Austin: Understanding Middle East vital to addressing Centcom challenges

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24, 2013 – Take a look at the globe, and one would be hard pressed to come up with a region as dynamic and unpredictable as the U.S. Central Command area of operations — but also as vital to U.S. national security interests.

“The Middle East is an incredibly complex, dynamic and volatile area,” said Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who assumed command in March with responsibility for overseeing U.S. military operations in most of the Middle East as well as Southwest Asia.

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III

“It is also one of the most strategically important regions of the world and one that merits our focus and attention and continued efforts,” Austin said.

Complicating those efforts, he told American Forces Press Service via an email interview, is a laundry list of conflicts and other situations that he acknowledged present “significant challenges.”

Amidst this volatility, Austin and the Centcom staff must remain postured to respond to military crises, if required, while at the same time working in tandem with regional partners and U.S. diplomats to carry out U.S. strategy in the region.

This dual-pronged approach requires a clear-eyed recognition of not only activities causing instability in the region, but also their underlying causes.

“Key to addressing them effectively is understanding what is driving the behavior,” Austin said. “The fact is, there are a number of underlying currents that are causing much of the violence and discord.”

Among them is a growing ethno-sectarian divide that, if it continues on its current path, Austin warned “could result in a decade-long conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad to Bahrain.”

Meanwhile, the struggle continues between radical Islamists and moderates in Egypt and other parts of the region.

“We are also witnessing a rejection of oppressive governments and corruption, primarily through populist movements characteristic of the Arab Spring,” he said.

Austin identified another current, referred to as the “youth bulge.” Almost 65 percent of the region’s population is under age 30, and many are frustrated by a perceived lack of opportunity.

“The growing population of educated, yet largely unemployed and idle young people is choosing to express general dissatisfaction through social uprisings and other forms of violence,” Austin said.

The Arab Awakening exemplifies what can happen when these factors converge.

Austin said he is amazed that the Arab Spring began with a Tunisian vegetable merchant self-immolated in protest and, with the power of social media, has spread throughout the Middle East.

May 29, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. The paratrooper is on patrol with other paratroopers and Afghan soldiers. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

May 29, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. The paratrooper is on patrol with other paratroopers and Afghan soldiers. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

“Many thought early on that the Arab Spring represented a march toward democracy,” he said. “We now realize that’s not the case. In most instances, it represents a desire for representative government and rejection of authoritarian rule and corruption.”

In many ways, social media and the Internet have opened people’s eyes to opportunities elsewhere in the world not available to them, Austin said.

“Their protests have also shown to have a significant and speedy impact,” he said. “They are proving even more effective than the ballot box in many instances.”

That’s exactly what has happened in Egypt. Dissatisfied with the government of Mohamed Morsi, elected president in June 2012, Egyptians took to the streets and demanded change. Morsi was forced from power in July.

“Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated into violence and circumstances have made it increasingly difficult for all involved to achieve peaceful reconciliation,” Austin said. “Ultimately, the hope is that the interim government and the Egyptian armed forces will work together to attain stability, adopt a new constitution and elect a government representative of all parties.”

This resolution is important not just to Egypt but to the United States and its partners in the region, Austin said. He noted Egypt’s longstanding peace treaty with Israel and its ownership of the Suez Canal.

“Egypt is an important and influential ally, and we need them to remain as stable as possible,” he said. “We have long enjoyed a strong military-to-military relationship, and I firmly believe we need to do all that we can to maintain that relationship in order to help shape outcomes for the future.”

Working with their counterparts across the U.S. interagency and regional partners, Austin said he and his staff are committed to helping defuse situations that, if not addressed, could have a destabilizing impact on the entire region and beyond.

“We are taking the necessary steps to help address the immediate conflicts, outbreaks of violence and growing tensions that exist throughout the region,” he said. “However, our ultimate goal is to ensure that we help set the right conditions to achieve positive and lasting change for the future.

“And, to do so effectively,” he continued, “we must understand what forces or core influences are generating the tensions that are behind the violence and conflicts that we’re seeing erupt with increased frequency in this most important part of the world.”

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