Taliban Advances Raise Questions about US Strategy and Commitment

  • 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.

Medlir Mema, Phd
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid consolidation of control across large swaths of the country have raised alarm, not only in Kabul, but across the region. Despite initial hopes that a diplomatic solution might be forthcoming, most observers now expect that Afghanistan will soon fall completely under the control of the Taliban. The regional implications are still unclear, though some believe that Iran, Russia, and China may take advantage of the US disengagement.

The dramatic events of the last few weeks have seen Taliban fighters tighten the noose around the Afghan capital. At this point it seems unlikely that Taliban leaders will sit down to negotiate with the government in Kabul. However, there is a sense that, as this Khaleej Times editorial points out, the US and other Western countries owe it to the Afghans to leave behind a peaceful and stable country: “Afghanistan and its people need help. Western countries should first support and provide refuge to all Afghans who have been working in various capacities to help foreign forces during their time in the country. They should not be abandoned. Moreover, the Taliban need to be restrained. UN-brokered peace talks have given the extremist group a seat at the negotiating table and limelight. The West needs to counter this by coming to the aid of the Afghan government and rights of the people.”

Such optimistic voices are drowned out by those that believe such options, while desirable, are no longer available, as in a recent editorial in Gulf News: “The US decision to leave the country has been taken despite the objection of the Afghan government and many other governments, which argue that the political and military structure in that country was fragile and may not last in the face of a full-blown assault by the Taliban…. The US knows, and the whole world knows, that the Taliban are not interested in a ‘diplomatic solution’. They will press on with their military campaign until they subdue the entire country. And unless the US and major world powers stop the ongoing carnage, Afghanistan will again be an epicenter of regional tension.”

Now that the writing on the wall has become clearer, some have started providing both a postmortem of the US intervention in Afghanistan as well as a prognostication of what’s to come. Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, believes that the clear winner from the recent turn in US foreign policy is Iran: “The real picture on the ground reveals that US policy lacked consistency and a clear vision and fluctuated with the change of administrations and advisers. The result is visible in several countries. Iran has a quasi-veto power over any decision taken by Iraqi authorities. It exercises this role through Iraqi proxies. Same applies to Lebanon. Iranian influence in Syria does not need any proof since its militias helped save the regime. It is not possible to advance towards a ceasefire in Yemen without the approval of Tehran…. Is the Biden administration preparing to present a new gift to Tehran?”

The prospect of growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond concerns many in countries where Iran is known to already have a significant impact, including Yemen. This Yemen Online commentary identifies Iranian “entrenchment” in Yemen as only one of many concerning developments: “If the Biden administration isn’t careful, it could soon find itself confronting at least two major disasters in the broader Middle East. The first: the permanent entrenchment in Yemen of an Iranian-backed Houthi regime—a version of Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, armed to the teeth with long-range precision weapons capable of targeting U.S. partners and interests across the region from Egypt and Israel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates…. The second disaster: the full-blown collapse of the U.S. and NATO position in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, who remain in league with al Qaeda terrorists who helped Osama bin Laden perpetrate the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington nearly 20 years ago.”

Hesham Al-Shelwi, a Libyan writing for the Libya Observer, goes further. Concerned about the prospects for peace and security in his own country, he draws a direct parallel between what is happening in Afghanistan and in Libya: “Afghanistan is an enlarged picture of what is happening in Libya, where the regional and international powers have not yet agreed on an equation for the stability of our country. Thus, we and Afghanistan will remain as a swing between these powers, either for the same countries or our connection to other files, and it is therefore a complex process after the emergence of new types of conflicts and wars from afar. The major countries have not yet agreed to address issues related to cyber wars and the emergence of epidemics and viruses that shook the economies of the world.”

Meanwhile, Daily Sabah’s Melih Altınok echoes the concerns of many of his compatriots about the expected uptick in Afghans likely wishing to escape Taliban rule. Still struggling with the aftermath of the Syrian refugee deluge, Turkish officials are nervously eyeing the Taliban advances in Afghanistan, especially following European leaders’ mixed signals about European Union attitudes regarding a likely “Afghan migrant crisis”: “As in every crisis in the region, Turkey bears the biggest part of the refugee burden in the Afghanistan problem. Afghan refugees come to this safe harbor, which forms the border of the EU and NATO, passing tangentially to Iran. This situation puts a great strain on Ankara, which is currently hosting close to 5 million Syrian refugees…. An umbrella, including the U.S., the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, should be formed and an emergency action plan should be put into practice under the implementation of Turkey, which is a transit country.”

For Arab News’ Nadim Shehadi the management of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the signals this is sending about its engagement in the “broader Middle East” raises questions about whether the US can continue to claim the mantle of global leadership: “America seems to have checked out and abdicated its role internationally or at least in the broader Middle East. Meanwhile, the message is clear to the rest of the world — and everyone is scrambling to adjust to or to fill the vacuum. Russia, Iran and Turkey are stepping in to pick up the pieces in Syria and Afghanistan. China is discreetly doing the same on the economic front. In the Middle East, it could also mean that, eventually, the largest global oil reserves will no longer be traded with the US dollar, the main weapon that the US is still using…. It looks as if we are witnessing the end of Pax Americana, or US global influence, which began in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Second World War. If that is the case, then America’s stint as an empire will have been short lived, indeed.”

  • 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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