Micky Aharonson, Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, spoke to an August 27 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan, its takeover by radical Taliban insurgents, and the security implications for Israel and the Middle East.
While there are no "photogenic withdrawals," America's departure from Afghanistan was a singular debacle, said Aharonson. It was far more damaging than the 1975 U.S. evacuation of Saigon because of social media. The unfolding situation in Afghanistan was reported in real time across the internet, providing inspiration for every global terror organization, and proof that armed struggle and patience can defeat the power of the U.S. and the West.
As with U.S. setbacks in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, "the failure ... is a question of expectations," Aharonson explained. She said it was unrealistic to expect the "tribal, theocratic society" of Afghanistan to change in two decades.
Aharonson is skeptical of suggestions that the Taliban will fundamentally change its ways in exchange for international support, calling this perspective "a victory of hope over reason" and a "complete misunderstanding ... of radical Islamic thinking." White House spokespersons beseech the Taliban to consider the "role it wants to hold in the international community" as if the material payoffs of respectability matter to radical Islamists.
That's not to say that the Taliban is unremittently hostile. The Taliban's effort to transform from a "guerilla terror organization into a state apparatus" is not served by fomenting jihadist violence everywhere and anywhere. Eager "for the U.S. to leave quickly and quietly," the Taliban avoided terror attacks against the U.S. military prior to and during the recent withdrawal, noted Aharonson. Some degree of "coordination" with the Taliban against Al-Qaeda and ISIS may even be possible.
The worst case scenario for Afghanistan is "far worse" than a radical Islamic government in Kabul. The "worst case scenario would be if it breaks into a country of warlords ... controlling different parts," which would result in destabilized borders, a refugee surge, and terrorist safe havens.
But the Taliban isn't going moderate its views on how Afghanistan should be ruled, and other countries that "fill the vacuum" left by the U.S. in south Asia – Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey – won't be using their leverage with the Taliban to encourage moderation and human rights.
"Everybody's hedging their bets" after the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan.
The loss of U.S. credibility stemming from the Afghanistan debacle will impact the Middle East. "Everybody's hedging their bets." American allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt "fear the Shia axis and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood," and "they will find it very hard to resist" pressure from Tehran and Ankara. The Saudis, Aharonson noted, are "in direct dialogue" with Shiite Iran, and Emirati officials are paying visits to their "bitter enemies, Qatar and Turkey."
Aharonson advised these allies to instead unite and face the "common threat of radicalism" in "cooperation with Israel on matters of economy, of defense, of intelligence."
The United States, "suffer[ing] from Middle Eastern fatigue," can also rely on Israel. Israel's importance as "a reliable ally," the "single ... strong[est] country that represents American interests in the Middle East," and a nation that shares American values has never been greater. It is no accident that the terror groups targeting Israel with destruction -- Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- were among "the first terror organization[s] that congratulated [the] Taliban for its victory."
Israel, for its part, has also learned a "painful" lesson from the collapse of Afghanistan, Aharonson said. Western diplomats often lecture Israel that it should trust U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces to fight Islamic terror. But the "demise of the 300,000 Afghan security forces" after barely firing a shot reminds us such trust often proves to be misplaced when push comes to shove in the fight against radical Islamic terror.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.