The Bush administration seems to be reconsidering plans to minimize the U.S. presence in the Sinai Peninsula following strong criticism in the United States and Middle East.
News reports last week said U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had broached the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from the Multinational Force and Observers, a peacekeeping mission with 1,900 international troops. Rumsfeld suggested the idea to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during their recent Washington visits.
The suggestion was not well-received. Though Sharon ultimately said he would go along with the move, both Israel and Egypt oppose the withdrawal of troops, and U.S. analysts believe the timing of a potential pullout is wrong.
“What concerns people the most is the timing and the signal it sends to the region about the U.S. involvement,” said Tamara Wittes, director of programs at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Wittes, noting that Rumsfeld’s timing was probably unintentional, said the peacekeeping force acts as a deterrent to violence.
“It’s not a peace that Egypt publicly is committed to,” she said. “In their strategic planning, the Egyptian military and Israeli military still view each other as adversaries.”
The troops, she said, act as a buffer between the two countries, and also serve as a monitoring force, reviewing the actions of both militaries.
The United States is one of 11 countries participating in the mission, and currently 860 U.S. troops are in Sinai. There have been no major incidents along the border the troops patrol since the mission began in 1982.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said the troops have become “part of the scenery” and their removal could be a disruption to peace.
“However quiet they’ve been, they are a force for stability,” Pipes said. “We can only worry that a unilateral withdrawal can lead to problems.”
Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said the troop deployment is important in the “psychological parameter.”
“It shows that the U.S. carries through and doesn’t leave and desert the area,” Neumann said.
The Bush administration has backed off from the proposal in recent days, and has reaffirmed that Secretary of State Colin Powell was informed of the plan before Mubarak and Sharon, contrary to earlier reports. Defense Department officials said the review of the 860 U.S. officers in the Sinai region is part of the administration’s review of all international deployments.
“It’s a complicated process to go through this, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” Defense Department spokesman Craig Quigley said. “And there’s no question that conceptually, the president very much wants to look at this around the world.”
Bush echoed those comments April 19.
“I understand we’ve made commitments, and we just won’t simply walk away from our commitments,” he said. “We’ll consult with our allies, we’ll lay the groundwork for reductions if, in fact, we think it is our nation’s best interest and the world’s interest” to do so.
In May 1967, a United Nations force left the Sinai after pressure from Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser subsequently closed the strategic Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships and advanced Egyptian troops toward the border with Israel, sparking the Six Day War.
Under the Camp David Accords signed in 1979, removal of the current Sinai peacekeeping force would require both Israeli and Egyptian approval.
Pipes said the United States should sit down with Egypt and Israel before removing the troops, and suggested that the two countries might be willing to pay for the protection that the U.S. and other allies provide.