By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 1, 2011 - As U.S. military forces move toward withdrawal from Iraq and transition in Afghanistan, mission requirements remain numerous and strategically vital, the head of U.S. Central Command said today.
Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlined the status of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other areas within his command's area of responsibility.
"Centcom's main effort is in Afghanistan, where along with our Afghan and coalition partners, we are making undeniable progress, though some of our gains at this time remain fragile and ... reversible," Mattis said.
In the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said, al-Qaida is under the most pressure they have experienced since 2001. "Over the past year, our enemies have lost leaders, battle space, maneuver room and the initiative," he said.
The greatest success over the past year has been the Afghan security forces' "quantifiable and qualifiable growth in capability," Mattis said, adding that he supports plans to increase Afghan forces by between 45,000 and 70,000 new members.
"With [their] improving quality and combat performance ... we are seeing the enemy's worst nightmare coming of age," the Centcom commander said.
"The enemy's strategy has been undercut by the clear commitment of the international community and the Afghan government to begin, this summer, a process of fully transitioning responsibility to Afghan lead by 2014," Mattis said, adding that the pace of withdrawal will be based on ground conditions.
The overall campaign is on track in Afghanistan, he said, but there will be tough fighting ahead as the enemy tries to regain the initiative.
"We must also redouble our efforts to address challenges in the areas of governance and development in Afghanistan," he said.
Turning to Pakistan, Mattis said, "We are strengthening and deepening our security partnership with Islamabad, even as we work to overcome years of mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides."
Pakistan has shifted a quarter of its army - 140,000 troops - to its western border, and coalition forces are conducting "hammer-and-anvil" operations in close cooperation with Pakistani forces on either side of that border, Mattis said.
Pakistan has conducted significant counterinsurgency operations over the past decade, particularly in the past two years, he said, and has suffered 2,757 troops killed and 8,549 wounded.
While the situation in Afghanistan remains his top focus, Mattis said, Iraq is gaining stability and the planned U.S. transition from a military- to a civilian-led effort is underway.
"As we transition to civilian lead in Iraq, it is essential that the State Department be sufficiently resourced to solidify relationships between the United States and Iraq for the future," he said.
As well, Mattis said, Centcom needs congressional authorities to continue advising, training and equipping Iraqi forces under the lead of State's Office of Security Cooperation Iraq.
"Looking ahead, we will redeploy our military forces from Iraq this year, unless asked to stay by the Iraqi government and the U.S. government concurs," he said.
Mattis said he anticipates al-Qaida in Iraq and Iranian-sponsored proxies will try to disrupt progress in Iraq by launching attacks in the coming months.
The Centcom commander said threats in his area of responsibility range from Iran and al-Qaida to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Iran, Mattis said, currently represents the greatest threat to long-term regional security.
"We are countering the malign activities of the regime, while bolstering relationships with our partners," he said, adding that Iran persistently rebuffs international efforts toward engagement.
"[Iran] continues to coerce its own population and pursue activities disruptive to regional peace and stability," Mattis said, "including supplying arms to militant proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon."
The Centcom commander said he has "no reason for optimism" about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, growing ballistic missile arsenal, and destabilizing regional influence.
Mattis said Centcom is disrupting al-Qaida and other violent extremist organizations, and is actively focused on the extremist threat in Yemen.
"With our international partners, our special operations forces are putting our most violent enemies and related networks under increasingly intense pressure," he said. "At the same time, the populist-inspired changes that are taking place across the region undercut the message of al-Qaida and other extremist groups."
Popular protests in countries across the region, Mattis said, "have achieved more change in 10 weeks than 10 years of al-Qaida's murderous campaign."
Conditions in the Middle East represent a defining moment for people in the region and by extension, he said, "a critical moment for Central Command to remain engaged with our partners and to clear away obstacles to peace and prosperity."
Mattis said while Israel and Palestine aren't in Centcom's area of responsibility, lack of progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace affects U.S. security interests in the region.
"I believe the only reliable path to lasting peace in this region is a viable two-state solution between Israel and Palestine," he said. "This issue is one of many that is exploited by our adversaries in the region, and is used as a recruiting tool for extremist groups."
By contrast, Mattis said, substantive progress in the peace process would improve Centcom's opportunities to work with regional partners and support multilateral security efforts.
Military leaders recognize Congress faces tough decisions in the current constrained fiscal environment, Mattis said.
"In all of our activities at Central Command, we honor the obligation to be the best stewards possible of our nation's monetary resources," he said. "Centcom has established stringent control mechanisms to execute our fiscal authorities and to apply increasingly effective oversight of all programs."
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