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Recent violence raises questions about why U.S. has so many troops in the Middle East

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To a question now prompted by the U.S. military strikes on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria and Yemen. These strikes are in retaliation for the January 28 attack that killed three American soldiers stationed in Jordan. And the question is, why does the U.S. have troops in Jordan? Why is the U.S. military on the ground at all in the Middle East, with the war in Iraq long over? Well, to help answer that, Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, joins us. Hi there. Welcome.

CHARLES LISTER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Where exactly does the U.S. have troops in the Middle East that we know of?

LISTER: Well, we have a wide range of various troop deployments, large, significant bases, particularly in the Gulf in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait. We have presence in Iraq, in Syria, Jordan and a number of other places.

KELLY: OK. And what are these troops doing? As I noted, this is years after the U.S. ended its combat mission in Iraq and with ISIS, which - the U.S. has been there to fight or help train local troops to fight with ISIS, a much diminished force.

LISTER: Yes. I mean, this is obviously a key question, but it really comes down to something quite simple. I mean, in large part, we have roughly 30,000 troops deployed across the Middle East. The vast majority of those are there specifically because specific host governments have asked us to be there. And in almost all cases, that's generally for the same reason, which is that our presence is perceived to contribute towards either the kind of reality of stability in the region or to contribute towards a sense of deterrence to keep their territories safe.

KELLY: And what does the U.S. get out of it?

LISTER: Yeah. So the U.S. has, of course, an interest in keeping or at least in seeking to keep the Middle East stable. The Middle East is also situated in an area of the world where it's the center of the world's energy economy and production. The days of the United States being dependent on Middle East oil are long, long gone. But the United States has a key and a core interest in making sure that the world's energy markets remain secure and stable. Beyond that, as we're seeing with the military campaign that the Houthis are launching from Yemen these days, the waterways of the Middle East are absolutely central to international trade. And if that is ever threatened, there are immediate knock-on effects to the world economy, and that includes the United States.

KELLY: You mentioned that U.S. troops are there nearly always at the invitation of the host country. They want us there. What about the people of these countries, who, in some cases, are against the presence of U.S. troops, in some cases outright hostile?

LISTER: Yes. Well, I think that's probably just the reality. I think the key is that the governments of the region want us there in almost all cases. Really, the only exception here is Syria. But in many cases, like Iraq - and there's a big debate at the moment publicly about the state of the American military presence in Iraq - we face these strange situations whereby privately the government is telling us they want us there. But publicly, they're having to assuage the concerns of their own populations and express public expressions of opposition to the U.S. presence. And, of course, that places the United States in a very tricky situation.

KELLY: What is the risk-versus-benefit calculus of keeping an American military footprint on the ground? It's sadly a timely question with three American troops killed and dozens more wounded in Jordan.

LISTER: Absolutely. I mean, especially at times like this, after this recent deadly attack in Jordan on the Syrian border, it is the right time to be asking these questions. I mean, ultimately, no military deployment anywhere in the world comes without any risk. But within this debate, the most important thing for me, at least, is to consider the consequences of disengagement or withdrawal. And in almost all cases, the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal are far more risky from a specifically American standpoint or an international security standpoint than the risks associated with staying.

KELLY: Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. Thank you.

LISTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURREN$Y AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "GRAN TURISMO (FEAT. TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.