US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Fraught with Risks for the Region

  • 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.

Views from the Region


US president Joe Biden’s announcement of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 2021 was hardly a surprise. Mr. Biden’s predecessor had already set a deadline of May 1st for US forces to withdraw and bring America’s longest war to an end. In fact, for some the “postponement” of the withdrawal date is seen as more evidence that the US is unlikely to fully withdraw from Afghanistan. Most, however, anticipating the withdrawal to take place over the next few months, have issued various analyses and prognostications about the impact that the withdrawal of US troops and those of its NATO allies from Afghanistan will have on the country, its neighbors, and US adversaries Russia and China.

Writing for the Turkish Daily Sabah, Hakki Öcal is among those who view the announcement with skepticism, anticipating yet another delay when the final implementation plans are revealed, pointing out that for years US politicians and administrations “have mentioned nothing of ‘retreat.’ NATO set a May 1 deadline for withdrawal, but the final conference on April 24 in Turkey ‘to jump-start efforts to end the war and sketch out a possible political settlement’ may not take place. Everything seems to have been postponed to September. As soon as the Biden-Harris co-presidency receives the support of the bipartisan majority for the social programs it is seeking, the military will heave a sigh of relief about this withdrawal nonsense. This, in a nutshell, is why I respectfully decline to believe Mr. Biden’s latest braggadocio.”

What lessons can the US learn from the withdrawal?
For Hussein Ibish, author of a recent op-ed for The National, the blood, sweat, and money spent on Afghanistan’s security and stability by US forces and its allies may all be wasted if the US fails to learn the Afghanistan war’s overriding lesson: “The US needs clear policy goals…. This is obviously a US defeat, but of what kind exactly is ambiguous because the overriding US policy was never clearly defined or agreed upon. This war, which began as a striking success but degenerated into an interminable debacle, reveals much about what has gone wrong with American national security policy-making…. As with so many other post-Cold War policy failures, this again illustrates that Americans need focused and limited consensus goals, to which they need to apply precise leverage, pressure and, if necessary, force required to achieve them – but no more…. Having clear, limited and achievable goals is not a guarantee of success. But without them, failure is virtually certain.”

For many in the US, withdrawal from Afghanistan, to be followed by a hasty retreat from Iraq, may evoke memories of American troops’ departure from Vietnam, which, as Jordan Times’ Osama Al Sharif notes, risks leaving “both countries in turmoil—many will say in a worse condition than before the invasions. But nations and leaders often fail to absorb history’s lessons. Today Russia is massing troops along its borders with the Ukraine. Syria’s endless civil war is fueled by the military intervention of Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Tehran’s proxies. Libya’s attempt to unite and heal its wounds is hampered by the intervention of Turkey and Russian military contractors. Military interventions had rarely delivered on their initial objectives. The memory of an abandoned and later looted US embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975 may well be repeated in Kabul and Baghdad. In both cases the US had failed, but while its departure may bring relief to war weary Americans, the conflicts it leaves behind will continue for many years to come.”

What are the prospects for Afghanistan?
Others have turned their attention to the impact of the US withdrawal on the fate of Afghanistan’s civilian population, who may once again find themselves at the mercy of the Taliban fighters. Mamdouh al-Muhainy, general manager of Al Arabiya and Al Hadath, opines in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat that the Biden administration’s decision is likely to “leave a deep ethical crisis behind it and shake confidence in the civil forces, who are behaving blatantly opportunistically, leaving millions to face the most vicious and barbaric of terrorist groups…. In all likelihood, the imminent withdrawal will end up being a strategic mistake because terrorist groups will choose, as they always have, far off Afghanistan as their favorite destination for reorganizing their ranks, and the country will serve as a launching pad for future operations. The withdrawal is also a defeat in the eyes of sympathizers, which will accelerate recruitment…. The withdrawal is a strategic mistake and an ethical defeat, regardless of the justifications.”

In what amounts to yet another critique of the US government’s announcement, Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK and UN, writing for Arab News, worries that while the Taliban may opt for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, the more likely outcome is the perpetuation of violence in Afghanistan: “[T]he Taliban leaders may calculate that, after two decades of military struggle, the opportunity to secure their desired outcome also presents itself through negotiations — an option that would help them receive the international support and assistance they will need in post-American Afghanistan and, most importantly, offer a better chance of achieving lasting peace. The danger, however, is that if the path of negotiations is spurned and talks fail, Afghanistan could once again descend into chaos and a bloody civil war that would only prolong the tragedy for its long-suffering people, who yearn for peace. In that case, Afghanistan’s ‘forever war’ will continue, even as America’s ends.”

Which regional powers will fill in the void?
In a special report for Gulf News, Syed Talat Hussain lays out competing Pakistani views regarding the US decision, one that many in Pakistan have awaited for a long time, but which carries significant risks for that country, which shares a long border with Afghanistan: “The Biden Administration’s announcement of leaving Afghanistan’s troubled soil before September 11 this year has birthed hopes and spawned fears in Pakistan…. US forces will be exiting a protracted war in a country that Islamabad shares a long, treacherous border with, because of which it has been on the receiving end of all the nasty spillovers — refugees, conflict and endless international pressure to deliver an impossible peace…. Side by side there are fears too, which unfortunately are more palpable and potent than starry-eyed anticipation of troubles ending with Washington’s military footprint evaporating from Pakistan’s soft underbelly…. [T]he Biden Administration has not yet defined what sort of a toehold it would retain in Afghanistan…. Another fear is the sense that the US is leaving behind a massive vacuum…. That means there will be not just a governance dark hole but the center might collapse at a touch.”

Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister, Hussein Haridy, pushes back, in an Al Ahram op-ed, against suggestions that the US is leaving a power vacuum in Afghanistan, while quickly pointing out that much still depends on whether Afghanistan’s neighbors will find a way to balance their competing interests: “The US government has also reached out to international and regional powers that have a stake in the security and stability of Afghanistan and South Asia to help it diplomatically in reaching an enduring and sustainable peace agreement among the warring parties in Afghanistan. These powers include Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Turkey…. All these powers have a stake in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a hotbed for international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, which are already operating in some parts of the country. A key stabilizing element in the Afghan equation will be whether Pakistan and India will continue to see Afghanistan as a battleground in managing their confrontation. In the same vein, Iran also has a stake in the political stability of Afghanistan, and the Western powers should not rule out cooperation with Tehran in this respect.”

Finally, in another Al Ahram op-ed, director of the Arab Gulf States Institute Abdel Moneim Said notes that the power vacuum left behind by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may prove too tempting for China and Russia, and it may become just as deadly and destabilizing for them, as it did for the United States: “The US exit from Afghanistan will be another landmark, on top of other setbacks in the Middle East, in the decline of US influence, might and status. China and Russia stand to gain, of course. But, at the same time, these two countries are uncomfortably close to Afghanistan and may soon find themselves looking at a militant Islamist state whose Taliban leaders boast about defeating the Soviet Union and precipitating its collapse and will now brag about forcing the world’s number one superpower to turn tail and, perhaps, precipitating its ultimate demise as a world power as well…. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may cause Russia an even greater headache than it does China, in view of the proliferation of Islamist extremist groups in countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as within the Chechnya and Tatarstan regions in the Russian Federation.


  • 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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