Remarks on "The Logic of American Strategy in the Middle East" (2016 IISS Manama Dialogue)… It’s a trip that’s emblematic of the five immediate, distinct, and evolving challenges the men and women of the U.S. military are confronting today.
Well, thank you, John, for that introduction. It’s great to see you again, to speak at this important IISS forum, and to be back in Bahrain with so many good friends, allies, and partners here in this room.
I’m in the middle of a two-week around-the-world trip, visiting U.S. troops as holiday time approaches – in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe – and also meeting with some of America’s most enduring and loyal friends and allies in each region.
It’s a trip that’s emblematic of the five immediate, distinct, and evolving challenges the men and women of the U.S. military are confronting today. They’re countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe. They’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific – the single most consequential region for America’s future. They’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations. And here in the Middle East, they’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence, and helping defend our friends and allies ; and they’re countering terrorism and accelerating the certain and lasting defeat of ISIL. And at the same time as they deal with this complex present, they’re also preparing to contend with an uncertain future – ensuring America’s military is ready for challenges we may not anticipate today.
Having visited Japan, India, and Afghanistan, I’m now beginning a series of stops here in the Middle East. And I want to talk to you today about America’s approach to the region, and why it remains critical that it continue.
My first trip overseas after taking office was to the Middle East, and this marks my seventh trip to the region as Secretary of Defense. And like many other U.S. defense officials, it’s just the latest in many more such trips over the course of my long career – a testament to my department’s commitment to, and leadership in, this region.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense has a long history of engagement and partnership in the Middle East – not only strategically, but in personal ways as well. Generations of U.S. troops and Defense Department civilians have spent time here. Over the decades, service members from the United States and nations in the region have trained together in joint exercises. They’ve studied together at war colleges. They’ve served together across the region – on land, in the air, and at sea. And they’ve sacrificed together in battle. Through it all, they’ve forged relationships – soldier-to-soldier, sailor-to-sailor, airman-to-airman, Marine-to-Marine – that go on to last a lifetime, adding sinew to the muscle of our partnerships as they ascend the ranks of our militaries.
Today, this region is home to a strong U.S. military posture comprising over 58,000 American personnel ashore and afloat – including more than 5,000 on the ground in Iraq and Syria – along with some of our most capable air, ground, maritime, and ballistic missile defense assets. Those forces are not only countering terrorists like ISIL and Al-Qaeda; they’re also deterring aggression and protecting our interests and allies. In addition, if needed in a crisis, this large force posture here would be joined by a rapid surge of an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capabilities and platforms married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach.
The reason for all this, and the logic of American strategy in the Middle East, is worth taking some time to explain. This can be a region of great turbulence, confusion, and internal strife – challenges that spill outside the region, including in the form of terrorism – much more so than any other region of the world. But amid all this confusion, I can assure you that the Defense Department is clear and certain about our mission: it is to protect and pursue America’s national interests. They’re our North Star – the guiding light for America’s strategy in the Middle East.
Our interests are first and foremost protecting our people. And accordingly they extend to: deterring aggression; bolstering the security of our allies and friends in and around the region; ensuring freedom of navigation in and around the Gulf; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and checking Iran’s destabilizing activities; and also – very directly connected to the protection of the American people – countering terrorism and violent extremism, which at the moment especially includes defeating ISIL.
Now, I need to say – and it’s as true here as it is anywhere else in the world – that America’s interests are not always exactly the same as those of individual nations in the region – nor are theirs among themselves. But more often than not, they overlap or can be aligned. When they do, it’s good for the United States, and good for many countries here, too. And our interests overlap so often that more and more, we’ve been able to operate together to be effective.
Our enduring interests are why the Defense Department’s commitment to this part of the world has been lasting and has been sustained for decade after decade, and why I’m confident it will endure for decade after decade. As I’ll discuss today, the way in which our countries have dealt with shared challenges past and present – together, in pursuit of mutual interests – suggests how we will need to do so in the future.
