Iran poses a daily threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East as America’s military superiority in the region wanes, the top U.S. commander in the region told Congress on Tuesday, as indirect nuclear talks between the two nations continue in Vienna.
Iranian-aided Houthi forces in Yemen have launched more than 150 ballistic missile, land-attack cruise missile and drone attacks against military, infrastructure and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia since January, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said in written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.
McKenzie also faced pointed questions from lawmakers about the risks posed by President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Some lawmakers from both parties have warned that the move could further destabilize the war-torn nation and provide an opening for terrorist groups.
McKenzie said U.S. troops are fully prepared to defend themselves against Taliban attacks, while also warning that targeting terrorists in Afghanistan would be more difficult after the withdrawal.
“If you’re out of the country and you don’t have the ecosystem that we have there now, it will be harder to do that,” he said. McKenzie also said that all U.S. personnel would leave the country in the coming months, including all defense contractors. There are 6,147 U.S. citizens working as contractors in Afghanistan. Other Defense Department officials have said a small contingent of service members will remain solely to guard U.S. diplomatic facilities.
But, McKenzie added, the U.S. military can still do its job despite the challenges the withdrawal presents.
Centcom “remains steadfast in support of ongoing interagency and diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated political settlement and is committed to working with our regional partners to ensure our ability to counter a potential reemergence of terrorist threats against the homeland,” McKenzie said in his prepared remarks on Afghanistan.
McKenzie’s testimony highlighted a continuing challenge to U.S. presidents who seek to redirect America’s military focus from the Middle East: the region’s enduring focus for other great powers. The Middle East “is, and always has been, a crossroads of global interests and a historically prime arena for foreign powers to compete for influence, resources and access,” McKenzie said.
The general highlighted the growing regional presence of China and Russia in particular.
“Both nations leverage their proximity to the region, historical relations, and a perceived decline in U.S. engagement to establish and strengthen opportunistic relationships,” McKenzie said.
“Russia plays the part of spoiler to the U.S., using military means, influence operations and gray-zone activities to undermine and disrupt U.S. influence,” he said. China, in contrast, “uses predominantly economic means to establish regional in-roads, with a long-term goal of expanding its military presence to secure vital routes of energy and trade.”
McKenzie warned that Iran’s widespread use of small- and medium-sized drones for surveillance and attacks means that “for the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority,” McKenzie said.
“Until we are able to develop and field a networked capability to detect and defeat UAS, the advantage will remain with the attacker,” he said, using an acronym for unmanned aerial systems.
The scope of Iranian-backed attacks against the U.S. and its allies highlights the continued challenge Tehran’s regional behavior poses to Biden’s attempts to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump. Representatives of the U.S. and Iran for the past two weeks have been having indirect talks aimed at restoring the accord, facilitated by European partners, in Vienna.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told Fox News on Sunday that the talks had so far been “constructive.”
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