With U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan set to end in December, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command told a packed ball room at the Tampa Convention Center that country’s forces are capable of fighting to defend themselves, but have work to do on keeping troops supplied and ready.
“As I look at Afghan forces now, the combined force is some 340,000-plus strong, well-equipped, well-trained and as we have seen in this past fighting season as they have taken the lead for providing security for their country, they have made significant progress,” said Austin, speaking at the GEOINT 2013* Symposium.
During the recent Afghan presidential election, Afghan forces “provided an extremely well-thought-out security blanket,” said Austin, whose headquarters is in Tampa at MacDill Air Force Base. “However, having said that, I will also tell you there is work to be done. We created the fighting capability first, then began to work on the sustainment capability. There is still work to be done on that sustainment effort.”
If security forces allow political institutions “to mature, and allows them to go after corruption in the future, I think this thing moves forward in a major way in the future, though there is still work to be done.”
Intelligence will only be more important as the U.S. military reduces its presence in Afghanistan, Austin said.
“You will continue to play a critical role in Afghanistan as we conduct transition and gradually shrink the size of our footprint in that country,” said Austin, “We want to help Afghans as much as we can to manage threats posed by the enemy and we also have a vested interest in maintaining counter terrorism capability in that region of the world so we will rely on you to an even greater extent as our eyes and ears.”
Intelligence will also play a key role in future dealings with Iran and negotiations over its nuclear program, said Austin.
“We must be able to verify they are doing what they agreed to and the intelligence community will play a prominent role in this critical endeavor,” he said.
As the man in charge of U.S. military efforts in a region of the world that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Yemen and 13 other countries, Austin, has a lot that keeps him up at night.
But the men and women filling the grand ballroom help him sleep better, he said.
“You never know what kinds of problems or crises you are going to wake up to,” said Austin, the morning’s symposium keynote speaker. “But despite looming possibilities of disaster, I am able to get a little sleep at night, and one of the main reasons I am able to do so, is because I know that there are a lot of great folks in the intel community who for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, have eyes on every location where trouble could possibly brew and at the first sign there may be a problem or potential problem, they’ll pick up the phone and call with details.”
And that, said Austin, means, “We’ll be able to respond quickly and assume the right type of precautions and, if necessary, take action. Simply stated, you, the great men and women of our intel community, assure we have a decisive advantage in dealing with potential threats and sources of instability that exist in our chaotic and volatile and strategically important part of the world.”
Among many examples Austin cited of the value of intelligence, particularly geospatial intelligence and the services provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was the situation in what he referred to as “the S word” – Syria, where its leader, Bashar al-Assad, launched chemical weapons attacks that killed more than 1,000 of his own people last year, according to the United Nations.
“You may recall that we stood poised and ready to use force against Assad in response to the use of chemical weapons against his own people in August of 2013,” said Austin, speaking to several thousand intelligence community members and industry representatives. “Our Centcom targeting team, supported in large part of NGA analysts, developed a plan. I am willing to bet that Assad knew what our team was capable of. Perhaps he reviewed your work from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he thought it wise to pursue other viable options.”
After the threat of force, Assad eventually agreed to a Russian plan to remove and destroy his chemical weapons, which is still underway.
Austin said the military-intelligence teamwork displayed in Syria should serve as a warning to others.
“Indeed it would be foolish for anyone to think that this team isn’t standing ready and incredibly capable and very, very effective.”
While appreciative of the work the intelligence community has done on behalf of his command, Austin offered a challenge for the future — increase the ability to share intelligence with partner nations.
“This type of information sharing presents a win-win as it will enable partners to shoulder increased responsibility for regional security,” said Austin. “I encourage all of your do what you can to expand overall methods for cooperation and to enhance our collective capabilities going forward.”