Dempsey: DOD to Stay Engaged, Vigilant in Middle East

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Dec. 17, 2011 — It’s too soon to cal­cu­late how the end of U.S. Forces Iraq will affect the region’s mil­i­tary dynam­ics, but the U.S. focus on the Mid­dle East and its part­ner coun­tries there is unwa­ver­ing, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Army Gen. Mar­tin E. Dempsey is trav­el­ing with a USO hol­i­day tour and tak­ing time to meet with his coun­ter­parts and offi­cials in sev­er­al coun­tries, includ­ing Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Right now I think there are con­cerns, maybe some that would rise to a lev­el of skep­ti­cism about the future [in the region],” he told reporters who are trav­el­ing with him.

“But I think that’s why our pres­ence here is so impor­tant,” the chair­man said, “to help ease those con­cerns and reduce that skep­ti­cism.”

Dempsey added, “We’ve got to make sure we main­tain our vig­i­lance, our deter­rence and our engage­ment in the Mid­dle East.” The focus for the Defense Depart­ment in 21 coun­tries that make up the U.S. Cen­tral Command’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty include Afghanistan, Iran and its nuclear aspi­ra­tions, and region­al insta­bil­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with the Arab Spring, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave of protests and vio­lence that erupt­ed Dec. 18, 2010.

The unrest most recent­ly includes a nation­wide revolt in Syr­ia, with pro­test­ers demand­ing the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad and the gov­ern­ment respond­ing with dead­ly vio­lence, which accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations this week has so far tak­en near­ly 5,000 lives.

“We’re try­ing to think ahead about what it will mean to the peo­ple when the regime in Syr­ia changes, as we think it will,” Dempsey said.

Relat­ed to that, he added, “is the endur­ing rela­tion­ship with Turkey and their role. They’re a [U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand] nation from our per­spec­tive but they cur­rent­ly have a pos­i­tive influ­ence in that part of the Arab world.”

Iran is anoth­er crit­i­cal defense chal­lenge in the region, the chair­man said.

“Iran con­tin­ues to be provoca­tive both in terms of its nuclear aspi­ra­tions but also the activ­i­ties of the [Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps] Quds Force,” which is said to respon­si­ble for oper­a­tions out­side Iran, Dempsey said.

The most recent man­i­fes­ta­tion of such provo­ca­tion, he added, was a plot uncov­ered in Octo­ber that involved Iran­ian offi­cials and Iran­ian-Amer­i­can used car sales­man Man­sour J. Arbabsiar’s botched attempt to hire assas­sins to kill Sau­di Arabia’s ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States.

For DOD, the chair­man said, the chal­lenge is “Iran’s hege­mon­ic aspi­ra­tions and how we can build a con­sen­sus with­in the region and glob­al­ly that this is unac­cept­able, and then [deter­mine] what to do about it.”

The U.S. pres­ence in the Mid­dle East is an espe­cial­ly impor­tant buffer to the chal­lenge with Iran, Dempsey said, adding, “I do believe that what Iran needs to see in this region is a more coher­ent Arab world, so their aspi­ra­tions are tem­pered.”

But of all the chal­lenges in the region, Afghanistan is a pri­ma­ry focus.

“That’s No. 1 because we have kids in harm’s way,” Dempsey said. “That’s always going to be job No. 1.”

The depart­ment is work­ing to review its strat­e­gy in Afghanistan with Cent­com Com­man­der Marine Corps Gen. James Mat­tis, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, com­man­der of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force-Afghanistan and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and oth­ers, the chair­man added.

“We know the surge [of com­bat troops to Afghanistan] will be off-ramped in Sep­tem­ber 2012,” he said. “That’s when we’re back to the 68,000 [troops] that was kind of the stan­dard at the start.

“The ques­tion we’re grap­pling with is, giv­en the Lis­bon objec­tives, how do we get from Sep­tem­ber 2012 to Decem­ber 2014?”

In Novem­ber 2010 in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal, NATO lead­ers agreed to halt com­bat oper­a­tions by inter­na­tion­al troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon attend­ed the sum­mit of lead­ers who craft­ed a tran­si­tion strat­e­gy direct­ing coali­tion troops to begin this year turn­ing over secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty for the nation’s provinces to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces.

“What we aspire to over time is to approach the entire issue of engage­ment dif­fer­ent­ly,” Dempsey said, adding that there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for the U.S. mil­i­tary ser­vices in small­er engage­ments.

“Most coun­tries don’t want us to be flop­ping a brigade com­bat team in and among their pop­u­la­tion, so I think we have to find a way to think that through too,” the chair­man said.

“It’s real­ly about what we have learned in the last 10 years [of war], and how to estab­lish new rela­tion­ships not only in [the Mid­dle East], but world­wide.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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