Every couple of years, there is a shake-up amongst top Pentagon brass. One of the active-duty military’s top posts is the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM). This is a theater command and one of six geographical combatant commands. CENTCOM covers an area-of-responsibility (AOR) that spans 21 countries, from Egypt in the west to Kazakhstan in the east. Between these nations are the regional hotspots of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The commander of CENTCOM is in charge of all personnel and every operation that takes place in the AOR from all domains (sea, air, ground, cyberspace). Early this year, President Biden tapped now General Michael Kurilla to the CENTCOM post, replacing Marine Corp. General Kenneth McKenzie.
Kurilla has a weighty assignment. The military has made a strategic shift in global force posture to the east (China and Russia), and it is imperative that the American government prioritize the current and future challenges emanating from this region. However, doing so does not mean we have to ignore the important role CENTCOM has to play in the grand scheme of current military strategy. This article will highlight three reasons CENTCOM must stay at the forefront of concern for military planners and strategists.
Afghanistan: Before 9/11, Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban, an oppressive and violent hard-Islamist group that is radically conservative in its interpretation of the Quran. The Taliban willingly gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda, a Sunni jihadist group, to plan and prepare for the 9/11 attacks. Now, following a bi-partisanly condemned withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has regained control in the country, much to the detriment of the population living there. Before the Taliban regime was back in Kabul, Afghanistan depended on funding from other countries to pay for the wellbeing and survival of its populace, but now that a terrorist entity is back in charge, countries are rightly hesitant to lend money to a known aggressor, especially when those funds can be diverted for terrorist purposes despite their righteous intentions (Maizeland) . Individuals in public-sector jobs have not received pay for their services in months, and this is particularly alarming for those who work in healthcare, where medical facilities have even been permanently shut down (Maizeland). It has also been documented that 3 million people are malnourished. As the conditions for life rapidly decrease, it should be noted that socio-economic hardship has been a known accelerant to terrorism in the region.
Moreover, Afghanistan is still replete with terrorism, and as a result of the drawdown of forces, the intelligence community (IC) can no longer track it as they could in the past. To deter terrorism in Afghanistan, the US is relying on a method called “over-the-horizon” strike capability. This is the idea that counterterrorism can be conducted outside the geographic confines of the country through surgical decapitation strikes on terrorist leaders and their infrastructure (Hamming and Clarke). There are many issues to this approach, but for starters, it is not a long-term strategy. When terrorist leaders are killed, there are always successors. This makes such strikes a waste of money and effort because the issue is not being addressed at the root. “Over-the-horizon” is simply a bandaid. It does not emulate the level of intensity and commitment needed to bring stabilization to a country that poses an existential threat to US national security (Hamming and Clarke).
General McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander before Kurilla, has stated that the Afghanistan evacuation has made it harder to know if al-Qaeda or the Islamic State are capable of attacking the US (Baldor and Burns). All in all, the US has a vested national security interest in Afghanistan for the sake of the Afghan population, regional stability at large, and preventing possible safe-havens that would allow terrorism to thrive. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that offensive action has political, economic, and humanitarian consequences, all of which can trouble the US and its allies for decades to come.
Iran: This nation can only be understood in a holistic context. Iran is not contained to itself; it is one of the most pervasive influences in the Middle East at large and it has woven itself into the nations of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and most notably, Iraq. The nation is designated by the US State Department as one of the top sponsors of world terrorism.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is a primary example of this threat. When the Sunni terrorist group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surged in 2014, the Iraqi Shiite leader (the Islamic faith is split into Sunnis and Shiites) Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called upon the masses in Iraq to take up arms against the rapidly advancing ISIS army. The result was the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella term for several different militia groups that sought to rout ISIS. These groups operated under different command authorities and had different agendas (Nada and Rowen). The PMF can be split into three distinct groups. The first is beholden to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, the second looks to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and the third reveres Muqatata al Sadr, one of the US’s top foes at the height of the Iraq War (Nada and Rowen).
In total, approximately 60,000 men in Iraq initially comprised the PMF, and in 2016, Iraq legalized the PMF as a fighting force. This, however, isolated the Sunni Muslims in the population (Nada and Rowen). Sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims became one of the chief reasons Iraq quickly disintegrated into a bloody insurgency upon the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Such a move was devastating to Iraqi unity to say the least.
