U.S. Commanders Cite Pandemic as They Pull Back Elite Units Around the World

“To prevent potential spread of Covid-19, the Iraqi security forces have suspended all training,” the coalition said in a statement on March 20. “As a result, the coalition will temporarily return some of its training-focused forces to their own countries in the coming days and weeks.”

Months before the pandemic, U.S. commanders in Iraq, at the urging of Mr. Esper, had drawn up plans to cut American presence in the country to about 2,500 troops from more than 5,000 now.

Those plans took on greater urgency after Iranian-backed militias stepped up deadly rocket attacks against American forces on Iraqi bases, leading to the drone strike in early January at Baghdad International Airport that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian commander. General Suleimani’s killing prompted many in Iraq’s Parliament to call for an ouster of U.S. troops from the country, and spurred the Shiite militias to again ramp up their rocket attacks.

Against this backdrop of increased security risks, a pandemic and political tensions, American commanders are taking hard looks at what “mission critical” tasks still remain for their forces in Iraq.

The question of prioritizing Special Operations missions, and not wanting those elite troops idled by a pandemic or political tensions, is one that American commanders worldwide are weighing in secure video conferences with staff on a weekly basis, one senior American general said. The discussions are an inevitable byproduct of a 60-day global no-travel order, issued by the Pentagon, that has allowed many commanders to look at their array of missions and question which are worth continuing.

But some operations with local security forces continue.

In Somalia, for instance, American Special Operations forces are conducting airstrikes and helping Somalian security forces carry out ground raids against Shabab militants aligned with Al Qaeda, considered the most dangerous terrorist threat on the continent. “We are not taking our focus off our operations,” Brig. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, who commands all American Special Operations forces in Africa, said in an interview.

Even before the pandemic, Special Operations commanders had started re-examining many of their missions with more rigor than previous periodic reviews, officials said.

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