Conflict Alerts # 188, 19 November 2020
In the news
On 13 November, the Trump administration announced plans to hasten the reduction of the US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by half. This withdrawal would come in full effect before, possibly, President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January 2021. The acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller in a press statement said, "the intended troop cuts would almost halve the force in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500, and the presence in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500." The administration has been strongly criticized from its own Republican party followed by the statement from the Secretary-General of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Jen Stoltenberg, that "the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high."
Issues at large
First, Trump's desire for a legacy pushing hasty exit. The plan has been put in place despite arguments from senior military officials, who have favoured slow and methodical pull-out, that a premature exit would upturn the 'hard-fought gains' in the region. The announcements come a week after several senior Pentagon officials, including Defence Secretary Mark Esper, resisting the withdrawal were replaced by Trump loyalists with little relative experience. There are logistical difficulties between the order and the actual fruition of what Trump would like in order to secure his legacy.
Second the US rationale behind the withdrawal. The US has experienced a 'boom-to-bust' cycle in both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have triggered turmoils. In Afghanistan, the US-backed regime has failed to secure a firm footing, and at the same time, the Taliban is now the main actor in peace talks with the Afghan government. In Iraq, the US-led democratic reform has not proceeded well either. The increased financial burden on Washington and less burden-sharing by other Western democracies have pushed Obama and then Trump, whose presidency rode on safeguarding American interests first, to pull out troops. Even though the Middle East situation worsened with the presence of the Islamic State and involvement of Russia, Trump has chosen to appease the public's anti-war sentiments at home, thereby securing votes from the service members.
Third, no smooth transition will impact the course of peace talks in Afghanistan. There are two purposes of the US forces in Afghanistan: train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, alongside NATO allies and to counter terrorist threats from ISIS and al-Qaeda. Now at 2,500 troops, the US will only focus on the counterterrorism and even though the agreement with the Taliban in Doha has ensured reduced US engagements with the group. However, the deal earmarks May 2021 for the withdrawal of the US, assuming conditions in the country are relatively peaceful, and the Taliban has upheld its end of the deal. When all is not well at the peace talks, and attacks have increased on the Afghan security forces and civilians by Taliban fighters, an accelerated withdrawal could destabilize a tenuous peace deal.
Fourth, the fight against terrorism. In Iraq, minutes after Miller's comments, multiple rockets hit the US embassy in Baghdad. The removal of 500 US troops would not change much, but the political message is strong for the cause of the fight against ISIS and Iranian-backed militias. Similarly, in Somalia, the 700 US troops have been helping local forces to defeat the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terrorist activities. The elite commando force and gains from resisting al-Shabab will be left exposed if the US troops withdraw now; even though the possibility of air support remains.
The President-elect Joe Biden faces a question on what to do with Trump's withdrawal plan when he assumes office. There is a possibility that nothing might change as it aligns with Biden's idea to keep some troops in Afghanistan as counterterrorism force. Hence in a way, Trump could be handing him what he has long advocated for. However, the challenge could come in rethinking the diplomatic ties in the region, especially with Israel and Saudi Arabia for whom Iraq is an important forefront against Iran's 'expansion'. For long, these US allies have foreseen a reality of no American boots, but a hasty exit increases the worry that Tehran will have more influence over Iraq impacting the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.