Because of this situation, there is no Iraqi military. The armed forces are severely fractured and Baghdad does not have a consolidated monopoly of force over its population. Iran has leverage over several militia groups in Iraq, the most notable being the Badr Organization. This group seeks to project Shia power, both politically and militarily, to the detriment of the Sunni cause (Nada and Rowen) . The Badr Organization is Iran’s oldest proxy force and has connections to the Iranian Quds Force, an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) (Nada and Rowen). The IRGC has been a challenge for CENTCOM for decades, as it is the global operating force for military affairs for Iran. This group has supported Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and pro-Iranian groups in Afghanistan (Veisi). During the period between 2004 and 2006, the Badr Organization conducted merciless attacks on Sunnis in the midst of a sectarian insurgency initiated after the invasion of Iraq, eventually leading American General David Petraeus to surge all US forces in Iraq to take control of the situation there (Nada and Rowen).
Iran’s malicious behavior in the region is covertly and overtly destructive. As the debate about whether it is worth brokering a nuclear deal with Iran resurfaces, the CENTCOM commander must continually assess Tehran’s intentions, actions, and plans. He must also evaluate the international security atmosphere in the Middle East and its ramifications on the other AOR’s under the Pentagon’s purview (in this case, namely NORTHCOM, AFRICOM, and EUCOM).
Power Competition: The US military of 2022 is dramatically different from that of 2015. The era of fighting guerilla-type insurgencies in the Middle East has come to an end and the military can now prioritize balancing and deterring near-peer competitors (namely Russia and China) in the East. In concert with Iran, China’s influence is not contained to China, nor is Russia’s contained to Russia. Both are continually seeking influence in the CENTCOM AOR for their own national interest and regional power. During GEN Kurilla’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he mentioned that 18 of the 21 countries in the CENTCOM AOR have signed “strategic agreements” with China, which is a testament to the global prowess China has been building for the last twenty years (PBS News Hour). Additionally, Kurilla stated that the Chinese have increased their spending by 360% in the Middle Eastern region, maintaining their strategic objective to reinstate the “One Belt, One Road” (PBS News Hour). This project seeks to link the Chinese to nations even as far west as the African continent economically, politically, and militarily. It is one of the ways China is building its global influence.
In a move that should be alarming to CENTCOM and other American leaders, it has been reported that China is seeking a long-term deal with Iran on trade and security (Dunne). Any assistance to Iran from China makes it more difficult for US policymakers to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional terrorism. Moreover, this aforementioned deal includes “. . .joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development and intelligence sharing. . .” between Tehran and Beijing. Tehran would also supply China with oil at a reduced rate for more than two decades (Fassihi and Myers).
China is the US’s foremost adversary and Iran is one of the world’s leading sponsors of global terrorism. Such a pact can only be seen as destabilizing for the Middle East. It will certainly contribute to the decreasing US hegemonic power across the international spectrum. While there is more to say about Chinese and Russian interference in the region, there is no doubt that the Middle East will continue to serve as a proxy field of conflict between the US and the East. That being said, CENTCOM is going to be a premier theater for completing the Department of Defense’s mission in the Pacific and Eastern Europe.
Concluding Thoughts: The future of prioritizing US national defense means keeping peace in the Middle East. It is important to remember that in the world of foreign policy, everything is connected. What happens in one region of the world may provide an impetus for an adversary counterattack in another. Moreover, the security and humanitarian challenges in the AOR necessitate a planned, strategic US presence that considers the surrounding cultures and emphasizes their long-term wellbeing. This does not mean building democracies, but it does mean providing groundwork for stabilization in places where corruption and terrorism thrive. While CENTCOM may seem like the theater of yesterday’s conflicts, it is in fact the theater of the future.
Baldor And Burns. (2021, December 9). General says US troops to remain in Iraq. Militarytimes.Com. https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2021/12/09/general-says-us-troops-to-remain-in-iraq/
Dunne, C. (2021, April 20). China’s Belt and Road Initiative and US Middle East Policy. Arab Center Washington DC. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-us-middle-east-policy/
Fassihi, F., & Myers, S. L. (2021, September 24). China and Iran Near Trade and Military Partnership, Defying U.S. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/11/world/asia/china-iran-trade-military-deal.html
Hamming, T., & Clarke, C. P. (2022, January 5). Biden’s Over-the-Horizon Counter-Terrorism Strategy Is Far Below Standard. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/05/over-the-horizon-biden-afghanistan-counter-terrorism/
Nada And Rowan. (2021, November 10). Profiles: Pro-Iran Militias in Iraq. The Iran Primer. https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/nov/10/profiles-pro-iran-militias-iraq
PBS Newshour. (2022, February 8). WATCH LIVE: Senate nomination hearing for Lt. General Michael Kurilla to lead U.S. Central Command [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3I4CjMaTrZQ
Veisi, M. (2020, January 9). A Look At Three Decades Of Iran’s Secretive Quds Force. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-quds-force-soleimani-explainer/30366930.html
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.