The British evacuation operations at Kabul Airport have come to a close today with the final departure of a flight carrying Afghan civilians. On the ground at the airport, the US is entering the final phase of its own operations before the 31 August withdrawal date. US commanders continue to stress that the probability of another attack on the airport remains considerable following a limited number of US drone strikes that have killed a handful of high-profile ISIS-K members. As of 1430 hours, Eastern time today, over 117,000 people have been evacuated from the country. Of this number, 5,400 are American citizens. The number of US troops currently deployed to the airport is declining as well. There are now 4,000 troops on the ground there, down from a highwater mark of 5,800 reached earlier in the week.
Recent reports from Kabul seem to suggest the Taliban and Turkey are close to reaching an agreement on Kabul airport. Under the proposed agreement, Turkey and Qatar will operate Kabul Airport, with Turkey expected to provide security through a private firm employing mostly ex-Turkish troops. This move is similar to one Turkey executed during the Azerbaijan-Armenia war last year. In exchange for permission to assume responsibility for airport operations, Turkey is expected to formally recognize the Taliban government. This will make Turkey the first nation to extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban.
In Afghanistan, the Afghan State Bank has ordered all banks to open under an emergency framework intended to solve the liquidity crisis. The long term fate of Afghani banks remains up in the air, however. The Taliban is unlikely to allow interest-based banks to operate as they have been doing for some time. A Sharia-compliant banking system will have to be designed to replace the traditional banking system now in place. The Taliban government has made it clear it wants monetary affairs to be governed by the Sharia laws.
This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.
In light of the worsening situation in the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waterways, United States efforts to build a multi-national naval force dedicated to the protection of oil tankers are ramping up. The Trump administration has approached a number of NATO allies as well as American allies in the Middle East. The creation of a naval force is the next logical step in the drama unfolding in the Persian Gulf. Iranian actions against oil tankers in the Gulf continue and Tehran shows no indications of easing anytime soon. Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises and operations have become a regular part of the US Navy’s playbook and they will be used to one extent or another in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) is preparing to reactivate Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. PSAB, as it is affectionately known to most folks who’ve been there was the predominant US air installation in the Middle East until 2003. In the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom operations at PSAB were transferred to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Since then, Al Udeid has been the main US airbase in the region.
Now US access to Al Udeid is no longer guaranteed. Qatar has been moving away from its traditional Gulf State allies since the Saudi-sponsored embargo, and towards Tehran in some ways. As a result, the Qataris could possibly place restrictions on US air operations at Al Udeid. Such restrictions would have an adverse effect on all US military operations in and around the Persian Gulf. Instead of running that risk, the US is preparing PSAB in case it is needed. And according to some sources at CENTCOM, Prince Sultan is slated to become the main hub of US air activity in the Middle East regardless of what happens with Al Udeid and the Qataris.
The United States is moving additional military forces into the Persian Gulf region. On Friday it was announced that a Patriot missile battery, and elements of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS. Arlington will begin moving towards the Gulf region soon. This move will bolster the expanding US military force in and around Iran. The additional forces were requested by CENTCOM (US Central Command) to help counter credible threats from Iran that are aimed at US forces in the Middle East.
In light of the growing tensions in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) has issued an advisory to US commercial ships sailing in nearby waters of an increased chance that Iran or its proxies may take action against the US, and its interests in the Middle East. “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf,” the MARAD release explained.
Despite the recent ramping up of military activity, and thinly veiled threats, Washington is keeping the door for dialogue open. President Trump has publicly appealed to Iran to contact him, though it doesn’t appear likely that Iranian leaders will take him up on the offer. Today, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) senior officer stated Iran will not engage in talks with the US. “Negotiations with Americans will not take place, and Americans will not dare to take military action against us,” he was quoted as saying.
Iran’s economy is close to flatlining as a result of the US sanctions it has been forced to endure. Iran’s revenue from oil, and industrial-type metals has been aggressively targeted and Tehran is feeling the effects. One of the concerns around Washington right now is that the effect of the sanctions could provoke Iran to act militarily, either directly or through its proxies in the region.
The Israel-Hamas Gaza ceasefire is holding steady for the moment. The truce ended the latest round of frenzied clashes along one of the world’s most volatile borders. It began on Friday when an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper. This was the first killing of a soldier around the border since 2014. Israel responded promptly with airstrikes against dozens of military targets in Gaza. Egypt, Qatar, and the United Nations moved quickly to prevent the situation from exploding. Hamas eventually ended up requesting a ceasefire through the Egyptians and Israel agreed.
This is the third ceasefire to be brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas this year. Weekly demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel have kept tensions high since they began in March. Over 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the protests, however, there appears to be no end to the demonstrations in sight. During the same time period, Palestinians would frequently launch incendiary kites and balloons across the border, causing significant damage to Israeli farmland. Israel has long accused Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover for attempts to breach the border and conduct attacks on Israelis.