Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced on Tuesday that the number of American military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq will be reduced to 2,500 soldiers in each country by January 15. President Donald Trump has long criticized the excessive presence of the U.S. military overseas and vowed to reduce the number of American soldiers abroad as one of the main themes of his presidency.
Today the U.S. has an extensive military network with around 800 bases all over the world. Currently about 200,000 military personnel serve outside of U.S. borders. The number of American soldiers outside the country dropped considerably during the Barack Obama presidency as more than 150,000 troops returned home. In the last year of the Obama Administration, the number of U.S. military personnel overseas increased a little.
However, with the arrival of Trump, the trend of reducing overseas military contingents resumed. During the Trump Administration, around 50,000 troops returned home.
It is not clear yet what Joe Biden’s policy will be regarding the troops that remain in other countries, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Judging by his time as vice president, the new administration may not want more American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. During his presidential campaign, Biden declared that he would like to maintain a small military force in the Middle East. For Biden, the so-called threat that Iraq and Afghanistan pose to the U.S. is not as important as Washington’s rivalry with Moscow. Biden may simply redirect the focus from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and even perhaps the Caucasus.
Biden confirmed that no cuts in the military budget are foreseen, which means that the U.S. under his administration will be far from ending its power projections abroad. There is a strong possibility that Washington’s military priorities across the world will be reconsidered by Biden and refocussed towards Russia.
In 2010, the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan was 100,000. But as the intensity of the fighting decreased, the Pentagon began to gradually withdraw its soldiers. In October 2020, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said there were fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the 2,500 American soldiers will hardly be able to contain the Taliban. The Taliban has tens of thousands of fighters and widespread support in many parts of the country. Although the precise figures are unknown, it is clear that the Taliban pose the greatest threat to both the Afghan Army and remaining U.S. forces. Today the Taliban continue to control huge swathes of Afghanistan.
In the last two decades, the U.S., the international coalition and the Afghan Army have managed to push back the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, but have not been able to defeat them. If we remember the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, a sudden military withdrawal could make way for radical Islamists to take full control of the country.
The American presence brought much misfortune to Afghanistan and Iraq. In the Afghan case, violence continues with suicide bomb attacks and military offensives. Iraq, in turn, had to fight back against ISIS that controlled large areas of the country and even threatened to capture Baghdad. These countries contend with such issues on top of the high level of corruption, low living standards and chronic instability.
While the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is arguably necessary to exert some security because of constant terrorist threats, in other parts of the world, the deployment of American soldiers is vestigial. The largest contingents of the U.S. military abroad are in Japan, Germany, South Korea and Italy.
The presence of 26,000 American troops in South Korea is maintained because of the threat of war with North Korea. The presence of 53,000 military personnel in Japan is also maintained because of the supposed North Korean threat. However, the American presence in Japan actually has to do with the Pentagon wanting to project its power near the borders of China and Russia. In fact, the number of U.S. soldiers serving in Japan is even greater than those deployed in Hawaii and Alaska.
As for Europe, in Germany there are about 34,000 U.S troops, while in Italy there are more than 12,000. These troops made sense in the immediate post-World War II period, but today they do not serve any geopolitical necessity. It is possible that, should Biden come to power, he will try to increase U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe which could provoke an adequate response from Moscow.
In any case, the possible deployments will not be as extensive as the existing contingents. In general, the trend points towards the reduction of the U.S. military presence across the world, beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan. It must be noted that each new president is capable of changing this trend though. None-the-less, it is unlikely that once Biden is in the White House, only five days after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and Iraq, that he will increase this number – at least for the short term.
Unlike Germany, Italy, South Korea and Japan, that are stable and secure countries that allow U.S. military personnel to conduct their duties in safety, this is not the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. For this reason, it is likely that Biden will accept the loss of U.S. power projections in Iraq and Afghanistan, but redirect them to new fronts to pressure Russia.
Contributed by Paul Antonopoulos, an independent geopolitical analyst
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