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Analysis'It's not Saigon. It's much worse'

With US credibility gashed by Kabul fiasco, Israel may be bruised by association

Biden’s botched withdrawal emboldens terrorists and pushes allies toward Iran, though Jerusalem could find silver lining by remaining America’s most reliable and capable partner

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House, on August 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
US President Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House, on August 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

People racing alongside taxiing transport planes, some clinging to the outside and then falling hundreds of feet to their deaths. Bullet-strewn bodies lying on an airport sidewalk. Armed fanatics gathered around the president’s desk, abandoned just hours earlier. Helicopters buzzing over a burning and darkened city that a day before had been a redoubt of American muscle abroad.

The heart-wrenching scenes out of Kabul as it fell to the Taliban were a ghastly bookend to a 20-year effort by the United States and its NATO allies to build a coherent, functioning, and reasonably democratic Afghanistan.

The unfolding disaster, beamed live to homes around the world and perceived as a US defeat in the face of a jihadist army, has left a gash in America’s image abroad.

Though the tragedy is unfolding almost 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) from Israel, it will have important ramifications for Jerusalem and the choices its partners and enemies will make in the coming months.

For Israel, which has tied itself snugly to Washington for decades, the downsides are clear.

“When the US is seen as weak, in the simplest terms, it’s bad for Israel,” said Micky Aharonson, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former foreign policy director at Israel’s National Security Council.

The idea that the most capable intelligence apparatus in the world so badly misread a country it has been intimately involved with for two decades does not inspire confidence in America’s abilities to read and shape the region — especially after a string of high-profile intelligence failures in Iraq, Iran, Libya and more.

Afghan people climb up on a plane and sit by the door as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul, on August 16, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP)

“Whenever the world’s most powerful nation suffers a humiliating foreign policy failure, it’s going to have far-reaching international effects, including for countries, like Israel, who have based so much of their own deterrence and national security on the credibility of their strategic partnership with the United States,” said John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

“Even if Israel isn’t directly threatened, many of its weaker neighbors in the Arab Gulf and elsewhere might be, to the detriment of Israel’s own security situation,” he warned.

Across the Middle East, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has added to an already growing sense of shrinking American influence in the region.

Taliban fighters and local residents sit on an Afghan National Army (ANA) Humvee vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province, on August 15, 2021. (AFP)

“The US has wanted for quite some time to change… its physical resources. It wants to bring its soldiers back, it wants to deal with China and Russia, and with the climate, and the coronavirus crisis, and the economy, and Iran,” noted Yoram Schweitzer, senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security.

“The United States was not defeated,” he said. “You can present it as if the US was defeated until the cows come home, but the US wanted to leave. It just did it at least 17 years too late.”

Less reliance on the US, fresh glances at Iran

The images of the withdrawal, and countries’ overall view of the Biden administration, will dictate their reactions to the US leaving Afghanistan.

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport, on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. (AFP)

“Everyone will look to hedge their bets,” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies.

“In the Gulf, they will conclude they can’t trust anybody but themselves,” said Albo.

“If I’m a Saudi, or an Emirati, or a Bahraini, or others who have been close to America, I will want to do some thinking about my relationship with the United States, and whether it might be wise of me to begin to explore whether my survival will be better assured by cutting some sort of deal with Iran rather than rely on American support,” said Cliff May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on his arrival to Cairo, Egypt, for a visit meant to deepen the alliance between two of the region’s powerhouses, on March 4, 2018. (Mohammed Samaha/MENA via AP)

Since US President Joe Biden came into office in January, the Saudis have been holding secret talks with their archrivals in Iran. Media reports in April revealed that Iranian and Saudi officials met in Baghdad that month, their first high-level meeting since Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016. A second round was held in May, also in Baghdad, and the scenes out of Afghanistan may convince Riyadh to deepen its contacts with Iran.

The United Arab Emirates, which has always kept diplomatic channels open with Iran, wants to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf to enable it to continue to diversify its economy away from oil. It too may look to strike bargains with its Iranian trading partner as a hedge against perceived American unwillingness to spend resources and use force in the Middle East.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has been trying to carve a new path for Iraq, independent of foreign influence, will also be more careful in his efforts to reduce Iran’s role in the country.

