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The Media Line: US Plan to Wind Down Middle East Presence Causes Uproar

US Plan to Wind Down Middle East Presence Causes Uproar

President’s parting gesture concerns Republicans, NATO allies

By Uri Cohen / The Media Line

US President Donald Trump’s plans for a massive withdrawal of troops from the Middle Eastern theater have led many in Washington and around the world, including some of the president’s closest allies, to sound the alarm.

On Monday reports surfaced that President Trump had last week requested his advisers draw up specific plans for pulling thousands of soldiers out of Afghanistan and Iraq, in an effort to leave a mark before his January departure from the White House. The president has repeatedly promised to completely evacuate American forces stationed in Afghanistan by Christmas.

On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that while “no NATO ally wants to stay [in Afghanistan] any longer than necessary … the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

In 2003, NATO took over the international effort in the war-torn country following its invasion by the US in 2001. Over 10 years later, the organization began training and advising Afghan security forces, and has since gradually removed its troops in coordination with the US.

Stoltenberg promised that regardless of Washington’s actions, NATO would continue its mission in Afghanistan.

But his frustration with President Trump’s intentions was evident.

“Hundreds of thousands of troops from Europe and beyond have stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and over 1,000 of them have paid the ultimate price,” he said Tuesday.

“We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way. I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment.”

Another source of opposition to a possible withdrawal was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, normally one of President Trump’s staunchest supporters.

“A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell warned on Monday, saying that Afghan “terrorists” would like nothing more than to see the US “pick up our ball and go home.”

He went on to call President Trump’s plan “humiliating,” predicting it would do more harm than former President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq.

On Tuesday several Pentagon officials intimated that the President’s original evacuation plans had been significantly watered down. According to several US news outlets, the administration is now preparing to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan by only 2,000, from approximately 4,500 to 2,500. In Iraq, military officials were told to prepare for a withdrawal of 500 soldiers, leaving the remaining forces at 2,500 as well.

The decision comes mere days after the abrupt firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a typical Trump tweet. Esper’s removal, along with that of several other senior defense officials, was considered by many as an attempt by the president to install his loyalists in top Pentagon positions.

Prior to his dismissal, Esper had repeatedly insisted that current conditions in the Middle East did not allow for a reduction in US forces, warning of dire national security implications of such a move.

“Any decision of a total withdrawal out of Iraq would be a very grave mistake,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, an analyst of Syria, Iraq, radical Islamic groups and Kurds and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.

“This is obviously strictly theoretical, and there is still a range of possibilities between total withdrawal and keeping things as they are now,” Spyer stressed. “But without a doubt, the vacuum left by the US in Iraq would quickly be filled by Iran and its proxies.”

In Afghanistan, the NATO-backed Kabul government in recent weeks has conducted on and off negotiations over a power-sharing agreement with the insurgent Taliban group, an extremist organization that, prior to the 2001 American invasion, controlled most of the country.

The peace talks, held in Doha, were made possible only after Washington signed a deal with the terrorist group earlier this year, promising to eventually pull all its troops from Afghanistan.

Dr. Merav Mishaeli-Rom of Bar Ilan University, an expert on international crises focusing on Afghanistan, believes that while an eventual departure of foreign forces from the country is essential, a haphazard exit by the US, done for political aims, would lead to unnecessary upheaval.

“The mess that is there right now would be exacerbated by other foreign actors moving in. I don’t think this is the right way to go about it,” she told The Media Line.

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