US Middle East Influence in Afghanistan’s Shadow

Will the departure of some 3,000 American troops from Afghanistan be a harbinger of a more fundamental realignment of US Middle East security policy? Presently, the United States has some 40,000 troops in the region, the lion’s share of which are stationed in the Gulf. The prevailing wisdom among many security experts is that while a major reduction in US troop levels will not take place in the short- or medium-term, the Biden Administration’s preeminent focus on China favors a difficult if inexorable “exit” from the region. Moreover, beyond the China challenge, many experts now argue that the United States’ basic security and economic and energy interests are no longer at play in the region. The White House’s recent decision to withdraw Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan—not to mention the pulling of 2,500 out of 5,000 US troops from Iraq—echoes these realpolitik considerations and the related conviction that to succeed, it must make the US economic and political arena its number one priority.

But even as the conditions and logic favoring a US exit remain strong, with the growing political uncertainty generated by the real prospect that the Taliban will now seize full control of Afghanistan, the Biden Administration is unlikely to pursue major Middle East force reductions. That said, the American troop departure from Afghanistan will generate security challenges for all the key players in the region. Indeed, US friends and foes alike now face the complicated task of reassessing the balance between diplomacy and confrontation that will best serve their security interests. As they wrestle with these calculations, the impetus to advance diplomacy may in fact grow in both Washington and Tehran as they negotiate the future of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

“Exiting the Middle East” vs. US Strategic Investments

Over the last two years, the US policy arena has generated assessments of the role of US troop deployments in the Middle East. Most of these reports make a strong case for a dramatic reduction of US forces over the next five years, thus echoing the argument that the United States will “do more with less.”

The number and geographic scope of US troop deployments throughout the region will surely tax any effort to forge a coherent and effective strategy.

Still, the number and geographic scope of US troop deployments throughout the region will surely tax any effort to forge a coherent and effective strategy. As of December 2020, there were some 42,000 troops, but when including the regular rotation of air and naval forces, the figure is closer to 65,000. This puts the United States’ deployment in the Middle East nearly on a par with Europe, where there are 70,000 US troops. The geographic distribution of these forces aligns closely with American security priorities. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait host more than half of these troops; they provide the backbone for US naval and air forces. Even a relatively modest deployment of 3,500 troops in the UAE is important because it supports Al-Dhafra Air Base, where the United States has combat aircraft and surveillance planes. In Bahrain, 5,000 US troops, mostly from the Navy, are stationed in the Shaikh Isa Air Base and in Khalifa Ibn Salman Port, which hosts ships from the US Fifth Fleet, while Qatar has some 8,000 US military personnel at the Al-Udeid Air Base. Since any sizeable troop reductions in these three countries could compromise US naval and air operations in the region, the prospects for a major reduction of these forces remain slim.

Beyond the constraints created by the integrated nature of US force deployment in the Gulf, there are more fundamental geostrategic and political obstacles to a robust realignment of the US military presence. While Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, and Kuwait are all “Major non-NATO Allies,” unlike states that are actual members of NATO, there are no collective treaty-related commitments that bind the United States to any of these Middle East states. And yet the leaders of all four attach both strategic and symbolic importance to their long-established security relationships with Washington. Thus, they would surely be alarmed by any major reduction of US forces in their respective countries or in the wider region.

Gulf leaders would probably view a major withdrawal of US forces as a “spiritual decoupling” of the United States from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Indeed, as one security analyst notes, Gulf leaders would probably view a major withdrawal of US forces as a “spiritual decoupling” of the United States from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council. In contrast to the worries that might flow from reducing US troops in Jordan and even Iraq, a US decision to withdraw from Bahrain or Kuwait would constitute a seismic shift. Thus, even those experts who have argued that there is a smart way for the United States to exit the region only support a partial “downsizing” of the US military presence and, in fact, have warned against any hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In short, vague talk of “demilitarizing” the US presence in the Middle East is not grounded in reality.

Afghanistan and the Middle East: Similar but Different

If there are significant obstacles to a major reduction of American forces in the Middle East (and the Gulf arena especially), the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan will still reverberate throughout the Middle East, particularly when, as now seems likely, the Taliban seize total control of the country. Afghanistan’s significance lies not only in the fact that it is America’s longest and most costly “forever war” (during which more than 2,300 US forces died and 20,660 soldiers were wounded, not to mention the nearly $1 trillion Washington expended by 2020). Beyond these vast numbers, the experience in Afghanistan suggests that a key lesson that should have been burned into the memories of American leaders after the Vietnam War was largely forgotten following 9/11 and the ensuing escalation of US military involvement in Afghanistan. This lesson was that because a costly US ground war against an indigenous foe—one that is committed to a sacred cause—is very unlikely to succeed, postponing an exit of US forces in order to demonstrate the US’s resolve or commitment to its allies is ultimately a futile exercise that will only end in weakening American regional or global influence. The American experience in Afghanistan underscores the nature and limits of US military power, especially when it comes to the effective use of ground troops.

The American experience in Afghanistan underscores the nature and limits of US military power, especially when it comes to the effective use of ground troops. 

The implications of this lesson for the Middle East are complex because the arenas of conflict in which the US military has been engaged are very different from Afghanistan’s. Iraq provides the closest comparison but is hardly the same. In this, the United States’ second longest “forever war”), 4,490 troops were killed between 2003 and 2011, a yearly average of about 500 casualties. During 2012-2020, the number dropped precipitously—to 2 in 2012 and 22 in 2017, which was the highest number of deaths in this eight-year period. The rapid rise and equally sudden drop of casualties was a function of the particular context and evolving challenges that emerged following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. US casualties mounted during the Sunni insurgency and ensuing US-backed counter-insurgency. The success of the latter allowed for the creation of a power-sharing arrangement that survived, but in a context that has favored Iran, which has backed Iraqi governments while backing Shia militias that have often posed a threat to Iraq’s own elected leaders. Numbering some 2,500, US forces have kept their distance from this fraught internal situation by transitioning to an advisory and training role. US and Iraqi leaders see this shift as setting the stage for the eventual withdrawal of combat troops. While no date has been set for their departure, Iran is clearly the big winner in this contest.

