US troop redeployment renews debate about reliability

US troop redeployment renews debate about reliability

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U.S. Army and German Bundeswehr officers during the Allied Spirit X military exercise near Hohenfels, Germany, April, 2019. (Getty Images)

The US last week appeared to follow through with President Donald Trump’s earlier threat to reduce the American troop presence in Germany. According to a Pentagon announcement, 12,000 troops will be withdrawn from the country. Half will be redeployed to other European countries and the rest rotated between Europe and the US. Additionally, the US’ European Command and Special Operations Command Europe will be moved from Stuttgart to Belgium.

It is not clear why these steps were decided at this time. Were they based on political, military or financial reasons? European and American critics have charged that the moves could weaken NATO and undermine US allies’ trust in its commitment to the principle of mutual defense, which underpins the North Atlantic alliance. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper deflected such criticism by saying that the troop redeployment would strengthen NATO, enhance deterrence and reassure allies.

The redeployment will take time to carry out and may not be completed before the US presidential election in November. The post-election calculus may be different, regardless of who wins, and the matter may be reconsidered. However, some would argue that the damage to US reliability is already done, even if the decision is reversed in the future. 

If the US’ commitment to its most important alliance has thus been shaken, what chance do its other partnerships have? 

In June, US Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said that the Pentagon now realizes the need to turn to “where the greatest threats are” and, as such, shift resources from the Middle East to confronting China at a military level. Like Esper, McKenzie was reassuring to regional partners, saying that, as a “global superpower,” the US will continue to be around to “counter the growing encroachment” of other powers into the Gulf. 

The US has, of course, the right to shift or expand its focus according to its national security interests, but those interests could be better served by maintaining healthy and regular peer dialogues with its allies and partners.

Some of the US’ financial concerns are justified. In the case of NATO, the alliance was formed at a time when only America had the financial capacity to fund its operations or maintain a high level of military readiness. But US gross domestic product (GDP) now represents only about half of the combined GDP of the NATO membership. The White House has called for a more equitable sharing of the burden, pointing out that it spends more than 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, while most NATO members spend less than 2 percent. This issue does not arise in the Gulf because the military spending of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is way higher, relative to their GDP, than the US.

While the US has its issues, its partners in Europe, the Gulf and the Middle East have also raised questions about its sudden decisions that affect their security and their ability to count on Washington. For example, in 2003, the US decided to invade Iraq against the advice of its partners in the region. At the time, some Gulf leaders expressed their concern that the invasion “handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.” Then the US dismantled the Iraqi state and security systems too soon, creating chaotic conditions that benefited Iran and made it possible for Al-Qaeda and other terrorists to thrive in the country, thus threatening the security of its Gulf partners.

In 2011, the US decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq — again against the advice of its regional partners — allowing terrorists to regroup under the new banner of Daesh. Iran also took advantage of the vacuum created by the US withdrawal. While Trump did send some more troops to Iraq, there is now talk once again of significantly reducing their numbers. The same back and forth has happened in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.

This is not to imply there are no consultations between the US and its partners. There are frequent, detailed discussions about all of these issues, but there is a need for a more systematic framework, with organic feedback to the leadership and decision-makers.

NATO has its structure based on the 1947 treaty that set up the organization. The US and the EU have also established regular channels for dialogue. In the Gulf, there is the GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF), which was set up in March 2012 to provide a platform for regular political and security consultations under the auspices of the foreign and defense ministers of the two sides. In September 2012, the two sides signed an agreement on economic, trade, investment and technical cooperation to complement the political and security focus of the SCF.

In May 2015, consultation between the GCC and the US was beefed up through the establishment of the GCC-US Strategic Partnership, led by the heads of state and assisted by dozens of ministers, senior officials and joint working groups.

The US’ interests could be better served by maintaining healthy and regular peer dialogues with its allies.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

These platforms are still in existence and could be utilized more effectively to discuss the US and GCC’s political and security postures in the Gulf, the Middle East at large, and other areas where the two sides have interests and engagements.

In addition to the two-way platforms between the US and its Gulf partners, and between the US and its European allies, there is great value in establishing regular dialogue with a wider range of partners. For example, the US, NATO, GCC and the EU all share interests and security concerns in many hot spots and should be able to coordinate better. US decisions to redeploy troops or change focus could be discussed through these platforms so that allies and partners are able to prepare and take action in a timely manner, which avoids creating security vacuums that could affect their national defense.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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