Coronavirus Halts Military Travel In and Out of Iraq and Afghanistan

Paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C. on January 4, 2020.

U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Hubert Delany III

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Paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C. on January 4, 2020.

No one comes in until they've quarantined for 14 days, CENTCOM says.

No U.S. forces will move into U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — a region that includes the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — under a 14-day “stop movement” order issued Friday by the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East.

And that’s not all. Any troops slated to deploy to CENTCOM’s AOR must first stay in quarantine for 14 days “regardless of where they are coming from,” U.S. Central Command said in its statement, “so that [deploying forces] will be cleared for duty upon arrival as a prudent precaution to maintain critical combat and combat support functions.” 

This means outbound personnel already in Iraq and Afghanistan “will be temporarily held on station while their replacements are quarantined” for the two-week period prior to their eventual arrival.  

The goal is to ensure that units and personnel who arrive in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility are ready for tasking on arrival, and to ensure that we are not quarantining personnel at locations that will be challenged to support,” CENTCOM’s Capt. William Urban told Defense One.

Many troops heading to and from the Middle East pass through the area of responsibility of European Command, which is itself dealing with the pandemic. About 2,600 personnel are now in “self-isolation as a precaution due to travel or other reasons,” the Defense Department said in a statement Friday. “These individuals are not necessarily sick, but may have been exposed and are doing their due diligence following health preventative measures.” To date, 35 EUCOM personnel have so far tested positive for COVID-19. 

The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are predominantly training missions to build up the capabilities of the host nations’ army and police forces. So the stop-movement order is unlikely to much affect means the pace of combat operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and defensive operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Coalition training missions, however, have already been altered by coronavirus response efforts, CENTCOM said Friday. And they’ve been suspended entirely in Iraq. 

“But critical operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility continue as we adjust and overcome a dynamic environment,” CENTCOM said in its statement.

“Some of the functions of the counter-ISIS campaign can [still] be carried out by smaller, more agile and lower visibility special forces who can ‘commute to the fight’ from larger bases,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute. But “unless the Iraqi security forces are protecting our forward bases from militia attacks, they are too exposed to justify the risk.” 

As for White House’s efforts to salvage a peace deal for Afghanistan, CENTCOM’s stop-movement and quarantine orders are “not expected to delay the drawdown in forces from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. agreement with the Taliban,” the combatant command said. 

That’s good news for President Donald Trump’s reported desire to withdraw from Afghanistan by the U.S. general election in November. But it’s unhelpful news for the administration in Kabul and the majority of Afghan citizens, said Bill Roggio of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. That’s because the U.S-Taliban agreement “is not a peace deal; it really is a withdrawal deal,” Roggio said. “The Taliban call it the ‘Termination of Occupation’ agreement. Meanwhile the group is reporting on its attacks daily, and in English,” and those are totalling about 20 attacks per day, he said. 

The most recent high-profile Taliban violence occurred Friday morning in southern Zabul province when an alleged insider attack at a rural checkpoint left nearly two dozen Afghans dead, including at least 17 members of the security forces. 

“I expect to see more of that,” Roggio said. “This is called getting off the fence, because we can end our involvement in these wars, but these wars won’t end. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s going to continue fighting. They’re telling you that and they’re showing you that. And they’ve said numerous times peace will come when the Taliban rules Afghanistan. That’s its definition of peace.”

And in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition is shrinking rapidly as part of a “repositioning” plan “to prevent potential spread of COVID-19,” CENTCOM said in another statement Friday. “As a result, the Coalition will temporarily return some of its training-focused forces to their own countries in the coming days and weeks…as the situation permits, we will resume our support to Iraqi training.”

That repositioning plan — coupled with CENTCOM’s alleged “success of [the Iraqi security forces] in their fight against ISIS” — also calls for the continued closure of military bases across the country. That includes a base at Al-Qaim, near the border with Syria, which the U.S.-led coalition exited and handed over to the Iraqi security forces on Tuesday.

“The Coalition is adjusting its positioning in Iraq for two reasons,” CENTCOM explained in its statement Friday. The first is “long-planned adjustments to the force to reflect success in the campaign against Daesh,” or ISIS; and the second is because repositioning is prudent to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

“Looking ahead, we anticipate the Coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people,” the statement said. “The Coalition will retain key military personnel on some Iraqi bases,” including “with Iraqi Security Forces at headquarters, for joint base security, tactical information sharing, and operations against Daesh.”

For the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, Knights said, the changes announced Friday are part of “a long-planned adjustment that was due in the September 2020 timeframe [but] has been moved forward by militia pressure and by the coronavirus, both of which have prevented the coalition from undertaking the tasks it is present in Iraq to perform,” which is the fight against ISIS

The even longer-term impacts, of course, are far more concerning, Knights said. Of those, it’s not a stretch to imagine “a grinding halt to Iraqi army training efforts and ISIS gaining more freedom to move, concentrate, and attack at [the] local level.”

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