The Pentagon, prompted by U.S. President Donald Trump, ordered a drawdown this week of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a move that experts told JNS might actually empower Iran.
The drawdown to 2,500 in both places is slated to take place by Jan. 15, said Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, who was installed in the top Pentagon role last week after Trump fired U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
That date is five days before President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn in on Jan. 21. He has expressed support for U.S. troop withdrawals from the Middle East, though has called for the United States to have a small counterterrorism force there.
Currently, approximately 3,000 troops are stationed in Iraq and 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said these upcoming moves are counterintuitive to Trump's overall Iran strategy.
"On the very day that Donald Trump seeks to up the pressure on Iran, he does the exact opposite in removing pressure on the Tehran regime in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The policy is incoherent," she said. "Worse, the policy is dangerous. This is an 'Iran-first' move that I would expect from Obama retreads, not the Trump administration."
In fact, four Katyusha rockets reportedly hit in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Tuesday with the U.S. embassy in their crosshairs. A child was killed and five people were wounded. While U.S. officials have blamed Iran-backed groups for such attacks, no such groups have claimed responsibility for the incident.
Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said that the impact of troop removal "is likely to be mixed."
"On the one hand, a reduced American presence in Iraq is likely to remove impediments to Iran gaining an even greater strategic and political presence there," he said. "If history is any judge, that will be a deeply detrimental scenario. It will also reverse major political efforts by Washington and Baghdad in recent years aimed at bolstering Iraqi sovereignty."
"On the other hand, however, a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is likely to empower the Taliban and other radical actors to Iran's east," continued Berman. "These are actors that Iran also sees as threats, and the Iranian regime may therefore be forced to think more locally, and to invest greater resources in mitigating threats in its immediate neighborhood. That is something that could turn out to be an aggregate good for regional security."
'Whether the withdrawals will embolden Iran is moot'
Others see the withdrawal as not having a major impact on Iran's influence in the region, which has been consistently growing for years.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated that the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, have not been successful; therefore, whether the withdrawals will embolden Iran is moot.
"If we couldn't succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq with a number 50 times those, do you think it matters now we're now down to 2,500?" he posed. "Iran's influence, especially in Iraq, won't be boosted or degraded by those numbers. Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign against Iran is failing. They want us out of Iraq, and Trump has brought them a little closer to that goal."
Gold Institute for International Strategy senior fellow Matt Brodsky, on the other hand, expressed hope that the withdrawals "will not hinder the U.S. ability to deter Iran from additional regional aggression and prevent the resurgence" of the Islamic State.
"Clearly, the president has made clear his preference to bring America's troops home and to stop what he calls 'endless wars,' " he said. "The problem is that our enemies also get a vote and these are their wars. America has made tremendous progress in the Middle East in the past four years. I'd hate to see those gains jeopardized."
'A cautionary tale of a premature decision'
United Against Nuclear Iran policy director Jason Brodsky (no relation to Matt Brodsky) said that the drawdowns "are inconsistent with a strategy of maximum pressure on Iran."
"In Iraq, Iran's Axis of Resistance wants to see Washington gone. Withdrawing also reduces U.S. leverage and influence in Baghdad. Iraq's government remains trapped between an American rock and an Iranian hard place," he said. "Iraqi officials who are allies of the United States are already concerned about a premature return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as that would empower Tehran in the country as a result of sanctions relief."
He continued, saying that "a drawdown coupled with the prospect of a return to the flawed JCPOA would embolden Iran's partners and proxies in the country even further. Iran also wants to see the United States leave Afghanistan, and has been cultivating the Taliban to retain influence and leverage in the country. The Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 is a cautionary tale of a premature decision divorced from conditions on the ground, as only a few years later did American forces have to be sent back again to deal with the threat from ISIS."
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that "Trump is unwittingly undermining American deterrence in the Middle East."
"Even a downsized or right-sized troop presence can serve as a deterrent to malign actors, as we saw in Syria over the past few years," he said. "America's departure will invite the likes of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and others to fill the void left by the United States. This will have a deleterious impact on Israeli security, as well as the security of our other Arab allies."
"Also lost in all of this is the cost to America, both in financial and human terms, when redeployment to these areas becomes necessary once the security situation unravels," he pointed out. "This was the case with the U.S. deployment to Iraq after the ill-advised withdrawal from Iraq."