- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 17, 2021

Afghanistan may be the first domino to fall in a much broader restructuring of America’s military footprint across the wider Middle East and Central Asia.

Both of President Biden‘s predecessors fell short in their military “pivots” toward Asia and a rising China, but some foreign policy analysts say the stars have aligned for an overhaul nearly a decade in the making. At Mr. Biden‘s direction, the Pentagon is in the midst of a landmark “global force posture review” that could lay the groundwork for a significant reconfiguration of U.S. troops around the world, including the potential withdrawal of thousands of forces from bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and elsewhere across a theater that has consumed American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era.

The document is expected to be released later this summer. A Pentagon official said it will “identify longer-term strategic considerations for future analysis,” meaning it could provide a baseline for the commander in chief to initiate a long-term shift in where U.S. troops are stationed and the level of resources allocated to specific regions.

Nowhere would such a change be more apparent than in the Middle East. Some specialists argue that by taking the politically risky move of pulling forces from the region, Mr. Biden is poised to free up manpower and equipment to focus on China and other 21st-century threats. Such a strategy, though, will come with its own significant foreign policy risks.

“I think there’s more of a commitment to minimizing or cutting bait on other commitments” in the Middle East, said Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities and the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

“You can talk about money. You can talk about blood and treasure. That all matters,” Mr. Barndollar said. “But the biggest problem with the Middle East ulcer is that it sucks up a tremendous amount of bandwidth from decision-makers.”

Indeed, President Obama, with Mr. Biden at his side as vice president, tried to reorient U.S. military posture toward Asia but ultimately was sucked back into the Middle East by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

Donald Trump campaigned on stopping “endless wars” in the region and initiated major troop drawdowns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But he also dispatched thousands of additional troops to Middle East bases as a check on an increasingly aggressive Iran, leaving a more extensive U.S. presence in the theater than when he took office.

Exact U.S. manpower levels in the Middle East are murky because of troop rotations, temporary deployments and other factors. More than 44,000 U.S. troops are estimated to be in the region, said Defense Priorities, which compiles running tallies from government databases and other sources.

Defense Priorities counts 3,000 troops in Jordan, 2,500 in Saudi Arabia, 13,500 in Kuwait, 8,000 in Qatar, 3,500 in the United Arab Emirates and thousands more at other locations.

Roughly 3,500 troops were in Afghanistan, but that figure shrank to several hundred Marines left to guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the international airport. About 2,500 troops are still in Iraq. The White House denied media reports that it is considering a withdrawal from that country, too.

At the insistence of Congress, the Pentagon is moving to set up and fund a nearly $5 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative designed to focus on the military’s concentration on the threat from China and the need to bolster allies in East Asia. But many China critics in Congress say they are unhappy with the early ideas on how the initiative will play out and whether the administration is devoting the time and resources necessary to make it effective over the long run.

Middle East deployments, some analysts argue, could be vital in a future without well-established bases of operation in Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden and Pentagon leaders have stressed that the U.S. will maintain “over-the-horizon capabilities” to strike terrorists who may find haven in Afghanistan. To do that, long-term staging areas elsewhere in the Middle East will be necessary, especially given that the administration has not secured deals to host military assets in countries bordering Afghanistan.

If the administration pulls troops or equipment from Kuwait, “it’s not certain you’d ever get back in there,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“If you anticipate ever needing to do anything in Afghanistan ever again, if you ever want to do anything in the Middle East … you’ve got to keep a place like Bahrain. You’ve got to keep a place like Qatar,” he said. 

Furthermore, Gen. Spoehr and other specialists argue that a shift in focus from the Middle East to China is about much more than numbers. The U.S. already has huge numbers of troops stationed in South Korea, Japan and other Asian locations.

A greater focus on China, analysts say, will involve the positioning of cutting-edge weapons systems and other assets in the Pacific, not just the shift of a few thousand ground forces from a base in the Middle East to one in Asia.

“The world is never going to be that convenient,” Gen. Spoehr said.

Mr. Biden has stressed that the U.S. will maintain the resources it needs in the Middle East, though he has been tight-lipped about specifics outside of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

“The terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa,” the president said in a speech last week defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan

“But make no mistake: Our military and intelligence leaders are confident they have the capabilities to protect the homeland and our interests from any resurgent terrorist challenge emerging or emanating from Afghanistan,” he said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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