We’ve been able to do this most effectively where America has led by first building the capacity of, and then enabling, the forces of allies and friends in the region – so that they can maintain lasting security both within and between states, in tandem with the awesome capabilities of the U.S. military. The most recent example of this, of course, is how we’re countering the latest and most immediate threat in the region, which is ISIL. Because ISIL arose from and also threatens this region, its impending defeat is an example of the U.S. military, as part of a global coalition, enabling local forces to deliver the lasting defeat it deserves to ISIL and that it will certainly receive. And to make that defeat stick.
We’ve reached a critical milestone in the counter-ISIL coalition’s military campaign plan. As we meet today in Bahrain, American and coalition forces are engaged in an intense effort to help isolate and collapse ISIL’s control over both Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, bringing the great weight of our entire range of capabilities to bear on the enabling of capable and motivated local forces. The seizure of these two cities is necessary to ensure the destruction of ISIL’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria – the primary objective of our military campaign – and put ISIL on an irreversible path to a lasting defeat.
Reaching this milestone is the result of deliberate actions taken since last year. First, back in the summer of 2015, I consolidated the war efforts for Iraq and Syria under a single, unified command – first led by Lieutenant General Sean McFarland then General Townsend – reporting, I should say, to Joe Votel, who reports to me. Joe’s here today – hi, Joe. Then, last October, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford and I developed, and President Obama approved, the first in a series of recommendations to accelerate the campaign against ISIL – introducing every tool of the U.S. military to this fight. And I should tell you that since then, President Obama has approved every recommendation for additional forces and capabilities that the Chairman and I have taken to him as we’ve seen opportunities to accelerate the campaign – including just last week, as I’ll detail momentarily.
The overall Coalition Military Campaign Plan we devised last year had, and continues to have, three objectives. The first is to destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, because the sooner we crush both the fact and the idea of an Islamic state based on ISIL’s barbaric ideology, the safer we’ll be. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. So the second objective is to combat ISIL’s metastases everywhere they emerge around world: in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. And the third objective is to work with our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement partners to help protect our homelands and our people from attack.
The strategic approach of our military campaign in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere is to leverage all the tools at our disposal to enable capable, motivated, local forces to deal ISIL a lasting defeat. It was necessary to recommend this strategic approach because the only way to ensure that once ISIL is defeated, it stays defeated, is to enable local forces to seize and hold territory rather than substitute for them. Consistent with this approach, we have employed some of the U.S. military’s most exquisite capabilities, and some of our most specialized personnel – from air power and special operations forces, to train, advise, assist capabilities on the ground, to intelligence and cyber tools. These assets have been able to not only help directly enable local forces on the ground; they can also bring to bear the full weight of the American and coalition military might.
By combining our capabilities with those of our local partners, we’ve been squeezing ISIL by applying simultaneous pressure from all sides and across domains, through a series of deliberate actions to continue to build momentum. For example, when U.S. and coalition special operators conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders, it creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence. This, in turn, generates more targets, more raids, more airstrikes, and more opportunities that can be seized to generate even more momentum.
And countries from across the counter-ISIL coalition, including some in the region, are contributing to these military efforts. Many in the Middle East host coalition forces, enabling us to bring to bear our force more efficiently. Some are also contributing on the ground, or have contributed in the air campaign. And countries closest to the fight are making a key difference – including Jordan and Turkey. Turkey, for example, hosts coalition strike aircraft at Incirlik, as well as a High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, at Gazientep. And Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield is helping to seal the Turkish-Syrian border so that ISIL can no longer exploit it.
As a result of all of this, since last year – play by play, accelerant on top of accelerant, town after town, from every direction and in every domain – the campaign has delivered significant results.
In Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces have been helping the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga to systematically dislodge ISIL from city after city – Ramadi, Hit, Rutbah, Fallujah, Mahkmur, and Qayyarah, just to name a few. And the coalition is now doing the same in Mosul – having isolated the city, the Iraqis with our help are now taking back neighborhoods in eastern Mosul and moving west. This is a complex mission that will take time to accomplish, but I am confident that ISIL’s days in Mosul are numbered.