For now, US troops are set to remain in Iraq indefinitely in advisory and combat support roles, and any indication that the arrangement is in question would alter Iraq’s calculations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as they wear protective face masks to help prevent spread of the coronavirus, during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, on July 21, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

To Israel’s west, Egypt has also been attempting to strike a balance in the face of perceived American unreliability for years, said Albo. China sees Egypt as the pillar of its presence in the Middle East, and is becoming a major player in building Egypt’s infrastructure megaprojects. Cairo has also expanded military ties with Moscow, which is building Egypt’s first nuclear plant.

“They are looking at Afghanistan and Ukraine and Hong Kong and Iraq,” Aharonson said. “The world is drawing conclusions about the US brand.”

The most misguided of any policy option

Equally concerning is what hostile actors — both states and armed groups — will learn from the Afghanistan retreat.

The scenes of the American withdrawal were noxiously redolent of another foreign policy failure burned into the minds of Americans and others for decades, the ignominious retreat from Saigon in Vietnam.

“It’s not Saigon,” said Aharonson. “It’s much worse. In Saigon, there wasn’t social media.”

Rather than the chaotic and embarrassing flight from Kabul, the US could have left a residual force in Afghanistan to assist, advise, and provide close air support, said May.

“President Biden had options,” he said, “and he chose the worst one, and we’re seeing the terrible results.”

“At the very least, you do not withdraw abruptly in the middle of the summer fighting season,” May added. “But to do it so the Taliban flag flies over the US embassy on the 20th anniversary of September 11, it is about as misguided as any policy option that Biden had in front of him.”

US soldiers take up positions as they secure the airport in Kabul, on August 16, 2021. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP)

Perhaps more unnerving is the possibility that decision-makers were fully aware of how hopelessly ineffective the Afghan National Army was, and that they simply chose to mislead the American public.

In 2019, the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” based on classified documents leaked to the paper. The report said that “several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public.”

“Year after year, US generals have said in public they are making steady progress on the central plank of their strategy: to train a robust Afghan army and national police force that can defend the country without foreign help… [but] US military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters… None expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own.”

A military instructor adjusts the helmet of an Afghan Army soldier during a house-to-house search at a training facility in the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 8, 2013. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

The withdrawal provides a clear moral boost to terrorist organizations, furthering their belief that, as long as they stay in the fight, they will eventually outlast the will of the US and the West.

“The jihadists across the world are watching, and they are drawing conclusions,” said Aharonson.

On Twitter, senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk said that the Taliban’s victory was “a lesson for all oppressed peoples.”

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)

The Taliban takeover brings with it worrying tangible benefits for terrorist organizations. Afghanistan will once again be a land where terrorist movements can recruit and train, exporting extremist ideologies and violence, in addition to heroin and opium.

Even if they are unable to attack the US as they did in 2001, terrorists will have a much easier time reaching Arab countries, Central Asia, Russia, and even Europe.

Iran emboldened

Iran will draw conclusions as well.

Nuclear talks in Vienna are expected to reconvene in September, with new hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in office. By every indication — including the makeup of his cabinet — Raisi will take an even more aggressive stance toward the Americans than his predecessors did.

The Afghanistan withdrawal will make him, and his ally Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, believe they can extract much more from the Biden administration.

Iran’s newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi stands on the podium during his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran, on August 5, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

To the Iranians, said Albo, “the way the US is leaving Afghanistan reflects a lack of desire to invest in the area, and its willingness to pay a price.”

At the same time, though, the loss of US influence in Afghanistan could wind up boosting Israel, which will gain in importance as Washington’s most solid bastion in the Middle East.

“Because of its own military strength and capabilities, Israel is no doubt far better positioned to weather the reverberations of an American collapse in South Asia than other, much weaker friends of the United States,” explained Hannah.

Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit in the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul, on August 13, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP)

As countries look to balance against Iran in an era of reduced US credibility and influence, they are well aware that Israel isn’t going anywhere. It continues to be the only country striking Iran and its proxies across the region, increasing its importance as a security and intelligence partner.

For the US, Israel’s presence as a highly stable, capable ally that needs no American boots on the ground makes it even more valuable to Washington.

“The US understands that it only has one strong partner in the region,” said Albo.

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