TAMPA, Fla. --
After 12 years of sustained conflict in their area of responsibility, officials at U.S. Central Command are preparing for what they expect to be the “new normal” -- a strategic environment that albeit unpredictable, supports long-term stability and ultimately, peace.
The 20-nation region that stretches across the Middle East and Central Asian states remains rife with challenges, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. William D. Beydler, Centcom’s director of strategy, plans and policy, said during an interview at the command’s MacDill Air Force Base headquarters.
With combat operations set to wind down in Afghanistan through 2014, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Centcom commander, has other destabilizing factors front and center on his radar screen: Iranian activities and influence, the civil war in Syria and the persistent threat of violent extremists backed by Iran or al-Qaeda and its affiliates, among them.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring continues to unfold, most dramatically in recent days in Egypt. The political and social effects of the movement could take a decade of change and tumult to be realized fully, Beydler noted.
With a clear eye on these and other trouble spots, the Centcom staff is laying the foundation for what many have come to call the “new normal.”
It’s a strategic environment that will require the United States to remain closely aligned with its regional partners and be ready to respond, as needed, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the command’s deputy operations director.
“As much as we try to get ahead of that and anticipate, we have to be constantly at the ready,” he said. “If something pops, we need to be able offer the commander options to make timely decisions. So we would not be doing our due diligence and our jobs if we weren’t thinking about and planning for the possibilities, and being prepared should our leadership decide we need to act.”
Preparing for potential contingencies, particularly in an era of shrinking budgets and limited resources, will require tough decision-making, Harrigian said.
“We will have to prioritize, focused on our [top] mission sets,” he said. “That is part of what we look at as this ‘new normal’ across the [area of responsibility]. We will continue to look at that to find the right balance and ensure we are not so thin that we are unable to respond, if required.”
In planning for this post-2014 future, Harrigian said there’s likely to be only one “given” within the volatile AOR.
“I’m not sure peace is going to break out in our region and suddenly the pace is going to slow down,” he said. “There will still be areas of concern that we are going to have to work through. So while we hopefully will not be at war, I still see us quite actively engaged to ensure we are able to maintain stability, the free flow of commerce and stability across the global economy.”
“It is clearly in our national interest to ensure that occurs,” Harrigian added. It’s also in the interest of nearly every other country, not only in the region, but around the globe, he said.
So as the United States pursues its goals in the region, the partnerships it has built and strengthened over the past dozen years will remain critical, Beydler said. He cited the continued importance of the broad Centcom engagement strategy in the region: training and education, exchanges, exercises, foreign military sales and other security assistance.
Centcom’s efforts and the forward presence of U.S. forces in the region go far beyond increasing partner capacity, Harrigian said. They also help maintain relationships and trust that have taken time and sacrifice to build.
Without assurance of a continuing U.S. commitment, there would be “significant concern of the perception that America is leaving the region,” he said. “Then you run the risk of those nations looking in other directions for support.”
As Centcom plans for the new normal, Beydler emphasized that the United States has no intention of withdrawing from the region.
“We will continue to engage not only in Afghanistan, but across the entire Centcom AOR. We will be engaged financially. We will be engaged from a training standpoint. We will be engaged from an exercise standpoint,” he said.
“The fact is, we will continue to be engaged across the spectrum,” Beydler said. “And some in areas and in some ways, we will be able to be more engaged than ever before, because after 10 or 12 years of sustained combat operations, we will have the capacity to do so.”