In Syria, we and our local partners put an end to ISIL’s expansion and then began to systematically roll it back toward Raqqa, an important objective since it is the so-called capital of the so-called caliphate, and a hub for plotters of external attacks. After helping capable, motivated, local Syrian partners defend Kobani, we enabled them and other local forces to retake Shaddadi, Tishrin Dam, Manbij, Jarabulus, and Dabiq – not only denying ISIL control over those areas, but also cutting off some of its primary lines of communication into Iraq and Syria – excuse me, Iraq and Turkey. We’re now helping tens of thousands of local Syrian forces to isolate Raqqa, from which they’re now only 15 miles away. And as the isolation phase continues according to plan, we’re helping them generate the additional local forces necessary to seize and to hold that city.
Now, to ensure the success of isolating Raqqa, generate sufficient local forces to seize Raqqa, and deny ISIL sanctuary beyond Raqqa, I can tell you today that the United States will deploy approximately 200 additional U.S. forces to Syria, including special operations forces trainers, advisors, and explosive ordnance disposal teams. These uniquely skilled operators will join the 300 U.S. special operations forces already in Syria, to continue organizing, training, equipping, and otherwise enabling capable, motivated, local forces to take the fight to ISIL, and are also bringing down the full weight of U.S. forces around the theater of operations like the funnel of a giant tornado. This latest commitment of additional forces within Syria is another important step in enabling our partners to deal ISIL a lasting defeat.
Meanwhile, in addition to taking back territory, the campaign is yielding results in denying ISIL the finances, supplies, freedom of movement, and command-and-control it needs to survive. As a coalition, we’ve systematically targeted ISIL-controlled oil wells, trucks for smuggling the oil – including just on Thursday, 168 trucks in a single strike, the largest air strike of this kind to date – and we’ve also targeted revenue repositories as well. We’ve deliberately focused on severing the territory ISIL controls in Syria from the territory it controls in Iraq. Leaders of the terrorist group can no longer travel between Raqqa and Mosul without the risk of either being struck from the air or hunted down by the coalition’s Expeditionary Targeting Force. In fact, since we began accelerating our campaign last year, we’ve killed the majority of ISIL’s most senior leaders.
While these results in Iraq and Syria are encouraging, the coalition must stay focused on the continued execution of the campaign plan. The inevitable collapse of ISIL’s control over Mosul and Raqqa will certainly put ISIL on a path to a lasting defeat – but there will still be much more to do after that to make sure that, once defeated, ISIL stays defeated.
We’ll need to continue to counter foreign fighters trying to escape and ISIL’s attempts to relocate or reinvent itself. To do so, not only the United States, but the coalition must remain engaged. In Iraq in particular, it will be necessary for the coalition to provide sustained assistance to Iraqi Security Forces to consolidate security over the rest of the country and carry on our work to train, equip, and support local police, border guards, and other forces to hold areas cleared from ISIL – as always, with the full support and permission of the government of Iraq.
Beyond security, there will still be towns to rebuild, services to reestablish, and communities to restore. Those aren’t military matters, but they’re part of how, after winning the battle, you win the peace. That’s why my principal concern at this juncture is that the international community’s stabilization and governance efforts will lag behind the military campaign. As I emphasized when I met with my Gulf counterparts in Riyadh this past April, this is an area where countries in the region can really do some good.
There will also need to be continued political support for an inclusive and multi-sectarian Iraq. In a region where sectarianism is on the rise, the threat of ISIL has brought people together against this common enemy. That’s certainly true in Iraq – where, thanks to the unity and leadership of Prime Minister Abadi and Kurdish Regional Government President Barzani, cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the battle to retake Mosul has reached a level that would have been unthinkable a year ago. About six weeks ago, for example, I was in Erbil and met Iraqi Army attack helicopter pilots who were flying missions against ISIL from Kurdish territory. And today, the coalition is taking steps to help promote and maintain this unity – for we know that’s the only way to ensure ISIL will stay defeated. Political support for this unity is another way that countries in this region could make a difference.
