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US planning to cut troops from Sinai peacekeeping mission: Report

State Department and Israel reportedly oppose cuts because they threaten observer mission in insurgency-wracked region
Defense officials say Secretary Mark Esper thinks military effort in northern Sinai is not worth risk to US troops (AFP/File photo)
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The United States is reportedly planning to withdraw troops from Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula, where Washington heads an international peacekeeping force and Cairo is battling the local chapter of the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous US officials, reported on Thursday that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper thinks the military's efforts in northern Sinai aren't the best use of department resources or worth the risk to troops stationed there. 

The report comes a day after two Washington-based think-tanks described Egypt's counterterrorism efforts as "ineffective."

The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Center for International Policy (CIP) quoted Congressman Tom Malinowski, one of the leading critics of Cairo in Washington, as saying that the Egyptian military is "utterly, disastrously incompetent".

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials told the Journal that the possible withdrawal is part of a cost-cutting review to take stock of US military operations around the world. 

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The US currently has more than 400 American troops stationed in the Sinai as part of a 13-country Multinational Force & Observers (MFO).

The Journal said that the proposed drawdown has already been met with opposition from the State Department and from Israel, which both fear that a US withdrawal may lead to a crumbling of the peacekeeping mission at a time when IS activity in the area is flaring up.

A series of deadly attacks have targeted Egyptian forces in recent weeks, including the bombing of an Egyptian army vehicle in Bir al-Abd, in which 10 Egyptian soldiers were "killed or injured," according to an army spokesperson.

Currently assessing

The US military first said back in 2016 that it was reviewing whether to reduce troop presence by automating aspects of the MFO operations via remote surveillance technology. At the time, the US had 700 personnel stationed with the MFO, compared with today's 400. 

The peacekeeping force was originally implemented during an American-brokered peace deal signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979. It operates from two main bases in the Sinai, a heavily fortified post in the north near the IS insurgency, and another in the tourist hotspot, Sharm El Sheikh. 

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The Trump administration has in recent years, shown great interest in cutting US support in terms of money and personnel to a variety of international initiatives, from withdrawing US forces from Syria and to reducing them in Iraq, cutting US funding for some UN initiatives and the World Health Organisation, among other moves. 

Defense officials said they think Esper feels the US military effort in the northern Sinai is not worth the risk to US troops or the money Washington spends, since Egypt and Israel have maintained peace during the past four decades.

"The US Mission to the MFO is one of many missions [the Defense Department] is currently assessing," Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson in a statement to the WSJ.

The MFO didn't respond to a request for comment on the situation. Egyptian officials also declined to comment on the proposed American withdrawal, as did Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The State Department did not immediately respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment.

Battling the Islamic State group

For the last decade, the small MFO force has been caught in the middle of the IS insurgency in the Sinai. Fighting in the area has killed hundreds of people, both tourists and locals. The insurgency persists despite Egypt's heavy-handed military campaign that has forced tens of thousands of Sinai residents to flee their homes.

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The State Department has recently indicated that the IS insurgency in the Sinai remains of great importance to both countries, announcing on Thursday that it had approved a possible $2.3bn sale to refurbish 43 Apache attack helicopters for Egypt specifically earmarked for its Sinai operation. 

"Egypt intends to use these refurbished AH-64 helicopters to modernize its 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," the State Department said in a statement.

While US forces are not directly engaged in Egypt's fight against the IS group in the Sinai, the US-led MFO is the only independent observer group in the region able to monitor Egypt's operation. 

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