The Middle East troop ‘repositioning’

Middle East USA World

Few can forget the words of Tony Blair’s government aide hours after the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11. “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury,” wrote Jo Moore. Donald Trump obviously thought the same thing. 

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps over America, he has ordered US troops to abandon three vital military bases in Iraq – to spare them further attacks from Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia fighters.

Trump has always boasted of the need for withdrawals – but this was a retreat. The official line – that the US was “repositioning [sic] troops from a few smaller bases” – was almost as laughable as the final US marine abandonment of Beirut in 1984 after months under fire from Shia militias. Almost four decades ago, the Americans said they were “redeploying to ships offshore”. 

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As in Napoleon’s “redeployment’” from Moscow. Or the British “redeployment” from Dunkirk. Now US forces are going to “reposition” from their bases at al-Qaim, Qayyarah and the K-1 base near Kirkuk in Iraq. As in George Washington’s “repositioning” from Brooklyn Heights in 1776, I suppose, or the British “repositioning” from Kabul in 1842.

Back in 1984, President Reagan said the Americans would not “cut and run” from Lebanon. But they did. In January this year, Trump said of Iraq: “If we leave, that would mean that Iran would have a much bigger foothold [sic].” He was trying to smother a letter written by Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely who had just told the truth about US strategy to the deputy director of the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, Major General Abdul Amir. The US led coalition, Seely had told his Iraqi opposite number, “will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”

Whoops! Generals are not always expected to tell the truth. Seely, obviously an honest guy, didn’t shy away from the facts. But the Pentagon did. The letter, claimed Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley called Seely’s letter a “mistake”. It was, he said, “poorly worded” and “implied withdrawal” – which he said was not happening. Now we know that it is indeed happening. 

Withdrawal is exactly what Seely meant. Far from being poorly worded, Seely’s letter was all too accurate. But that, I guess, is a soldier’s life under Trump. Tell the truth, and the liar in the White House will have you slapped down – before proving that you were honest all along.

The retreat from al-Qaim, French news footage reveals, is a rather scrappy affair, American soldiers furling dust-covered tents beside long forgotten Iraqi railway goods trains derailed in the fighting fifteen years ago. Scarcely three years ago, the US troops here – and the Iraqis based alongside them – had been fighting the apocalyptic Isis. Outside, the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – whose allied Kataib Hezbollah and al-Totof Brigades had also been fighting the same jihadis – liaised with the Americans against Isis via the Iraqi army. 

They were supported, of course, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. A reporter for the BBC’s Persian service visited al-Qaim 15 months ago and noticed how the surrounding countryside was now emblazoned with PMF flags.

There were occasional attacks against the Americans, and then – folly of follies for the US military in Iraq since they were all supposed to be training the Iraqi army which now embraced the PMF – Trump, the great commander-in-chief who would never retreat from Iraq, decided to assassinate the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani And, perhaps even more stupidly, to wipe out, along with Soleimani, the deputy head of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Thus did the Pentagon kill – or murder, since drones are now the liquidators of choice when America’s enemies are chosen for death – the leader of the most prominent militia within the Iraqi army whose men, hitherto, surrounded the US bases.

All further attacks on the Americans must be seen in the light of the deaths of these two men. An American mercenary was killed. Then two American soldiers and one British soldier at the Taji base (not – yet – on the retreat list). The Americans staged air strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah, killing more than two dozen of their men. A rocket attack seriously wounded 34 Americans – all suffered “traumatic brain injuries”, according to the Pentagon – but Trump said not a single soldier had been hurt. “I heard they had headaches,” he later remarked. If a US president can dismiss so blithely the injuries of his own military forces, of course, he can just as easily close a base or two. Or three.

To add further injury – and death – to insult, the Americans then attacked Kerbala airport, under construction for future pilgrims to the Shia shrine and other sites across Iraq, killing three government soldiers from the Iraqi army’s 19th Commando Division, two policemen and a civilian. The keepers of the shrine itself, sacred to the Imams Hussein and Abbas, condemned this assault, and the Iraqi foreign ministry filed a complaint to the UN Security Council. The Americans claimed that Shia militia weapons had been stored at the airport site.

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, would threaten that “America will not tolerate attacks” – but nor, it seems, will the Shia militias tolerate more attacks. They, after all, would not be “repositioning”. The Americans would. And when a US defence department official told the BBC that the proximity of the leading Shia militia to the al-Qaim base was “a key factor within the calculation of the decision to move forces elsewhere”, you knew the Americans had lost.

But in the topsy-turvy world of Trumpland, it’s another victory. Like the US-Taliban agreement this month to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, 8,500 of them within 135 days – in return for a promise from their guerrilla enemies of 19 years to keep al-Qaeda, Isis and other jihadis out of the country. The Americans will still have sufficient forces, we are told, to conduct “counter-terrorism operations” against the latter. In Pentagon-speak – a language always divorced from real life but none more so than in the graveyard of empires – “USFOR-A [US Forces Afghanistan] is on track to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities.” Well, as they used to say, tell that to the marines.

Oh yes, and if the Taliban keep their word, the Americans will withdraw the rest of their troops within 14 months. And all this, we must remember, is in a nation so divided that two rival presidents held rival swearing-in ceremonies in Kabul – much in the manner of Roman emperors, although the country could scarcely contain both Rome and Byzantium – thus mocking any American pretence at creating democracy in Afghanistan. 

I do still recall the US official, way back in 2002 – after the Taliban had originally been “destroyed”, let us remember – saying that this new Afghan democracy might not be “Jeffersonian”. What that particular founding father would have made of the US-Taliban agreement is anyone’s guess. He might even have nodded his approval to the Taliban side.

But it’s all in keeping with the American “footprint” in the Middle East. Now you see it, now you don’t. After all, it’s not many weeks since Trump said he would not abandon the Kurds of Syria – and then abandoned the Kurds of Syria after they had finished fighting and dying for America in the campaign against Isis. Poor old Kurds. Poor old Afghans, too. And poor Iraqis. They really did not deserve the Americans.

The US, in any case, doesn’t have time to worry about them. It has yet another war on its hands – against that pesky virus, it seems. And you can’t “reposition” yourself away from that.

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