In Syria, however, even with the seizure of Raqqa and defeat of ISIL, the violence won’t stop until an end is put to the tragic civil war there. Russia entered into the civil war saying they wanted to promote a smooth political transition in Syria that preserved the structure of the Syrian state, which I understand, and which is necessary to ending the Syrian civil war and restoring decent life to that tragically shattered country. And Russia said it would fight ISIL. But then it did neither of those things, and instead have only inflamed the civil war and prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people.
Now, as I said earlier, success against ISIL in Iraq and Syria is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to deal ISIL a lasting defeat. And that’s why the coalition, and the Department of Defense, is also focused on other critical objectives of our campaign – combatting ISIL’s metastases around the world, and helping protect our homelands and people.
When it comes to combatting the metastases, the U.S. military has taken correspondingly strong actions in support of capable, motivated local forces in Libya, and Afghanistan. In Libya, we’ve provided air support to the Government of National Accord and its forces to isolate and collapse ISIL’s control over Sirte. And as a result, ISIL has been ejected from Sirte. And in Afghanistan – where I just came from last night – at Chairman Dunford’s and my recommendation, President Obama this year gave expanded authorities to U.S. forces to proactively assist and enable our Afghan partners in operations that would have strategic effects. He also decided to modify our plan in order to retain some 8,400 U.S. troops there into 2017, rather than 5,500 as the earlier plan had called for. And the United States will continue to maintain its financial commitment to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. These robust commitments in authorities, forces, and finances – which are reinforced by pledges made by NATO – will ensure we not only continues supporting the Afghan security forces, but also sustains our regional counter-terrorism platform in Afghanistan. For example, alongside Afghan partners, U.S. forces recently conducted two large-scale operations against ISIL in Afghanistan, killing its top leader in the country and significantly degrading its capabilities there. Earlier this year, we killed Mullah Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. And we also took out the leader of an Al-Qaeda cell that was plotting against the U.S. homeland.
On our campaign plan’s third objective, protecting our homelands and people, the Defense Department is working closely with partners in intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement both at home and abroad. Here, coalition forces are conducting operations to gather intelligence with a particular focus on destroying ISIL’s external operations cadre. As a result, we’ve not only killed the chief of ISIL’s external operations, but also taken out over 30 of its external plotters.
Now, of course, America has not been doing all this alone. The counter-ISIL coalition has been decisive and effective, with over a third of the forces in the campaign coming from partners other than the United States. And that’s to be expected, since countering ISIL as a coalition was a purposeful and practical decision – because there are so many countries resolved to destroy the threat ISIL poses to all of them.
Now, even as we know how this fight will end in Iraq and Syria, the coalition must prepare to counter not only the threat posed by foreign fighters, but also any attempts by ISIL to survive by reinventing itself in some other shape or form. Whether it tries to mutate into a terrorist network that’s scattered across the globe, or a skeleton organization that lies in wait in the sands of the desert, or even a violent extremist movement that lives and lurks only in the darkest corners of the Internet, we cannot perfectly predict what will happen after the coalition defeats ISIL in Iraq and Syria. So we must be ready for anything.
And that’s why, as I mentioned, the coalition must endure and must remain engaged militarily even after the inevitable expulsion of ISIL from Mosul and Raqqa. We all came together, deliberately, as a coalition to defeat ISIL, and it will be necessary for that coalition to continue to work together, contribute together, and operate together to make sure ISIL’s defeat is a lasting one. I look forward to discussing this with many of my counterparts in the region this week, and also next week, when defense ministers from the leading military contributors to the counter-ISIL coalition will gather in London.
Now as we look beyond the defeat of ISIL – which to be lasting will require, just to repeat, a continued counterterrorism effort – it’s clear the counter-ISIL campaign is emblematic of how the U.S. Defense Department pursues U.S. interests in the Middle East – interests we pursue without hesitation, but that often align with those of friends and allies here. And it gives witness to how our enduring commitment to the region provides unique value.
