The novel coronavirus outbreak has prompted the U.S. military to order troops scheduled to return home from the Middle East to stay where they are for the next 60 days, three sources tell The Daily Beast.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is in charge of U.S. military operations in the Mideast, had prepared a limited order on the pause that exempted service members returning from Afghanistan. But a U.S. defense official said Wednesday morning that CENTCOM’s order was upended by a late-breaking order from the Pentagon that paused movement even more broadly.
“The CENTCOM order has been superseded by higher authorities,” the defense official said.
Pentagon officials have yet to respond to The Daily Beast’s questions. A different defense official, speaking on background hours after this story first ran, confirmed the Pentagon order, which CNN also reported applies to all troop movements overseas. Sources anticipated it would hit the pause button on many rotations while defense officials deal with the impact of the pandemic.
In Iraq, where training missions for the Iraqi Security Forces have paused during the COVID-19 outbreak, commanders had anticipated sending about 200 U.S. trainers back home.
Service members in Afghanistan were going to be allowed to transit through Kuwait for a maximum of 72 hours before returning home.
They still will–in theory. The order, formally issued by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and released in summary late Wednesday, exempts the Afghanistan drawdown, like its CENTCOM predecessor. But worldwide, all U.S. military, Defense Department civilians and their families are frozen in place overseas. The Pentagon said in a statement that it will affect an anticipated 90,000 servicemembers.
In Kuwait, a logistical hub for service members transiting in and out of the Mideast war zones, confusion and frustration mounted among people who expected to go home after their rotations ended.
“It is pretty awful here. We are rationing food. Lines are pretty long. Cannot go anywhere. Everything is closed down except the DFAC [dining facility] and a couple stores,” a U.S. service member at Kuwait’s Camp Arifjan told The Daily Beast.
Earlier, CENTCOM said in a Wednesday statement that it had paused U.S. service member deployments into the Mideast and South Asia. When, at an unspecified point, deployments resume, service members must first undergo a 14-day quarantine at their home station, CENTCOM said.
“Some units and service members [in the] U.S. Central Command area of responsibility will be temporarily held on station while their replacements are quarantined, but this policy is not intended to otherwise delay or prevent the flow of service members or units out of the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility,” CENTCOM said in the statement.
“This policy is also not expected to delay the drawdown in forces from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. agreement with the Taliban.”
It’s the latest upheaval for the U.S. military as it scrambles to deal with a global pandemic that respects neither borders nor fortifications. Back in the U.S., commanders on Army bases like Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas are dealing with the logistical and health challenges of implementing quarantines for service members returning from overseas. The Pentagon ordered those quarantines on Mar. 12.
In February, CENTCOM canceled travel and restricted movement within the Middle East as a precaution against COVID-19.