Implications of America Withdrawing from Iraq and 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.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama strategy toward the “War on Terror,” one aspect of it is now clear: the President is determined to withdraw American forces both from Iraq and from Afghanistan. American combat forces have already left Iraq. The remaining “support” troops are due to leave by mid-2011. And although Obama agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he has stated firmly that he intends to begin drawing down the U.S. troop presence there in mid-2011 — even though the generals he himself appointed oppose this.

Is this the right decision? That is not the question that will be discussed here. What is more important to note is that Obama’s decision appears to be a firm one that is likely to set the course of American foreign policy for some time to come. For once the withdrawals have been completed, or even just begun in earnest, it is highly unlikely that they will be reversed even by a subsequent Republican administration. While Republican candidates for office may denounce Obama’s decision, a Republican administration is hardly likely to renew military interventions that the American public no longer supports and wants to see ended.

The more important question to explore is this: what are the implications of the American decision to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan? Forecasting, of course, is hazardous. There are, though, some highly likely consequences of this decision that should be noted.

First and foremost among these is that Washington will have less influence in these two countries as its withdrawals from them proceed. If the United States was hard-pressed to control events in them even with a large troop presence, it is obviously going to be less able to do so with substantially fewer or none. Specifically, withdrawing its troops from Iraq means the United States will be unable to prevent the outbreak of renewed sectarian violence there. Withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan means that the United States will be unable to prevent an even greater resurgence of the Taliban than has been occurring while American troops are still there.

Another likely consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will be (indeed, already is) the growth in the perception that American power and influence are on the decline in the greater Middle East (and perhaps elsewhere). Just as when the United States withdrew its forces from Indochina at the beginning of 1973, the United States will be seen — both internationally and domestically — as entering a period when it is less willing or able to intervene militarily. This, of course, will be welcome to some (mainly America’s adversaries, but also some of its resentful “friends”) and unwelcome to others (mainly the beneficiaries of interventions that are ending, as well as those who now fear the United States will not protect them from their adversaries).

A third consequence is likely to result from the previous two: American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the increased perception that the United States is now less likely to intervene — or re-intervene — may serve to convince America’s adversaries that they have succeeded in driving the United States out of these two countries, and that they may succeed in driving it out of others as well. Parties that may be able to persuade themselves of this include the Islamic Republic of Iran, al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s various affiliates in different countries. America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan could also embolden other countries to increase their involvement in them, especially Pakistan in Afghanistan and Iran in Iraq (and possibly Afghanistan as well).

A fourth consequence, ironically, may be that some of America’s allies in the region become less amenable to U.S. influence. If they perceive the United States as less willing and able to defend them, then they may decide that they need to make alternative security arrangements. These could range from preemptively attacking their opponents, attempting to reach a modus vivendi with them, or seeking out other allies either in addition to or in place of the United States. Whether any of these alternative security arrangements would prove successful if attempted, of course, remains to be seen. Just the attempt to implement any of them, though, could increase the volatility of an already volatile region.

Finally, an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will do nothing to ease the region’s many other problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Indo-Pakistani hostility, or the rise of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Of course, the presence of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has done nothing to ease them either. In other words, there are many problems in the region that are likely to continue no matter what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is not inevitable, of course, that all of these problems will emerge following an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some, though, probably cannot be avoided — especially the reduction of U.S. influence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the growth in the perception that American influence in the region is declining. The emergence of just these two problems alone will lead to a more challenging foreign-policy environment for the United States. Yet even if all five of the problems outlined here emerge, the United States and its allies will still have options and opportunities for limiting the spread of Islamic radicalism as well as for contributing to the erosion of its influence in those places where it has become politically dominant. For in addition to the trends outlined here that would serve to weaken American influence, three other trends could emerge which might strengthen it.

Just because the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else does not mean that al-Qaeda, its affiliates, the Taliban, and/or Iran will emerge triumphant. The United States and its Western allies, after all, are not the only forces resisting Islamic radicalism. There are others in this region — who will remain in it after an American departure — that also oppose the spread of Islamic radicalism. These include nationalist, ethnic or sectarian movements inside Iraq and Afghanistan that have reason to fear al-Qaeda, its affiliates, the Taliban and/or Iran. They also include governments — both pro- and anti-Western (such as secular nationalist Syria) — in states neighboring or near Iraq or Afghanistan that fear the growth of an Islamist opposition in their own countries. These governments might well find it in their interest to help various parties and groups in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. In other words, the United States is not the only force opposing Islamic radicals. Instead of collapsing after an American troop withdrawal, powerfully motivated locally-based forces may emerge that might succeed in containing them, especially if the United States provides support for this.

In addition, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic forces that believe they have compelled the United States to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly likely to behave magnanimously in what they believe to be victory. On previous occasions when Islamic radicals gained power (including in Iran after 1979, Sudan after 1989, most of Afghanistan after 1996, part of Somalia after 1999, and parts of Iraq in the mid-2000s), they ruled in an intolerant, uncompromising and dictatorial manner. Indeed, their doing so contributed to the rise of local opposition against them. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and similar movements have given little reason for anyone to believe that they would behave any more moderately in future as they attempt to gain power or actually do so. And those whom the Islamic radicals oppress are potential allies against them — as was demonstrated in late 2001, when so many Afghans joined with a relatively small number of American troops in toppling the Taliban.

Finally, the prospects for divisions within the ranks of the Islamic radicals should not be discounted, especially because these are both highly likely to occur and will be highly significant when they do. In Iraq, we have already witnessed how radical Sunnis and radical Shias often fight each other despite their common opposition to the American military presence. There have also been other examples of Sunni-Shia hostility. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan almost went to war in 1998. Radical Sunnis have repeatedly attacked Shia communities in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has criticized the radical Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah. There have also been important differences between Shias (the chief Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, does not accept the principle of veliayet-e faqih, which the Islamic Republic of Iran uses to justify the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Similarly, there have been important differences between Sunnis, as when al-Qaeda criticized the radical Sunni movement Hamas. Ironically, differences among Islamic radicals are likely to grow stronger if they perceive American influence in the region to be declining, and hence less of a common threat to them.

The emergence of any or (especially) all of these three trends — local opposition to Islamic radicals, intolerant behavior on the part of Islamic radicals believing themselves victorious, and divisions among Islamic radicals — would provide the U.S. and its allies with ample opportunity to work with others against radical Islamic forces. The likelihood of these three trends emerging will each be examined in turn.


Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • 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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