by Jeff Klein
There is some good, if tentative, news regarding the Biden administration’s changes in Middle East policy that may lead to a long-term decrease in the US military footprint and may lessen the threat of new armed conflicts in the region. (Unfortunately, it appears that a significant motivation for these policies is the determination to concentrate US military power for confrontation with China in the Western Pacific.)
First: Afghanistan. President Biden’s announcement that all US troops will be withdrawn from the country by September 2021 is a welcome, if long overdue, decision after 20 years of US/NATO war and military occupation. If the administration follows through and executes a complete exit from Afghanistan, that will be a huge step forward — even if the new timetable delays withdrawal from the original May 1 deadline that had been agreed between the Trump administration and the Taliban.
Biden’s statement that, regardless of the outcome, “Only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country” is a historic recognition that the US has neither the right nor the capacity to determine the future of Afghanistan — or any other country for that matter.
Much will depend on whether Biden removes all US forces from the region, including not only “official,” uniformed combat units, but also contractors or special forces, and whether or not he acts promptly to close all American military bases in the country as well. Our government will also need to renounce military interventions “from over the horizon,” whether through drone attacks, missile strikes, or bombing, even if Taliban forces seem to be making gains on the ground.
There is already a lot of pressure from the usual pro-interventionist advocates to continue the war one way or another. Those who cite the very real possibility of a setback to the status of Afghan women, fail to acknowledge that the US interventions beginning in the late 1970s succeeded in overthrowing a relatively progressive regime in Kabul that allowed the full participation of women in public life. It was US arms and the CIA which helped to install the predecessors of the Taliban in the 1990s. Pundits who now shed crocodile tears over the fate of Afghan women had no problem with US support for Afghan jihadists in the 1980s, nor with our decades-long alliance with highly gender-repressive Saudi Arabia.
Second: Iran. On re-entering the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, the Biden administration has been much more hesitant in fulfilling its campaign promise. The matter is complicated by the reality that the US-Iranian relationship has always been, in effect, a US-Israel issue as well. The Israeli government is adamantly opposed to any agreement that normalizes US relations with what it regards as its main regional adversary, and it has continued its provocative covert — and not so covert — attacks against Iran. This has created a challenging political environment for moving ahead with the JCPOA.
The negotiations with Iran for re-activating US participation in the agreement, and dropping the US sanctions that violate it, have become a three-way process between Iran, the US, and Israel — together with Israel’s amen chorus in Congress that includes nearly all Republicans and many Democrats. Saudi Arabia also plays its role as the nervous junior partner of both the US and Israel. The Biden administration needs to move beyond its own half-measures on sanctions relief for Iran before it will be able to overcome domestic and international nay-sayers.
US re-entry into the JCPOA would have a salutary effect in lessening tensions throughout the Middle East. Already the Saudis — possibly foreseeing a diminished direct US role in the region — are reportedly negotiating to establish better relations with Iran. And the Gulf petro-monarchies, which had previously joined US-supported regime change interventions in Syria, may be moving toward normalizing relations and allowing Syria to rejoin the Arab league. The ongoing intervention by NATO member Turkey and the US occupation of Eastern Syria, along with removing the brutal US sanctions, are the main obstacles toward winding down the Syrian conflict and rebuilding the country.
Even if all these moves take place, the US will continue to maintain a giant and unwarranted military footprint in the Middle East. Through air and naval bases, arms deals, and training missions — along with active combat troops stationed in Iraq and Syria — the US still maintains tens of thousands of armed forces in nearly every country of the region. The US’s continued arming (and, in the case of Israel, financing) of regional armed forces works to destabilize the Middle East, while sustaining the genocidal war in Yemen, the internal conflict in Syria, and the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians.
Further withdrawal of US military forces is a precondition for the local states to begin negotiating their own security needs in a regional context, free from outside interference. The road ahead may be bumpy, but this is the only path to lasting peace and the long-overdue democratic reforms so desperately needed by the millions of people in the Middle East.