US Afghan withdrawal triggers talk of “balancing”

  • 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 likely fallout from the much-criticized US withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to be a topic of disagreement across the Middle East. The return of the Taliban to Kabul and the ease with which they have been able to suppress all armed opposition serve only to underline the fact that their hold on power is unlikely to weaken anytime soon. Faced with this reality, many have turned their attention to the question of who stands to benefit the most from these developments and what actions, if any, others might take to counterbalance potential “winners.”

It is perhaps not a surprise that, given the high levels of uncertainty surrounding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return, many fear a power vacuum. Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Hussein Haridy, writing in Al Ahram, argues that the recent events are likely to trigger a competition among Afghanistan’s neighbors and ongoing instability at home: “The ones who celebrated were members of the very same politico-religious movement that the US had pushed out of power by the use of force 20 years earlier, in October 2001. This year, the Taliban retook 90 percent of Afghan territory, including the capital Kabul, in less than a month…. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a serious power vacuum in South and Central Asia. Moreover, the fact that the economic and financial situation in Afghanistan is not promising for the foreseeable future does not augur well for security and stability inside Afghanistan and beyond its borders.”

Recognizing that the region is at an inflection point, Gulf Cooperation Council member states have made a point of signaling their intention to fill the void left by the US withdrawal. That is the message, at least, of Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg—GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation— who, in an op-ed published by Arab News, made clear that the GCC sees a place for itself at the negotiation table: “Fears of growing terrorist activity and instability in Afghanistan have spurred the region into action. This crisis may offer an opportunity for the region to again play a greater role in shaping its own future. The Gulf Cooperation Council also sees Central Asia as a potentially important partner in dealing with the new situation in Afghanistan and maintaining peace and security, as well as an opportunity to encourage shared economic interests and common history and culture.”

Most observers believe that Iran is likely to emerge as the winner from the power vacuum. However, as Hanin Ghaddar points out in this Al Arabiya op-ed, the Taliban’s return to Kabul is not necessarily great news for Iran: “Iran is feeling the heat coming from Kabul. Divisions among political camps, contradictory statements, anti-Taliban protests, confusion and anxiety all underline official statements coming from Tehran, signaling that the regime has not yet made up its mind about where it sits with the Taliban running Afghanistan. No matter what happens, the Taliban is not good for the Iranian regime. Although Tehran has welcomed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, it faces a distressing situation. The main concern is security, but the economy is also a worry, one that will force the regime to compromise.”

The National’s Johann Chacko believes that, along with Pakistan, Iran is likely to see the greatest influx of refugees should the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate quickly or become unstable: “Afghanistan, in short, faces the prospect of economic catastrophe. This not only threatens the Taliban’s uncertain legitimacy with the Afghan people, but its relationship with the country’s largest neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Both have made clear that they do not want to absorb the waves of refugees that would flee Afghanistan’s economic disintegration…. The Taliban, for its part, has to maintain an image of sovereign independence to its fighters, and find justifications within its brand of Sharia for whatever policies it pursues.”

This is not the first time the two countries—Iran and Pakistan—have been cast together when it comes to considering future regional dynamics. In fact, writing for Arab News, Zaid M. Belbagi argues that Iran’s détente with the Taliban is likely to worry Pakistan and trigger competition between the two countries: “One of the most interesting developments concerning the situation in Afghanistan that has been almost entirely overlooked is the Taliban-Iran axis taking hold…. Iran, which had held heretical status among the militants, has shown itself to be a key partner. Relations are a world away from when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps supported US forces in their 2001 invasion. The reality is, Iran has spent a decade preparing for the Taliban’s eventual takeover, and the once-mortal enemies have collaborated closely…. The development of an IRGC-Taliban front is one of the many unexpected developments stemming from America’s failure in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, Tehran’s showing its hand in Kabul is likely to be problematic, not least to Pakistan, which will be concerned that the Taliban will no longer act as a conduit for its interests.”

For other countries in the region, one of the fears is that buoyed up by the developments in Afghanistan and the US loss of credibility in the region, Iran may try to press the matter further. Such fears lead Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed to predict the rise of an Iranian-backed axis of terrorist groups spreading havoc in the region: “When a regime like Iran that feeds ideas of extremism and fighting, promotes its rhetoric and builds militias to serve its activities, terrorism will continue to thrive. Confronting Iran is [confronting] the extremist religious ideology that emerged in 1979 with Khomeini’s arrival in power…. Unless we fight and restrict extremist ideas, and on their platforms, they will become more widespread and dangerous. In short, a terrorist group will not exist without an extremist ideology that precedes it, and there is no extremist ideology without an environment that allows it to exist and spread.”

For most observers, however, the greatest fear is a newly emboldened Iran that may instrumentalize the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, to try to tip the balance between Iran and its Arab neighbors and Israel. In a screech piece published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Reverend Johnnie Moore excoriate the Biden administration for the “ignoble withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan” warning that it “only served to benefit Iran’s apocalyptic vision for the Middle East, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to frame the decision differently…. The nations of the Gulf, along with Egypt, Israel and other nations near Iran, don’t have the luxury of waiting for the results of the 2022 midterm U.S. elections, let alone the 2024 presidential elections. They will instead have to forge their own collective path to defend themselves from more ‘confidence-building’ demands from Tehran. And if Washington is unwilling to do so, then it may be time for the Arab countries to just move forward in the right direction without the Americans.”

Talk about the possibility of confronting Iran even without US backing has become louder over recent months. Much of that conversation is driven by the fear that the US security commitment to its Arab allies and even Israel may be fading. As Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy—former Egyptian ambassador and senior UN official—puts it in a recent Asharq Alawsat op-ed: “Afghanistan represents a blow to US credibility and prestige. It confirms that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon. What is important to us in the Arab world is what conclusions we can draw from this colossal American failure. Particularly the implications for our relations with the US as well as the ramifications for our individual and collective security…. [M]any Arab countries have come to depend, one way or the other, on the US for their security. If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where it invested blood and money for two decades, there will be a question mark over whether America will be willing to go the extra mile in helping the Arab countries in safeguarding their security against Iran, Turkey and Israel.”

  • 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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