After two decades of unceasing warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Biden administration has unveiled its first comprehensive review of the deployment of U.S. forces globally — and it envisions a virtually unchanged military footprint, with a sharpened commitment to the bipartisan policy of Cold War-style hostility toward Russia and China.
The administration chose to release only scant details of its Global Posture Review on November 29, but in its barebones unclassified summary, and in remarks from Pentagon officials, the White House made clear that the U.S. military footprint will remain largely unchanged. “We endeavor to be as transparent as possible, but to avoid giving our adversaries any advantage, we need to protect details on any immediate changes in our posture,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters during a background briefing on the GPR.
The unclassified summary contained little substantive news. It portrays the steady expansion of U.S. military assets in the Indo-Pacific — the geographic term used by the Pentagon to describe a vast swath of the eastern hemisphere encircling China — as necessary to “deter potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea.” While the Pentagon has offered few specifics about President Joe Biden’s future plans, the review does indicate an evolving strategy to further expand military capabilities near China, including through leveraging existing partnerships. “In Australia, you’ll see new rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments. You’ll see ground forces training and increased logistics cooperation,” said Mara Karlin, the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, in a briefing with reporters. “So, we’re doing a lot that will hopefully come to fruition in the coming years.” The Pentagon also confirmed that it was establishing a permanent attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in South Korea.
Citing Biden’s reversal of former President Donald Trump’s plan to cap the number of U.S. troops in Germany at 25,000, the Pentagon said its review “strengthens the U.S. combat-credible deterrent against Russian aggression and enables NATO forces to operate more effectively.” It did not offer any new specifics. Directly noting the ongoing tensions surrounding Ukraine’s future and Washington’s portrayal of Russian President Vladimir Putin as menacing the former Soviet republic with troop movements near the border, Karlin said, “We are actually increasing troops in Germany” to bolster NATO’s capacity. The Biden administration will “continue to provide security assistance items, both lethal and nonlethal to Ukraine,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, a retired rear admiral, at the briefing with Karlin. “This administration remains committed to helping Ukrainian military defend itself, defend its territorial integrity, defend its people.”
In a gaffe that underscored the Biden administration’s Cold War posturing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on December 2 referred to Russia as the Soviet Union, saying, “The best case though is that we won’t see an incursion by the Soviet Union into the Ukraine.”
The review also makes clear that for now U.S. troops will continue to operate in a “counterterrorism” capacity throughout the Middle East and Africa with no immediate divergence from Trump-era deployments. The summary states that the Pentagon will “conduct additional analysis on enduring posture requirements in the Middle East” and is assessing whether it “has an appropriately-scoped posture to monitor threats from regional violent extremist organizations” in Africa. At present, the U.S. has 2,500 publicly acknowledged troops on the ground in Iraq and an additional 900 in Syria.
While the Biden administration has not maintained the frenetic pace of drone strikes favored by Biden’s predecessors, it has conducted strikes in several countries. An August 29 strike in Afghanistan during the U.S. withdrawal killed 10 civilians, including seven children. The unclassified review makes no mention of the role drone strikes will play in Biden’s emerging military strategy. Karlin said that the Pentagon is reviewing “assets and platforms” that were deployed in Afghanistan that may be “freed up” for use elsewhere as a result of the withdrawal.
In June, President Biden submitted a summary to Congress of ongoing troop deployments and combat-equipped forces, stating that such engagements are consistent with the War Powers Act. U.S. counterterrorism forces, Biden wrote, continue to operate under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, adding that “the United States has deployed combat-equipped forces to several locations in the United States Central, European, Africa, Southern, and Indo-Pacific Commands’ areas of responsibility.”
Biden’s letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was an unclassified summary accompanied by a secret appendix not available for public consumption. “If necessary, in response to terrorist threats, I will direct additional measures to protect the people and interests of the United States,” Biden wrote to Pelosi. “It is not possible to know at this time the precise scope or the duration of the deployments of United States Armed Forces that are or will be necessary to counter terrorist threats to the United States.” Biden acknowledged that U.S. forces remain on the ground in Yemen “to conduct operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.”
In the letter, Biden reiterated his dubious claim that he had ended support for offensive Saudi operations against Houthi forces in Yemen, but acknowledged that the U.S. has more than 2,700 troops in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly “to protect United States forces and interests in the region against hostile action by Iran or Iran-backed groups.” Biden said these forces “provide air and missile defense capabilities and support the operation of United States fighter aircraft.”
The U.S. also maintains substantial capabilities in the Horn of Africa despite Trump’s withdrawal of many military personnel from Somalia; those capabilities are mostly in Kenya and Djibouti “for purposes of staging for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.” Nick Turse’s reporting has challenged the assertion that the U.S. has entirely withdrawn from Somalia, and Turse has uncovered what appears to be some “creative accounting” by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. On November 27, more than 1,000 National Guard troops from Virginia and Kentucky began deploying as part of Task Force Red Dragon to the Horn of Africa, where they will serve at forward operating bases. It is reportedly the Virginia guard’s largest “single-unit mobilization since World War II.”
The deployment comes as the military and humanitarian situation in Ethiopia has worsened over the past year. The country’s elected leader, Abiy Ahmed, is facing a significant insurgency in the Tigray region that could topple the government. Ethiopia has long been a U.S. ally in east Africa, and its forces have been used as murderous ground troops for U.S. “counterterrorism” objectives in Somalia. While Washington has been careful to strike a cautious public tone in calling for a cessation of the fighting, there are some influential voices quietly agitating for a change of regime.
Some 800 U.S. troops remain in Niger with additional forces in the Sahel and Chad basin regions “to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations and to provide support to African and European partners conducting counterterrorism operations in the region, including by advising, assisting, and accompanying these partner forces,” according to Biden.
The Biden administration is kicking a number of major decisions on the role of U.S. “counterterrorism” forces in Africa and the Middle East down the road as it focuses attention on Moscow and Beijing. With potentially incendiary situations looming with Russia on Ukraine and China on Taiwan, as well as the lingering U.S. betrayal of the Iran nuclear deal, the White House could find itself facing multiple foreign policy crises simultaneously. Biden has spent his career working to shape the U.S. role in the world and campaigning to be the commander in chief. A year into his presidency, he is largely keeping the U.S. military chess pieces in place. For now.
Update: December 3, 2021
This story has been updated to include a comment from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in which he refers to Russia as the Soviet Union.