Intel: How many US troops do 2020 Democrats want to keep in the Middle East?

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Democratic presidential hopefuls started Tuesday’s debate by slamming President Donald Trump’s Iran policy and articulating their own vision for the future US force posture in the Middle East.

Former Vice President Joe Biden vowed to “leave troops in the Middle East in terms of patrolling the Gulf,” characterizing the roughly 40,000 US troops currently stationed in the Arab Gulf states as “a small number of troops.” He also called it “a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with [the Islamic State],” vowing to leave US special forces in place to deal with the terrorist group.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not directly address troop levels at the debate, but told Al-Monitor last week that “I will do my best as president to bring our troops home as soon as possible, but I will not do it through a tweet. I will not do it by creating a situation where we get kicked out of the country [Iraq].” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took a similar line at the debate, stating, “We need to get our combat troops out.”

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., both criticized Trump for adding thousands of troops to the region in recent months. Buttigieg argued, “We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops.” And Klobuchar vowed to “leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now.”

Why it matters: Trump ordered an additional 3,000 US troops to deploy to the region after killing Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. This follows a steady buildup in the Gulf last year as tensions with Iran escalated. The Pentagon has become increasingly opaque about disclosing troop levels in recent years, but the Washington Post estimates that some 54,000 US troops are stationed throughout the Middle East, plus another 14,000 in Afghanistan. Approximately 3,000 of those troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia, the first time the United States has placed troops there since 2003.

What’s next: The Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the roughly 6,000 US troops — and all other foreign troops — to leave the country earlier this month after the Soleimani assassination. Trump has ruled out withdrawing from Iraq until Baghdad pays the United States billions of dollars. He has instead threatened to sanction the fragile country.

And after initially seeking to withdraw from Syria, he has kept about 800 troops there as part of a “secure the oil” mission in Kurdish-held territory.

Know more: Key Senate Republican leaders are lining up behind the Trump administration’s threats to impose crippling sanctions on Iraq as part of a bid to force Baghdad to accept an ongoing US troop presence. Congressional Correspondent Bryant Harris has the story here. And Joe Snell has the latest on how Warren is fusing domestic and foreign policy to challenge Trump by calling for an insider trading probe against the president over the Soleimani strike.

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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