What Chaotic US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Means 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.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Counci


The events of the last few days taking place in Afghanistan have shocked many in the region. The hasty collapse of the Afghani government and military along with the chaotic scenes taking place at the airport in Kabul give the impression of a disorganized and ill-prepared US military withdrawal which may have important and deleterious impact on perceptions of US power and commitment in a region which values both. Not surprisingly, perhaps, US competitors in the region see the possibility for asserting their influence, while US allies wonder what the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and in particular, the way it was executed, will be for them and for the region.

There has been no shortage of explanations for Afghanistan’s collapse, with many concluding as former Turkish ambassador Omer Onhon does in this Asharq Alawsat op-ed that what we are witnessing in Afghanistan is due to “Corruption, mismanagement, tribalism, coupled with internal US politics and international politics on the one hand, Taliban on the other, led to something in Afghanistan, which not many hoped for and expected. All the efforts and achievements of the last 20 years, however modest or ample they may be, stand as if they will be fading away soon…. Afghanistan is about to become another example of thousands of lives lost, billions of dollars spent, and yet, the situation on the day of exit, turns out to be worse than the situation on the day of entry. Apparently, much has been done, but not much has been achieved. The Afghan issue will continue to haunt and occupy international politics for the foreseeable future.”

Turning his attention to the lessons learned from the Afghanistan debacle, Mahmood Monshipouri points out on the pages of Tehran Times that one of the clear messages is that ‘foreign governance regimes,’ as he puts it, are unsustainable in the medium- to long-term: “The swift and immediate collapse of the Afghan army is proof of the failed long-term viability of expensive and complicated counter-insurgency operations…. The lasting impact of this failed U.S. mission should instruct future leaders about the viability of implementing foreign governance regimes on target states and the notion of creating pockets of stability and control while the vast expanse of the state is left to a committed oppositional fighting force.  If the lesson is learned, perhaps blood and treasure need not be spent errantly and without focus. Otherwise, the same policies will achieve the same disastrous ends.”

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a Member of Knesset, opines on the pages of Times of Israel on the geo-strategic implications of the ‘loss of Afghanistan’, as he puts it, given the impact that the events of the last few days have had on “America’s prestige. The damage is especially acute in the Middle East, where the majority of states — Israel among them — depend on the perception of American power. The victory of the Taliban, moreover, will encourage the Islamic radicals who seek to destroy Israel and overthrow moderate Arab governments. Captured American weaponry will likely find its way into the hands of Hamas and other terrorist groups, further threatening regional security…. Will other powers — the Russians, the Chinese — fill the vacuum left by America’s withdrawal, dooming all chances for a breakthrough, and will Iran press its campaign for regional hegemony?”

Dalia Al-Aqidi, the author of an Arab News op-ed, is even more critical of the US actions, characterizing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a ‘betrayal’, which will most likely be exploited by US adversaries to weaken America’s ties to the region: “China was one of the first US rivals to express its support for the Taliban-led government in Kabul…. With the help and cooperation of the Pakistan government, China will be the alternative power providing security and economic aid for the new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”… Beijing is already investing in Afghanistan, has poured money into the country’s infrastructure, and in the near future could be the link between Kabul and the European and Middle Eastern markets. The scrambled US exit and the abandonment of its strongest allies have given China the perfect chance to send a message to pro-US Asian countries that they can no longer depend on Washington.”

Writing for Jordan Times, Osama Al Sharif builds further on this argument, by suggesting that what we are witnessing is a shift in US foreign policy orientation, with the outcome being emboldened adversaries and more concerned allies: “The fall of Kabul presents a symbolic end to almost two decades of neoconservative view of the world and of the role of the US that was enshrined into a foreign policy mantra under George W. Bush Jr…. Would the Afghan debacle signal a slow embrace of selective isolationism for Washington? It could speed up the pivot to a more stable southeast Asia, to a more strategically vital region like South and Central America and to a more comfortable and equitable relationship with the EU. The American abandonment of Afghanistan sends a troubling message to US regional allies with their conflicting agendas and more importantly to its traditional rivals, Iran, Turkey and Russia. Without direct US regional involvement America’s allies should feel concerned.”

Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, meanwhile, implies in his analysis that the Taliban’s return to power, despite their ongoing tacit relationship with Al-Qaeda, will embolden other terrorist organizations in the region, which may lead to greater instability: “With the return of the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda still operating, there can be no guarantee that the two will not resume their cooperation and coordination, this time benefiting from 20 years of experience in resisting the mightiest military force on the planet, the US military…. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, I wonder what conclusions Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terror organizations such as IS will draw and what their strategy will be? One thing is certain: all terrorist organizations and groups have been emboldened by the latest turn of events in Afghanistan. If the Taliban seize power in Kabul, they will conclude that persistence in fighting established governments in the name of Islam has been vindicated by the second precedent of the Taliban.”

Many in Israel have followed with some trepidation the developments in Kabul worried that Israel may also find itself abandoned and isolated. This Jerusalem Post editorial speaks for many of them calling on the Israeli government to strengthen its military preparedness and independence: “One of the obvious messages of the fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, is that a vacuum created in the Middle East and elsewhere is not filled by moderate elements despite the hopes and intentions of the US and Western powers…. For Israel, the main message of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is the reminder that the Jewish state ultimately can only rely on itself. Although Israel’s interests and those of the US usually align and the two countries are veteran and strong allies, when push comes to shove Israel has its own special needs which it must protect. No foreign or international peacekeeping force can ever be relied on to protect the State of Israel the way the IDF can.”

Israelis are not the only US allies in the region preparing for the worst. In an op-ed for The National, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla issues a similarly worded challenge to Gulf countries to develop ‘self-defense capabilities’ and to ensure their military forces can rise to the challenge should they need to: “Is the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan simply a prelude to a long-term plan for a gradual military withdrawal from the Arab Gulf, too? What are the choices facing the Arab Gulf countries? The Arab Gulf states are not without options. They are sensitive to the mood in the US, which is partial towards a withdrawal from foreign conflicts, and well attuned to what is going on behind the scenes in Washington, where there is talk that the Arab Gulf is not as vital a region as it was in the past. These countries have many choices, perhaps the first and the most important of which is the possibility of developing their self-defense capabilities and avoiding the mistake of building a dysfunctional army, like the one in Afghanistan, which fell in its first real confrontation with the Taliban without US aid.”

Finally, Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran identifies the risk of a rise in the flow of refugees coming into Turkey as one of the country’s main concerns, which also, in his view, gives the Turkish government the right to become involved in discussions about Afghanistan’s future: “Indeed, if Turkey seeks to play an active role in Central Asian politics, it must be part of the equilibrium in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Turks already know about the benefits of playing an active role in times like these. The country operates in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Afghanistan. Turkey cannot assume responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan, but it cannot run away from the crisis either. Given that the Afghan refugees are already on the way, the most sensible course of action is to play a role in managing the looming crisis.”

  • 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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