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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Trump's withdrawal from the Middle East offers new opportunities

Shifting global priorities have created space for the region to seize a future of collaboration and self-determination

Donald Trump's decisions regarding Afghanistan and Syria have shocked the world, and members of his own administration. Reuters
Donald Trump's decisions regarding Afghanistan and Syria have shocked the world, and members of his own administration. Reuters

It has been 17 years since a salvo of bombs dropped on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks announced America’s intention to become the policeman of the Middle East. This week, after a flurry of announcements reflecting an apparent 180-degree policy change, the US appears poised to hand in its badge just as suddenly, with wide-ranging implications for the region.

The full extent of the proposed disengagement remains unclear. Only this week, a US aircraft carrier returned to the Gulf for the first time in months, in response to Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the UAE and US forces have just concluded their annual joint miitary exercises. In his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, President Trump is flying in the face of domestic and international advice – the resignation of James Mattis, the widely respected secretary of defence, underlines broader concerns that the withdrawal will create a dangerous regional vacuum.

Isis has not, despite Mr Trump’s assertion, been defeated. Iran’s ambitions, writ large in Syria and Yemen, continue to threaten regional stability. Iraq remains dependent upon US guidance and training as it works to restore its security capabilities. Most crucially of all, Mr Trump has chosen a fragile moment in Afghanistan’s peace process to show his hand to the Taliban, which has consistently demanded the withdrawal of US troops as a precondition for taking part in proposed peace talks. But, despite the huge challenges it poses, Mr Trump’s decision – albeit made for purely domestic political reasons – could yet prove a blessing for the region.

US military involvement in the Middle East has come at a huge cost, as a report last month by the US-based Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs made clear. Between October 2001 and October this year, about 500,000 people have been killed in America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan. Though ousted from power, the Taliban remains undefeated.

The Arab world might have chosen a better moment to go it alone. But a realignment of US global priorities creates a unique opportunity for the region to define its own future, through closer alliances and the creation of bodies such as the Middle East Strategic Alliance, a proposed Arab Nato. In Riyadh this month the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council laid plans for even closer collaboration over security and defence. The immediate future might appear daunting, but this is an opportunity for the Arab world to seize the day – and there is an encouraging precedent. It was Britain’s surprise announcement 50 years ago that it was pulling its military out of the Gulf, ending a 150-year-old treaty of protection, that inspired seven emirates known to the British as the Trucial States to come together as the UAE. That alliance, born out of urgent necessity, worked out pretty well.

Updated: December 22, 2018 05:21 PM

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