Reasons behind endless US troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan

China Military Online
Chen Zhuo
2020-09-17 17:24:29

By Zhang Jing

The US military recently announced to reduce its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to about 3,000 and 4,500 by the end of September and November respectively. European and American mainstream media related the troop withdrawal with the upcoming US presidential election, saying that the move was mainly to help Trump’s reelection.

Winning reelection and staying in office is the top priority of the incumbent US President Donald Trump and his team. But no matter who comes in power after the election - the Republic or the Democrats, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, strategic military deployments in the Middle East and Central Asia and America’s global geo-strategy is the reality it has to face. By withdrawing only part of the troops and leaving a trail behind in case of any future changes, American decision makers are making long plans for their political purposes and strategic intentions.

Right from the beginning till the present, the Afghan War and Iraqi War have witnessed the entire financial crisis, the alternate rule of the Democratic and Republic parties, the change of anti-terror policies, the Arab Spring movement, the emergence of the extremist group Islamic State, refugee crises, and many other bumpy occurrences. The wars have had a persistent and potent sway over political headwinds in the US, and Trump is well-aware of the gains and losses.

The US has experienced a “boom-to-bust” cycle in both wars that have triggered large-scale turmoil in the regions. In Afghanistan, the US-backed regime has failed to secure a firm footing over the years and Taliban still hasn’t been exterminated. In Iraq, the US-led democratic reform hasn’t proceeded well either after the original regime collapsed. The two extremely costly wars have increased the financial burden on Washington and left a deep wound that has kept sucking up America’s national strength.

When Obama took office, he decided to “pull troops from Iraq and send more to Afghanistan” for geo-strategic considerations. At the end of 2011, he officially rolled out the Asia-Pacific Rebalance Strategy to pay more attention to traditional major powers. However, as the Middle East situation worsened, the US-backed regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan had a crisis, extremist organization IS began to rise and Russia also stepped in aggressively, the Obama administration had to send troops to Iraq again while paying more attention to Afghanistan as well. This reflected a notable strategic hesitation among American decision makers then.

Trump didn’t start the two wars, but he had to face the consequences and chaos caused by them. His team from the very beginning has been confronted with the fact that domestic problems have come to the fore after long years of wars, which set the framework of their thinking and actions. During US global strategic contraction and the adjustment of troops, Trump, for America’s national interests and considering its important allies, has paid some attention to the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Iraq is of great importance for Arabian countries, the Islamic world, Europe, especially Washington’s strategic ally Israel. In the eyes of countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iraq is an important forefront against Iran’s “expansion”. These countries are worried that Tehran will have more influence over Iraq after American troops are pulled out and Iran, Iraq and Syria will have closer cooperation, which will affect the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Afghanistan is important because around it is China in the east, the five Central Asian countries in the north, Iran in the west and Pakistan in the south, all of which are on America’s “watch” list.

There is no way that the US decision makers would easily pull troops out of these two strategic pivots. The move to withdraw part of the troops from there actually serves multiple purposes at the same time. It appeases the public anti-war sentiments at home and mitigates the conflicts with Pentagon, thus securing more votes from the service members and their families. It honors Trump’s commitment to cutting overseas troops while maintaining America’s military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. It soothes the allies’ security concerns but retains the possibility of “going back” when necessary. The high-profile announcement of withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan fully displayed Trump’s balancing of interests and the strategic considerations for Washington’s global military deployments. What’s certain is that this decision by the US side will definitely trigger concerns among America’s Middle East allies and bring new changes to anti-terror situation, security and stability in the region.

(The author is with the College of National Security, National Defence University of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.)

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