In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August, there have been speculations that the group’s return to power could shake up socio-political dynamics in the region. To date, Qatar has positioned itself as the prime mediator in communications with the Taliban; the UAE has sought to woo the Taliban by sending tons of aid to Afghanistan; and Turkey has insisted on being permitted to run Kabul airport and remains in negotiations with the Taliban to this effect.
The scramble of diplomatic activity in the Middle East over Afghanistan is testament to the chaotic manner in which the US has withdrawn from the country. Yet, while the events in Afghanistan are seismic in their global impact, it is unclear to what extent they will actually alter the political landscape in the region. In fact, many prominent assumptions on the implications of the Talban’s seizure have missed the mark.
Assumption #1: The “US Defeat” Will Force Allies to Revise Ties to Washington
While the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan have laid bare the limitations of US hard power that underpins its security agreements with its regional allies, the sense that the US can no longer be trusted had already emerged a decade ago with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. With the people of the region taking to the streets demanding an end to authoritarianism and calling for the establishment of a system aimed at ensuring human rights, employment, education, and healthcare, and placing the citizen at the heart of priorities, US allies balked at Washington’s aversion to interfere in their favor.
The US’ apparent, yet tentative, acceptance of the subsequent democratic elections compounded the fears in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the Egyptian army. All of them then embarked on a “counter-attack” against the emergence of democratic trends that they perceived posed an existential threat to their authority.
The UAE had begun to assert its own agency on the region in the midst of US hesitation, uncertainty, and general aversion for direct interference—Libya being the exception that would later haunt the Obama presidency. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, Washington could no longer be trusted as a security guarantor. It was therefore imperative to expand Emirati presence and forge new local alliances, so as to be able to control regional changes and head off any potential threats.
Indeed, the UAE is believed to be one of the main architects of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup in Egypt, before moving on to Tunisia where it would back Beji Caid Sibsi— the country’s first elected president in 2014— against the Ennahda party. Abu Dhabi then became involved in Libya, where it befriended warlord Khalifa Haftar who had already begun a military attempt at imposing himself to power.
The clearest example of Riyadh’s displeasure and lack of faith in Washington was on display when it intervened in Yemen in 2015.
Saudi Arabia took a similar approach. The clearest example of Riyadh’s displeasure and lack of faith in Washington was on display when it intervened in Yemen in 2015, to prevent the Houthi militia from seizing control. In 2016, Obama then traveled to Riyadh to ease simmering tensions and allay fears that Washington would compromise their partnership. Yet this did little to mitigate Saudi concerns, and the next year Riyadh proceeded to blockade Qatar with Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE to the utter surprise of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Even Qatar, which had allowed the US to establish the largest military base in Al-Udeid – to act as a check on any aggression from its neighbors – began to doubt Washington’s commitment to its security. This perception grew to the extent that it invited Turkey to establish a military base, in order to ward off the blockading “Quartet.”
Hence, the events of Afghanistan should not be viewed as the sole development to prompt Gulf states to reconsider their relationship with the US. Though it has served as a reminder to Gulf allies that the process of adapting to an “unreliable” US needs to be accelerated.
Assumption #2: The Taliban’s Victory Will Embolden Terror Groups
Much has been made of the suggestion that the Taliban victory will embolden extremist groups. Yet, recent history indicates this may not be the case.
Firstly, extremist groups, such as ISIS, have been operating long before the Taliban “victory,” amid political and security vacuums in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. They have been afforded significant room to maneuver due to regional instability and chaos, compounded by state dysfunction and corruption. Such dynamics have allowed extremist factions to regroup over and over again.
Extremist groups tend to undermine the “success” of one another and are prone to infighting.
Secondly, these extremist groups tend to undermine the “success” of one another and are prone to infighting. In Syria, the “gains” of extremist groups quickly dissipated after they fell out over who should lead. In fact, ISIS-K in Afghanistan has found little to celebrate in the Taliban “victory,” and chose instead to carry out a bombing at Kabul airport in order to undermine the Taliban.
Thirdly, the dynamics of Afghanistan and the Taliban are uniquely different from that of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The Taliban are an organic movement composed of a broad alliance of Afghan social groups that have been overwhelmingly molded by the local environment. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are comprised of foreign fighters from different areas of the world inspired by extreme ideology. The contrast in perceptions even among NATO members was made clear when the UK Chief of Defense Staff cautioned against describing the Taliban as “enemies” and stated instead that they were more “a disparate collection of Afghan tribesmen.”
Assumption #3: The Taliban’s Victory Will Reinvigorate the Islamists
The region is undergoing a series of reconciliations and rapprochement between previously contentious “camps.”
Egypt has openly engaged with Turkey in the pursuit of reconciliation while Turkey has shut down Egyptian opposition activity in Istanbul. Qatar has officially declared that Sisi’s government is the “legitimate authority in Egypt,” while Sisi and Qatar’s Emir Tamim met during the Baghdad summit in August, and an invitation was extended for Sisi to visit Doha. Likewise, the UAE sent its powerful National Security Chief Tahnoun Bin Zayed to both Ankara and Doha to accelerate the rapprochement process. Turkish President Erdogan responded warmly to the visit with a statement expressing his readiness to meet UAE Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed.
Furthermore, the Islamists are under heavy pressure in the region. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has suspended Parliament and has begun to put opponents before military courts. He has ruled out any dialogue with the once dominant Ennahda party, which is now deeply unpopular. In Morocco, the Islamist Freedom, Justice, and Development party suffered a crushing defeat in the recent elections, which reduced its representation in the Parliament from 125 seats to 12 seats.
Whereas the Islamists enjoyed widespread popularity in 2011, support for the movement has waned over the past ten years.
Whereas the Islamists enjoyed widespread popularity in 2011, support for the movement has waned over the past ten years, as they have become associated with the “establishment” that is accused of failing to deliver on the aspirations of the Arab Spring. In other words, the decline in popular approval has more to do with the domestic circumstances of each state than wider macro tendencies fueled by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This means that the Taliban victory is unlikely to have any impact on the prospects or “reinvigoration” of the Islamists. As such, authoritarian regimes are relatively unconcerned about the potential local influence the events in Afghanistan may have, due to the absence of any lightning rod that might have channeled the “Taliban wave” against them.
More importantly, the suggestion that the people of the region are celebrating the Taliban “victory” more than the US “defeat” is mistaken. The two are not one and the same. The Taliban were perceived in the 90s as extreme in their beliefs and practices by many in the region, particularly with regards to their approach to women’s rights and education. Even with their recent success in Afghanistan two decades later, these reservations remain prominent. Therefore, any celebratory reactions are not an affirmation of the Taliban or rooted in any regard for their views or politics. Instead, they are overwhelmingly in response to the humiliation of a superpower that is often perceived as the guarantor of authoritarianism in the region.
Just as some in the region admired the Vietnamese victory against the US, the same is taking place today with regards to Afghanistan. Any views on Communism, Ho Chi Minh, and the Vietcong, or the Taliban and their interpretations of Islam, are irrelevant. To these observers, what matters most is that the United States – who they view as supporting authoritarian regimes – was defeated. Thus, the narrow focus on the Islamists fails to appreciate the wider public sentiment in the region.
Ultimately, today, many are exhausted by the insistence on analysis through a security lens, inspired by the “Global War on Terror,” rather than a humanitarian lens that appreciates widespread popular discontent at the consistent denial of basic rights, human dignity, moral integrity, and freedoms—in which the United States is often seen to be complicit.