US exit from Afghanistan casts dark shadow over Middle East, analysts warn

Images of chaotic Kabul withdrawal likely to be etched on the minds of many in the Arab world, but they will be more than just a memory

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The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan has dented the image of the United States as a reliable partner to Middle Eastern governments and sparked fears that the insurgents' triumph could energise Islamist extremist groups in the region, analysts told The National.

The US military pulled its last soldier from Afghanistan on Monday night, ending a war that began in 2001 when America led an alliance that toppled the Taliban regime that harboured the Al Qaeda leaders who plotted the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Two decades, $2 trillion and thousands of casualties later, the Taliban are back in power after a chaotic and desperate airlift in which thousands of Afghans thronged Kabul airport to flee the country.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday defended his decision to end America's longest war, saying Washington needed to focus on developing threats.

“I refuse to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan. We've been a nation too long at war. If you're 20 years old today, you've never known an America at peace.”

It was the US leader’s first detailed public response to criticism of his country's disorderly departure from Afghanistan, scenes of which will likely remain for years etched on the minds of many across the world.

In the Middle East, however, the image of an America in retreat will be more than a mere memory.

Analysts say the withdrawal has strengthened regimes hostile to Washington in Iran and Syria, along with groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq's Iran-backed militias and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Moreover, they say, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could again become a sanctuary for militant groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS where they can train, recruit and plan major attacks in the Middle East and beyond.

“The Taliban takeover is a shot in the arm for political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists like Al Qaeda and ISIS. It provides motivation and inspiration,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

"The lesson for militant Islamists is crystal clear: If you persevere, if you sacrifice, if you shed blood, you will prevail, God willing. Islamists [extremists] feel the Taliban triumph can be imitated and reproduced elsewhere.”

What lies ahead for the region, however, may not be as grim as some predict, given how close to the US some countries in the region have become.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gestures as he addresses his supporters via a screen during the religious procession to mark the Shi'ite Ashura ceremony, in Beirut, Lebanon September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher -/File Photo

Still, there are undoubtedly legitimate reasons for concern, says Michael Hanna, director of the US programme at the International Crisis Group.

“It’s not a good moment for the United States and there is no getting around that,” he said. “The swiftness of the fall of Afghanistan in Taliban hands and the way the Americans pulled out is a black eye. But it’s not going to be irreparable.”

Mr Hanna, an Egyptian-American and an expert on the Middle East, believes America’s failure in Afghanistan will be used for propaganda purposes by enemies of the US in the region. But the effect of that, he explained, would be relatively short-term.

“The US will still be a partner and a major security player in the region. Its alliances are stable although the search is already ongoing for new partners like Russia, France and China,” he said.

Still, the fallout from Afghanistan may already be giving some regional players reason to be confident, if only rhetorically.

“By their own admission, what we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is a complete American defeat, a complete failure,” Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader and long-time enemy of the US, gloated in a televised address last week. "Those who bet on the US should draw lessons from the way it dealt with its allies in Afghanistan."

In the Gaza Strip, news of the Taliban victory was publicly welcomed by Hamas, the militant group that has ruled that coastal enclave since 2007. Several militant groups fighting the government in Syria also celebrated the Taliban victory in online communications.

In Iraq, where the US continues to maintain a military presence nearly two decades after it invaded the country, the Taliban victory unleashed a debate that raised questions about the nation’s fate after the final withdrawal of US troops planned for the end of this year.

“Afghanistan is the straw that broke the camel's back,” said Hadi Jalo Marie, director of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad.

“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan after all these years is a sign of its weakness … its ramifications will be felt beyond Afghanistan, mainly in Iraq,” he said.

The absence of America from Iraq, he said, will likely weaken the country’s pro-US camp, while its rivals – mainly Iran – will rush to fill the void. Iraq’s government must move quickly to strengthen ties with other global players like Russia, China and France, he said.

Significantly, US interests in Iraq come under almost daily attacks by Iranian-backed militias, whose political leverage and military machine now pose a potent threat to stability in the war-fatigued nation.

“The Afghanistan scenario can be easily repeated in Iraq,” said Ahmed Khaldoon, a pro-reform activist in Iraq’s protest movement that lists reducing Iranian influence in the country among its top priorities.

Mr Khaldoon fears for Iraq after the planned US pullout.

“We’re afraid that we wake up one day and find ourselves under the banner of [firebrand Shiite cleric and politician] Moqtada Al Sadr or any other militia leader.”

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during a news conference with Leader of the Conquest Coalition and the Iran-backed ShiÕite militia Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri, in Najaf, Iraq June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

In Jordan, for decades a staunch US ally and the recipient of millions of dollars a year in American aid, analysts sought to play down the significance of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It left a negative image in a tactical sense,” said Hassan Al Momani, professor of international studies at the University of Jordan. “But it was an important strategic decision in the interests of the United States."

The withdrawal, he said, saved US resources “that could be employed somewhere else” and created a security vacuum that could “burden” Iran and China.

Sinan Mahmoud in Baghdad, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Elias Sakr in Beirut contributed to this report.

Updated: September 2nd 2021, 5:56 AM
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