOD is very concerned with the instability and risk it poses to regional stability and U.S. interests in the region. The United States shares French goals to shrink the safe haven there for al-Qaida in Mali, to contribute to the restoration of Malian territorial integrity and to set the enabling conditions for elections, he added.
The United States has supported French forces in critical ways since January, he said, through intelligence sharing, airlift and aerial refueling to enable their operations.
Chollet said putting U.S. combat forces in Mali is not being considered, but the U.S. military continues to support Mali’s neighbors through training and assistance to counter regional threats.
The most troubling events, Chollet said, have occurred in Syria, with the suffering of the Syrian people and the impact on regional stability in general.
“As President [Barack] Obama said last month during his visit to Israel and Jordan,” Chollet said, “we are very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism, which is why we’re working with the international community to help accelerate a viable political transition and helping the Syrian opposition [become] more cohesive and capable.”
Chollet said the United States is the single-largest humanitarian donor to the Syrian people, and is working closely with partners such as Jordan and Turkey to help in dealing with the significant humanitarian security challenges they face in Syria as a result of the conflict there.
“The situation in Syria, along with that in Yemen, Mali, Libya and elsewhere, serves as a stark reminder that … the world remains combustible and complex,” he said.