Iran’s pivotal role in Iraq (and in Syria as well) underlines the paradox of US military power in both countries. The cold—and sometimes hot—war between Tehran and Washington has ebbed and flowed. But neither wants regime change in Baghdad or, for that matter, in Damascus, because at the end of the day, Washington and Tehran believe that an alternative to the current if tenuous status quo could invite the return of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates. The fact that Washington lacks both the political will and the means to change political realities in Damascus and Baghdad forces the United States to walk a tricky path between its desire to demonstrate that it can still project military power and its coming to terms with the preponderant role that Russia, and especially Iran, have played, and will continue to play, in Iraq and Syria.

Tehran and Washington Walk a Tricky Line

The effort to walk this delicate line bedeviled the Trump Administration and continues to frustrate President Joe Biden’s effort to make good on his promise to end US military participation in the “forever wars” in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, since coming to the White House, Biden has not drawn down US troop levels in Syria (currently about 900) or Iraq. His hesitancy has been driven by the attacks on US forces and facilities by Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias. In response, he ordered air strikes, the purpose of which, he noted, was to signal to Iran that “You can’t act with impunity” and that it should “be careful.” But the air strikes prompted criticism from members of his own party, thus underscoring the political challenge Biden faced as he tried to project US military power. The fact that from May 2019 until January 2020, US troop levels in the region climbed by some 17,000 seemed to make it that much harder for Biden to act tough while following through on his promises to draw down American troops.

In the ensuing first months of his presidency, Biden did not draw down US troop levels in Syria or Iraq. His hesitancy was driven by the attacks on US forces and facilities by Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias. 

Still, numbers can be deceiving. The key question is not the level of forces but rather their geographic deployment and specific role. The vast majority of US forces remain in Gulf countries, where their main task is to act as a deterrent. But the barely held secret to the effectiveness of US conventional deterrence is that it rests on the calculation that Washington’s foes will not take actions that compel the United States to actually enter the battlefield and thus risk an open-ended military escalation. Whether or not Biden ultimately withdraws American forces from Syria and Iraq, his administration would probably do little to change the overall mission of US troop deployment. While this situation is far from a “forever peace,” the White House assumes—perhaps with good reason—that it is also far from a “forever war.”

Whether this calculation proves correct will depend partly on if Iran’s leaders and their non-state allies in Iraq and Syria can walk their own fine line. While Iran’s new hard-line president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, disdains the engagement strategy of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he and his domestic allies—not least of whom is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—probably want to avoid slipping into a major military conflict with the United States, even as they continue to support attacks designed to compel Washington to withdraw its remaining forces from Iraq and Syria. The challenge for Iranian leaders is to calculate the limits beyond which they cannot go without giving the Biden Administration a reason to maintain, or even expand, US force deployments in the two countries, or to walk away from indirect talks to rekindle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), thus closing the door to any prospect for ending or attenuating American sanctions on Iran.

The challenge for Iranian leaders is to calculate the limits beyond which they cannot go without giving the Biden Administration a reason to maintain, or even expand, US force deployments in the two countries.

Events over the last two months suggest that while the situation in the Syrian-Iraqi theater remains precarious, both Washington and Tehran still want to avoid falling into the trap of uncontrolled escalation. On June 28, US planes attacked Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq in response to drone assaults that were previously directed at US forces. This was followed by a spate of rocket attacks directed at Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad Air Base. As they highlight the fragility of the shaky understanding between Tehran and Washington, these developments could prolong any decision by the Biden White House to pull the remaining US forces from Syria and Iraq. While Tehran’s regional allies will probably continue pressuring these troops, Iran probably has its own reasons to emphasize regional and global diplomacy as it contends with the wider security implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

American, Russian, and Iranian Fears Favor Diplomacy

Indeed, while Iranian leaders are happy to see the departure of US troops from Afghanistan, they must contend with the reality that the Taliban will soon rule that country. Tehran’s fundamental fear is not only that the return of the Taliban will lead to the persecution of the Hazara Shia minority along the border with Iran (and thus a new influx of refugees into the Islamic Republic), but that Afghanistan’s new masters will tolerate—if not back—Sunni jihadist forces, thus undermining the hard-won gains that Iran scored in its battle with the Islamic State. Anticipating these fears, the Taliban have sent delegations to Tehran and to Moscow to reassure the leaders of both countries that foreign forces will not be allowed to enter or set up bases in Afghanistan.

The Biden Administration must also be worried about the threats that might ensue from the Taliban’s return. Thus, it might be argued that Washington, Tehran, and Moscow have a common interest in advancing diplomacy. In fact, such calculations might favor sustaining the Vienna talks on the JCPOA. Moreover, Tehran is very likely to continue its current outreach to Gulf Arab countries and to Saudi Arabia, in particular. But these and other diplomatic initiatives will have little effect on the overall size and nature of the US military deployment in the region. Despite its conflict with Iran, the Biden Administration will continue to rely on deterrence while effectively ceding a leading role in Syria and Iraq to Tehran and Moscow. Republican leaders will decry this strategy as a gift to Iran, but they are unlikely to propose a coherent alternative because, as they surely know, Trump’s “America First” policy finds strong echoes in Biden’s own efforts to keep US troops out of harm’s way.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here