Afghanistan is being closely watched by the Middle East leaders who are making their conclusions about the unreliability of the US as a partner. Over the past few days, many have drawn parallels amongst imageries of an Air America helicopter saving Vietnamese evacuees from the rooftop of a building in Saigon in 1975 and desperate Afghans climbing over a US Air Force plane taking off from the tarmac of Kabul’s airport on August 16. These parallels further fuel the mounting perception of the US as a power that participates in reckless invasions only to depart when the political, monetary, or human costs become too high for the American public to tolerate.
After investing $2 trillion over two decades, America watched the army and national government of Afghanistan collapse in a matter of days following the withdrawal. Several analysts are now proclaiming the end of America’s nation-building struggles after their enormous failure in Afghanistan. However, nation-building as a western policy has long been buried, as it was obvious in the cases of Syria and Libya after 2011’s Arab uprisings.
The US decision to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban will have consequences beyond South Asia. The Political leaders in the neighboring Middle East are observing carefully what is happening in Kabul and are making their deductions about the nature of American power and its future foreign policy in the region.
Is the US an unreliable ally?
The US President Joe Biden did not act outside established policymaking in Washington, in ordering the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since Obama’s presidency, there was a constant debate amongst those in admin who wanted a surge in the number of American troops to ‘’complete the job’’ and those who were eager to end the war and put an end to material and human losses.
Trump took the decision of communicating with the Taliban. His negotiation with the Taliban leadership directly and complete sideling of the Afghan government gave political recognition to the armed group. Today, Biden is ending what was started by Trump, but the promised orderly withdrawal turned into nothing but mayhem, which shall tarnish not only his legacy but America’s image abroad as well.
The US allies in the Middle East have been observing with uneasiness US decision-making in Afghanistan. The Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq as well as the central government in Baghdad most probably have all confidence now. They are undeniably questioning the US commitment to support them in the future. Trump’s order of American troops withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, which was later backtracked, was when trust in the US administration began to crumble. Though the cost of US operations in Iraq and Syria is smaller than in Afghanistan and Kurdish forces are better prepared to hold ground against an insurgency, compared with the Afghan security forces, they still feel unclear about their future and some most probably have contingency plans ready.
Everything that happened in Afghanistan led to the atmosphere of uneasiness as US allies in Lebanon and Iraq have been forced to think about what will happen to them if America and Tehran renewed the Iran nuclear agreement. Such a deal might mean easing American pressure on Iran which would strengthen the already strong influence of Tehran’s allies in Lebanon and Iraq.
Although the US has consistently rendered support for Lebanese and Iraqi militaries, fears will arise about this assistance suddenly being deferred or cut for budgeting purposes. The disorganized US withdrawal from Afghanistan is fortifying the perception among US allies in the region that America is not a reliable partner, that it is ready to cut a deal with the “enemy” if it serves its interests, and that US foreign policy remains to be capricious.
US Relations with authoritarians and Islamists
The US negotiations with the Taliban and its return to power question the future of US relations with both authoritarian regimes and Islamist groups, as the armed group incorporates both. The Taliban have been vigorously trying to improve their image in the domestic and international arenas, even though it is a tall order. Firstly, it has sworn to abandon hosting non-Afghan armed groups or terrorists. Secondly, it has toned down extreme violence when taking over Kabul. Thirdly, it has made it clear it is all set to talk to any foreign power even if it is an enemy. Fourthly, the armed group has clarified that it is open for businesses seeking to attract foreign investment. This Taliban’s accomplishment is seen as a form of vindication by Islamist armed groups in the Arab world and may encourage them to unite their power and seek international legitimacy.
Not only this but the Arab autocratic regimes are also drawing conclusions on the recent withdrawal. Some are taking this as a US signal that ‘’you’re allowed to oppress or kill your people as long as you don’t threaten our interests in the process’’. However, the possibility that after this withdrawal, the US might once again prioritize terrorism cooperation in dealing with Arab authoritarians, also exists.
Some local dictators, abandoned in the past, might be hoping for a retort on the international political arena. For instance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might wonder if the Taliban could get international legitimacy by negotiating with the US why was it not the same for him. The US move in Afghanistan will most probably revive the long-held battle amongst Islamists and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will probably fuel the geopolitical battles that extend to the Middle East. Russia, Iran, China, and Turkey are already working to fill the gap created by America in Afghanistan and have signaled that they will proceed with formal relations with the Taliban and are prepared to recognize a Taliban governance in Kabul. This will boost their influence and power in the Middle East as alternative forces to the USA. They are all glad to see the US leave, capitalized on continuing stability in Afghanistan, wary of intervening militarily, and might find ways to make deals that further weaken US influence.
The Biden government failed in planning the Kabul airport’s control transition from NATO to Turkey, and now Ankara is interested in investing in Afghanistan on its own, by moving closer to the Taliban following China and Russia’s footsteps. Consequently, this might add more layers of tension to US-Turkish relations and fortify the alliance between Ankara and Moscow. Iran, in the meantime, looks forward to not having US forces on its eastern borders but has had a complex relationship with the Taliban. Iranian security forces, already overstretched in the Middle East, will now have to worry about the border with Afghanistan and potentially an influx of refugees.
These emerging powers now have opportunities as well as challenges due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moscow now has a new bargaining chip that it can use to pressurize America for concessions in Syria and beyond. The Biden administration will need Chinese and Russian support to contain the Taliban when needed through the United Nations Security Council and diplomacy. The US showed susceptibility once again, which will only reinforce the geopolitical competition in both Middle East and South Asia.
The author is an intern at Global Affairs. She is pursuing her undergraduate studies in the field of Strategic Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. She likes to write on issues pertaining to Middle Eastern Politics, Social Issues, and Strategic Affairs.