3/13/2018 — 

Thank you, Senator Inhofe, and thank you to our witnesses for appearing today to provide an update on the security situation and U.S. military activities in your respective areas of responsibility.  Both of you are ably leading your commands during very challenging times and we thank you for your continued service.    

We are in our 16th year of military engagement in Afghanistan.  Early last year General Nicholson, Commander US Forces Afghanistan, testified that we were facing a stalemate.  Since that time, the Administration has announced a new South Asia Strategy, articulated a negotiated settlement as the desired end-state, moved additional forces into theater to support the military elements of the strategy, and curtailed security assistance to Pakistan.  Despite these shifts, 2017 continued to be plagued by widespread violence and instability in Afghanistan, as the Taliban expanded their territorial control and conducted a number of large scale attacks against military and civilian targets.  In addition, ISIS-Khorasan remains resilient, despite significant pressure. 

While the Administration has clearly laid out a military strategy, battlefield victories are hollow without political and economic progress, both of which seem stalled in Afghanistan.  However the Trump Administration has yet to articulate the political, governance, or economic aspects of the strategy, much less the associated staffing and resources that will be required to implement it.  General Votel, I am interested in your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. 

In Iraq and Syria, the destruction of the so-called physical “caliphate” previously enjoyed by ISIS is a significant victory for the U.S.-led international coalition and our Iraqi and Syrian partners on the ground.  However, ISIS is not defeated and will remain a threat for the foreseeable future. 

Additionally, the underlying issues that gave rise to ISIS in the first place remain unaddressed.  We need strong U.S. diplomatic leadership to help bring about the necessary political accommodations that will give Sunni communities a stake in their future and to bring the international community together to assist communities recovering from ISIS.  As some experts have stated, the seeds of the next insurgency are sown in the rubble of Mosul and Raqqah.  In Iraq alone, the cost of reconstruction is expected to be at least $88 billion and the international community has pledged to support less than one third of that amount.

I am deeply concerned that the Administration’s marginalization of our diplomatic corps undermines our ability to stabilize areas once held by ISIS – as well as the broader region.  It is notable that across the CENTCOM and AFRICOM areas of responsibility, a number of Ambassadorial posts remain vacant – most notably in Jordan and Somalia where I recently visited, but also in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, and Egypt.  This is not a question of congressional inaction.  No nominations have been forthcoming, and I’m sure all of our colleagues would rapidly move to consider nominating some of these very important positions.  Military power alone will not be enough to address the national security challenges we face in these complicated regions in any enduring way and we must have the people in place to help ensure our long-term strategic objectives are met.

On Iran, the President risks creating a foreign policy crisis by threatening to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.  By all accounts, the JCPOA is working as intended and Iran is verifiably meeting its commitments under the agreement.  Let there be no doubt, Iran continues to be a state sponsor of terror and an abuser of human rights.  Iran continues to destabilize the region through its development of ballistic missiles and support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere.  The JCPOA was not intended to address all of Iran’s bad behavior, just the nuclear aspect.  If Iran behaves this way without a nuclear weapon, imagine how much worse a nuclear-armed Iran could be. 

Withdrawing from the JCPOA would be a devastating blow not only to the Middle East, but also for our efforts at diplomacy with North Korea – and for any future diplomatic efforts to constrain aggressive behavior by our adversaries.  General Votel, I am interested in hearing if you, like Secretary Mattis and General Dunford, believe that remaining in the deal is in the interest of our national security.

In Africa, the importance of relationships is paramount as we seek to engage by, with, and through our partners and allies in furtherance of our shared security goals.  I recently traveled to East Africa where I saw first-hand the ongoing efforts to disrupt violent extremists and build capacity with critical partners in places like Djibouti and Somalia.  I also saw the challenges from competitors such as China and Russia, who are actively seeking investments and involvement across the continent. 

Despite some battlefield successes against groups like al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and ISIS affiliates, many governments in the region have struggled to translate security gains into durable outcomes.  As we turn our attention to the great power competitions articulated by the National Defense Strategy, we must be mindful not to focus exclusively on these issues at the expense of other threats such as terrorist organizations, rogue regimes, and other non-state actors and criminal organizations – issues that are unfortunately present in both of your commands.

Thank you both for your continued service to the nation.  I look forward to your testimony.