U.S. Central Command naval chief foresees more volatility in the region.
Among the most troubling developments in the region is the growing clout of Iranian hard-line conservative clerics who are intent on gaining power in that country and potentially obtaining nuclear weapons, according to Vice Adm. David C. Nichols, commander of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, in Bahrain.
"Iran is most likely to be the next conventional conflict in the CENTCOM [Central Command] area," Nichols said in a presentation to the Tailhook Association's annual convention of naval aviators in Reno, Nev.
"They are determined to build a nuclear bomb," Nichols said of leaders in Iran. Officials at Central Command see continuing Iranian support for terrorism that is contributing to instability in Southern Iraq, he added. The U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein has bolstered Iran's regional clout, Nichols explained. "There is a sense that the [pro-U.S.] reformers are in decline and Iran is stronger in the region because we eliminated its tactical enemies: Saddam to the West and the Taliban in the East, and its strategic enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia, is pinned down internally."
Additionally, Iran perceives the United States as being "pinned down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unable to respond in a meaningful way to any Iranian provocation," Nichols said.
Iran presents a complex threat because the country has essentially two military components: the Revolutionary Guards and the regular military.
The Revolutionary Guards provide military support to Islamic conservative clerics who are seeking to enhance their political clout.
According to a recent report published by "Eurasia Insight," the Revolutionary Guards have control over Iran's nuclear program. "The program, under intense international scrutiny because of its arms making potential, is a source of tremendous national pride in Iran," wrote Kamal Nazer Yasin, a journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.
The article also notes that the presence of U.S. troops in two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, has bolstered the Revolutionary Guards' role in defending Iran's national interests.
Nichols characterized the Revolutionary Guards as a "bunch of crazies," while the regular Iranian military is viewed as a "responsible" organization, Nichols said. "The opportunity for a chance meeting or an unintended event out there is very high."
Escalating violence and instability in Iraq also are raising concerns about how to deal with terrorism in the area.
"A year and a half ago, Iraq didn't have much to do with terrorism. It has a lot to do with terrorism right now," said Nichols. "It's become the new jihad battlefield since the Soviets left Afghanistan."
Nichols characterized the insurgency in Iraq as a combination of" former regime elements, Sunni and Shiite extremists, thugs and a lot of people "with no place to go."
Before the Iraq war, Central Command planners had anticipated that the next "center of gravity" in the U.S. war on Al Qaeda, after Afghanistan, would be the Horn of Africa, on the continent's east coast.
"It's a huge, ungoverned space, where the population is generally sympathetic to extremist causes," said Nichols. A joint task force was set op initially on a ship to monitor the area, and later moved ashore to Djibouti.
Djibouti is located at the mouth of the Red Sea and serves as a strategic transshipment location for goods entering and leaving the East African highlands. France maintains a significant military presence in the country.
"We've been fairly successful in preventing terrorists from getting a foothold there," said Nichols. "It's one of the key ungoverned spaces in the region."
Pakistan is another potentially volatile spot. Even though the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, supports the United States, internal strife is brewing. "If Pakistan goes in the wrong direction, we are in trouble," Nichols said. Musharraf has the support of about 50 percent of the people, he added. "About 25 percent don't care and 25 percent are against him."
It is important for the United States to stand by Pakistan, Nichols said. "Pakistan is making a difference, and we have to continue to help them." In maritime operations, the Pakistanis have been most helpful in providing translators and assisting U.S. officials gain "awareness of the lay of the land."
Nichols stressed that the U.S. success in fighting terrorism in the Middle East and South Asia is directly tied to the continued support of a multinational coalition that, besides Pakistan, includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Japan.
These countries conduct maritime surveillance in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.
"About 40 percent of nay forces are non-U.S.," Nichols said.
Of three major task forces under his command, one is led by a French two-star officer, Rear Adm. Jean-Pierre Teule, who is responsible for anti-terrorism and counter-drug operations in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa and Somali Basra, as well as the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Straits of Hormuz.
"Most people don't realize the French have been in Operation Enduring Freedom since day one," said Nichols. "The French were the first responders to the Cole bombing [in October 2000]. They've been aligned with us from the get-go."
Because of the valuable support the French provide, Nichols said, he has worked very hard "to keep them committed there and tried not to make the disagreement over Iraq influence what's going on in other areas in the global war on terror."
Despite the growing demands on the fleet, Nichols insisted that the U.S. Navy is adequately trained and equipped, but he cautioned that, at a time when military resources are strained, the service needs to carefully assess how and where it deploys its aircraft carriers.
"The combat capacity that the carrier strike group represents has become a key piece of strategic reserve out there," he said.
The Navy recently has moved away from pre-scheduled deployments for aircraft carrier groups, in favor of a new posture called "fleet response plan." Under the FRP, carriers don't have predictable deployments. Up to eight out of the Navy's 12 carriers have to be ready to surge within 30 days, when called upon.
The concern for commanders such as Nichols, however, is whether FRP might undercut the Navy's forward presence in key hotspots around the world. "FRP is potentially a very powerful tool, but we need to understand the opportunity cost ... We have shown a little more appetite for risk, but we have people who don't legitimately own the risk standing up and advocating to others who do."
To showcase the FRP concept, the Navy conducted an exercise in July called Summer Pulse, where seven carrier strike groups were given 30 days to prepare and deploy throughout major theaters worldwide.
Nichols questioned why the Navy needed to spend so many resources on all exercise, when the service already had demonstrated its ability to surge when it prepared for combat in Iraq.
"I think Summer Pulse was a mistake," Nichols said. "We had seven carriers deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom phase lit. It seems like a pretty good demo to me and we didn't factor opportunity cost for Summer Pulse."