Trump's decision to withdraw Middle East troops is a risky game

The US president has announced a reduction of another 2,500 troops by the end of his term

epa08827216 (FILE) - US soldiers attends a training session for Afghan Army soldiers in Herat, Afghanistan, 02 February 2019 (reissued 18 November 2020). Media reported that US President Donald J. Trump plans to withdraw 2,000 US troops in Afghanistan. *** Local Caption *** 56187189
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Donald Trump might be entering the final days of his presidency. But, to judge by his recent actions in the Middle East, he has lost none of his enthusiasm for the controversial approach to the region that has defined his presidency.

On Iran, where Mr Trump’s confrontational attitude towards the ayatollahs has transformed American policy towards Tehran, the president has imposed a new round of sanctions, this time targeting the country’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, as well the Mostazafan Foundation, which is run by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The foundation, which was set up after the 1979 revolution to confiscate the property of former officials in Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government, has 160 holdings across key sectors of the Iranian economy, including finance, energy, construction and mining sectors.

Announcing the new measures, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimed the foundation was being used to reward Mr Khamenei’s allies, who were responsible for the brutal suppression of anti-government protests earlier this year.

“The United States will continue to target key officials and revenue-generating sources that enable the regime’s ongoing repression of its own people,” he said.

The imposition of new sanctions, which have already had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy, comes after Mr Trump is reported to have asked the Pentagon about the possibility of bombing Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility after UN inspectors reported that the regime had acquired a stockpile of enriched nuclear material that was 12 times the size of that permitted under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

According to the New York Times, Mr Trump was dissuaded from taking action after senior members of his administration warned of the serious risks of escalation in the region.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers an address from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria//File Photo
Donald Trump delivers an address at the White House in Washington, DC, US, November 13. Reuters

Mr Trump has also been keen to demonstrate his commitment to Israel with this week’s visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during which he became the first holder of his office to visit Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, a break from prior US State Department policy regarding visits to these disputed regions.

In addition, Mr Trump has announced another reduction of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a move that is entirely consistent with his policy of scaling down America’s military presence around the world but one which, particularly with regard to Afghanistan, is fraught with risk.

The US has been undertaking a steady reduction in its military presence in Afghanistan since February when Washington announced a peace deal with the Taliban.

(FILES) In this file photo Afghan's President Ashraf Ghani addresses US troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit of US President Donald Trump at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. The US will cut its troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 in January, the lowest level in nearly two decades of war, as outgoing President Donald Trump follows through on a pledge to end conflicts abroad, the Pentagon announced on November 17, 2020. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said around 2,000 troops would be pulled from the country by January 15, and 500 more would come back from Iraq, leaving 2,500 in each country.
 / AFP / Olivier Douliery
Afghan's President Ashraf Ghani addresses US troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit of US President Donald Trump at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. AFP

Under the terms of the agreement, the US undertook to withdraw its forces on the understanding that the Taliban would cut all ties with international terrorists and engage in a sincere dialogue with the Afghan government to formulate a lasting peace process.

While negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul were delayed until September over wrangling about the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan authorities, Mr Trump has lost no time scaling down America’s military presence in the country. Over the past year American troop strength has fallen from around 9,000 to 5,000.

Despite reaching a deal with the US, the Taliban has shown no inclination to curb its campaign against the Afghan security forces

Now Mr Trump, who pledged during the presidential election contest that he wanted all American troops “home by Christmas”, has announced a reduction of another 2,500 troops by the end of his term in mid-January, as well as reducing the American force in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500.

Both reductions are not without their risks. Washington’s military presence in Iraq is two-fold: to prevent ISIS and its affiliates from establishing new strongholds after the series of defeats they have suffered at the hands of the US-led coalition, and to contain the threat posed to the new Iraqi government of Mustafa Al Kadhimi from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

America’s military presence in Afghanistan is deemed to be even more vital, as there are deepening fears that without US military support, Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces will be unable to prevent the Taliban from seizing control of large swathes of the country.

These concerns are said to have been the reason why Mr Trump took the extraordinary decision to dismiss US Defense Secretary Mark Esper after he reportedly submitted a classified memo to the White House in which he argued that the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan were not suitable for a further reduction of American forces.

Mr Esper was apparently referring to the recent upsurge in Taliban violence in the country, which posed a risk for remaining US troops, as well as straining relations with Nato allies. There was also the risk that reducing troops could undermine negotiations with the Taliban to secure a landmark deal with the Afghan government.

Despite reaching a deal with the US, the Taliban has shown no inclination to curb its campaign against the Afghan security forces.

The UN reported last month that there has been no reduction in civilian casualties since the start of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, while in some parts of the country, especially in the south, there has been an escalation of violence.

In recent weeks, the Taliban has intensified its campaign against Kandahar, while an assault on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, was only beaten back with the help of US air strikes.

Consequently, Mr Trump’s attempts to fulfil his election pledge to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan has prompted criticism from both senior Republicans and Washington’s allies.

FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 file photo, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a ceremony marking the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, at NATO headquarters in Brussels. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 that the military organization could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early, after a U.S. official said President Donald Trump is expected to withdraw a significant number of American troops from the conflict-ravaged country in coming weeks. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool, File)
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Tuesday, Nov 17 that the military organisation could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early. AP

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that “a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” while the announcement prompted a rare rebuke from Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who said that the move could result in Afghanistan again becoming a platform for terrorists to launch attacks overseas.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no Nato ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” Mr Stoltenberg said in a statement. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

Mr Trump might believe that by taking these controversial decisions in the last days of his presidency he is securing his legacy. But in so far as Afghanistan is concerned, they also run the risk of handing victory to the Taliban and its extremist allies.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National