With the American embarrassment caused by the quick collapse of the Afghan government and its armed forces, the region now has a new battlefield to wage proxy wars and settle scores.
Following several setbacks suffered by jihadis and Islamist movements and the gains achieved by the Muslim Brotherhood following the short-lived “Arab Spring”, anti-Western Islamist groups were jubilant and rushed to claim victory in Afghanistan and revived their dreams of having a foothold ruled by the Islamic Shariah and establish an Islamic caliphate or emirate.
When the news cycle of the scandalous evacuation of Americans and Afghans is over, Afghanistan will cease to be an American problem and it would turn into a debate for historians whether the 20-year adventure was a successful mission or not.
It will be difficult for the US to wash its hands of the Afghans’ affairs for now, however, the internal dynamic in Afghanistan and the regional jockeying will fill in the vacuum created by the American withdrawal. Taliban is in desperate need for regional sponsors to serve as an interlocutor with the West if it wants to be a recognized state by the international community, and there are several candidates. Historically, Pakistan was the closest to Taliban, but now Qatar and Turkey proved to be major players. Their services are needed at the moment awaiting to determine if Taliban has mutated into a rational and responsible group. Soon the regional powers will be drawn into the Afghans’ internal affairs whether as a result of domestic fighting among various Afghan ethnic groups or conflicting interests.
Iran, which recently warmed up to the Taliban, has reasons to be concerned about next door Taliban. Tehran lost one leverage used against the West, when NATO troops totally withdrew and Taliban turned into a challenge rather than an opportunity.
The emerging Taliban rushed to assure the world that they don’t intend to allow foreign jihadis to make Afghan once again a safe haven and a launching site to attack the US and the West. However, events showed the short lifespan of their commitments. If Taliban’s government failed to gain international recognition and financial assistance needed to run the country, hosting jihadi groups can always help regain global powers’ interests in the country. While Taliban ideology differs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s, the difference doesn’t prohibit the Brotherhood and other Arab jihadi activists from finding refuge in the mountains of the Afghanistan. This may be the case soon, given the number of Islamists hosted by Turkey and Qatar and wanted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and other countries in the region which are facing up to the Brotherhood’s quest for power.
There have been some whispers in certain Gulf states that Taliban will serve as a counter power to Iran, would establish a Sunni-Shiite balance and maybe turn Afghanistan into the Yemen of Iran, similar to the situation in Yemen where Tehran is accused of supporting the anti-Saudi Houthi rebels.
The pack-and-leave decisions when occupation becomes costly and purposeless is not an American exclusive practice, but it has been practiced more by Washington in recent history.
Most Afghan watchers claim that when Washington began the talks with Taliban, their Afghan allies started planning for the day after the American troops leave, hence the quick collapse without putting a fight against Taliban.
When assessing the Afghani situation, one can’t but draw parallels with the situation in Iraq. The Sep. 11 terrorist attack sparked major American reactions that led to the occupation of Afghanistan and paved the way for the invasion of Iraq, under the banner of there’s no good terrorist or bad terrorist and the need to prevent bad players from chemical weapons that can target Western cities.
Now with all the perpetrators of the attacks dead or jailed and the leader of the Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden dead, Washington decided to close that costly chapter, resolve and withdraw from the region. The next American withdrawal to be announced is Iraq. This is going to be very challenging given the complications of the Iraqi political landscape. Domestic politics remain on top of American voters’ priorities, but another scandalous withdrawal from Iraq would be deal a major blow for the Biden administration and its foreign policy team, the year of the midterm elections.
Obviously, Western powers didn’t learn history and were impulsive in their reactions. Now the jury is still out to see if regional powers, Arabs and non-Arabs, will start settling scores in Afghanistan and squander their wealth instead of finding common ground and coexist with their differences in favor of serving their common interests.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.