OpinionMiddle East

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: What’s next?

The Middle East is doomed to remain brutal, repressive and culturally Islamist. Regional powers, including Israel, must come together to guarantee stability.

U.S. President Joe Biden on the phone with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan about ongoing efforts to safely drawdown the civilian footprint in Afghanistan. Source: White House/Twitter.
U.S. President Joe Biden on the phone with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan about ongoing efforts to safely drawdown the civilian footprint in Afghanistan. Source: White House/Twitter.
Yaakov Amidror
Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Earlier this week, I spoke with a respected American journalist who asked about the impact on Israel of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s fall to the Taliban. He was not the first person to ask about this. Some expand the question, tying the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan to the U.S. decision to stop fighting in Iraq, leaving behind only U.S. troops that will train the Iraqi army.

The first to define the process of U.S. withdrawal from the region was President Obama, who talked about a pivot to the East, in other words shifting U.S. efforts from the Middle East eastward, alluding to China. President Trump followed suit, deciding to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and Iraq (although this was not fully acted upon). President Biden continued this process and brought it to a difficult end in Afghanistan, taking another step toward a complete withdrawal from Iraq.

In other words, this withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of an ongoing historical process reflecting deep-rooted American sentiment. The enormous U.S. investment in wars in the Middle East, the trillions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of dead and wounded, have not yielded the desired result.

U.S. soldiers on the way back to Kandahar Army Air Field on Sept. 4, 2003. The soldiers were searching for Taliban fighters and illegal weapons caches. Photo: Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis/U.S. Army.

With regard to Israel, the question is how this U.S. decision to reduce American military involvement in the Middle East, and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, will impact the international and regional order within which Israel operates. Thus, three spheres need to be addressed: global, Middle Eastern and Israeli.

From a global perspective, the collapse of the U.S. nation-building effort in a country that America took responsibility for in 2000 is a resounding failure, especially considering the lightning speed at which it happened.

Will this failure impact America’s international standing, primarily the race between it and China? Most likely, it will impact U.S. standing very little. U.S. competition with China is not tied to any one event. China is driven by its beliefs and wide-ranging assessment over time of America’s decline; that the democratic system has run its course and China has emerged on the global stage to change the world, not integrate into it—and certainly not according to the rules set by the West. It is not at all certain that China is interested in Afghanistan becoming a terror state, but what happens in Afghanistan will not dictate China’s actions.

America’s success or failure in Afghanistan will also not lead Europe to change its cautious position regarding the struggle between China and the United States. Europe will continue to speak in grandiose terms about protecting human rights and simultaneously expand its trade with China. The Europeans would certainly be happy if the United States succeeds in isolating the Taliban, and were even willing to provide some help during the various stages of the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—but most Europeans believe trade is preferable to war, and when your largest trading partner is China you cannot really fight it, even if there are obvious moral reasons to do so.

President Xi Jinping of China and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. Credit: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The real lesson the world took from the U.S. failure in Afghanistan has to do with the entire Middle East. The failure of America’s Middle East policy has demonstrated that history cannot be replicated, and that what succeeded after World War II in Germany and Japan does not necessarily work in the Middle East. The United States failed to change the local culture in Iraq, let alone in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Middle East, and the various Muslim countries that make up this region, are not ripe for change.

It should therefore be quite clear that the Middle East, between the Atlantic Ocean and India’s borders, will not change dramatically anytime soon, just as it did not following the Oslo agreements nor following the mislabeled “Arab Spring.” This region is doomed to remain brutal, repressive and culturally Islamist. The dual failure of the United States in the region demonstrates this once again.

Healthy suspicion must accompany every announcement or assessment about a change for the better, because it is difficult to impossible to realize such a change in the region. The world must recognize this and view regional processes accordingly.

At the same time, we must take into consideration that after the United States partially or completely leaves, there will not be a void. The obstacle to the involvement of other powers which the United States posed by its very presence will have been removed. This will enable China and Russia to expand their influence in the area. There will be economic indications of this. They will take part in rebuilding Syria as well as in the rebuilding of Iraq and Lebanon, and probably Afghanistan too (mainly by China), and will expand their influence by building military bases in the region and selling arms.

A Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24 at the Latakia Air Base in Syria, on Oct. 3, 2015. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Chinese interest, besides competition with the United States, stems from China’s energy needs. The Russian interest is geo-strategic. It sees the Middle East as “the neighboring area” from which problems can spill into former Soviet countries and even into Russia itself.

China and Russia will be glad to expand their influence, even symbolically, into any place from which the United States withdraws—if for no other reason than to signal a change in their favor. Their more prominent presence in the region likely will bring about a change in behavior of Mideast countries, since it will not be possible to ignore Russian and Chinese interests. The world looks different when there is a Chinese or Russian military base nearby, instead of an American one.

As for the Middle East itself: Countries in the region must recognize that the political and security conditions around them are changing, and that the U.S. umbrella is growing weaker (because America decided to fold the umbrella up, for better or worse). For Iran and Turkey, two countries with imperial pasts that dream of restoring their former glory and expanding their influence, this is an opportunity not to be missed, and therefore they will likely become more aggressive.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.

For the countries seeking to maintain the status quo and which are concerned about the Shi’ite “axis of evil,” as well as a reemergence of the Ottoman Empire driven by a Muslim Brotherhood-like ideology—now is the time to act collectively.