Indeed, it’s abundantly clear that no other nation could have brought to bear the resources, assembled the coalition, and led the execution of a comprehensive campaign as America has done in this fight, to pursue this goal that we all share. And the way the United States has done so, both against ISIL and in the broader Middle East – using our awesome military power., but also supporting and enabling friends and allies, building the capacity of partners, and encouraging and helping them to develop their own capabilities – recognizes the fact that success can only be lasting if local forces secure territory and local governance takes hold. So focusing on local forces, enabled by the United States, is key to our strategic approach. That defines the nature of our military’s enduring commitment here.
Moreover, the counter-ISIL coalition military campaign I’ve described, and its results, happened despite America’s major, simultaneous, and also growing military commitments in Europe and Asia – where U.S. forces have been deterring Russian aggression against NATO allies in Europe, standing guard on the Korean Peninsula, and rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. And, moreover, in this region, in addition to the counter-ISIL campaign, America also underwrote the international strategy that resulted in last year’s agreement that verifiably prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And even as we all monitor Iran’s implementation of the nuclear accord, the Defense Department has maintained and, yes, strengthened its posture to deter aggression, act in any contingency, and stand strong with regional allies and friends to counter Iran’s malign and destabilizing activities. And also, when Saudi Arabia’s territory was threatened from Yemen, the United States helped to defend it, while also countering Al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen and simultaneously pushing for a political process that will help restore stability in that country.
Now, while the U.S.-led counter-ISIL campaign proceeds according to our plan, the overall region’s response to the threat from ISIL shows some imperfections. While the United States, NATO countries, and the Iraqi government – including the Kurdish Regional Government – have taken leading roles in this fight, some of the regional powers here in the Middle East have not lived up to the full potential one would expect given their history, geographic location, and stake in the outcome. Such regional powers could do more, and indeed are uniquely positioned to help those of us who live outside the region to enable local forces in the fight against ISIL – particularly in the political and economic aspects of the campaign. In other cases, though, those powers here themselves lack the necessary capability to play a larger role. So the United States is helping them build up their capabilities and capacity as well, through our longstanding defense partnerships in the region.
Now, given the Middle East’s unique history and character, security relationships here have never been defined by a formal, NATO-like structure spanning the entire region. That’s why the Defense Department’s engagement in the region has most often been through bilateral relationships.
Many of those relationships are time-tested friendships and alliances as old as half a century or more. And they not only still continue to thrive; some are even reaching new heights.
Our security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, for example, goes back over six decades’ worth of building institutional capacity, honing interoperability, and combating mutual threats. And we’re helping bolster their capabilities in several ways – most recently with advanced F-15SA fighter jets, the first of which will be delivered next week.
Bahrain, too, is a venerable partner here in the Gulf, being home to one of America’s oldest defense relationships in the region. Bahrain hosts our Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the headquarters of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which I’ll be visiting later today – helping ensure maritime security not only in the Gulf, but also the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.
And moving beyond the Gulf for a moment, Jordan is also among our oldest security partners – and today, it’s one of the U.S. military’s most steadfast and invaluable and capable allies in the region, especially its special operations forces. And Jordan also hosts the largest military exercise in the region, EAGER LION, with some 3,000 rotational U.S. troops participating each year.
Another of our oldest allies in the region, of course, is Israel – with whom our defense relationship is unwavering, and stronger than ever. In September, our countries signed a new 10-year security assistance memorandum, taking our partnership to an unprecedented level. And I’ll be visiting Israel next week, to deliver its first two F-35 stealth fighters.
We’ve also had a long history of engagement with Lebanon, where there’s been improvement in their forces over the last decade. After Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 200, the Defense Department’s security assistance for Lebanon’s military and special forces has advanced a range of interests to help counter the spread of ISIL and al-Nusra, and stem the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.
And there are also deep roots to our security cooperation with Egypt – a historical leader in the region, with an important strategic role in stability here.
Now, while America’s other partnerships in the region are relatively newer, these relationships too have significantly strengthened in recent years. Many of these nations host U.S. forces and share their costs. And with our help, they’ve been steadily advancing their capabilities.
