What will the Taliban takeover mean for the Middle East?

Middle East leaders are closely watching Afghanistan and making their conclusions about the unreliability of the US as a partner.

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 15, 2021 [AP/Zabi Karimi]

Over the past few days, many have drawn parallels between images of an Air America helicopter rescuing Vietnamese evacuees from the rooftop of a building in Saigon in 1975 and desperate Afghans climbing over a US Air Force plane taking off from the tarmac of Kabul’s airport on August 16. These parallels feed into the growing perception of the United States as a power that engages in reckless invasions only to depart when the human, monetary or political costs become too high for the American public to bear.

After investing $2 trillion over two decades, Washington watched the Afghan national government and army collapse like a house of cards in a matter of days following the withdrawal. Many analysts are now declaring the end of US nation-building efforts after their spectacular failure in Afghanistan. But state-building has long been dead as a Western policy, as it was evident in the cases of Libya and Syria after the Arab uprisings in 2011.

The US and NATO had realised this failure early on and stayed longer in Afghanistan not to continue such efforts but to prevent the Taliban and other groups from establishing a haven for terrorists. The Taliban has recently committed not to harbour terrorists that could threaten the US but there are no guarantees the militant group will abide by these promises.

The US decision to carelessly abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban will have repercussions beyond South Asia. Political leaders in the neighbouring Middle East are watching carefully what is unfolding in Kabul and are making their conclusions about the nature of US power and its future foreign policy in the region.

An unreliable ally

In ordering the withdrawal from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden did not act outside established policymaking in Washington. Since the presidency of Barack Obama, there was a recurring debate between those in the administration who wanted a surge in the number of US troops to “finish the job” and those who were itching to end the war and put an end to human and material losses.

President Donald Trump decided to talk to the Taliban. He gave political recognition to the armed group by negotiating with its leadership directly, while completely sidelining the Afghan government. Today, Biden is finishing what Trump started, but the “orderly withdrawal” he promised turned into mayhem that will long tarnish both his legacy and the US image abroad.

In the Middle East, US allies have been watching with uneasiness US decision making in Afghanistan. The Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria as well as the central government in Baghdad most probably have cold feet now. They are undoubtedly questioning the US commitment to supporting them in the future.

Trust in the US administration already began to crumble when Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria in December 2018, but then backtracked. Although the cost of US operations in Syria and Iraq is smaller than in Afghanistan and Kurdish forces are better prepared to hold ground against an insurgency, compared with the Afghan security forces, they still feel uncertain about their future and some most probably have contingency plans ready.

The events in Afghanistan also add to the apprehension US allies in Lebanon and Iraq have felt for what will happen to them if Washington and Tehran renewed the Iran nuclear agreement. Such a deal might mean easing US pressure on Iran which would reinforce the already strong influence of Tehran’s allies in Iraq and Lebanon.

Even though the US support for the Iraqi and Lebanese militaries has been consistent, there will also be fears about this assistance suddenly being suspended or cut for budgeting purposes.

The disorderly US withdrawal from Afghanistan is reinforcing the perception among US allies in the region that Washington is not a reliable partner, that it is willing to cut a deal with the “enemy” if it serves its interests, and that US foreign policy continues to be unpredictable.

Relations with Islamists and authoritarians

The US negotiations with the Taliban and its return to power raise questions about the future of US relations with both Islamist groups and authoritarian regimes, as the Taliban embodies both.

The armed group has been actively seeking to improve its image at home and abroad, even though it is a tall order. First, it has pledged to relinquish hosting terrorists or non-Afghan armed groups. Second, it has toned down excessive violence when taking over Kabul. Third, it has made it clear it is ready to talk to any foreign power even if it is an enemy. Fourth, the Taliban has made it clear it is open for business seeking to attract foreign investment.

This Taliban’s success is seen as a form of vindication by Islamist armed groups in the Arab world and may inspire them to consolidate their power and seek international legitimacy.

In Gaza, Hamas is clearly watching the events in Afghanistan closely, which might reinforce its thinking that the takeover of the strip in 2007 was the right move that the international community will ultimately recognise. In fact, Hamas’s political bureau chief Ismail Haniya called Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar to congratulate him on August 17. Two days earlier, Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on Twitter that the Taliban “was not deceived by flashy words such as democracy and elections, nor by false promises”. This statement shows that there is a growing debate within Hamas whether it should continue pushing for Palestinian elections to be held after the group emerged more powerful following the latest war with Israel.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is taking notes and probably considering that if it survives long enough the current Lebanese collapse, it may be able to produce again an internationally recognised government that facilitates its interests.

In Yemen, the Houthis might feel more encouraged to continue their fight to dominate the country. On August 15, Houthis spokesperson Mohammad Abdel Salam posted a tweet, subtly directed at the Yemeni government, in which he said that seeking foreign intervention is “a crime that does not produce a state nor an army, but rather leads to loss, humiliation and shame”.

As the Taliban was advancing in Afghanistan, non-armed Islamist groups in the Arab world faced another setback with Tunisian President Kais Saied sacking the government led by the Ennahda party, with the help of the military. Events in Afghanistan might deepen the political divide between moderates and extremists in these movements on how to approach governance and political compromise.

These Arab autocratic regimes are also drawing some conclusions on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some are likely reading these developments as the US signalling that “you can kill or oppress your people as long as you do not threaten our interests in the process”. It is also likely that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington might once again prioritise terrorism cooperation in dealing with Arab authoritarians. Biden, who ran on a platform of democracy promotion and human rights, has already skirted these issues in Afghanistan as well as in his approach to events in Egypt and Tunisia.

Some local dictators, who in the past may have been isolated, may be hoping for a comeback on the international political scene. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example, may be thinking that if the Taliban can get to negotiate directly with the US and derive international legitimacy, why couldn’t he?

The US move in Afghanistan will most probably reinvigorate the long-held battle between and among Islamists and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Geopolitical implications

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to give more momentum to the geopolitical battles that extend to the Middle East. China, Russia, Turkey and Iran are already working to fill the US vacuum in Afghanistan and have indicated that they will pursue formal relations with the Taliban and are ready to recognise a Taliban government in Kabul.

This will increase their clout in the Middle East as alternative forces to the US. They are all happy to see the US leave, invested in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, wary of intervening militarily, and might find ways to make deals that further weaken US influence.

The Biden administration has failed to plan the transition of the Kabul airport’s control from NATO to Turkey, and now Ankara is eyeing to invest in Afghanistan on its own, by moving closer to the Taliban following the footsteps of Russia and China. This might ultimately add more layers of tension to US-Turkish relations and strengthen the alliance between Moscow and Ankara.

Iran, meanwhile, looks forward to not having US forces on its eastern borders but has had a complex relationship with the Taliban. Iranian security forces, already overstretched in the Middle East, will now have to worry about the border with Afghanistan and potentially an influx of refugees.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers opportunities and challenges for these emerging powers. Moscow will now have a new bargaining card that it might play to pressure the US for concessions in Syria and beyond. The Biden administration will need Russian and Chinese support to contain the Taliban when needed through the United Nations Security Council and diplomacy. The US showed vulnerability once again, which will only reinforce the geopolitical competition in both South Asia and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.