Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Votel, welcome back for what will likely be your last appearance before this committee. Thank you for your 39 years of exemplary service to the nation. We owe you and your family an incredible debt of gratitude for the contributions you made to our national security throughout your career, but especially during your leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command, and now Central Command. We sincerely thank you.
The focus of the National Defense Strategy is, rightly, a return to great power competition and a more “resource sustainable” approach to counterterrorism. However, this has led to some uncertainty about the U.S. military’s continued role in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. As we consider this question, it is important that we remain clear-eyed about the continued threat to the homeland posed by ISIS, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups; the malign behavior of Iran; and the objectives of Russia and China in the region.
Each of these issues are relevant to current discussions about our military presence in Afghanistan and Syria. Despite significant military success in both of these efforts, resolution to the broader stabilization, diplomatic, and political challenges have been far more difficult to come by.
Bringing our troops home should always be our objective, but it must be done in a deliberate and well-thought-out manner in concert with our partners and allies. In the case of the Syria withdrawal, contradictory statements by the President, his National Security Advisor, and other Administration officials have only served to underscore that this decision was anything but thoughtful and deliberate. If public reports are accurate, the President may be about to make a similar quick decision with respect to Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan has occurred at great cost in terms of both lives and resources. However, in considering the prospect of conflict termination, we must also weigh the cost of getting it wrong. ISIS, al Qaeda, and an estimated 18 other terrorist groups are still present in the region, and some within the intelligence community assess that external plotting would surge upon our withdrawal.
We must also consider our allies and partners that have fought alongside us. As former Secretary Mattis said, “our strength as a nation is inexorably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” The allies and partners who joined with us after 9/11 and have sacrificed by our side in Afghanistan deserve to be included in conversations with respect to the future of the conflict.
Regarding the decision in Syria, the President’s statement that ISIS is defeated may be premature. According to the intelligence community assessment released last week, ISIS “very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.” General McKenzie made a similar point in December when he said “ISIS probably still is more capable than al Qaeda in Iraq at its peak, suggesting it is well positioned to re-emerge if pressure on the group is relieved.”
The security and stability of key partners in the region – most notably Iraq, Israel, and Jordan – is bolstered by our continued presence. While our deployed forces do not have a military mission to counter Iran, I agree with our military leaders that there is a “derivative benefit” associated with their presence and the reassurance it provides. We should not take these partners for granted. If we were to withdraw precipitously from the region, we would risk the re-emergence of ISIS, squandering gains made in Iraq, destabilizing Jordan and increasing the pressure on King Abdullah, and allowing Iran and its proxies to become further entrenched, thereby posing a greater threat to Israel.
I am not in favor of endless wars or indefinite deployments of U.S. troops to dangerous parts of the world. Far too often, we view the use of the U.S. military as the solution to every problem. I share the frustration of many Americans that we have, thus far, been unable to fully achieve our foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. However, just as decisions to employ the U.S. military must be given great consideration, so too must decisions to disengage militarily – with particular attention paid to the second and third order effects such a decision will have on our security and foreign policy interests. I do not think sufficient consideration has been given to these issues.
General Votel, we look forward to hearing your views on these and other issues. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.