Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Afghanistan’s Transition Will No Doubt Affect the Middle East

Afghanistan's Transition
Afghan refugees rest in tents at a makeshift shelter camp in Chaman, a Pakistani town at the border with Afghanistan, on August 31, 2021 after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan to end a brutal 20-year war — one that started and ended with the hardline Islamist in power. Photo by AFP

Sophia Akram

As the world watches a shock transition in Afghanistan, many can’t help commenting on the lessons a Taliban victory shows for vying superpowers and the limits of America’s might. It is also likely to serve as a reminder that US actions have profound effects that ripple across regions and interconnected players. The Taliban victory will no doubt impact the Middle East and various international powers with interest in the region.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan drew widespread concern, condemnation and deliberation over whether Washington is a reliable partner, particularly where it has previously signalled a drawdown of troops, such as in Iraq and Syria. Both theatres also have a smaller US footprint, and its Kurdish partners are thought better equipped to fight an insurgency than the Afghanistan security forces, further raising the worry the US may cut and run when it suits it to do so.

Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, however, says the situations are incomparable.

“It would be difficult to extrapolate what has transpired in Afghanistan in weeks and months to any other place in the world where the US has active engagements because Afghanistan was such a uniquely scaled and sized effort — the US has been there for nearly 20 years,” he told Fanack.

“To be honest with you, Biden, I think had particular feelings about the Afghanistan mission that he made clear as a senator, as the vice president, and certainly now as a president, that he’s always been one of the more sceptical voices for the Afghanistan mission,” he added.

What is also clear is that the US withdrawal serves its foes better than it does American interests. China and Russia, for instance, stand ready to leverage the situation, the former having courted the Taliban since 2019, most openly a couple of months ago when it hosted Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin.

“So who is going to benefit from all of this?” muses terrorism and security expert Dr. Angelos Kaskanis, “I would say Russia, which is quite a paradox, if you consider the past 50 years.”

In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan and stayed fighting a nine-year war before its defeat. Today it harbours concerns over so-called jihadis that fought the Afghan war, within its borders.

Nevertheless, Moscow welcomed a Taliban victory as a lesser evil to the US.

“I see Russia benefiting when it comes to cross border security and infrastructure,” says Kaskanis, while Iran, he says, will also attempt to reap benefits through the “backdoor.”

Promising relations with Tehran are an example of how the Taliban worked to avoid isolation once in power.

“As it was regaining military strength on the ground, it was seeking to reassure Afghanistan’s neighbours that it would govern responsibly,” reads analysis by the International Crisis Group.

Iran’s stance, for instance, has completely transformed over the last 20 years, with President Ebrahim Raisi calling the US withdrawal “an opportunity to restore life, security and lasting peace” in the country. Tehran’s financial and military support has been ongoing since the mid-2010s. It has, after all, a vested interest in a stable and economically viable Afghanistan while navigating through its own economic crisis.

Those links with Iran have already annoyed Saudi Arabia and allies like the UAE, as has the role of Qatar in peace mediation.

“Protecting Ghani in welcoming him to the Emirates is a sort of demonstration of that position,” says Campbell, even though Riad has had its own longstanding links with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, various Middle Eastern states have their own Islamist groups with political ambitions, including Egypt and Jordan, many of which may now feel emboldened. There is also the possibility other “extreme” outfits look to Afghanistan to provide sanctuary.

Kaskanis calls it a possible destabilising factor, noting many militant groups were celebrating and “passing out sweets” on the news of the victory.

“I also think we have to be cognisant of some of the factors involved that were unique to this case study,” cautions Campbell, noting the Taliban has remained and operated out of Pakistan and have remained consistently steadfast, focusing on the internal workings of Afghanistan and their political objectives. Other groups operating elsewhere won’t necessarily replicate what the Taliban has achieved, he says, although they may take inspiration from it.

Finally, the plight of refugees coming out of Afghanistan is bound to have repercussions for Afghanistan’s neighbours, the Middle East, and beyond.

A fifth of Afghanistan’s population already displaced from cumulative conflict has lived as refugees for many years. Increasing numbers of new Afghan refugees will compound this contingent, including people who have worked for the US and their NATO partners. Now backlogged, the visa processing delays indicate, say RAND analysts, a lack of foresight from the US government and disconnect to realities on the ground. Regional neighbours are also already inundated with refugees who have faced hostility and poor conditions in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The refugee crisis of 2015 has shown what impact war-driven displacement can have on receiving countries, which could result in a cycle of populist backlash, dangerous land and sea journeys and pushbacks while chances of resettling Afghans permanently in the region remain low.

Ultimately, the US withdrawal has also left a security vacuum, which Turkey has rushed to fill, stepping in to secure Kabul airport and potentially providing for technical help to facilitate its running amid terrorist threats from a regional branch of IS.

Turkey’s keen role in Afghanistan further cements its footing as a key player in the Muslim world — ambitions its been working on throughout Asia and its relationship-building with the Taliban has been years in the making, like Tehran.

For now, however, Afghanistan has barely cooled as foreign troops scramble with its final evacuations, after which the world will watch to see if the Taliban is a slightly more palatable version of its former self. That might justify to regional powers a leveraging of the new regime to serve their interests. On the other hand, if the regime reverts to its old and often brutal tactics, even its worst-offending neighbours may not have anything to do with them.

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