Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the National Defense University, or Central Command.
Central Command’s Marine four-star combatant commander James Mattis passed the command flag to Army four-star General Lloyd Austin in Tampa, Florida on 22 March. Mattis was widely known for his battlefield tenacity in the 2003 Iraq invasion and Austin is known for ably ending in 2011 American combat operations in Iraq leaving some wondering if Central Command’s time in the American national security limelight after the drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014 will be at its end. And the hearing of sharpening of sequester budgetary knives up in Washington on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and across the Potomac River in the Pentagon aren’t calming any rumors of Central Command’s decline.
The sharpening is reminiscent of that heard in the early 1990s during the Clinton administration. International relations optimists wanted to reap huge “peace dividends” by slashing the defense budget because a “democratic peace” was going to characterize the post-Cold War world. The subsequent decades of international conflict should have sobered the democratic peace enthusiasts, but they are at it again. Today, they are arguing that the drawdowns of American forces in Iraq and soon in Afghanistan are now offering a window of opportunity to reap significant defense budget savings by slashing the armed forces and the U.S. Central Command in charge of military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. These policymakers and lawmakers ought to think again to avoid being “penny wise and pound foolish.”
A bit of military history is in order for a wiser perspective on current and future defense strategy challenges. Central Command has come a long way since its humble beginnings and has had to mount a wide range of military interventions in the Middle East and South Asia over the last three decades. It grew from a rapid reaction force into a command during the Cold War to deter the Soviet Union from a feared military drive through Iran to the warm water ports of the Arabian Gulf for the projection of Soviet naval power. As the Cold War wound down, it shifted attention from keeping the Soviets out of the Gulf to balancing the Arab Gulf states against Iran, which threatened off and on to defeat Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988. The simmering naval war with Iranian forces in the Gulf had not halted for two years before Central Command had to take the lead for a military campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces. Central Command had to again jump from the pan into the fire after the tragic 11 September 2001 attacks which necessitated waging war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and, by subsequent turn of events, marching on to Baghdad. Subsequently the command worked to provide stable security environments in both Afghanistan and Iraq for transitions to polities that looked more like democracy.
American policy makers, military men and women, and the American public writ large have been exhausted by the last decade of war in Central Command’s area-of-responsibility. Many commentators clamor for the complete withdraw of American troops from Afghanistan after 2014 much like has been done in Iraq in 2011. President Obama himself appears ready to “wash his hands” of the region and his administration has been making great noises about shifting or pivoting America’s strategic attention to Asia. If the Middle East and South Asia in Central Command’s purview is seen by many as the lands of death, destruction, and misery, the lands of Asia under Pacific Command’s watch, in the minds of many, are the lands of plenty, opportunity, and optimism.
But the reports of Central Command’s decline and demise are grossly exaggerated. No matter how much Americans would like to turn our backs on problems and conflicts of the Middle East and South Asia, the more we do the more will we be stabbed in our backs. The grim reality is that Middle East and South Asia will a the cross roads of many of the world’s ills at odds with American strategic interests to regrettably give Central Command more than its fair share of security burdens year--and even decades--after our 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan.
The Command’s Pick-Up Warfare Game Past
Most people have long since forgotten, but the rationale for an American military command for the Middle East and South Asia stemmed from the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. The Carter administration was especially alarmed by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It worried that the Soviets, if left undeterred, could take a similar gamble and invade Iran to gain access for the Soviet Navy to the warm water ports of the Arabian Gulf. The Carter administration also was gravely concerned that the Iranian revolution had deprived American security policy of one of its great nation-state regional security pillars, making the Gulf all the more vulnerable to Soviet aggression.
The Carter administration undertook two important steps to deter the Soviets from Iran and the Gulf. It announced what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine, stating that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The doctrine mentioned by all means necessary, which seemed to include the threat of American nuclear weapons. The Carter administration complemented the nuclear threat with conventional force projection capabilities with the establishment in 1980 of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. After the hostage rescue debacle in Iran, the United States turned in earnest to bolster both special operations and traditional military and force projection capabilities into the Middle East and Southwest Asia with the creation of the Central Command.
The American military’s sluggish bureaucratic inertia kept Central Command as “an odd man out” even though the command was waging low intensity conflict throughout the 1980s. All the honor, prestige, and promotions seemed to go to American general and flag officers assigned to European Command and NATO, even though a cold peace prevailed in Europe while their peers were in command of shooting conflicts with Iranian forces in the Middle East. Iran was aiding and abetting Hezbollah surrogate bombings and hostage taking of Americans in Lebanon with impunity while mounting naval guerrilla warfare against oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf being escorted by American and allied ships during the Iran-Iraq war. The Iranians harassed international oil shipping and American and coalition forces by laying mine fields and mounting hit-and-run attacks with Revolutionary Guard naval forces.
The American military built and deployed in the European theater to deter and fight the Soviet and Warsaw Pact militaries came in handy for Central Command in 1990 when Saddam Hussein ordered Iraq military forces to invade Kuwait. The forces and doctrine developed for waging war in temperate European theater proved applicable for fighting in the deserts in and around Kuwait. The Americans surged more than 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as the jumping off point for liberating Kuwait. The qualitatively better-trained and equipped American military outclassed the numerically superior and largely Soviet-supplied Iraqi military.
