Opening Statement (As Prepared)

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Good morning.

I’d like to welcome our witnesses here today: Dr. Celeste Wallander, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, Commander, U.S. Central Command; and General Michael Langley, Commander, U.S. Africa Command. I want to thank them for providing their views as we evaluate the security situations in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) regions and build the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

As I have said repeatedly, the atrocities of the October 7th terrorist attacks, in which Hamas killed more than 1,200 and abducted more than 200 Israelis, can never be repeated. Hamas is a violent terrorist organization and I continue to support Israel in its mission to defend itself, degrade Hamas, and reduce the threat it poses to Israel and civilians in Gaza. However, how that mission is accomplished matters. Israel must continue to protect civilian lives as it conducts its operations within Gaza.  
We must also recognize that the humanitarian crisis worsens by the day. I will continue to support the Administration’s efforts to increase and speed the delivery of assistance. The Administration, in large part with the support of the Department, is working to support to the opening of more ground corridors, conduct aerial aid drops with partner countries, and open a maritime corridor so that life-saving aid can make it to civilians in Gaza. I strongly support continued efforts by the Administration to reach a ceasefire agreement and, subsequently, a path for peace that supports the future of the Palestinian people.
It is also imperative that we realize that Iran, and others, will look to expand and exploit the conflict in Gaza to destabilize the region to support their destructive objectives. Iran is leveraging its proxies with Lebanese Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the Houthis have carried out more than 60 attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea, and the Iranian aligned militia groups in Iraq/Syria that have increased attacks on U.S. forces, which has wounded service members and, tragically, caused the death of three Soldiers at Tower 22 on January 28.
I support the Administration’s efforts to find ways to deter these acts of aggression as well as the efforts to degrade and deter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea through defensive strikes and coalition operations like Prosperity Guardian and Poseidon Archer.
The Department, along with our partners, remains focused on the fight against ISIS in the CENTCOM region. While they have been degraded in Iraq and Syria, their violent extremist ideology remains a threat. In 2021, the Biden Administration announced the end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq, and that our established operation there would focus on training and equipping our partners in the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). We need updates on how that mission is taking shape, the complexities of the mission with our SDF partners, and the resources needed to properly support the mission.

As we look to Afghanistan, our goal in the region has always been to prevent transnational terrorists from launching an attack against the United States or our allies. I look forward to hearing an update on how we are monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. What exactly is the threat posed by violent extremists like ISIS-K, the analysis that supports that conclusion, other threats that might emanate from the region, and who are our partners as we watch this region closely?

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) emphasizes integrated deterrence, a concept that includes using all instruments of our national power as well as the essential capabilities and capacity of our partners and allies. Strengthening democratic principles and our partnerships and alliances across the globe is crucial to the core concept of providing for American security. It is also essential to meeting our objectives in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM regions.

In AFRICOM, the holistic 3Ds—diplomacy, development, and defense—are central to approaching the challenges our partners face and their stability. Department of Defense investment in Africa, however, remains limited. Across the continent, particularly in the Sahel, we have seen the disruptive impact of coups. I’d like to know more from our witnesses about how the Department intends to address the threats in the region given these circumstances and what resourcing is required to do so.
Relatedly, in West Africa – especially in the Sahel – extremist organizations continue to proliferate, spreading violence and destabilizing countries, and Russia seeks to take advantage of security vacuums. France has withdrawn its forces from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The U.S., too, has withdrawn or decreased its miliary presence in each of these locations. Just last week, the junta in Niger announced the end of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. and sought the removal of U.S. forces. Meanwhile, instability threatens to spill over into the coastal countries. This is one area that is critically important for our witnesses to address today. I’d like to know how the Department is investing in Global Fragility Act countries, including the Coastal West Africa region (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo).

The threat of terrorism also continues in the Horn of Africa. In May of 2022, President Biden announced the deployment of a small force to Somalia in support of the Somali’s National Army fight with al-Shabaab. Today is an opportunity to learn more from our witnesses about the fight in Somalia, the role of U.S. forces, and the ongoing drawdown plans for the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).

The Department has engaged for years in Africa to help partners and allies improve their security and fight extremism via mechanisms such as security cooperation, rule-of-law and human rights training, joint counterterrorism efforts, and capacity building. I want to know how those programs are going, what has worked well, and where we can improve.

In the NDS, the Department has identified the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the pacing challenge and Russia as an acute threat. These strategic competitors are active in the AFRICOM region. The United States is competing for influence in Africa while the Wagner Group’s derivative force, the “Expeditionary Corps,” expands its presence, and the PRC continues to invest significant economic resources. In today’s hearing, I’d like to better understand the Administration’s priorities in AFRICOM, including how it fits within the global strategy that seeks to compete with Russia and the PRC. Further, how does the Department plan to manage risk and strike the appropriate balance to address the threat of instability?

To conclude, I look forward to learning more about plans for the Department’s presence and posture in CENTCOM and AFRICOM; how that posture manages risk, meets the threats, and coincides with policy objectives; and how regional decisions affect and comport with our global requirements.

Thank you and I look forward to the witnesses’ testimony.