Lloyd Austin confirmed as US Secretary of Defense

Former Army general Lloyd Austin was confirmed on Friday as the next US Secretary of Defense. (Photo: AFP/Rod Lamkey Jr.)
Former Army general Lloyd Austin was confirmed on Friday as the next US Secretary of Defense. (Photo: AFP/Rod Lamkey Jr.)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The US Senate on Friday confirmed retired US Army general, Lloyd Austin, as the next Secretary of Defense. Senators approved his appointment by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of 93-to-2.

The first African American to hold the position, Austin is quite familiar with the Kurds. Like the new president, Joe Biden, who has had far more interactions with Kurds than any of his predecessors, Austin has worked more closely with them than any previous Secretary of Defense.

Read More: Joe Biden—‘Good Friend’ of Masoud Barzani—becomes America’s 46th President

Austin served three times in Iraq. The first occasion was in March 2003 as the US-led war began, when he was Assistant Division Commander for Maneuver of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Austin returned in 2008, as the second-highest US military officer in Iraq, before ascending to the top position two years later: Commanding General of United States Forces-Iraq.

In that last capacity, Austin oversaw the withdrawal—in December 2011—of US forces from the country. However, three years later, Austin, as head of CENTCOM, oversaw the re-introduction of US forces back into Iraq to combat a new terrorist threat: the so-called Islamic State, which at its height in the summer of 2014, controlled one-third of Iraq, threatening both Erbil and Baghdad.

Austin played a key role in developing the strategy that followed: working closely with partner forces, including the Peshmerga in Iraq and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, which the US, in fact, played a key role in establishing.

In August 2014, as the US moved to begin the war against the Islamic State began, Austin travelled to Salahaddin to meet with President Masoud Barzani to discuss plans for the conflict, along with the military needs of the Peshmerga.

Between then and his retirement, Austin would travel five more times to the Kurdistan Region to meet the Kurdish leadership: in January, July, October, and December of 2015.

Read More: President Barzani praises role of US-led coalition airstrikes in defeating Jihadists

And, in January 2016, Austin paid one last trip to Erbil.

Read More: Barzani, Gen. Austin discuss Peshmerga needs

Interviewed shortly thereafter, as he retired from the Army, Austin was described by an Army reporter as “the architect of the counter-Islamic State group campaign in Iraq and Syria.”

In that interview, Austin explained that a key lesson from his experience was “the necessity of coalitions” that include “willing and able partners, built and maintained through security force assistance activities,” which “is an essential enabling capability.”

Biden came to know Austin, when he was Vice-President under President Barack Obama. Biden played a central role in formulating the Obama administration’s policy toward Iraq, including the 2011 withdrawal, and then in the US return to Iraq in order to fight the Islamic State.

As a senator, Obama had voted against going to war in Iraq, and, as president, ending the US military presence in Iraq was a key aspect of Obama’s policy. However, as noted above, three years later, he was obliged to re-send US forces back to Iraq.

Most likely, those events have left a strong impression on both Biden and Austin, and they will be in no hurry to withdraw US forces from the area. 

Priorities as Described in Austin’s Confirmation Hearing

In Austin’s confirmation hearing, Austin explained his top priority: ”move further and faster” to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to Americans.

The US has recorded the most number of COVID-19 cases—nearly 25 million—over twice the number in India, which follows in second place. The US also has the largest number of deaths from the disease: over 400,000, nearly twice as many as Brazil, which ranks number two.

“Austin brings a renowned mind for logistics to the job” of Secretary of Defense, “which will be vital for the Biden team's ambitious agenda to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nicholas Heras, of the Institute for the Study of War, told Kurdistan 24.

Heras also highlighted Austin's “deep experience with the Kurds,” because “they were important counter-ISIS partners, when he was the leader of CENTCOM.”

Austin “knows the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and how important the Kurds are to US policy in the Middle East,” Heras added.

However, in what was a demonstration of the vast scope of US national security policy, the Kurds, ISIS, Syria, and Iraq scarcely figured in Austin’s confirmation hearing. No senator asked him about those issues, nor did he raise them himself.

The hearing was held on Tuesday—two days before the surprise blast in Baghdad that killed over 30 people. Perhaps, had the hearing occurred a few days later, questions about the resurgence of the Islamic State might have arisen.

Read More: ISIS claims responsibility for Baghdad bombing; Iraqi PM reshuffles top security posts

But as the senators, and Austin himself, made clear on Tuesday, they consider China to be the biggest challenge to US national security, with Russia in second place. As Austin put it, China “is an ascending threat,” but Russia, which he also characterized as a threat, “is in decline.”

Asked about Iran, Austin said that it “continues to be a destabilizing element in the region.”

Editing by John J. Catherine