TAMPA, Fla. --
General James N. Mattis brings a wealth of experience in the Middle East to his new assignment as the commander of U.S. Central Command here, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates presided at Mattis' assumption of command in front of military and diplomatic officials from many of the counties in the Middle East and Central Asia. Mattis assumed command from Lt. Gen. John Allen, who has been acting commander since Army Gen. David H. Petraeus left the command to lead NATO operations in Afghanistan.
Gates called Mattis one of America's foremost strategic thinkers and combat leaders and noted that he worked with Petraeus in developing the counterinsurgency strategy. "His insights into the nature of warfare in the 21st century significantly influenced my views about the shape and posture of our armed forces for a complex and unpredictable future," Gates said.
Mattis said his appointment signifies continuity to the nations of the Central Command region. "We are standing beside you, and we will work with you to promote security and stability," he said. "I am eager to hear how we can best work together to protect the innocent while enhancing the deep bonds of mutual respect – bonds that have stood strong between us for many decades."
Gates also used the ceremony to thank Petraeus for his service at Centcom and talked about the general's legacy.
"We have seen dramatic improvements in the U.S. military relationship with Pakistan, overcoming more than a decade of distrust and estrangement," Gates said. Pakistan has taken on the Taliban problem in its federally administered tribal areas, and Gates praised the Pakistanis for driving insurgents from their safe havens and killing or arresting many insurgent leaders.
In Iraq, Gates praised Petraeus – along with Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno – for managing the U.S. drawdown and continued training of the Iraqi security forces.
The secretary added that Centcom had made progress in working with the Yemeni government to strengthen that strategic country's security in face of infiltration by al-Qaida on the Arabian peninsula.
"General Petraeus has also deepened our joint efforts with partners in the Gulf in the areas of missile defense, infrastructure protection and counter-piracy," Gates said.
More than 200,000 American servicemembers are in Centcom's area of operations. About 170,000 are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mattis addressed those troops directly.
"I'm in awe of your fortitude," the general said. "As you know so well, much is riding on your young shoulders. I will hold you in my thoughts and prayers as we team together – co-equals in our commitment to protecting our experiment we call America and to supporting stability in the region we're assigned."
Gates also spoke of the service and sacrifices of servicemembers after almost nine years of war.
"More than 5,500 [servicemembers] have made the ultimate sacrifice, with tens of thousands more wounded in ways both seen and unseen," the secretary said. "To all the young men and women in uniform giving everything of themselves in this fight, and to our adversaries looking for weakness in our resolve: The United States will continue to stand by our allies, defend our vital national interests, and honor the sacrifices of so many who have fought and fallen wearing our nation's uniform."
Mattis takes over a command fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously figuring out how to respond to Iran's nuclear ambitions and track record of missile proliferation. Central Command also is coordinating aid to Pakistan, and working with Central Asian countries to strengthen their militaries under civilian control.
Twenty years ago, Mattis commanded a battalion that participated in the liberation of Kuwait. He commanded the first conventional troops to enter Afghanistan in November 2001, and commanded the 1st Marine Division at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He later commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and concurrently served as the chief of the chief of the Marine component to Central Command. His most recent job was as commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
Robert M. Gates
Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis