This past Tuesday and Wednesday, the heads of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General James Mattis and Admiral William McRaven, respectively, appeared before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees ostensibly to testify on the FY2013 Defense Authorization. Though the commanders and representatives rightly addressed the most pressing issues facing U.S. security, it is perhaps very telling that the defense budget didn’t make the cut for discussion during this hearing, as advertised.
As many combatant commands see their budgets being markedly cut (read EUCOM and the 2011 dissolving of Joint Forces Command (JFCOM)), SOCOM and CENTCOM are unique. Neither is at risk for significant budget cuts and each appears to be either maintaining or requesting additional funds. SOCOM’s role in the future of conflict was discussed in particular as some congressmen questioned the transparency and accountability of the command, especially as it collaborates with the CIA. These concerns are not new; a New York Times article in mid-February argued that Admiral McRaven has a desire for “[a] freer hand in deployment of elite forces.”
The bulk of the hearings served to justify budget increases by focusing on the ever-increasing threats to American interests emanating from the Middle East and Central Asia, areas which, according to Gen. Mattis, have never been so tumultuous. These threats are fourfold:
- Iran – The commanders emphasized that Iran is the primary threat to U.S. security, due to its increased overseas activities, like the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and its influence in Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and Sudan. An Iranian attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, blockades, or the clandestine Quds Force.
- Syria – The situation here is growing ever more chaotic, with over 7,500 now dead. Gen. Mattis remarked that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better and that a longer conflict means a greater risk of civil war, as Assad might be capable of retaining power indefinitely.
- Al Qaeda – The organization is regaining strength, as evidenced by the recent killing of 139 civilians in Yemen and the reemergence of the group in western Iraq. While Al Qaeda may be unable to significantly threaten any Middle Eastern government, it still poses a danger to the lives of their citizens.
- Afghanistan – The situation here has worsened recently due to the violent demonstrations against the U.S. military’s burning of Afghan prisoners’ Korans. The commanders stressed that the military will not change the current strategy in Afghanistan but violence must be stemmed and security improved before the U.S. can pull out as planned in 2014.
This week’s Senate hearings generated a considerable amount of activity in the blogosphere and media space. Interest was likely heightened by the recent statement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arguing the legality of the U.S. targeting its own citizens abroad if they pose a risk to national security. Despite Holder not mentioning the role of SOCOM in these operations, both the traditional and digital media spaces were quick to draw the connection, with tweeters adding a SOCOM hashtag (#socom) to tweets regarding this announcement.
While the blogosphere and foreign policy community rage over the possibility of U.S. military interventions in Iran or Syria, the commanders’ comments on the post-2014 presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan appeared to gain the most traction the media space.