Our security cooperation with Kuwait, for instance, grew in earnest in the 1991 Gulf War, and has since continuously increased. Last month, we announced our intent to sell F-18 fighter jets to Kuwait – greatly enhancing Kuwait’s capability to provide for its national defense, operate better alongside U.S. forces, and enable Kuwait to take on a larger share of regional security responsibilities.
Qatar is another Gulf country where our partnership has accelerated over the last several years. It hosts our Combined Air Operations Center, which is critical to managing the coalition air campaigns over Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. And our militaries are increasingly interoperable in air, land, and ballistic missile defense – in fact, just this week, we reached an agreement for Qatar to purchase a 5,000-kilometer early-warning radar to enhance its missile defenses.
And this brings me to the United Arab Emirates, which unquestionably has one of the most capable militaries in the Middle East, and a truly excellent bilateral relationship with us that’s growing stronger and more institutionalized every day. The UAE not only acquires effective capabilities; it puts skin in the game. This makes the UAE a key partner for the United States.
And last but not least is Iraq, where – as we’ve seen from the results of the counter-ISIL campaign – where our partnership and the Iraqi Security Forces have never been more effective. The U.S. military has brought its own capabilities to bear, while also helping the Iraqis to do so as well. And as I mentioned earlier, it will be necessary for the United States and the counter-ISIL coalition to maintain our commitment to strengthening the Iraqi Security Forces, so that they can secure and control Iraq’s borders and ensure that ISIL cannot resurrect itself in Iraq.
The result of all this is that as we’ve helped our partners build their capacity bilaterally, it’s translated into greater ability for them also to act multilaterally – making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and helping to advance our mutual interests. Across the region, we’ve been building and strengthening connections with countries and militaries so we can all plan together, exercise and train together, and as necessary fight together, more efficiently and effectively than ever before.
We’ve seen this in the counter-ISIL campaign, with countries in the region having contributed to the air campaign, contributing on the ground to help train and enable local forces, and hosting coalition forces.
We’ve also seen it in the waters in and around the Gulf, where Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others participate in multilateral maritime coalitions to counter piracy, counter terrorism, and help ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.
And we see it in the dozens of bilateral and multilateral exercises our militaries conduct together each year, across a wide range of disciplines and physical domains. These are helping build interoperability and coordination in areas like explosive ordnance disposal, de-mining, integrated air and missile defense, tactical air operations, naval operations, combined arms, and special operations.
Overall, the Defense Department is seeking to bolster the region’s security by making sure America’s partners here are powerful, strong, and capable of providing not only for their own needs, but also for the greater region, with the U.S. military always prepared to stand by their side. And more than advancing American interests, it’s also how the United States is most effective in security cooperation in the 21st century. We’re supporting allies, friends, and regional security architectures in ways that help them grow stronger and more integrated, but are also tailored to the needs and traditions of the respective regions.
Here in the Middle East, it’s clear that what the Defense Department has done to help regional partners grow more capable and engaged has been good for the United States and for its partners – it’s benefited the interests of all of us. Going forward, it will be necessary to do more, as our countries must work together more to close critical shortfalls in core regional capabilities – particularly ground forces, special operations forces, naval forces, ballistic missile defenses, and cyber defense.
The fact is, if countries in the region are worried about Iran’s destabilizing activities – a concern the United States shares – they need to get in the game. That means getting serious about starting to partner more with each other, and investing in the right capabilities for the threat. Given the persistent challenges facing the region – and because the future is always uncertain – developing these core capabilities will be ever more crucial to your security. And you ignore them at your peril.
On a positive note, there has been some progress since May of last year, when President Obama hosted a summit between the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council nations at Camp David, and which was followed by a defense ministerial and summit between our countries in Riyadh this past April.
