Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Afghanistan debacle: ramifications for Israel and the region (August 16, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Just a few months ago you predicted that Kabul would fall to the Taliban within a year. It took a lot less time. The Taliban are already posing for victory photos in Kabul’s presidential palace. Why?

A: Because the level of resolve, cohesiveness and professionalism of the Afghan armed forces proved to be far lower than anything that even ostensibly informed US intelligence analysts imagined. Because the democratically-elected but thoroughly corrupt Kabul government did not instill trust and patriotic fervor in its more than 300,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops. Because the Taliban, in contrast, proved to be a more cohesive and coordinated fighting force than it had been given credit for. And because the Taliban are fervent believers in a religion that empowers them, however diabolically.

Both the military and civilian dimensions of the Afghanistan debacle appear to reflect an American failure in the realms of intelligence, nation-building, force-building and strategic understanding of the region. Shades of Vietnam in 1975? Yes, but then, this is what hasty military withdrawals look like. Israel had its own messy retreat, from South Lebanon in 2000.

What should interest us here is not the drama in Kabul and not the blame-game in Washington. Here we must look at what the Taliban victory and the American debacle mean for Israel and the Middle East. Bear in mind that these are preliminary insights drawn from a rapidly changing reality in Afghanistan. Day one of the fall of Kabul is too early for answers; only questions.

Q: The perception of an American failure in managing the final phase of the Afghan war and occupation is perhaps the most obvious way to begin this analysis. How does that perceived failure affect the Middle East?

A: It undermines confidence in the United States as a reliable ally. Countries that fear Iran, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will recalculate their options and contingencies. They could offer olive branches to Iran or, alternatively, seek closer strategic ties with Israel. On the other hand, Washington could now conceivably try to compensate for the Afghanistan debacle by offering closer military ties to vulnerable Arab states. One way or another, the fall of Kabul will generate a lot of strategic flux in the Persian Gulf region.

The return of the Taliban, on the other hand, will not necessarily be welcomed by Tehran--despite its likely rejoicing at America’s setback. The Taliban are Sunni Islamist extremists whereas the Tehran regime is Shiite extremist. Iran may now confront waves of refugees from Afghanistan’s Shiite minority that borders on Iran. The border may be destabilized. Will this disruption on Iran’s eastern border persuade Tehran to take a softer line in the JCPOA nuclear talks with the world’s major powers? Or perhaps a tougher line, dictated by the perception of American weakness in the region? I would opt for the latter probability. But for the moment this is speculation.

One can only speculate, too, on the near-term fortunes of a failed (in Yemen) Arab army like that of Saudi Arabia, trained and equipped by the US and by allies like the UK. Will it too collapse if and when confronted by an Islamist enemy like the Taliban? Can what happened in Kabul--corrupt local leadership, abject American failure to arm and train a serious armed force and to ‘read’ the region at the intelligence level--happen in places like Riyadh and Kuwait City?

Then there is nuclear Pakistan, another Afghan neighbor, whose intelligence service has collaborated with the Taliban. Will we now witness Pakistan’s destabilization by its own militant Islamists? This too could affect Iran and the Gulf Arabs, in a big way. The nuclear dimension could affect the entire world.

Meanwhile, the American failure to build solid democratic institutions in a tribalized, Muslim country like Afghanistan will not be lost on Arab political thinkers. Tunisia, the only ‘Arab Spring’ country that transitioned to democracy, is already backtracking in reaction to local Islamism. Egypt’s President Sisi will now be inspired to tighten his dictatorship and rebuff Washington’s protests over the human rights situation. Arab monarchies will follow suit.

Farther afield, Turkey and Europe will gear up for a wave of Afghan refugees and renewed fears of Islamist terrorism. Will this remind us of the Syrian refugee wave of 2015 -16 that radically affected European politics (e.g., Brexit, the rise of rightist nationalism in Hungary and Poland) and European attitudes toward the Middle East? Lest we forget, fears of Islamist terrorism also fueled the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015.

Q: This is not only an American failure but a victory for militant Islam. How is that likely to reverberate throughout the region?

