Since the 'war on terror', US Central Command has had extraordinary influence over American politics. But a greater focus on China brings with it new opportunities.

The Biden administration's decision to appoint Lloyd Austin as the 28th United States Secretary of Defense is a byproduct of CENTCOM's ever-growing influence within the US military and political establishment. The ‘war on terror’ empowered CENTCOM (Central Command) like never before.

Only two former CENTCOM commanders have been appointed as secretary of defense, the 26th and the 28th, both after the start of the perpetual 'war on terror'. However, a prioritised focus on China may stop CENTCOM from becoming even more powerful. Interestingly, this is an opportunity for greater cooperation between CENTCOM and US regional allies.

The United States is the only country in the world that has divided the earth into its command sections; NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM, PACOM, and CENTCOM. Among all the US commands, CENTCOM has the smallest territory, but over the last two decades, it has been the most active region. 

From Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, this is where CENTCOM has conducted its most expensive – and most dangerous – US military operations. This dynamic and the US focus on these areas have led to an increase in CENTCOM's importance and prestige.

The US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq may have traumatised the US public, but this trauma enabled CENTCOM to gain more say in US policy-making and its ability to influence public opinion. 

While Republicans traditionally trust the military relatively more than Democrats, the US military enjoys more trust than many other US institutions. According to Pew Research, the US military and scientists enjoy the greatest amount of trust. The military enjoys “a great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence among 83 percent of Americans.

CENTCOMS's increasing influence can be seen quite clearly in the Syrian civil war. It not only pushed forward its agenda without the consent of the Senate or the US government but also misled the US public by functioning as central communication rather than central command. 

Despite having limited authorisation from the US Senate to combat only Daesh, CENTCOM reportedly trained, equipped, and help the YPG terror group to build a defense strategy against a possible Turkish military incursion – a catastrophe for the NATO alliance.

CENTCOM also managed to manipulate the American public over the nature of its partnership with the YPG, lied to the US president about the number of its military personnel in Syria, and actively influenced the American public into seeing a distorted picture of the country.

CENTCOM also shielded the YPG from the negative impacts of ignoring US sanctions on the Assad regime by making illegal oil deals and has actively torpedoed agreements signed by the US secretary of state. For instance, the Manbij roadmap could not be implemented on the ground due to CENTCOM’s active manipulation and deceleration.

In Iraq, CENTCOM supported sectarian Shia politicians like Nouri al Maliki that laid down the framework that later allowed Daesh to flourish. Then, CENTCOM partnered with Iranian-backed Shia militias to get rid of Daesh, a policy that helped cement Iran's strength in Iraq. 

This approach in Iraq was grounded in several reasons, but amongst them was a bias – or at worst, racism – within CENTCOM officials towards Sunni Arabs, which may have been a result of Sunni Iraqi resistance to the US invasion of Iraq. 

It is no wonder that CENTCOM advocated for the US partnering with Shia Arabs and Sunni Kurds in Iraq, and Marxists Kurds in Syria. It is noteworthy that there is no Sunni Arab military partner to the US that enjoys autonomy, either in Iraq or in Syria.

CENTCOM occupies the unique position of influencing decision-makers by providing information that suits their position and using its leverage and prestige in Washington DC. 

In recent years, James Jeffrey's team, US Special Representative for Syria, put up some resistance against the distortion of facts by CENTCOM. However, with the appointment Aimee Cutrona, as his successor, this obstacle has vanished. 

Another example was how CENTCOM outplayed EUCOM in its efforts to mediate a joint solution with Turkey regarding the east of the Euphrates in Syria. The safe-zone approach by EUCOM was actively sabotaged by CENTCOM. CENTCOM propagated the YPG as part of the process, tried to legitimise the YPG, sabotaged the implementation phase, and distorted the media coverage of the agreement.

Focus on China

While there are dozens of other examples, the real question is how greater US focus on China will affect CENTCOM's role. While CENTCOM successfully rode the wave of ‘the war on terror', a change towards great power politics will reduce CENTCOM's importance – to the benefit of PACOM and EUCOM.

With a bigger focus on great power competition, the US will be forced to re-allocate resources away from CENTCOM. For CENTCOM, this would mean an end to their ‘golden age’. 

If the rivalry between the US and China reaches a point similar to the Cold War period, even an outbreak of a major war in the Middle East might not be enough to help CENTCOM regain or maintain its position of strength.

Acknowledging a change in global politics, the best outcome for the US and CENTCOM would be to rely on regional partners. Despite a decrease in capacity and focus, CENTCOM can continue to pursue its politics in its region by increasing cooperation with allies. 

The change of focus towards China may end up as an opportunity rather than a crisis for CENTCOM and regional states. The gap left by the US can be filled by enhanced cooperation.

For instance, US allies such as Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia can all fill the void to different extents if the US respects the interests of each state. For instance, the new mediator role of Turkey in Afghanistan, the role of Turkey as a bulwark against Russian expansionism, and Turkish-Iranian competition is an opportunity for the US. 

Or in Syria, Turkey’s protection of the safe-zone can help the US prevent a new migrant crisis that may weaken its European allies. By relying on its allies, the US can pursue its goals in the region while focusing on China.

For that to become reality, though, the US has to stop antagonising its allies and engage in constructive dialogue and diplomacy - not only in bilateral relations, but also between its regional allies.

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