Biden’s troop withdrawal could extend far beyond Afghanistan

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Afghanistan could be the first domino to fall in a much broader restructuring of America’s military footprint in the wider Middle East and Central Asia.

Both of President Biden’s predecessors lagged behind in their military “swings” toward Asia and an emerging China, but some foreign policy analysts say the stars have been poised for overhaul for nearly a decade. As directed by Mr. Biden, the Pentagon is in the midst of a groundbreaking “Posture of Global Forces Review” that could lay the groundwork for a major reconfiguration of US forces around the world, including the possible withdrawal of thousands of troops from bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, and elsewhere in a theater that consumed American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era.

The document is expected to be released later this summer. A Pentagon official said it would “identify longer-term strategic considerations for future analysis,” which means it could provide a basis for the commander in chief to initiate a long-term postponement of US troop deployment and the level of resources allocated become regions.

Nowhere would such a change be more evident than in the Middle East. Some experts argue that by undergoing the politically risky platoon of troops from the region, Mr. Biden is ready to free up manpower and equipment to focus on China and other 21st century threats. Such a strategy, however, has its own significant foreign policy risks.

“I think there is more of an obligation in the Middle East to minimize or cut the bait for other commitments,” said Gil Barndollar, senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank and the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statecraft.

“You can talk about money. You can talk about blood and treasure. It’s all important, ”said Mr Barndollar. “But the biggest problem with the Middle East ulcer is that it deprives decision-makers of an enormous range of bandwidth.”

Indeed, with Mr Biden at his side, President Obama attempted to realign the US military position towards Asia, but was ultimately withdrawn to the Middle East by the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Donald Trump campaigned to stop “endless wars” in the region and initiated large troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But he also dispatched thousands of additional troops to bases in the Middle East to control increasingly aggressive Iran, and left a larger US presence in the theater than when he took office.

The exact U.S. workforce in the Middle East is unclear due to troop rotations, temporary assignments, and other factors. More than 44,000 U.S. soldiers are said to be in the region, Defense Priorities said, which compiles running figures from government databases and other sources.

Defense Priorities has 3,000 soldiers in Jordan, 2,500 in Saudi Arabia, 13,500 in Kuwait, 8,000 in Qatar, 3,500 in the United Arab Emirates and thousands more in other locations.

About 3,500 soldiers were in Afghanistan, but that number dropped to several hundred marines who were supposed to guard the US embassy in Kabul and the international airport. Around 2,500 soldiers are still in Iraq. The White House denied media reports that it was also considering withdrawing from the country.

Urged by Congress, the Pentagon plans to build and fund a nearly $ 5 billion Pacific deterrent initiative that aims to focus the military on the Chinese threat and the need to empower allies in East Asia. However, many critics of China in Congress say they are dissatisfied with the initial ideas about how the initiative will develop and whether the government is spending the time and resources necessary to make it effective in the long term.

Some analysts argue that deployments in the Middle East could be critical in a future without established bases of operations in Afghanistan.

Mr Biden and Pentagon leaders have stressed that the US will maintain “beyond the horizon” to target terrorists who might find refuge in Afghanistan. This will require long-term deployment areas elsewhere in the Middle East, especially since the government has not made any arrangements to house military assets in the countries bordering Afghanistan.

If the government withdraws troops or equipment from Kuwait, “it is not certain that you will ever get back in,” said retired Army Lieutenant General Tom Spoehr, now director of the Conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

“If you think you’ll ever have to do something in Afghanistan again, if you ever want to do something in the Middle East … you have to keep a place like Bahrain. You have to keep a place like Qatar, ”he said.

In addition, General Spoehr and other specialists argue that shifting focus from the Middle East to China is about much more than just numbers. The US has already deployed huge numbers of troops in South Korea, Japan and other Asian locations.

A stronger focus on China, analysts say, will include positioning state-of-the-art weapons systems and other assets in the Pacific, not just moving a few thousand ground troops from a base in the Middle East to a base in Asia.

“The world will never be so comfortable,” said General Spoehr.

Mr Biden has stressed that the US will maintain the resources it needs in the Middle East, despite having remained silent about details outside of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

“The terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So we’re repositioning our resources and adapting our counter-terrorism stance to address threats where they are now much higher: in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, ”the president said in a speech last week in which he defended his withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“But make no mistake: our military and intelligence leaders are confident that they have the ability to protect the homeland and our interests from any resurgent terrorist challenge arising or emanating from Afghanistan,” he said.

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