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The Afghanistan Debacle: Plight and Opportunity

The Afghanistan Debacle: Plight and Opportunity

Wednesday, 15 September, 2021 - 08:00
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Much has already been said and much more will be written about the US debacle in Afghanistan. Some of it is objective, seeking to understand the failure of US policies of multiple administrations over many decades. But also some of the analysis, has and will in future, fall victim to the partisan politics that have polarized US society in the past decades.

For Americans, lessons learnt will take years, caught in a back and forth between the liberal interventionists, neoconservatives, isolationists, liberal internationalists, idealists and realists.

For the international community, it will be about how to manage the relationship with a declining US, the superpower that has lost its hegemony over the world.

Actually, the debacle in Afghanistan is a failure of the entire American system. It is a failure on many levels. Political, military, intelligence, coordination, communication, the list appears to be never ending. But it is essentially a failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking. It is also a failure in understanding the history and culture of the countries in which the US decides to intervene. Primarily a failure to connect with the people who live in the country and to largely depend on guidance from diaspora. But more importantly the more tragic failure is binding the policy of humanitarian intervention to delusions of military might.

At the end of the day America pursues its interests with little consideration to its friends and allies. Moreover, Afghanistan represents a blow to US credibility and prestige. It confirms that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.

What is important to us in the Arab world is what conclusions we can draw from this colossal American failure. Particularly the implications for our relations with the US as well as its ramifications for our individual and collective security. I say that because many Arab countries have come to depend, one way or the other on the US for their security.

If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where it invested blood and money for two decades, there will be a question mark over whether America will be willing to go the extra mile in helping the Arab countries in safeguarding their security against Iran, Turkey and Israel.

While the Afghanistan debacle represents a crisis in US leadership and credibility, it also represents a looming one for the Arab states. But in every crisis, there is an opportunity. We should therefore look ahead and create the opportunity to promote our interests.

In 1975 after the Vietnam debacle, the US strove to reassert itself and shore up its credibility internationally and particularly with its allies. There is no reason it will not try to do so again. The focus of its attention in the 1970’s was the Middle East. During the closing chapters of the Vietnam war between 1973-1975 and amidst an internal crisis caused by Watergate, the Nixon administration capitalized on the 1973 Arab- Israeli war to de-escalate the conflict in the Middle East.

Clearly 2021 is not the 1970s and1980s. The Cold War is long gone; China is an ascending power, including in the Middle East; the relationship between the Arab states and Israel has changed; Iran and Turkey have become regional powers that need to be reckoned with; the Arab core has undergone a fundamental shift; and political Islam has evolved in a manner that threatens the nation state model in the region. Moreover, the Middle East no longer holds the same strategic value to the US as it did in the 1970s.

There can therefore be an argument that because of these fundamental changes, there is nothing the US can or should do. But on the other hand, this also poses a challenge and an opportunity for the US to prove that its most fundamental strength, the ability to adapt and improvise, is still basically intact.

Afghanistan, because of its likely impact on the Middle East, could very well make the latter the focus of attention of the international community when it assesses the ability of the US to remain relevant and effective. I also believe that America’s efforts to revive the settlement of crises in the Middle East will allow it to show the necessary focus in dealing with what it perceives as threats from China and other issues.

Arab countries, along with others, including the US allies in Europe and Asia, will have to reassess their national security strategy. Their diminishing confidence in the US will multiply if Washington is unable to show leadership in charting a way forward in ensuring the security and stability of the region. This time round the US has neither the political will nor the capability to do it on its own. But it can, with Arab support, chart the way forward.

The recent visit of the secretaries of defense and state to Qatar, while important, will not suffice to shore up US credibility. Concrete action is necessary.

It is one thing for the US to accept Taliban rule in Afghanistan, a fairly isolated and weak country and, it is entirely different to acquiesce to the imposition, in one way or the other, of Islamist rule in Arab countries. It is also one thing to cooperate with Turkey in mitigating the disastrous consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it is entirely a different matter to be perceived as a supporter of Turkey’s designs in the Middle East.

Syria, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can provide the testing ground for US intentions. Washington will need to prove in deed that it does not share Ankara’s dream of rule in the region. It will also need to factor in Arab security concerns in the process of reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, it will need to demonstrate that it will deliver on Arab and particularly Palestinian rights.

At the same time, Arab countries have to convince Washington that the future of relations hinges on how much it is committed to addressing Arab security concerns. Failure to do so will leave Arab countries even more convinced that they need to look elsewhere to secure their rights and interests.

The US has two choices in the Middle East: It can accelerate its withdrawal from the region and leave it to its fate or it can quickly learn the lessons of not only Afghanistan and Vietnam, but Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and offer new horizons in cooperating with the players in the Middle East to find solutions to the crises that have for so long plagued the region. This would set in motion a process for a regional security system.

At the end of the day, it will have to bear the consequences of its decision. The Middle East always has its way of imposing itself not only on the US but the rest of the world.

The first step in this regard is for Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the GCC countries to initiate an open and frank dialogue on the security threats that face them.

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