Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon official, spoke to a September 13 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the repercussions of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the Middle East.
The most obvious repercussion is that anti-American jihadists from around the world will have a new refuge. "The fact that we've just given the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State a safe haven" in Afghanistan is something for which the United States will "pay the price for decades to come."
Rubin emphasized that the small U.S. footprint in Afghanistan was intended to prevent precisely this scenario and bristled at those who bemoaned it as a "forever war." The use of "indigenous forces," long "a great amplifier" in the projection of American power overseas, will be more difficult after the betrayal of local allies in Afghanistan. "We need to drop this nonsense of 'forever wars' because there is no difference ... between what Biden and Trump called 'forever wars' and traditional containment and deterrence."
"The Middle East is going to be affected a great deal by the disaster in Afghanistan," said Rubin. The withdrawal sends a clear message to regional allies: "Don't trust the U.S. for your own security." And in fact the Afghanistan withdrawal actually does make it more likely American leaders will make similar retreats in the future. "The stigma of abandonment is gone," said Rubin. "Therefore, with every successive administration, it will be easier to abandon allies." As a result, many Middle East leaders will need to "accommodate" regional powers they previously resisted.
Going forward, Rubin expects Turkey to form an alliance with Pakistan and cooperate with the Taliban. Pakistan "co-opted" the Taliban as a "proxy" back in 1994 and therefore "sees the U.S. withdrawal as [its] victory."
Turkey, "in terms of Islamism, ... is to the 21st century what Saudi Arabia was to the 20th."
"Turkey, in terms of Islamism, in terms of rejectionism, is to the 21st century what Saudi Arabia was to the 20th century," said Rubin, and the U.S. "will be paying the price" for that. The fact that the United States "has shown itself not to have staying power" is significant given Turkey's ambitions to dominate areas of Syria controlled by Washington and its Kurdish allies.
As for Israel, diminished U.S. credibility could make its leaders more willing to defy American wishes where vital interests are at stake. "If the United States tilts at diplomatic windmills, for example, with regard to Iran, a generation of Israeli officials and other officials are going to act much more unilaterally and the United States is going to find out with the rest of the world when it's headline news on CNN," Rubin explained.
Islamists "see culture as the offense." There is "no way to compromise with that."
The common presumption in Washington that withdrawals will remove the U.S. from terrorist crosshairs ignores the reality that ideology that propels Islamists, not "occupation" or other tangible grievances. Islamists who "believe that Western culture itself is a deliberate plot dreamed up in the bowels of the Pentagon to separate Muslim children from God" feel aggrieved, to be sure, but not in a way that can be satisfied by material concessions. "If they see culture as the offense, there's no way to compromise with that."
The U.S. administration's unwillingness to address Islamist ideology, according to Rubin, is partly due to the long American tradition of separating church and state. "Sometimes that gets internalized in the US government as religion being a third rail."
He argued that the U.S. government must not only acknowledge Islamism as a problem, but also work to undermine it as an ideology. U.S. government-funded platforms such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe should broadcast "heterodox preachers" to debate contentious Islamic issues that "autocratic societies won't discuss." Among these is the concept of "abrogation," where earlier Quranic verses are "abrogated" by the later "much more strident" Quranic verses that Islamists prioritize.
Meanwhile, the U.S. must be prepared to increase its defense budget and "play hardball" with state adversaries seeking to exploit the vacuum left by the Afghanistan withdrawal. American support for Balochi separatists in Pakistan, for example, should be considered if Islamabad continues patronizing violent Islamists. Washington should abandon the Incirlik airbase in Turkey if its government continues undermining U.S. interests.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.