A: The story of the Taliban, a rag-tag army of 70,000 fervently Islamist foot soldiers confronting and defeating a modern Afghan army of 300,000, will inevitably be seen by Gaza-based Hamas as both inspiration for the future and rationalization of past setbacks. In Afghanistan, twenty years of patience and faith paid off for the Taliban. The inspiration for Islamists elsewhere--even the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon--is obvious, dangerous, and worrisome. If the Taliban reverts to form and harbors Arab Islamist terrorists like al-Qaeda, this will be a nightmare scenario for counter-terrorism strategists and practitioners everywhere.

Q: Yet isn’t a word of caution in order? After all, this new US setback has a long history. Nothing unprecedented happened here. . .

A: True, a month or two from now we might see all this in a less frantic perspective. After all, Afghanistan has been a graveyard of great power ambitions for millennia: from Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. to Britain in the nineteenth century, and the USSR in the twentieth century. Who knows, we may now witness China (which has a land border with Afghanistan and is obsessive about Islam in nearby Xinjiang) follow in America’s footsteps.

That the American neocons who cultivated grand neo-imperialist ambitions in Afghanistan and Iraq under the Bush 43 administration did not learn from history is . . . history. So is the fact that the United States already both succeeded and failed once in Afghanistan when, with Saudi funding, it created the Mujahidin that expelled the Soviets in 1989 but then morphed into the Taliban, which cultivated al-Qaeda.

Here it must be acknowledged that at some point a learning process did begin in Washington. Bush 43 did not react to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Obama did not enforce his red line over Syrian chemical weapons (it was his empty threat to attack that caused him to lose credibility in the region, not an actual attack). And Trump sufficed with bombing Syria once.

First Trump, then Biden, condemned America’s seemingly evangelically-inspired endless wars and abortive democracy-building enterprises. First Trump, then Biden, set a deadline for withdrawal. In this sense, the end was inevitable. But the Biden administration and the Pentagon could have organized withdrawal far better. Their biggest problem was bad intelligence regarding not only the Taliban but the US-trained Afghan army and the US-inspired Afghan government.

Bad US intelligence on Afghanistan after a 20-year US occupation? That is truly troubling.

Q: Specific lessons for Israel?

A: Regional loss of confidence in American arms, training and strategic support is bad for Israel. The abject US failure to understand how the region works and how militant Islam works is worrisome. US forces in Iraq and Syria, however minimal, send a positive signal to the region. Will they now also be withdrawn due to the same failures?

Note the fiasco of Zalmay Khalilzad’s Qatar-based negotiations with the Taliban on behalf of first the Trump and then the Biden administrations, even as Afghan Islamists crept steadily forward territorially, breaking one agreement after another. Khalilzad was negotiating almost right up to that Kabul presidential palace photo-op!

All of this must concern Israel. Here is strategic analyst Ofer Shelah in Monday’s Yedioth Aharonoth:

From the days of Obama, via Trump to Biden, the almost sole common denominator in US foreign policy has been defeat, reduced expectations, looking inwards. This dynamic will affect us far more than the rise to power of the Taliban. . . . Anyone looking to Washington in the hope that it will help us in circumstances requiring it to emerge from its protective shell--e.g., confronting Iran, facing the Palestinians, restoring order to Syria--must accept that what the American citizen sees now in Kabul influences him more than any vision of building democracy and defeating terrorism. We confront not only the collapse of a military strategy that wasn’t abandoned in time, but a final retreat from a world view that was once seen as a near religious imperative.

Is Shelah exaggerating? Or could Washington’s “final retreat from a world view” dovetail with growing disenchantment with Israel on the American Democrat left to force a change in the US strategic commitment to Israel?

At the immediate bilateral level, the US setback in Afghanistan complicates Prime Minister Bennet’s anticipated visit to Washington. Every dimension of the Bennett-Biden summit agenda is affected, from stabilizing the settlements and Palestinian issues in a way both sides can live with, to factoring Israel’s Iran concerns into any renewed JCPOA, and even coordinating the stabilization of Jordan as a regional linchpin.

Biden might now wish to postpone the visit until the smoke clears in Kabul. But Bennett needs the visit and the Oval Office photo-op to bolster his public posture in Israel. Back home, a lot is on the line for the Bennett-Lapid government: the fight to defeat the covid delta variant before hospitals are swamped; the fight to pass a budget by October so the coalition can survive.

Who has time for this in Washington right now?