Going forward after the Afghanistan debacle

The apparent winners—the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist groups—hate one another, and all hate Iran. Fears that Tehran and the Taliban are about to engage in serious cooperation, thus, are overblown.

Afghanis run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane as it departs from Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021. Source: Screenshot.
Afghanis run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane as it departs from Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021. Source: Screenshot.
Harold Rhode (Credit: Wikipedia)
Harold Rhode
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

The way in which that America absconded from Afghanistan harms United States interests. Though the previous administration in Washington was also planning a withdrawal, it informed the Taliban that the exit would take place only after certain conditions were met. And, in the event that the Taliban violated those conditions, the U.S. would respond with massive force.

The Taliban got the message, which is why not a single American was killed in Afghanistan since the start of those negotiations. Today, all bets are off, as the emerging footage and testimonies painfully illustrate.

The Taliban took over Kabul as soon as the Biden administration hurriedly abandoned the more than 80,000 Afghans who had thrown their lot in and helped the United States for the past 20 years. In other words, Washington abandoned them in their time of need.

In the words of the late historian Bernard Lewis: “The U.S. has again proven itself to be a harmless enemy and unreliable ally.”

Just as America abandoned the Shah of Iran in 1978-79, it has now abandoned its Afghan allies. Other U.S. allies—such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Israel—must ask themselves whether America can be trusted to come to their aid in time of need. Sadly, the answer is a resounding no.

This undoubtedly will lead to a further tightening of the ties between the Sunni-Arab Gulf states and Israel. To paraphrase former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer: “If you can’t rely on the 250-lb gorilla (America) to protect you, then the 100-lb gorilla (Israel) is your next best alternative.”

This is not the only silver lining, however.

The apparent winners in the debacles—the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist groups—hate one another. And, due to the eternal battle between militant Sunni forces and the fanatic leaders of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic, Iran hates them. Fears that Tehran and the Taliban are about to engage in serious cooperation, thus, are overblown.

As a result, the task at hand is to encourage all of the above enemies to fight against one another. Given their inability to overcome their historical enmity and put the past behind them, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

One could argue that sometime enemies cooperate when they consider it in their interest to do so. One example is the CIA and KGB. The same applies to Muslims, such as when the Iranian leadership protected the children of the anti-Shi’ite heads of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

This was a sophisticated strategy on the part of Tehran: to treat the families of potential enemies very well and keep an eye on them—like hostages. Its Sunni enemies understood that if they were to attack the Shi’ite regime, it would kill their sons living in Iran.

America should never take sides when its enemies battle among themselves. The U.S. must only attack when an enemy strikes it, and do so mercilessly, conveying the message that it’s not worth it to attack Americans or U.S. interests.

This is what Israel has been doing to Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Syria, without deploying troops on the ground. The U.S. needs to emulate the Israeli model of protecting interests from the air.


The Pakistani government has supported the Taliban all along. Pakistan is an invented country with a very weak sense of national identity. Made up of many diverse groups, its only gel is that 99 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims, as are the Taliban. All other identities, whether tribal, ethnic or familial, represent potential threats to the state’s very existence.

This is why the Pakistani regime supports those forces in neighboring Afghanistan and India who want to set up a united Islamic caliphate. Emphasizing any other identity spells trouble for Pakistani unity, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, which is populated largely by Pashtun tribes.

Directly across the border are the Afghan Pashtuns, who make up almost 100 percent of the Taliban; they are totally interrelated.

The border was arbitrarily demarcated by Britain in 1892, to put an end to the massive killing of Britons during the 50 previous years. But the border divided the winter and summer pastures of the Pashtun tribes in that area.

The Afghan side, where the Pashtun tribes spent the summer, is mostly mountainous. In the winter, they descended to the warmer lands in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is part of the Indian subcontinent.

The Pashtuns by and large don’t recognize the border, crossing back and forth at will, because so many have family ties on either side.

Throughout history, the Pashtuns in both countries have entertained the idea of creating a united Pashtunistan. Now that the Taliban has defeated America and is “drunk” with power, Islamabad fears that this idea could resurface and pose a problem for the very existence of Pakistan. This is why it’s doing its best to de-emphasize ethnic identity and promote common, supra-ethnic Islamic bonds.  Only time will tell how this plays out.


Afghanistan is rich in rare earth metals and other natural resources that China covets. Beijing also claims to have a good relationship with the Taliban, but it has invested heavily in Pakistan’s Pashtun-populated territories, building roads linking China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. This port, part of China’s global “Belt and Road Initiative,” is strategically important for China for the import and export of goods—bypassing the Malaccan Straits that could be blocked in the event of problems with Malaysia and Indonesia.

To complicate matters further, the Afghans are aware of what China is doing to their fellow Muslims in Xinjiang. And now that they believe America has been defeated—after the defeat of the British Empire in 1919 and the Soviet Union in 1989—they might be entertaining the idea that China is the next power they could bring down.

Americans with no concept of history find this type of thinking preposterous. But, like most Muslims, the Afghans and Pakistani Pashtuns have a deep sense of the past. For them, having succeeded against three of the greatest world powers is a sign that such thoughts are not beyond realizing.

The Chinese tried to buy off the Muslim Uyghurs with money, education and other enticements. In time, however, they came to grasp that this served only to embolden the Uyghurs, especially the younger generation. It is for this reason that China went from trying to pacify its Muslims to what it is doing to them today.

Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan are much harder to control, as they—unlike the Uyghur areas—have relatively large populations. Given past and recent history, how can one argue with certainty that the Chinese won’t misstep and fall into the same trap as the British, Soviets and Americans?

Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an Advisor on Islamic Culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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