The situation in the Middle East and Africa has changed dramatically over the past year, and the Defense Department has moved with speed and agility to address the challenges in these vital areas, said Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in testimony today before the House Armed Services Committee.

“The world has significantly changed since our posture testimony in 2023,” Wallander said. “The crises proliferating in both the U.S. Centcom and U.S. Africom [areas of operation] have created a level of instability not seen in years.” 

Testifying alongside Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and Marine Corps Gen. Michael E. Langley, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Wallander said the National Defense Strategy continues to guide actions in both those areas of responsibility.

“DOD applies principles of partnership, deterrence, diplomacy, integration and values as it works to strengthen integrated deterrence, reduce conflict and promote stability,” she said. “A strong, principled, adaptive U.S. military remains a central pillar for U.S. leadership in the world, while supporting a stable and open international system.” 

Dealing with the changed circumstances in both combatant commands is key to navigating between war and peace in the regions, Wallander said.  

“Sustainable security relies on expanding regional security constructs, alliances and partnerships and integrating our partners with one another, as well as the United States,” Wallander said. “Respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights expand sustainability in our security partnerships. As we take decisive action to address threats and challenges today in the U.S. Africom and U.S. Centcom [areas of operations], we continue to stand with our partners and allies to win what we view as the competition of coalitions that is becoming increasingly critical to our common security.” 

Actions by others — Russia in Ukraine and China’s efforts to increase its footprint in the regions — also must be considered, she said.

The Middle East faces several crises, Wallander said. “Hamas brutally killed 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, and continues to hold some 130 American and Israeli hostages,” she said. “We are alarmed at the significant loss of life throughout the conflict which followed. Israel has an obligation to protect civilians and uphold international humanitarian law.” 

Wallander also said the region is under assault from malign actors across the region. Chief among these is Iran, which is cynically working to exploit the conflict in Gaza to further its own interests. Iran-backed militias work from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to destroy any sense of security in the region, she said.  

The Houthis in Yemen have fired on commercial shipping and naval vessels in the Red Sea seeking to disrupt international commerce.  

“Amid these crises, the Department of Defense is rising to the occasion to defend the nation’s values and interests across the region,” Wallander said. “Significant U.S. assistance to Israel aims at ensuring that what happened on Oct. 7 can never be repeated.” 

At the same time, the United States continues to underscore with Israel “the importance of obligations related to civilian harm mitigation and risks of conflict to civilians during Israel’s operations against Hamas,” Wallander said.

DOD also continues to hold Iran and its terrorist proxies accountable for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. “We do not seek conflict in the Middle East, but attacks on American forces will not be tolerated,” she said. “We remain postured and prepared to use all means necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, while working to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities.” 

On the African continent, there are other problems. “African partnerships are critical for the Department of Defense to maintain its technological edge, accomplish its geopolitical and strategic objectives, and power our futures,” Wallander said. “Despite Africa’s boundless potential, threats, such as political instability, democratic backsliding and the presence of violent extremist organizations are the focus of DOD efforts.” 

Langley, Africom commander, said Africa is feeling the effects of global events that range from Russia’s war in Ukraine to the Houthis attacks in the Red Sea. These events “directly impact the lives of millions of Africans,” he said. “Terrorism, poverty, food insecurity, climate change and mass migration shattered African lives. These factors sowed the seeds of violent extremism and Russian exploitation across entire regions of the continent.” 

Challenges to democratic governance and order are endemic in the Sahel, he said, and this complicates relations with key partners. Africom prides itself on the interagency approach to Africa, and the general said he counts on that to help the command continue to engage on the continent in order to safeguard U.S. interests. 

Still, that requires resources, and Langley made a plug for Congress to provide the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to receive “the resources they need to guarantee our combined success,” he said. “In Africa, modest investments and resources go a long way towards advancing our national security interests. Africa faces many challenges, but [it] offers even more opportunities.”

Kurilla, Centcom commander, drew the contrast between the situation last year and today. “As I sat here just a year ago, the region was on the verge of improbable, unprecedented and transformative progress,” he told the committee. “Today, the central region faces its most volatile security situation in the past half century.” 

The Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 “not only permanently changed Israel and Gaza, they created the conditions for malign actors to sow instability throughout the region and beyond,” he said. “Iran exploited what they saw as a once in a generation opportunity to reshape the Middle East to their advantage. Iran has worked for decades to encircle the region with its proxies. And in the past six months, we have seen every proxy and the Iranian threat network operationalized in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Yemen.” 

The Houthi attacks on U.S. warships and international shipping in the Red Sea, coupled with Iran-allied militia strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, are a direct result of an Iranian threat that has been incrementally spreading, Kurilla said. “Violent extremist organizations have also seized on this opportunity,” he said.  

The general said the Islamic State is using the chaos to try to reconstitute, and “the risk of attack emanating from Afghanistan is increasing. I assess ISIS-Khorasan retains the capability and the will to attack us and Western interests abroad in as little as six months with little to no warning.”

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