September 10, 2020 | Insight

To Succeed in Competition with China, Don’t Abandon the Middle East

September 10, 2020 | Insight

To Succeed in Competition with China, Don’t Abandon the Middle East

As the United States somberly observes the 9/11 anniversary this week, some Americans are in a mood to withdraw military forces from the wider Middle East. Long-time advocates for withdrawal on the political margins have sought to align with those eager to divert defense resources to the great power competition with China. But if Washington wants to focus on China, an unconditional, timeline-based withdrawal of the U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria would be exactly the wrong decision.

At first glance, such an assertion may seem counterintuitive. After all, defense resources are finite. Setting aside the fact that the great power competition is increasingly unfolding in the Middle East, too, every soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine deployed there is not deployed in the Indo-Pacific. And every defense dollar spent in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) is a dollar not spent in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) AOR.

But on closer examination, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking regarding the Middle East does not withstand scrutiny and endangers any effort to implement an effective long-term U.S. strategy toward Beijing.

If Washington conducts complete withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria without regard for the situations left behind, it will increase the chances of an ISIS resurgence or another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland – perhaps even with weapons of mass destruction.

In such a scenario, U.S. domestic politics and national security requirements would likely require another sizable and costly military intervention in the Middle East. While Washington should always seek reliable and capable local partners to carry the bulk of the burden associated with a ground war, such partners may not always be available.

It would be far more prudent to retain a modest U.S. military presence to empower existing partners and contain threats, rather than prematurely withdrawing and having to return later at a greater cost.

Especially in light of growing constraints on the defense budget, such a mistake is exactly what Washington must avoid if it hopes to have the resources necessary to succeed in the competition with Beijing. A new U.S. military intervention in the wider Middle East, potentially involving tens of thousands of U.S. ground combat troops, would dangerously siphon finite national attention and defense resources away from the competition with China.

In the weeks and months following a new major intervention in the Middle East that pushes aside other priorities, imagine Beijing’s temptations in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.

So, what’s to be done?

Instead of conducting full, timeline-based withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Washington should maintain modest economy-of-force, conditions-based deployments in each country to help partners keep pressure on terrorists and deprive them of the safe haven and breathing space they need to launch attacks against Americans. By doing so, the United States can ensure local or regional terrorist threats do not become international terrorist threats that manifest themselves on the streets of New York City or Washington, DC.

Due to the consistent, bipartisan failure of most national leaders to explain America’s persistent national security interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, such an approach may not earn much applause at political rallies. But it would help keep Americans safe and is also consistent with the best traditions of strategy formulation.

After all, the essence of good strategy is the coordination of ends and means – establishing priorities, allocating finite resources, and mitigating risk.

It is worth noting that any sound strategic exercise begins with the establishment of priorities.

In an admirable effort to do just that, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) included this important paragraph:

Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department, and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future. Concurrently, the Department will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.

The Pentagon is right to consider China – or, more accurately, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the preeminent threat to American security, prosperity, and freedom. That is because the CCP combines both the will and increasingly the ability to attack and undermine U.S. interests. The CCP has a hostile ideology, tremendous economic resources, a rapidly modernizing military, and global ambitions. Beijing has also demonstrated a willingness to utilize a range of national tools in an incremental and surreptitious manner against the United States.

Accordingly, the Pentagon is wisely seeking to shift more U.S. forces into the Indo-Pacific and is attempting to undertake a vital and desperately overdue military modernization effort.

But as the NDS explicitly notes, China is not America’s only problem. In addition to Moscow, the NDS also highlights North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups as serious but secondary threats.

This clear delineation of priorities is laudable and should indeed inform the allocation of defense resources and U.S. global military posture, including in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. But secondary threats – especially ones that are neglected – can still kill Americans.

That is certainly true of the Islamist terrorist threat.

“It is now undeniable that the homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” declared the NDS. “America is a target” for terrorists, some of whom continue to pursue weapons of mass destruction. That assessment is consistent with more recent analysis by experts who focus on Islamist terrorism.

That does not mean the United States must maintain tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NDS is right that the Pentagon must move to “a more resource-sustainable approach” in those two countries.

On Wednesday, General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, announced that Washington will reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq from 5,200 troops to 3,000 troops this month. And the Pentagon also plans to cut the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from 8,600 to approximately 4,500 by early November.

It remains to be seen whether these announcements, made on the verge of the U.S. presidential election, will leave sufficient U.S. forces in both countries. Congress would be right to press the Department of Defense to answer tough questions about these partial withdrawals.

Regardless, by November, the United States will have only about 8,200 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – combined. Compare that to a peak of 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007 and approximately 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2011. Compare that 8,200 figure also to the fact that the active-duty Army alone includes approximately 482,000 soldiers (as of July).

Don’t expect, however, some to be satisfied by this dramatically reduced troop presence. Ignoring the lessons of the timeline-based withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, some will continue to push for full withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria regardless of conditions on the ground.

But retaining the necessary economy-of-force military deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria can help secure a significant grand strategic good – namely, preventing another 9/11-style attack or the reemergence of an ISIS caliphate.

Accomplishing such objectives would help prevent a major new war involving the large-scale deployment of U.S. service members and resources to the Middle East. Preserving a relatively modest conditions-based military posture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, therefore, represents an essential and sustainable component of a successful long-term American strategy toward China.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Bradley and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Afghanistan China Indo-Pacific Iran Military and Political Power North Korea Russia Syria U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy