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Trump is not abandoning the region to rival powers

From promises to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan to high-profile negotiations with the Taliban, US President Donald Trump’s plans for the Middle East, announced shortly before the New Year, caused shock waves throughout the region.

The announcement was followed on Jan. 3 by Trump’s first press conference of 2019, during which he talked about a wide range of issues, including Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, the wall he is determined to build along the US border with Mexico, and his relationship with his nation’s military commanders.

His plan to pull out troops from Afghanistan, in particular, raised lots of questions. While negotiations between the Taliban and the US special envoy are continuing, the Afghan government is not part of the process, even though other countries in the region are actively involved.

According to some sources, the US planned to maintain a force of no more than 10,000 in Afghanistan after US-led combat operations officially ended in 2014. In 2017, however, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis persuaded Trump to send an additional 4,000 troops and it is estimated that there are currently about 15,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump’s proposed withdrawal would bring about 7,000 of them home.

The pullout would not, therefore, mean the end of the US presence in Afghanistan but it would meet the objectives of a plan agreed in 2014 with NATO and regional nations. Trump also called on other countries, in particular Russia, Pakistan, and India, to play more prominent roles in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Iran was not asked by Trump to participate in the talks with the Taliban, or to become involved in fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, even though as a neighboring country it has more of a vested interest than most other nations. Trump has said that the US fight against Daesh in Afghanistan has been in the best interests of Iran and Russia because the group poses a direct security threat to neighboring countries, more so than any threat it poses to the US.

The Iranians in turn showed that they have their own channels of influence in Afghanistan and a crucial role to play in the country, whatever the US president says or does. First, they sent their national security adviser, Ali Shamkhani, to Kabul shortly before the New Year to hold talks with the Taliban, and then last week Tehran said that Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi had welcomed a Taliban delegation in Tehran.

This new US strategy for Afghanistan and the region is not as simple or straightforward as it might look. Though it might appear that Trump is prepared to abandon the region and let rival powers, such as Iran and Russia, fill the gap this leaves, in fact he wants it filled by trusted regional allies. In this context, his recent, controversial decisions affecting the region could be viewed as encouragement for these others to become more involved.

Of course, Trump will have his own ideas of who he wants to take the lead in Afghanistan after the US withdraws. This could be one reason why the first meeting with the Taliban was hosted by the UAE, and the next will be held in Saudi Arabia this month.

The Americans certainly will not abandon the region to Iran, Pakistan or Russia. In fact, Washington wants to carefully manage all the coming changes and continue to shape the developments and transformations after its forces leave.
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