(August 25, 2021 / Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Washington to discuss Iran with President Joe Biden represents an opportunity to turn the Afghan debacle into an opportunity for Israel should the United States redirect its energies towards Iran with a credible strategy.
America’s retreat from Afghanistan has been widely criticized, and that criticism is mostly justified. The United States could have left in a more orderly fashion, and Biden did not have to rigidly adhere to his arbitrary deadline, especially after it became clear that the Afghan army was collapsing.
However, the decision to leave was justified. The country was a lost cause, wasting American energy and resources and distracting it from more pressing issues such as Iran and China. What could not be achieved in Afghanistan after 20 years could not be achieved at all.
U.S. taxpayers have poured two trillion dollars into Afghanistan, and over 2,000 American soldiers have lost their lives there. Even so, the country is back to square one, to 2001 when the U.S. military invaded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the Taliban now control more territory than they did two decades ago and are far better armed, thanks to the American weapons seized from the Afghan army. Afghanistan, in other words, is a total loss.
Many have drawn a parallel between Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021. Others claim that America’s retreat displays weakness, emboldens Iran and undermines Israel’s deterrence. Those claims are not unfounded. Yet America can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat precisely by applying the lessons of Vietnam. Back then, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sacrificed a queen for a checkmate. His strategy must be repeated today.
The United States did indeed lose in Vietnam, and Saigon was a humiliation. But within 15 years the Soviet Union had collapsed and America had won the Cold War. In other words, the United States lost a battle but won the war. It did so by cutting its losses in an unwinnable war and focusing on exploiting the weaknesses of the Soviet Union.
On the face of it, it did look like there was a domino effect after Saigon, and that the Communists had the upper hand. They won in Angola in 1975, in Ethiopia in 1977 and in Nicaragua in 1979. Finally, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, openly challenging the United States. But this seemingly unstoppable progress of the Communists was in fact an illusion. By invading Afghanistan, the Soviets overstretched their economically unsustainable empire.
That same year, the United States established diplomatic relations with China, which by then had become an enemy of the Soviet Union. The United States also encouraged the Catholic rebellion against the Soviets in Poland (John Paul the Second, a Pole, had become pope in 1978), and the Muslim rebellion against the Soviets in Afghanistan (Iran had become an Islamic republic in 1979). In the 1980s, the United States accelerated the economic collapse of the Soviet Union by forcing it into an arms race it could not afford. All in all, the United States won the Cold War 15 years after the fall of Saigon.
The question is whether Washington has a similar strategy today in the face of two serious challenges whose seeds were sown back in 1979: Iran and China.
In 1979, the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei became the Supreme Leader of Iran, China began implementing the economic reforms that would pull it out of poverty and eventually turn it into the world’s second-largest economy. The United States supported both of these moves. Former President Jimmy Carter had abandoned the Iranian shah and had encouraged China’s embrace of capitalism.
Four decades later, Iran and China have become formidable challenges to the United States and to the West. In addition to the terror threat that Iran poses to both the United States and Israel, not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and in South America, there is also the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. A nuclear-armed Iran would potentially be able to blackmail the United States and disrupt trade (especially oil exports) in the Persian Gulf. As for China, it aims to overcome the United States both economically and militarily, and challenges American interests and values throughout the world.
Indeed, China has been deepening its relations with Iran. In April 2021 the two countries signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), meant to challenge U.S. sanctions and to add Iran to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The CSP upgrades both economic and military relations between the two countries. It grants China discounted oil supplies for the next 25 years, as well as port facilities in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
America’s decision to leave Afghanistan makes sense only if the plan is to cut losses in an unwinnable war and redirect resources and energies toward a winnable strategy. This strategy should consist of strengthening America’s alliances with Europe, Japan, India, Israel, the Gulf monarchies and the British Commonwealth. Biden knows that a new and credible nuclear deal cannot be reached and enforced with Iran. If America is heading for a Plan B, it needs the full support of its allies. As for China, it is now clear to all that, far from liberalizing because of its integration in the world economy, it has been taking advantage of this integration to entrench its global power and its authoritarian regime.
If the Biden administration wants to build a coherent alliance to confront Iran and contain China, it cannot only make demands from its allies but must also have a coherent strategy. Upon a request from the Biden administration, for example, Israel recently added its voice to a joint declaration against China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. By joining a public statement against China, Israel took an economic risk, as China threatened to retaliate. It is not enough for the Biden administration to ask its allies to be on board vis-à-vis China. It must also come up with a plan to shield them from China’s economic bullying. The fact that the United States has taken advantage of China’s boycott of Australia by selling more American coal to China is both cynical and counterproductive.
Precisely because the United States left Afghanistan, it must intensify its struggle against Iran and Hezbollah together with its allies, the same way that the United States intensified its struggle against the Soviet Union after it left Vietnam. In Afghanistan, America was wasting the lives of its soldiers and the money of its taxpayers, just like in Vietnam 50 years ago. The United States must now pursue the neutralization of Iran on other fronts with a credible strategy. Prime Minister Bennett must make sure that Israel is part of this strategy.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is an International Relations expert who teaches, at Tel Aviv University and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), and at the IDF academy. He is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and at the Kohelet Policy Forum, as well as Senior Analyst for i24news.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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