These are Arab countries, some rich, some heavily populated, and some with serious economic and social problems. They are dictatorships at some level or another, exerting harsh control over their populations and suppressing opposition. At the same time, they are threatened by extreme Islamic organizations, both internally and externally. Separately, each will find it very difficult to contend with Turkish or Iranian pressure as well as with the lurking danger of internal enemies.

However, if they act together, rendering each other mutual assistance regarding economic, intelligence and military matters, they will be able to contend with the two non-Arab countries that seek to control the Arab world. Each of these countries will be left with difficult internal challenges, but they will also be able to deal with these more easily if the external threat is mitigated and they receive “Arab sister” support from the outside.

It is entirely unclear whether the Arab world is ready for such a change. Perhaps the old rivalries between and within these countries will not enable them to cooperate, no matter how critical it may be that they do so. If this proves to be the case, Iran and Turkey will have an easier time in threatening countries across the Middle East. At the same time, radical Islamist movements will be encouraged by the Taliban’s success and will increase their efforts in these Arab states. Whether Al-Qaeda, Islamic State or a new organization with similar ideology emerges remains to be seen.

From the Israeli perspective, the weakening of the U.S. commitment to, and involvement in, the Mideast poses a problem mainly because Israel will be left bearing the burden of contending with the countries threatening both it and the entire region.

At the same time, this also presents Israel with a genuine opportunity. After all, Israel is less impacted by U.S. withdrawals than Arab countries. Israel never built its defense capability on active American partnership, certainly not on the battlefield. The United States has not backed away from its commitment to Israel, and therefore the conditions for conducting future warfare have not fundamentally changed from Israel’s perspective.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony for the new F-35 stealth fighter jet at the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev Desert. Dec. 12, 2016. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Nevertheless, it is true that Israel is now more alone in bearing the day-to-day burden of dealing with aggressive forces in the region, both to prevent and win wars. Israel will have to address this additional burden in its military force build-up. Israel should try to convince the United States to assist in this additional effort. But under no circumstances should Israel call on the United States to return its soldiers to the region.

It is not Israel’s business how the United States sets its priorities and where it is willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice the lives of its men and women. Again, Israel must enhance its military power, and to this end receive as much assistance as possible from the United States so that it will not need American assistance on the battlefield. Israel must repeatedly emphasize that it will defend itself by itself. Israel is willing to pay for this capability, but will be happy to receive U.S. assistance in easing the burden of realizing this capability.

Israel’s regional standing may in fact grow stronger in two areas. Perhaps Mideast countries will come to understand that an open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves. In contrast to Iran and Turkey, Israel does not have any pretensions or aspirations to control or influence Arab countries, besides its desire to prevent them from threatening it. Thus, Arab countries can gain significantly from open relations with Israel because Israel can provide knowledge and technology in areas that are important to these countries, such as water, agriculture, education and health. Israel can help them defend themselves by way of intelligence cooperation as well as overt and covert security assistance.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani sign the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 15, 2020. Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

Israel is not a substitute for the United States, but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme making it easier for them to contend with various threats. If it responds correctly to the U.S. decision, the Arab world can mature and learn to deal with its problems on its own—together with Israel.

From the U.S. perspective, the importance of Israel for securing American interests in the region (and necessarily also of Israel’s standing as a component of U.S. national security) will increase. If the United States assesses the situation correctly and does not let clamor from the anti-Israeli ideological flank on the far-left margins of the Democratic Party impair its rational and professional thinking, it will understand that Israel is the only country in the region on which the United States can count.

Israel is the only country in the region in which the United States has a serious partner and a safe forward-deployment area; the only country about which the United States can be confident regarding regime resilience and friendship. It is the only democracy in the region, on which the United States can rely in the deepest sense of the word. “Shared values” is not an empty slogan, but rather the basis for cooperation in the face of difficult predicaments.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is hosted by IDF Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Chief of the Israeli General Staff, at The Kirya in Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 24, 2019. Credit: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/DOD via Wikimedia Commons.

The decision of recent American presidents to cut back on investments in the Middle East (mainly to direct energy and budgets to the Far East) is undoubtedly of historical significance for the entire region. The U.S. shift does not ensure success in the race against China, but certainly undercuts the feeling of countries in the Mideast that there is someone to rely on in case of a crisis, particularly with respect to Iran and Turkey and with regard to the fight against global terror.

Nevertheless, if they act together, Arab countries should be able to defend themselves against Iranian and Turkish aggression. Adding Israel to this undertaking will make it much easier to contend with the regional powers that are not Arab but that aspire to rule the Arab world. Israel must continue to strengthen its ability to defend itself by itself, albeit with the assistance of the United States. Israel will remain the most reliable U.S. ally in the face of threats and changes washing over the region.

IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror was national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and chairman of Israel’s National Security Council (April 2011-November 2013). He served for 36 years in senior IDF posts (1966-2002), including commander of the Military Colleges, military secretary to the defense minister, director of the Intelligence Analysis Division in Military Intelligence and chief intelligence officer of the IDF Northern Command. He is a distinguished fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center and the author of three books on intelligence and military strategy: “Reflections on Army and Security” (Hebrew, 2002), “Intelligence, Theory and Practice” (Hebrew, 2006) and “Winning Counterinsurgency War: The Israeli Experience” (JCPA, 2008).

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security.

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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