US eyes tactical withdrawal from Middle East to focus on China
WASHINGTON – Last month, a special team consisting of 15 Pentagon senior officials began working on developing a comprehensive plan to prepare American forces, deployed in various parts of the world, for a possible mission to confront China’s threat.
It is within this context that the US committed last week to move all remaining combat forces from Iraq, although the two sides did not set a timeline in what would be the second withdrawal since the 2003 invasion.
The special team was established by US President Joe Biden, its lead unit is placed in the Department of Defence. The real leader is the Secretary of Defence. The Chief of Military and Political Affairs is in charge and the team’s leader is Eli Ratner, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s special assistant to China.
Ratner is expected to present a report in the coming weeks to the US Secretary of Defence and the National Security Committee on the required defence capabilities in the event of a military confrontation with China. Those capabilities, according to reports, include a defense strategy, an availability of personnel and weapons and actions to manage technical and cyber deficiencies.
Although Ratner’s report has not yet been released, a source familiar with the discussions taking place between the task force and other US official bodies confirmed it will include recommendations that will undoubtedly lead to a large-scale redeployment of US forces currently present in bases outside the United States.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that an in-depth discussion is taking place now about the effect of this redeployment on the number of American forces in the Arab Gulf region.
Although the discussion did not reach the stage of determining the number and type of forces to be transferred from the Gulf to the east, it is certain today that the American presence in the Gulf region will not remain the same. Indeed, a US debate has already begun about whether a military redeployment would affect American presence in the Gulf and the ability of the US to protect its interests and those of its allies, especially with the continued presence of Iran and its proxies in the region.
The solutions presented revolve around the development of defence capabilities in the Gulf region, especially those against missiles and conventional and unmanned aircraft to make up for the human shortage. As for the sea lanes, talks revolve around activating an agreement to protect navigation on a larger scale and raising the level of reliance on the region’s countries to defend their own waters against any Iranian aggression.
It is expected that Saudi Arabia will be the most affected by the American redeployment due to the large presence of US forces on its soil, on the one hand, and the threat that Yemen’s Houthi militias pose on the kingdom’s southern border on the other hand.
— New priorities —
Over the past few days, the United States has already started withdrawing some heavy military hardware from Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missile batteries and an aircraft carrier that has always been present in Saudi waters. According to US statements, this move was due to the need for this equipment to be deployed in other regions. In the coming days, the military redeployments will be even bigger, experts say, with a focus on keeping the advanced anti-ballistic missile defense system THAAD and a broad defensive and offensive air force on the Saudi territory.
Observers argue that recent joint Iraqi-US statements that centred on the presence of US forces amount to a reformulation of the current reality rather than a strategic shift.
The first “strategic dialogue” with Iraq under Biden’s administration came recently as Iranian-linked Shia paramilitary groups fire rockets nearly daily at bases with foreign troops in hopes of forcing a US exit.
The coalition is led from Baghdad by Brigadier General Ryan Reddott, who was officially named to an official advisory position last July.
Commenting on the news of troops’ withdrawal, the Pentagon said it would redeploy its personnel based on the nature of threats across the world.
Experts say that the United States views China as a top strategic threat and therefore the Americans can reduce their presence in parts of the Middle East, even if such a move could be to the benefit of Iran.
The experts point out that the withdrawal will be gradual, with Washington reducing its direct presence across military bases in the Gulf region and Iraq, provided that the air presence continues or is boosted as a future strategy in the region.
Earlier this week, Iraq and the US agreed in a videoconference led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein that Iraqi forces were ready to take on more responsibility.
“The parties confirmed that the mission of US and coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks,” a joint statement said.
Iraq has walked a fine line in balancing its relations between the United States and Iran, which shares religious ties with its Shia-majority neighbour.
Iraqi calls soared for a withdrawal of US troops in January 2020 after former president Donald Trump ordered the assassination in Baghdad of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani — and tensions have remained high.
Biden in February ordered airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian-linked paramilitaries after a rocket attack killed a contractor for the US-led coalition and injured US personnel.
But Biden, in a rare point of agreement with Trump, has been looking for ways to wind down what have come to be dubbed “endless wars.”
Trump had ordered a drawdown in his final months from Iraq as well as Afghanistan with the number of US troops in each country dipping to 2,500 by January 15.
Iraq’s national security adviser Qassem al-Araji promised efforts to protect foreign forces and confirmed that the United States would move ahead with a pullout.
“The American side promised to withdraw an important number of its troops from Iraq,” he said.
The Pentagon declined to specify a timeline for a withdrawal, saying it would be worked out in the technical talks.
“We’ve all been working to an eventual redeployment,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, “when there’s no need for American support on the ground.”
Former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, had removed all US forces from Iraq in a fulfilment of his pledges after opposing the 2003 invasion.
But Obama sent troops back in 2014 as the Islamic State group rampaged across Iraq and Syria, brutally slaying and enslaving all but Sunni Muslims as it established a self-styled “caliphate.”
Now, the focus on leaving Iraq comes as Biden increasingly looks to de-prioritise Middle Eastern wars and devote more resources to a global rivalry with China.
Biden has also taken a greater distance from ally Saudi Arabia, including ending support for its devastating war in Yemen and has looked to ease tensions with Iran.
Iraqi political circles say the withdrawal of ground forces from Iraq will give the US new possibilities to target pro-Iranian militias while avoiding direct confrontation. Also, this move will assist Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in pressing ahead with efforts to disarm militias while improving relations with both Washington and Arab countries.
Kadhimi is under pressure from Iran-backed militias to end the presence of 2,500 American soldiers on Iraqi soil, but Iraqi security officials say this limited presence is still needed for the security of Iraq.
Randa Selim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the DC-based Middle East Institute, described the joint Iraqi-US statement released on Wednesday as the result of cautious policies but with little change.
She said that the aim of the statements was, first, to “strengthen the position of the prime minister,” and secondly, to “send messages to the Iraqi people that there is a new relationship between the United States and Iraq, which does not focus solely on security.”