U.S. Doesn’t Have Luxury of Choosing Challenges, Dunford Tells Aspen Crowd

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity – US DEPARTEMENT OF DEFENSE

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2017 — While Russia remains the greatest nation-state threat, the United States doesn’t have the luxury of singling out one challenge, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado last night.Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers a question during a discussion moderated by Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, at the 2017 Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo., July 22, 2017.

NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford if he still believed Russia was the biggest threat facing America — a statement he made two years ago in his confirmation hearings.

“From a state actor perspective, it is Russia,” Dunford said. He said this was due to Russia’s military modernization program, its nuclear and cyber capabilities and its actions in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

“I would quickly add that we don’t have the luxury today of singling out one challenge,” the chairman said.

Dunford believes this is the most volatile time in world affairs since World War II, and Russian actions do not help. “I think from an aggregate capacity and capability perspective, Russia is the most capable state actor we face,” he said. “But we have other challenges — North Korea, from a sense of urgency perspective, would be our number one challenge. We are certainly dealing with malign challenges from Iran on a daily basis.

“Clearly the fight against violent extremism is one that we are completely engaged with, and we have security challenges in the Pacific with a rising China as well,” the chairman continued.

The U.S. military must be able to deter nuclear attack from Russia and increase conventional capabilities so Russia is not tempted to challenge the United States and its allies. Dunford noted that maintaining the strength and effectiveness of the NATO alliance is also critically important in deterring Russia’s actions.

But Russia generally stops short of conflict. The chairman calls this strategy adversarial competition. “It has a military dimension, but it falls short of armed conflict,” he said. “That’s where Russia integrates cyber capabilities, information operations, unconventional operations to advance their interests on a routine basis and we have to compete in that environment as well.”

Middle East

Mitchell also grilled the chairman on Syria, Iraq and the greater battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Dunford noted that two years ago there were 200 partners on the ground inside Syria. “Tonight, we have over 50,000 Syrians on the ground taking the fight to ISIS, and about half of them are Arabs and half are Kurds,” Dunford said. “[These Syrian Democratic Forces] are the ones who have taken back this wide swath of land in Northeast Syria and really put us in a position where ISIS in Syria will no longer be in possession of ground.”

Indigenous forces — with help from the coalition to defeat ISIS — have given the lie to the physical caliphate that ISIS leaders proclaimed.

Turkey, an important NATO ally, does not like an armed Kurdish force in Syria, and Dunford noted that he has visited Turkey 12 times in the last year and held further discussions with his colleague in Ankara on a number of other occasions. The Kurds in the SDF are a source of friction with Turkey, he acknowledged, “and we are doing all we can to mitigate their concerns, not only about how we are going after ISIS in Raqqa and the Euphrates River Valley, but the long term relationship we have with Turkey.”

“I will tell you that any political and military solution in Syria is going to be completed with full recognition of Turkey’s long-term interests are from a security perspective,” the chairman added.

Iraqi forces are moving to cement their victory against ISIS in Mosul and have already announced plans to launch campaigns against ISIS in Tal Afar, Huwayjah and Qaim.

Dunford expects ISIS will switch to guerilla-type attacks to try to undermine the government.

Isolating ISIS

He is also concerned that foreign fighters, who volunteered to fight for ISIS, could return to their home countries and attempt to carry on with the battle. “We think somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 foreign fighters have been to Iraq and Syria over the years,” he said. “We do not what them to go back from whence they came.”

With that in mind, the coalition has established a information-sharing base in the Middle East to exchange information and intelligence. More than 20 countries now participate in the effort, he said. The strategy now is to sever the links connecting ISIS. Three things connect these groups: foreign fighters, the flow of resources and money, and the ideology, Dunford said. The strategy is working, the chairman said. As of 15 months ago, more than 1,500 foreign fighters crossed the Turkish border every month. Today, that number is less than 100.