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Centcom Commander Discusses Partners, Regional Operations, Challenges

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2016 — Over five months of visiting countries that make up the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel says that meetings with partners -- mainly government and military leaders -- have made it clear that they value their relationships with the United States.

In a fascinating and strategically important part of the world dealing with complex challenges that include sectarianism, economic and political disenfranchisement, ungoverned or undergoverned spaces and pervasive terrorism, Votel said, “They value our leadership and they want to work together to accomplish common objectives.”

Ultimately at Centcom, the general told reporters at the Pentagon this morning, “our intent is to do what is necessary militarily to improve stability and security in the region, and we are achieving good effects in a number of areas and pursuing opportunities that are paying significant dividends.”

Maritime Security

One example is maritime security, he said. Nearly 30 percent of energy vital to the global economy passes through the region’s three maritime chokepoints -- the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz.

“Our efforts, together with the efforts of our partners and allies, help to ensure the free flow of commerce through these chokepoints and to other parts of the world,” Votel said, noting that in recent months U.S. ships have seen an uptick in confrontations by Iranian vessels in the Arabian Gulf.

“I personally witnessed this behavior last month while on the USS New Orleans transiting the Strait of Hormuz,” the general said.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps missile ship and three fast-attack craft demonstrated aggressive behavior near the New Orleans, he said, and in recent days Iranian navy and IRGC vessels have continued to behave provocatively.

“That type of behavior is very concerning and we hope to see Iran's naval forces act in a more professional manner. In contrast, I cannot say enough about the professionalism of our naval forces. I was pleased to see how well they handled the situations that were presented to them,” Votel added.

“They remain measured in their response and they helped to keep a tense situation from escalating into an international incident. I was very, very proud of our sailors and their leaders,” the general said.

Resilient Afghan Forces

In Afghanistan, thanks to investments over the past 15 years by the United States and coalition partners, Votel said the Afghans are in the lead and are taking the fight to the enemy through a sustainable security strategy while dealing with tough challenges in places like Helmand province.

The Afghan forces continue to demonstrate resiliency and are proving capable of defending their sovereign spaces, he added.

Meanwhile, coalition train, advise and assist and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan also are proving effective, including efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIL-Khorasan, the general said.

“During a recent visit to Afghanistan I spent time with our train, advise and assist teams, and with the corps commanders leading the Afghan forces,” Votel said. “Across the board, I was extremely impressed by their skill, their determination and their extraordinarily high level of resiliency.” 

Recent combined operations against ISIL-Khorasan resulted in destruction of 25 percent of their forces, the general added.

“With President [Barack] Obama's decision to keep 8,400 U.S. troops in country through 2017, and with the additional authorities that have allowed us to target [ISIL-Khorasan] and to accompanying Afghan forces, I'm confident that we will see the Afghans continue to build on the momentum achieved to date,” he said.

Counter-ISIL Fight

On the continuing fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Votel said coalition military operations have greatly degraded and dismantled ISIL capabilities and the group has lost a great deal of territory they once held.

“The cumulative effect of these operations has served to cut off key lines of communication for ISIL while restricting the enemy's ability to bring in additional fighters,” the general said. “As you look across the full battlespace, you see that ISIL is under more pressure now than at any other time in the campaign. We are causing the enemy to have to look in multiple directions and they are struggling to respond under this pressure.”

Votel said the approach, which requires that the coalition operates by, with and through the indigenous forces, is working. 

“We are making progress against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. That said, challenges do remain and there is much work still to be done to defeat this enemy in both countries,” he added.

The coalition remains concerned about its external operations capability and adaptiveness, and “we need to continue to work together across boundaries, the whole of U.S. government and the international community, to truly defeat this organization,” Votel said.

“Perhaps even more important, we've recognized that significant political challenges will also have to be addressed,” he said. “To this end, we are making concerted effort to ensure that we synchronize the political and humanitarian assistance plans with our ongoing military plans and operations.”

The general said he’s instructed his team at Centcom to explore ways to work more closely with interagency and international partners to support such efforts and to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid in recently liberated areas until the security environment improves and allows for greater access to aid organizations.

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)

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