US peace-keeping troops have been stationed on the Egypt-Israel border in the Sinai region for nearly four decades, making up the bulk of the Multinational Forces & Observers (MFO) mission. That could all change if US Secretary of Defense Mike Esper’s plan to reduce troop numbers in the restive peninsula can get past opposition from the State Department and close ally Israel.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported yesterday that Esper is keen for the 454 personnel-strong US contribution to the MOF to be scaled back.
“The US Mission to the MFO (Multinational Force & Observers) is one of many missions DoD [Department of Defense] is currently assessing,” Navy Commander Sean Robertson told the WSJ.
Esper’s insistence on a Sinai drawdown is in line with a broader US strategy to reduce costs and reassess the US military’s global footprint, Pentagon officials told the WSJ.
The US State Department and Israel are reportedly concerned a reduction in US troops could collapse the nearly 40-year-old peace-keeping operation, established in early 1981 after Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty at Camp David in 1979.
“The international force in Sinai is important, and (the) American participation in it is important,” Israel’s energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said during an interview with 102FM in Tel Aviv.
“Certainly, the issue will be raised between us and the Americans,” added Steinitz, who is also an Israeli security cabinet member.
At present, the MOF comprises around 1,156 military personnel from 13 countries, who “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace” across 10,000 square kilometres of the Sinai Peninsula.
The Sinai, particularly the northern part of the peninsula, has become a bastion of terrorist activity led by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State aligned groups since Egypt’s 2011 revolution. An April 30 attack on Egyptian troops near Bir al-Abd caused 10 casualties and highlights the growing challenges of ensuring MFO security in the troubled region.
For its part, the State Department opposes the troop withdrawal on diplomatic and anti-terrorism grounds. Maintaining a military presence in the Sinai, which is inaccessible to journalists and diplomats, allows the US to observe Egyptian and Israeli military activity and monitor the terrorist threat in the region.
On May 7, the state department reconfirmed its commitment to fighting terrorism on the peninsula by approving the sale of 43 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to Egypt worth approximately $2.3 billion.
A statement on the sale explained that the refurbished aircraft will be used “to modernize its [Egypt’s] armed forces to address the shared US-Egyptian interest in countering terrorist activities emanating from the Sinai Peninsula, which threaten Egyptian and Israeli security and undermine regional stability.”
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said, adding that the sale “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
Value of US military investment in Egypt
Esper’s proposed drawdown of US military investment in Egypt and the attack helicopter sale announcement come a day after a joint report by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and Center for International Policy (CIP) said the US should reconsider its military aid to Egypt.
The report argued that corruption and patronage have rendered counterterrorism funding ineffective, the US and Egypt’s geopolitical objectives no longer align on a number of fronts, and the growing rights abuses under el-Sisi’s regime make Egypt an increasingly undesirable partner.
POMED and CIP cited Democratic Congressman and Egypt critic Tom Malinowski who labels Egypt’s military “utterly, disastrously incompetent.”
“In exchange for the favors that Egypt gets from the White House, they don’t actually do anything for us. This is not a situation where we are trading off human rights for something that advances the US national interest. Egypt… contributes nothing to the goals of peace and security,” Malinoswki told a 2019 forum on the relationship between Washington and el-Sisi.
The report concluded that US military aid to Egypt should be cut by $300 million per annum and have increased conditionality and oversight.
In April, rival Washington-based think tank Middle East Institute (MEI), however, found that the MFO, at least, is a cost-effective US investment that enhances regional security and gives Washington a crucial diplomatic standing in the region.
“This is not the time to hang out the “Mission Accomplished” banner for the MFO. At a nominal cost to the US in money and manpower, for nearly 40 years, the mission has been a phenomenal success,” wrote MEI senior vice president and former ambassador Gerald Feierstein.
“The mission ensures that the US has a seat at the table to preserve what remains of the signal US diplomatic achievement in the Middle East since the end of World War II: Israeli-Egyptian peace. Neither the UN nor any other third party could play that role should the US walk away,” Feierstein concluded.
Domestic desire for US military pull-back
It is difficult to pin down the effectiveness of MFO or US military aid to Egypt, but it is likely that Esper’s interest in reducing US involvement in the Sinai is, in reality, more about domestic than regional concerns.
In March, Trump delivered on his promise to get US troops out of Afghanistan after an 18-year-long, bloody, and some argue pointless intervention. Esper said on May 5 that the US is still on track to reach its goal of 8,600 troops remaining in Afghanistan by July, despite constant attacks from the Taliban, in contravention of their February 29 deal.
Trump has previously declared that it is time to extricate the US military from “ridiculous endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
An April survey by conservative lobby “Concerned Veterans for America” (CVA), which has close ties to the Trump presidency, found a majority of US veterans and their families surveyed were in favor of a reduction in overseas military engagements.
Over 70% of the 700 surveyed military veterans said they support the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, while 68% of the 800 military families who responded to the survey also support the drawdown.
“I think this shows the fatigue of almost two decades of war,” said CVA’s executive director Nate Anderson. “And I think there is increased awareness among the American public about how long we have been fighting.”
It remains to be seen if Esper, cost-saving, and Trump’s increasingly-inward gaze will triumph over the US-Israel relationship and State Department disapproval. The COVID-19 public health crisis and related economic fallout may further accelerate the US withdraws from its international engagements, like military funding in Egypt or the World Health Organization, and accelerate its retreat from its long-standing role as global hegemon.