Gen. James Mattis confident in Middle East presence despite sequesters

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The top U.S. commander in the Middle East warned Iran and other nations Tuesday that the United States’ military is still formidable despite budget cuts that have reduced the number of its aircraft carriers in the region.

“I still have one carrier out there, and I would just caution any enemy that might look as an opportunity to take advantage of this situation that that would be very ill-advised if the president orders us into action,” Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, told senators Tuesday.

“I have what it takes to make it the enemy’s longest day and their worst day. And we’ll get the other carrier out there quickly to reinforce.”

Gen. Mattis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the effects of spending cuts on his command. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, also testified Tuesday.

Under automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that began Friday, the Defense Department will have to cut $46 billion from its current budget by Sept. 30 and as much as $500 billion from its 10-year spending plan.

The Pentagon recently ended its two-carrier presence in the Middle East after the Navy canceled the deployment of the USS Harry S Truman due to budget and training constraints.

“We are beginning to create a readiness problem if we don’t resolve the [funding issues]. I’m already cutting 60 percent of my flying hours back in the [U.S.]. I’m reducing also some of my deployments, about 20 percent of my deployments, going forward,” said Adm. McRaven, the special operations chief.

The admiral and the general called for Congress to pass a fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill and legislation that would allow military chiefs more flexibility in implementing the budget cuts.

“My ability to manage the cuts the way they are aligned now is difficult. It’s an across-the-board cut, as you mentioned, so any flexibility in dealing with those cuts would be tremendously helpful to me and my staffs,” Adm. McRaven said.

In addition, Gen. Mattis urged lawmakers not to turn attention away from the Middle East and South Asia, saying that one of the greatest risks to U.S. interests there is a perceived lack of U.S. commitment.

He said the military campaign in Afghanistan is on track, and the Afghan National Security Forces are proving themselves more capable.

Gen. Mattis said he had recommended to President Obama that the Pentagon leave 13,600 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when most international combat forces are scheduled to leave the country. He also recommended that about 7,000 NATO troops remain there to train and advise Afghan security forces.

Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last month said NATO is considering leaving from 8,000 to 12,000 international troops to train and advise Afghan security forces, and an additional few thousand to conduct counterterrorism missions.

It was not clear whether Gen. Mattis‘ recommendations would include forces for both missions.

The Marine general said he supports keeping the Afghan National Security Forces’ numbers at 352,000 through 2018 instead of gradually drawing down the number to 230,000 after 2014, saying the forces are becoming increasingly capable of providing security for their country.

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