Assessing the Regional Impact of US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The US military’s withdrawal from Baghram Air Base—the largest US military installation in Afghanistan— in anticipation of its complete withdrawal from the country later this year, has sparked speculation about the country’s short- to medium-term future. While the withdrawal was expected, the manner in which it is taking place and the haste with which it is being executed have served only to accentuate US unwillingness to further underwrite the stability of the country. It now remains to be seen when, not if, the Taliban reassert complete control and how Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Russia and China, engage with both the current government and the Taliban.

Con Coughlin, a defense and foreign-affairs columnist for The National, noted that it is not yet known how the prospects for a peace deal between the government and the Taliban will turn out, now that the American withdrawal is a foregone conclusion: “The unseemly haste with which the US and its allies have completed their military withdrawal from Afghanistan raises serious concerns about the ability of the Afghan government and the Taliban to agree a lasting peace deal for the country…. Moreover, the completion of the American withdrawal has been undertaken without a peace deal between Afghanistan’s democratically elected government and the Taliban…. But the fact that the two sides in the conflict are still talking – albeit in Tehran – raises the faintest glimmer of hope that a return to all-out civil war in Afghanistan can still be avoided.”

Gulf News editor-at-large, Mohammed Almezel, argues that any talk of a peace deal is dead now, especially since a Taliban takeover in the coming months looks likely to succeed, making the issue a moot point. That conclusion appears to be confirmed by US intelligence reports, concluding “recently that the government of Afghanistan ‘could collapse as soon as six months after the American military withdrawal is completed’. The Taliban are poised to take over the country, again…. A Taliban rule is therefore likely. They have swept large parts of the country in the past few months. Their previous experience at the helm wasn’t an inspiring one. Yet, they may have learned few things since. They have perhaps evolved in thinking and approach. Few can claim they have sufficient knowledge of what their reclusive leaders think and plan. Will the ruthless and intellectually rigid student movement bring peace that Afghanistan has for 200 years been yearning for? That remains to be seen. One thing is clear- the concerned global players are giving them the chance this time.”

The power shift has important consequences for stability in the region, which is why the question of what happens next is fraught with so much danger. Presumably, none is more acutely aware of that than the Taliban itself. This may be why, as Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman points out, the Taliban leaders are insisting “that this isn’t the Taliban of old that emerged in the 1990s to take over Afghanistan, spread terrorism, host terrorism, commit cultural genocide and enabled Afghanistan to be a dumping ground of jihadists from all over the world. This Taliban, [like its probable] supporters and friends in Pakistan, Qatar, Malaysia and Turkey, will be more “responsible,” in the sense that it will seek to run Afghanistan as an extremist Islamist state, but it will not spread terrorism everywhere…. The question is whether the Taliban narrative of not bothering its neighbors is really true. Pakistan, Russia and others may be gambling that it is.”

Not all agree with that narrative. Writing for Al Ahram, Hussein Hardy suggests that the Taliban remain unreformed, with ties to Al Qaeda as strong as ever, and committed to their fundamentalist ideology: “To make matters more worrisome, the Taliban have not cut their links with Al-Qaeda. To expect them to do so, whether today or in the future, borders on political naivete…. It would not be a surprise if the Taliban continue attacking in the provinces in Afghanistan and eventually encircle the capital, Kabul, either to claim a bigger share in government or, in the worst case, repeat their onslaught on the Afghan capital of 1996, when they seized power, and the country descended into the Dark Ages. I doubt if they have reconsidered their core belief system since, meaning their narrow interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.”

Given the uncertainties on what happens next, what lies behind the US decision to withdraw without securing a binding peace agreement between the government and the Taliban? In a recent op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Camelia Entekhabifard believes that by withdrawing, the US will “not only put maximum pressure on the Kabul government but, by leaving the Taliban a free hand, cause insecurity at Iran’s, Russia’s and China’s borders, thus forcing them to appreciate America’s presence in the region. Now, with the rise of terrorist groups at their borders, these countries have to foot the bill for the security the US provided them for free. The following days are going to be decisive, but it is unlikely that even with the fall of the central government or power-sharing with the Taliban, the confrontations would easily cease. Equally, [the assumption of] power by the Taliban will not create peace and security in Afghanistan.”

That argument may have some merit. At least that’s what Djoomart Otorbaev, a former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, asserts in a carefully crafted analysis, written for Khaleej Times, of the implications of the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s likely return to power: “After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond…. Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province. The prospect that Afghanistan will become a source of deepening poverty, mass migration, and instability is quickly becoming everyone’s problem. But it is Central Asian governments that will be on the front lines.”

Not all are convinced of the lose-lose scenario facing the countries in the region. Manik Mehta, in an op-ed for the Daily Sabah, suggests an alternative and more hopeful scenario, at least when it comes to the implications of the US withdrawal for China: “With the withdrawal of US forces, China is putting its plans regarding Afghanistan into action…. The BRI’s – and China’s – success in Afghanistan will depend on peace and stability. Given its history of tribal rivalry and bloodshed, Afghanistan has seldom experienced peace and stability. Afghanistan, one of the world’s few countries that were not colonized by any foreign power, has fiercely resisted foreign invaders, as both the Soviet Union and the United States have learned the hard way. It remains to be seen if China, using trade and economic incentives, will succeed where others have failed. In any case, to use the American metaphor, it’s not going to be a cakewalk.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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