America’s partnerships in the Middle East continue to be its greatest strategic asset. With U.S. leaders placing greater emphasis on strategic competition with China and Russia, these relationships will only become more important to defending America’s enduring interests in the region. Even as priorities change, U.S. leaders should collaborate with existing partners and promote adaptable coalitions against future crises that will inevitably arise.
During the 2020 election campaign, then-candidate Biden “pledged to bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS)” in favor of strategic competition with Russia and China. However, drawing down troop levels from the Middle East will not end the region’s conflicts and risks undoing years of hard-fought work.
A condition-based decision in coordination with coalition partners about troop levels in Afghanistan is crucial to the Afghan government’s survivability and minimizing the likelihood of a violent Taliban takeover. While a May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. forces is rapidly approaching, the Biden administration has suggested the Taliban must first uphold its commitment to reduce violence and cut ties with Al Qaeda. Biden is reportedly taking the necessary first step of consulting its allies and partners about extending operations in Afghanistan.
Similarly, U.S.-led coalition airpower and counterterrorism operations are central to the efforts against ISIS, with estimates of its size ranging between eight thousand to sixteen thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently announced the expansion of the mission in Iraq “from 500 personnel to around 4,000 and training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions and areas beyond Baghdad.” NATO forces, which have been active in Iraq since 2004, train Iraqi forces so that they can prevent the resurgence of ISIS or other terrorist networks.
While the NATO mission has a counterterrorism focus, the deployment decision has added weight considering the resumption of rocket attacks against American positions in Iraq, likely by Iranian-backed militias. If left unconstrained, these incidents will become more common and threatening.
The Biden administration should publicly hold Iran responsible for any attack by its proxies and avoid redeploying military assets or personnel away from the region in the wake of these attacks. Preserving a strong military and diplomatic posture in Iraq and throughout the Middle East is vital to deter similar attacks. If the attacks persist, then positioning additional air defense systems in the region, as well as fast-tracking the testing and deployment U.S. Army’s Iron Dome system, will better safeguard U.S. and partner personnel.
Indeed, Washington should place greater emphasis on building sustainable coalitions that can counter the dangers of a belligerent Iran to partner populations, critical international trade routes, or vital energy infrastructure.
Therefore, expanding America’s Middle East partnerships and establishing new networks are key to regional security and stabilization. While U.S. military capabilities will remain important to counterterrorism operations and deterring Iranian aggression, the capacity of partners to also respond will become increasingly important if America’s footprint in the region decreases.
The Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab Gulf states offer a model for leveraging partnerships without increasing the U.S. military footprint. As Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states expands, Iran will become increasingly isolated diplomatically, economically, and potentially militarily. The potential for operational cooperation, intelligence sharing, base staging, or a joint missile defense architecture could significantly alter Iran’s ability to launch provocative military attacks.
In recognition of the goodwill between Israel and its Arab neighbors, President Donald Trump issued an order shortly before leaving office transferring Israel from U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East, had not previously covered Israel because of hostility between the Jewish state and many of its Arab neighbors. However, recent diplomatic outreach best exemplified by the Abraham Accords proves that this historical animosity is no longer a burden. Prior to Trump’s decision, a Jewish Institute for National Security of America report argued that such a reorganization “will enable improved strategic and operational coordination among the United States, Israel and our Arab partners throughout the region against Iran and other serious shared threats.”
Facilitating the transfer of Israel from EUCOM to CENTCOM will require some adjustments as well as dialogue between U.S. and Israeli officials. In late January U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie visited Israel for his second trip as CENTCOM commander and the first since President Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration should expedite conversations between civilian and military counterparts in both countries to ensure a smooth transition and the continuation of already robust U.S.-Israel cooperation for missile defense.
It is crucial that the United States hold onto its strategic relationships in the Middle East and build new, adjustable coalitions. America has never been able to predict the next war it fights. A credible U.S. commitment to support these partnerships will help it face ongoing threats and whatever challenge comes next.
Lt. Gen. Eric E. Fiel, USAF (ret.) is former commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, FL, and a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Hybrid Warfare Policy Project.
Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.
Originally published in The National Interest