Defense Secretary Leon Panetta embarked on an extensive ‘holiday tour’ to the horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Turkey. Panetta was visiting US troops on most of his stopovers helping to highlight, intentionally or unintentionally, the entrenched position of the US in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Panetta’s extensive tour in the region at the time of the US withdrawal from Iraq sends a clear message, most notably to Iran, that the US still has a significant presence in the region, and can muster considerable force if the need arises. In fact, the tour serves as a subtle reminder that Iran is more or less surrounded on all its borders, save those with the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Armenia, with countries hosting US military bases.
This was not meant as an overtly aggressive move by the US, rather a clear, but non-trumpeted message that the US is not leaving the region, nor has its influence been diminished by the Iraqi withdrawal.
Horn of Africa
The first stop on Defense Secretary Panetta’s tour was to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti is host to the US’s only sub-Saharan military base, where over 3000 US troops are stationed. The tiny nation is one of the major traffic routes for refugees and militants crossing the Red Sea into Yemen and the US’s position there is a key stronghold from which it launches anti-terrorism and anti-piracy missions, as well as drone attacks in the region.
This was Panetta’s first visit to the Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti, and he took the opportunity of highlighting the sites key role in the fight against terrorism, as the US moves its focus to combating the rise of Al-Qaida and Al-Qaida-linked organizations in the Yemen and North and West Africa.
Panetta made an unannounced stop in Kabul after departing Djibouti. He was optimistic about the progress being made in Afghanistan, despite the complications arising from the souring of relations with Pakistan over the NATO cross-border attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month. Panetta commented that although 2011 was a year of progress in Afghanistan,”ultimately we can’t win the war in Afghanistan without being able to win in our relationship with Pakistan as well.”
From Afghanistan Panetta went to Iraq, where he presided over a ceremonial end to the presence of US troops in the country. The last US base in Iraq was handed over to Iraqi control on December 15. The drawdown of troops is a far cry from the hope once held that the US could maintain a large number of permanent military bases in the country, however Iraqi politicians have pressed for the full withdrawal of the US from the country by the end of 2011. Panetta has tried to negotiate a 3000-strong force to remain in the capacity of trainers; however the Iraqi’s would not offer them immunity from Iraqi law, which saw the deal go stale.
From Iraq Panetta headed for Turkey, a key US ally in the region. He was quick to champion Turkey’s role in stabilizing the region in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings “They can have an influence on what happens in Egypt, what happens in Iraq, in Iran, what happens in Syria – they’ve already taken a strong position to demand that (president Bashar al) Assad steps down.” The visit to Turkey was also used as an opportunity to reposition four predator drones in the country, to assist in the fight against the PKK Kurdish rebels, who operate out of northern Iraq.
Panetta’s tour is significant in that is comes at a time when a power struggle was expected over the political vacuum in Iraq in a post-US environment. Luckily for the US, and for Iraq, the Arab Spring has stolen much of the spotlight from the US withdrawal from Iraq, and also cut down the number of vultures waiting on the Iraqi border.
Before the Arab Spring, it was expected that Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Egypt would be vying in some way, shape or form to take advantage of the instability of the Iraqi government to exert their own control on the country.
Syria and Egypt are completely off the radar in this regard, as domestic troubles far outweigh any thought of exerting influence in a foreign sphere. Iran and Saudi Arabia are still intent on having their way with the country, however domestic pressures are also weighing in on both countries, so much so that there is significantly less attention being given to the withdrawal from Iraq than if it had taken place at the same time last year.
Turkey is in the best position from a domestic standpoint to avail the opportunity that the US withdrawal presents, however the Turkish position is more concerned with the PKK can achieving a proxy state on its south-eastern border. In any case, the Turks are limited in their ability to exert much force in Iraq, simply because they wish to maintain a ‘benevolent friend’ status in the region. This also plays into the fact the Turkey is attempting to position itself favorably in the eyes of the US and EU, which it is by-and large achieving.