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New Defense Secretary Faces Challenges In The Middle East

By John Ubaldi Contributor, In Homeland Security

President Barack Obama has nominated former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Carter will lead the department as the United States faces immense challenges throughout the Middle East.

The past few months the U.S. has focused on dealing with ISIS, but missing is a strategy for dealing with the transition out of Afghanistan. Military Analyst Anthony Cordesman, from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, stated that the administration ceased to provide any meaningful unclassified data on either the progress of the fighting or of Afghan forces.

Cordesman continued to report that the president has already admitted that his previous plan to cap the U.S. training and assistance mission at 9,800 will not work, that at least 12,000 to 15,000 more troops must be deployed, and U.S. combat airpower may be needed in the future. In practice, he may well have to go much further.

It’s time to formulate a long-term strategy—not only for Afghanistan—but for Pakistan as well. The Taliban has sanctuary inside the border regions of Pakistan and any strategy which deals with Afghanistan must include Pakistan. Officials should ask: what is the long-term strategy of the U.S. for this volatile region?

As Afghanistan is under the radar, dealing with ISIS remains at the forefront for national security and military strategy for some time now, but senior level military strategists have commented it will take at least three years to remove ISIS from Iraq.

The U.S. can degrade ISIS but not destroy the Islamic State, and this does not include the militant group’s sanctuary inside Syria.

The Pentagon recently deployed additional forces to the ‘train and assist’ mission and has expanded strike aircraft to include A-10’s, but they are running precariously short of drone aircraft and other military assets needed.

Since military operations began inside Iraq in August, and then eventually expanded inside Syria, the U.S. has faced a daunting challenge of training the moderate Syrian forces and has never fully articulated how it will train these forces, or how they will be employed.

The air campaign has inadvertently strengthened the Assad regime, allowing them to attack rebel forces, but in the process have also aided Iran and Hezbollah, who are strong supporters of the Assad government.

At the same time, a massive humanitarian crisis inside Syria and bordering countries continues unabated with close to 200,000 deaths along with 3.2 million refuges outside of the country, and more than 6 million displaced persons—more than half of whom are children.

Many people flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which if left unchecked, will eventually overwhelm the resources of these countries.

As the air campaign continues inside Syria and Iraq, the U.S. so far cannot leverage the Sunni tribes in the same manner as the “Arab Awaking” did during the surge of 2007-08, which helped stabilize Iraq.

The difficulties for the U.S. are that the Sunni tribes were alienated and marginalized by the Shiite government in Baghdad, and are hard-pressed to fight against ISIS. Sunnis view ISIS as the only force able to stand up to the Shiite-dominated government.

As the situation continues inside Iraq and Syria, other regional powers including Russia and Iran are now embroiled in the conflict. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Iranian military forces attacked extremist targets inside Iraq instead of using its various proxy forces.

In Syria, Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite militant movement, and the Iranian paramilitary Al-Quds force, have kept President Bashar al-Assad in power, and in Iraq, Iran is cooperating at arm’s length with the U.S. as the two rivals focus on fighting the Islamic State.

The New York Times also states that Iran offered weapons to the Lebanese army and supported the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen that took over the capital of Sanna, where a car bomb struck the Iranian ambassador’s residence Wednesday.

With all the focus on Syria and Iraq, the deteriorating situation along the Arabian Peninsula, where Shiite rebels from the north have captured the Yemeni capital and have overrun the government, is lost in the debate.

Yemen is statistically located along a key commercial choke point of Bab el-Mandeb between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Any disruption of oil supplies through this area would have global implications on oil prices.

Finally the continued negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, and the aggressive action by Iran in many of the regional problems listed, will add to the pending problems of the next Secretary of Defense.

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