The withdrawal from Afghanistan is one of the most shameful and embarrassing foreign policy failures in decades, and one which will leave deep scars for years to come. It is a betrayal of national self-interest, a boon to the west’s enemies and the precursor to a humanitarian disaster of potentially appalling proportions.
Yet nothing about this debacle was inevitable. The US was not fleeing under fire from the Taliban and there had been no American fatality for 18 months. This was a scuttle born of cynical political choice and short-term populism, reflecting a strong desire to bring troops home and end an unpopular conflict.
Already, Taliban forces have freed thousands of al-Qaeda terrorists from jail and there are alarming reports of brutal crackdowns by the country’s new leaders. 20 years after overthrowing a regime that had given sanctuary to jihadist murderers, the West has allowed the barbarians back without a shot fired in protest. A future generation will lament the speed of this capitulation.
How might all this affect Israeli interests? Though Afghanistan is far from the Mediterranean, Israelis are entitled to worry about the consequences of this lamentable pull-out. If the country again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other extreme Sunni jihadists, it raises the prospect of attacks on overseas Israeli and Jewish targets.
Worse, the US withdrawal will embolden the most anti-Western actors in the Middle East, none more so than Iran. It is true that Iran is worried by waves of refugees pouring out of Afghan territory as well as blowback from the renewed trade in Afghan opium. Yet Iran has provided the Taliban with weapons and intelligence and hosted al-Qaeda fighters in the past. Such arrangements could continue with the new government.
In another sense, the humbling of American power will embolden the Iranians in the negotiations over their nuclear programme. The failure of the US to stay in Afghanistan will likely be interpreted as a form of political weakness, one that strongly reflects America’s lack of staying power.
This matters greatly in the context of nuclear talks. One of the biggest flaws in the JCPOA was its sunset clauses which meant that, after a period of years, the provisions constraining the nuclear programme would be lifted.
Supporters of the agreement hail its ability to prevent an Iranian bomb in the short term. Yet the Iranian ayatollahs, like the Taliban and other jihadists, like to play the long game, sensing that, if they can only ride out the storm of temporary sanctions, they will win the war in the long term. As one Taliban commander told a western interlocutor, ‘You have the watches but we have the time’.
The pull-out will also make America seem a most unreliable guarantor of regional security. Its scuttle from Afghanistan will alarm India, which sees the US as a bulwark against its regional enemies, as well as an independent Taiwan which fears the predations of its Chinese neighbour.
Nor will Israelis necessarily feel differently. If a US administration claims that it will have Jerusalem’s back in the event of a withdrawal from the West Bank, Israeli leaders may well feel profound unease.
When the same American administration demands Israeli acquiescence to any future nuclear deal with Tehran, Israelis will rightly be sceptical. Ultimately, no other country or alliance can guarantee Israel’s vital national interests or prevent existential threats. If Jerusalem must act, it may have to act alone.
In sum, the precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan has showcased the weakness, naivety and political incompetence of this US administration, as well as its predecessor. It reflects badly on America’s allies, including the UK, and gives strength to all those threatening the liberal order. The long-term consequences are unlikely to be pleasant.