First, to strengthen the capability of ground forces in the region – starting with special operations forces and counterterrorism forces, to better counter asymmetric threats – we’re continuing to design and implement a Special Operations Response Force Initiative that pairs elite special operations units from GCC states with U.S. forces to improve interoperability and enhance joint planning. To further improve our ground forces, we must also focus on logistics, reconstruction and stabilization, and counterinsurgency missions – that is to say, all the ingredients of achieving lasting victory.
Next, we’ve also made progress in the maritime domain, as different GCC states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have recently commanded Combined Task Force-152, one of the maritime task forces designed to patrol and secure the waters of the Gulf. In the last year, U.S. and coalition forces have interdicted four vessels covertly carrying illicit weapons from Iran, likely destined for Yemen. Meanwhile, through our robust naval presence here in Bahrain, the U.S. Navy continues to train with Gulf navies in a variety of exercises. And to improve even more, we invite all Gulf countries to participate in joint patrols, so that we can operate together even more seamlessly, and bolster our shared situational awareness.
Additionally, the progress we’ve made in improving ballistic missile defense is also important, as Iran continues to test and field such missiles in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. That’s why we’re working together to develop a blueprint for a regional ballistic missile defense architecture that would help integrate capabilities across the region – from the Patriot batteries deployed in several countries, to the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense, THAAD, system in the UAE, to Qatar’s future early-warning radar, and to more systems yet to come.
And finally, we’ve also made progress on cyber defense. As Iran demonstrated a capability in cyber operations, and violent extremists and sub-state actors have been exploiting the Internet, we’ve conducted assessments with several countries in the region to help them further develop cyber defense strategies and policy, identify critical infrastructure vulnerable to attack, and build expert cyber workforces to close those vulnerabilities.
While all this progress is good, it will be necessary to build on it going forward.
To be sure, the United States and its friends in the Middle East have a rich, proud history of mutual sacrifices, enduring commitments, and most importantly, frequently aligned interests. However, our allies and partners in this part of the world are the ones who live here, and we can’t substitute for them – we can help, but only they can ensure lasting security. That’s an important fact. And that’s why it must be said – as I’ve said to my counterparts many times before – that mutual interest requires mutual commitment.
It’s not unreasonable to expect any country to do more to advance its own interests. And I would ask you to imagine what U.S. military and defense leaders think when they have to listen to complaints sometimes that we should do more, when it’s plain to see that all too often, the ones complaining aren’t doing enough themselves.
While the Defense Department’s commitment to this region has endured across strategic eras and across presidential administrations, we should all remember that our security partnerships are inherently two-way streets. It will be necessary for countries in the region to not only help prevent them from growing excessively one-sided, but also to counter such perceptions.
Let me close by reaffirming that today, as ever, the Department of Defense has the capacity and resolve to remain the best security partner for this region, and the logic of our mutual commitment to engaging – that I’ve laid out here – is so sound that it will continue.
After all, there’s a reason why we’ve continued to work together – why time and again, countries in the Middle East choose to do the most, buy the most, exercise the most, and operate the most with the United States Department of Defense. They want to work with us because we’re awesomely capable, principled, and, to be blunt, there aren’t any good alternatives. We’re the most reliable.
Regardless of what happens elsewhere in the world or in the United States, our military will continue to have the will and the capacity to meet our obligations in this region. That’s because the United States has interests here that it cannot walk away from. And they’re the real reasons why this region will always matter – the necessity to deter aggression, to help defend our allies and friends, uphold freedom of navigation, counter proliferation, and counter terrorism and violent extremism. No matter how the United States engages, all of these are longstanding, enduring national interests that time and again the Defense Department has shown it can and will defend and uphold – not only in this region, but in others as well. That has, and will, remain the case.
Having worked myself for over 30 years in support of our military's missions around the world – including for nearly a dozen defense secretaries in both Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as now being Secretary of Defense myself – and having faced defense budgets both copious and constrained, in times of war, peace, and everything in between, including amid great turbulence in this region, I’ve always seen the U.S. Department of Defense remain engaged and committed here for a simple reason: because it’s good for America and America’s security interests, and it’s good for countries here and for their interests as well. That’s as true today as ever, and I’m confident it will stay true in the years to come.