The American-led coalition’s decisive battlefield besting of the Iraqi military gave birth to heralds of a “revolution in military affairs.” They praised battlefield performances dominated by air power and informed by computers, communications, and intelligence. That enthusiasm dwindled in the years after the war after the awakening of ethnic conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. Many downgraded expectations for battlefield technology and spoke of the “evolution in military affairs.” Central Command spent the 1990s broadening and deepening its military support nodes in the Gulf beyond Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as it policed Saddam’s Iraq and its largely non-compliance with the terms of the 1991 ceasefire and through Saddam’s ejection of United Nations weapons inspectors from his country in 1998.
From Simmering to Hot Wars
Central Command was back front and center in American defense policy strategy in the wake of the 11 September 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. homeland that killed more than 3,000 people. If anyone had predicted anytime before that fateful year that the United States would one day dispatch up to 160,000 troops to Afghanistan, they would have been declared insane. But that is where American soldiers found themselves overthrowing the Taliban regime, destroying al Qaeda’s leadership and infrastructure, and struggling to put into place a security environment conducive to the nurturing of a democratic government in Kabul.
The American military struggled for years, grappling with Afghanistan’s security landscape. The military has imprudently turned-over the generals leading the war effort too rapidly, averaging about one per year. Commanding generals barely had enough time to get their bearings before they were dispatched to their next assignment. The American war effort in Afghanistan too was a struggle within the army between the “big army” advocates who focused on using “kinetics” to kill enemies and the “small army” adherents struggling to nudge an institution indoctrinated for fighting similarly organized and equipped militaries to mount a counter-insurgency campaign. The latter focused less on kinetics and more on providing security for the Afghan civilian population.
The struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people--as well as for the American army’s leadership--played out too in the parallel war in Iraq launched in 2003. President George W. Bush harnessed the political capital he gained in a politically unified United States in the ruins of the 9/11 attacks to order Central Command to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. Bush was shocked, as was the American public, that despite the pre-war American intelligence warnings about Iraq’s reconstitution of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs, all of them were subsequently discovered to have remained in a shambles since the 1991 war. If the United States had launched the war guided by abysmal intelligence, at least the United States and the United Kingdom which bore the brunt of ground combat had given the Iraqi people a window of opportunity to seek a better future for themselves than they had had under Saddam’s heinous reign.
Talk of the Command’s Future Decline Grossly Exaggerated
More than a decade of war in Central Command’s strategic neighborhood has taken its toll on the United States. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than the American involvement in the World Wars, Korea, or Vietnam. We tragically have lost more than six thousand men and women in uniform, and thousands have been wounded. The men and women remaining in service are suffering as evident by broken military families burdened by seemingly endless combat tours and alarming suicide rates. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars and have worn out our military hardware, to include tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, ships, and the like. The United States, its leadership and people, are looking to Central Command’s area-of-responsibility and are collectively sighing: “Enough.”
President Obama does not say it in public, but one certainly could read it “between the lines” when his administration announces its determination to strategically pivot to Asia. The United States is weary from the chronic problems and pessimism of the Middle East and South Asia and wants to geographically turn around to face and embrace the seemingly endless economic opportunities and optimism offered by the “Asian Tigers” and rising China. This worldview focus on Asia will come into sharper focus as the United States in years ahead starts making some dramatic and drastic strategic and military tradeoffs in order to make budgetary ends and means match in the Pentagon.
Nevertheless, the idea that the United States could simply walk away from the Middle East and South Asia for the sake of interests in Asia is simply an illusion. The United States is going to have to be prepared to wage the full spectrum of war in Central Command’s area-of-responsibility whether it likes it or not. Central Command has had to militarily intervene in the Middle East and South Asia over the course of decades with direct action special operations, counter-terrorist operations, naval escort and mine clearing, surface-to-surface naval combat, air reconnaissance and policing no-fly zones, retaliatory and punitive aircraft and cruise missile strikes, hostage rescue missions, establishing sanctuary and safe haven for humanitarian assistance delivery, and for waging high intensity state-to-state warfare.
Central Command has performed these broad ranging and diversified types of operations in the past and undoubtedly, and regrettably, will have to dip into the full spectrum of warfare toolkit in the future. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that a consistent trend has emerged throughout our three decades of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia. We have never have been able to predict what kind of fight the next one will be. Consequently, Central Command will have to plan and prepare contingency plans for the full spectrum of military intervention and war.
Far too much of the world’s energy wealth—and power derived from it—are married to the most acute security problems on the globe in Central Command’s region. These threats stem from Islamic militancy exercised by terrorist and insurgent groups the likes of al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as by the leaderships emerging in the post-Arab spring regimes—influenced or controlled by Salafists, Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood. Other threats will stem from ethnic and religious conflict, and the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. If the United States and its Central Command will continue to be embattled by these threats, Israel increasingly will find itself under outright siege. All of these problems, moreover, are growing in scope and magnitude at a time when the world is seemingly getting smaller with globalization and the revolutions in global travel, computers, and communications. To put it bluntly, what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas. But what happens in the Middle East and South Asia spreads to the world.
 Lawrence Freedman, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 103-104.
 For an excellent scholar-practitioner’s account of the creation of Central Command, see William E. Odom, “The Cold War Origins of the U.S. Central Command,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 2006).