CENTCOM’s Got a New Mission. It Needs More Support.
Ending free-ridership and promoting regional security cooperation requires policy coherence from Washington.
U.S. Central Command is quietly making a historic transition from a wartime command center to something like a hub for cajoling the region’s partners large and small toward stouter collective defense. But since CENTCOM’s new commander has vastly fewer resources for his tough new mission, defense and national security leaders in Washington need to back him up with a larger measure of policy coherence.
The transition is largely a consequence of several U.S. administrations’ decisions to downgrade the region and focus on the pacing challenge of China in the Indo-Pacific. It has been unfolding for years, but has been accelerated by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and Operation Inherent Resolve’s switch five months later from a combat mission to one focused on advising, assisting, and enabling Iraqi partner forces.
The job of shifting CENTCOM’s focus from combat operations to improving the region’s multilateral security framework falls largely to Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla. The Army general, who has dubbed his approach “Partnering Over Posture,” knows that success depends on the buy-in of the United States’ regional partners. Unfortunately, these partners, especially the Gulf Arabs, have little confidence in overall U.S. Middle East policy, which they judge as inconsistent and ineffective in containing Iran. These partners also seek some reassurance that the United States, having left Afghanistan, will not similarly depart the region.
To be sure, President Joe Biden talked with Arab leaders about these very issues and concerns when he traveled to the region in July. But the confidence gap remains large, and it’s unlikely to be bridged anytime soon. Biden himself appreciates the geopolitical and economic importance of restoring ties with Saudi Arabia and others, but several senior officials in his administration, influential members of Congress, and his political base all have deep apprehensions about a reset with Riyadh, whose crown prince and de facto leader Mohamed bin Salman is still considered persona non grata in Washington for his domestic and foreign transgressions.
Kurilla doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for the politics to be fixed. He must prepare for the day after U.S. nuclear talks with Iran fail, or succeed, and hope that U.S. relations with the Arab partners improve sooner rather than later. Fortunately, he’s not starting from scratch.
A lot of good was accomplished during the command of his predecessor, Gen. Frank McKenzie, including the September 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel; and CENTCOM’s official incorporation of Israel into its area of responsibility the following January. These steps led to a secret meeting last March between the United States and its regional partners in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. For the first time ever, senior Arab and Israeli military officials met under U.S. military auspices to discuss ways to collectively defend against Iranian aggression and terrorism caused by violent extremist organizations.
At this meeting, held just weeks before Kurilla took charge on April 1, McKenzie and other CENTCOM leaders proposed a new framework for improving coordination and cooperation among Arab militaries and where possible, between Arab militaries and their Israeli counterparts. Designed to provide strategic oversight to operational and tactical exercises and engagements through a phased, U.S.-led approach, this construct will engage Arab and Israeli military personnel from both higher and lower ranks through periodic conferences throughout the year.
Critically, this multilateral approach to regional security does not constitute a formal alliance, nor does it demand or guarantee a collective defense against Iran. The participating Gulf Arab countries are keen to avoid even the perception of teaming up against Iran. Although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are determined to beef up their defenses, they remain interested in deescalating tensions with Iran through diplomatic engagement. Saudi officials have now held five rounds of direct talks with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad; the United Arab Emirates recently reinstated an ambassador to Iran after a six-year absence.
The most promising and developed pillar of CENTCOM’s regional security construct, at least for now, is in the maritime domain, thanks to the longtime leadership and activities of Bahrain-based U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. The latest initiative to collectively patrol the waters around the Arabian Peninsula is to include a hundred cutting-edge, artificial intelligence-equipped unmanned surface vessels and unmanned aerial vehicles. It is intended to be fully operational by summer 2023.
But cooperation on air and missile defense—lately a more urgent priority, given Iran’s drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—is nowhere near as developed. Various countries have impressive capabilities, including Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries, but they remain largely unintegrated because of lingering mistrust among the Gulf Arab nations and a cultural reluctance to fully appreciate the concept of security interdependence.
Skeptics of CENTCOM’s transition will argue that they’ve seen this movie before. The United States has been talking for decades about ending free-riding and implementing regional security designs. But three things suggest that these ideas’ time may finally have come.
First, the United States recognizes now more than ever that it can no longer be the policeman of the region. To attend to its top foreign-policy priority of a rapidly rising China, it must rely on its Middle Eastern partners to step up in their own region. And that will require serious changes in how the United States cooperates with and provides military assistance to its regional partners, focusing less on guns and more on precisely what CENTCOM is preaching: better partnerships and, ultimately, integration.
Second, Arab nations’ cooperation with Israel is encouraged by the common and worsening challenge of Iran and the opportunity presented by the Abraham Accords. There will always be limits, some political, some strategic, but if wisely pursued it could improve defense and deterrence in the region.
Third, the regional security construct must be made to work, even if it takes years, because CENTCOM’s strategic fortunes largely depend on it. The U.S. focus now is on the Indo-Pacific (and to some extent on Europe as long as Russia’s war against Ukraine continues). More resources will go to Indo-Pacific Command, which means fewer to CENTCOM.
None of this suggests that CENTCOM is no longer relevant—far from it; the region is still strategically vital—but it is no longer the alpha dog of the geographic combatant commands. To succeed in its new mission, it must transform and create a new set of roles and responsibilities, consistent with the new strategic environment and in accordance with civilian policy directive.
Kurilla will find out—if he hasn’t already—that the biggest challenge he will face is not necessarily the hostility of Iran, a possible resurgence of Sunni extremism, or the lack of cooperation of the regional partners, but the politics, bureaucratic dysfunction, and policy incoherence in Washington.