US keeping thousands of military personnel in Mideast despite drawdowns

Events and threats from ISIS and Iran will likely mean that tens of thousands of US troops will remain in the Arab countries and the Gulf for the foreseeable future.
Sunday 15/03/2020
U.S. troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division arrive at Green Ramp for a deployment to the Middle East on January 4, 2020. (AFP)
U.S. troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division arrive at Green Ramp for a deployment to the Middle East on January 4, 2020. (AFP)

Since the spring of 2019, when Iran ramped up its aggressive behaviour in the Gulf,  the US Central Command increased by 20,000 the number of military personnel in the region, reaching about 80,000 in January.

The United States' killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani in January and Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US military personnel at al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, which resulted in no deaths but about 100 injuries, shortly thereafter made for a very tense period.

About 1,000 US combat troops from the US Army 82nd Airborne Division were immediately deployed to Kuwait after the Soleimani killing, along with a US Navy aircraft carrier and other warships carrying a US Marines expeditionary unit to the Gulf, plus the deployment of jet fighter squadrons.

This show of force, said Central Command commander US Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, speaking in late January, was intended to restore “deterrence” and to send a signal to Iran that, while the United States does not seek war with Tehran, neither should Iran “seek war with us.”

While McKenzie stated he hoped for a de-escalation of the crisis, he emphasised that “we have the capability to defend ourselves and to inflict significant pain on [the Iranians] should they choose” to escalate the situation.

By late February, there were no further Iranian attacks on US personnel, though there were periodic rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing US forces, believed to have been carried out by pro-Iran Iraqi militias.

This relative period of calm prompted the Trump administration to withdraw about 1,000 troops from Kuwait and plan to withdraw an additional 2,000 troops from the region, a report in the Wall Street Journal stated.

Some US military officials, speaking anonymously to the newspaper, expressed confidence that the “window” for more violence coming from Iran in retaliation for the Soleimani killing had passed.

However, the deaths recently incurred by US and allied military personnel in Iraq, may cause the Pentagon to halt further drawdowns of troops from the region.

The first occurred March 8 in which two US Marines, fighting alongside Iraqi government troops, were killed during an operation against Islamic State (ISIS) militants who were in a mountain cave in northern Iraq. About 25 ISIS fighters were killed and an ISIS training camp was destroyed in the operation.

Some 5,200 US troops remain in Iraq as part of the anti-ISIS campaign, involved mostly in training the Iraqi military, though some have obviously been taking part in joint operations against ISIS cells.

The second incident, which occurred March 11, involved a barrage of Katyusha rockets fired at a base in Taji, Iraq, that killed two US military personnel and one Briton. The base in Taji hosts coalition personnel training and advising the Iraqi Army.

Although the first incident was unlikely to have involved Iran, since ISIS is opposed to the Shia clerical regime in Tehran, the second may have had an Iranian hand in it. An unidentified US defence official, speaking to CNN, said the United States would go after the perpetrators, adding that it was likely that Iran-backed militants or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were behind the attacks, based on weapons and tactics used.

Testifying before the US Congress the day before, McKenzie said, in reference to the sporadic rocket attacks, that even though such attacks had not resulted in US casualties thus far, “that luck is not going to hold out forever.” This was a prescient remark.

Whether Iran has direct “command and control” over such militia attacks is an open question. McKenzie has expressed the idea in congressional testimony that, while Iran can “certainly direct attacks in Iraq,” it “may not be able to prevent attacks from occurring in Iraq.”

There seem to be two schools of thought about Iran’s intentions. One theory is that Iran does not want an escalation with the United States because it must deal with mounting internal problems such as a weak economy and its bungled attempt to contain the coronavirus, which has infected thousands of its citizens. The other theory flips this argument on its head by suggesting that Iran may want an escalation with the United States to divert the public’s attention from these problems.

Regardless, the purported de-escalation between the United States and Iran over the past several weeks has been shattered and we may be headed for a new round of attacks. That means that any plans that may have been on the books for more drawdowns of US troops from the region have likely hit the pause button.

Although the Trump administration seems eager to reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan, which the recent deal with the Taliban calls for, events and threats from ISIS and Iran will likely mean that tens of thousands of US troops will remain in the Arab countries and the Gulf for the foreseeable future.

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