After fall of Kabul, what are new roles for U.S., Israel?

by Eran Lerman

(Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies) — In the wake of the sweeping Taliban victory in Afghanistan, the region now faces the symbolic impact of these dramatic scenes of U.S. failure unprecedented since Vietnam. To thwart the notion that resurgent Islamism — in one of its most extreme forms — is now victorious, the United States must now reassert its commitment to traditional allies. They, in turn, need to draw closer together — specifically, in the face of Iran’s defiance — in an alignment of like-minded forces of stability, much as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did after the fall of Saigon. Israel should position itself to play a useful role in such an alignment.

The long shadow

A tragic event of great symbolic importance is now upon us. Despite a deliberate press blackout (exemplified by the way the Bagram Airbase was cleared out in the middle of the night), the Biden administration could not avoid the long, sad shadow of “the last helicopter from Saigon,” which now also exemplifies the fate of Afghanistan. The Taliban have marched into Kabul, and while they would be wise to let the Americans leave safely, they are bound to slaughter those left behind who stood against them. They will once again enslave women and deny girls education; and will re-institute the horrors of their pre-2001 regime, in the name of their interpretation of Sharia law.

If the perception of an Islamist ascendancy takes hold, the implications for the region, and for the world, are liable to be profound. Israel should do its part in bracing for the impact.

Twenty years ago, the “Global War on Terror” seemed to get off to a promising start. Taliban rule in Afghanistan was quickly overthrown, for what was at the time a minimal cost: the Americans, their allies and the Afghans of the “northern coalition” seemed to be welcomed as liberators. But Afghanistan, which had frustrated British conquerors in the 19th century and did much to undo Soviet power in the 20th, turned out to be easier to conquer than to reform.

Tribalism, corruption, poor governance, abject poverty, virulent variations of Islamist extremism — all added up to a toxic mix that no amount of American firepower, creative energy or piles of public money (the full cost of the “longest war” is estimated at $2 trillion) could fix. President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out is thus understandable and perhaps inevitable. But it doesn’t lessen the anticipated consequences of the fall of Kabul.

The direct strategic impact of what happens in Afghanistan, landlocked between Pakistan, central Asia and Iran, may be limited. Russian policy in “the near abroad” — and Chinese policy in Xinjiang — will face new challenges. It is safe to assume that the Taliban will be wary, at least for a while, about hosting global terror networks such as al-Qaeda — the cost to them in 2001 was too high and the lesson has probably been learned. But over time, Afghanistan may yet again become a hub of terror.

Meanwhile, at the symbolic level — namely, the sense that “the arc of history” now bends towards Islamist victory — the imprint of the scenes from Kabul may be devastating. The consequences for regional stability could be severe, and vulnerable regimes may feel the need to cast their lot with the winners, or even look to Iran for shelter.

What can the United States do?

This damage of the images emerging from Kabul will not be easily undone; some of the scars of Vietnam are still with us still. The United States is implementing a large-scale “exfiltration” plan for those marked by service to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Still, the scope of the brutal acts that will follow the Taliban’s victorious entry into Kabul is painfully predictable. As former U.S. allies are executed in a public way, and women are relegated to servitude, the message to the rest of the Muslim world, and beyond it, could be quite dangerous. Has the West, and specifically the United States, become what the prophet Isaiah called “a broken reed”?

To counter this message as much as possible, it is vital for the United States to demonstrate — elsewhere since the Afghan case is clearly beyond salvation — that it is not a spent force. It would also be of decisive significance to reassure traditional U.S. allies, including Israel and other like-minded forces of stability in the region. This would require not only proactive diplomacy at the highest level but also actions that would reassert the American commitment to their security and survival.

Central to any such demonstration, given what we witnessed in Afghanistan, would be the way the United States (assisted by its key allies, Britain and France) deals with Iran’s defiant conduct. Provocations at sea; rocket fire by proxy into Saudi Arabia and Israel; regional subversion; and a rapidly advancing military nuclear project — all these require a robust response, not abject surrender at the negotiating table in Vienna.

True, the Afghan debacle (which amounts to a resounding failure of the U.S. “nation-building” concept) and the Iranian challenge are different in nature and only marginally related (there is some evidence that Iran, despite the Taliban’s brutality towards Afghan Shi’ites, was willing to help them defeat the United States). But their timing makes it even more important for the United States to use this opportunity to reverse the images of decline. Moreover, European Union-style appeasement of the murderous Iranian regime will not play well with U.S. public opinion, come next November. When necessary, the practice of punitive actions against terrorism and subversion needs to be re-established.

The need for regional cohesion

One of the keys to the survival of the pro-Western forces in southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon in 1975 was their ability to come together — despite deep historical differences and grievances — in the form of ASEAN. Created in 1967, it was given its present form and functions only by the TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) in 1976. It was only during the mid-1990s, after the Soviet collapse, that the communist former enemies, including Vietnam, queued up to join it.

To some extent, and despite the obvious differences, this can serve as a general template for those Middle East nations who fear the consequences of American retreat. The Abraham Accords already reflect, in many of their overt and underlying aspects, this need to “hang together.” What happened recently in Tunisia can be interpreted as a significant part of a pre-emptive campaign to blunt the influence of Islamist political movements across the region.

In addition to the highly proactive United Arab Emirates (and the quietly persuasive work of the King of Jordan), it would be Saudi Arabia and Egypt that would need to take the lead in organizing the response; an opportune moment for Riyadh to cross the threshold into open relations with Israel — and to collect their reward for it in Washington.

As for Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, his powerful message to the scholars of al-Azhar University on Jan. 1, 2015 (which they have yet to respond to in a coherent way) remains the most lucid clarion call against the scourge of Islamist totalitarian radicalism which has swept the Muslim world. His position should be propagated and upheld by other like-minded nations (it is bound to be reviled and rejected, however, by Erdoğan Turkey and its ally, Qatar). Recent steps by his regime to back Sufi practices — abhorred by the Islamist “purists” — point in the right direction.

As external but adjacent anchors of such a regional response — given the doubts about America’s role, which will not soon fade even if the Biden administration does take firm action — work should be done to bring in both France and India. Both have taken firm stands against Islamist radicalism, both have a vested interest in the outcome, and both already have strong bilateral and multilateral associations with players in the region. The same, of course, is true also for Greece and Cyprus, and other forces in Europe who are cognizant of the peril.

Israel’s role

Obviously, Israel cannot be the arbiter in intra-Muslim conflicts — but nor is it a bystander. We have a vested interest in stemming the tide of both Sunni and Shi’ite radicalism, and in proving our utility to our partners across the region, from the UAE to Morocco. Israeli diplomacy should place the cementing of these bonds near the top of its priorities, alongside the (related) Iranian question. Military actions in the context of Israel’s so-called “campaign between wars” are also part of the equation, both in terms of their impact on the adversary and of their message to our friends.

The same is true for the way in which Israel deals with Hamas rule in Gaza, which until Kabul fell was the only area in the region under the uncontested rule of an Islamist regime. Practical solutions to the humanitarian problems in the Gaza Strip, and a tough negotiation to retrieve the hostages and the bodies of our soldiers, are one thing. A political license for Hamas to appear as the victor in the ideological struggle with the non-Islamist variant of Palestinian nationalism (i.e., the Palestinian Authority) is another matter. In close coordination with Egypt, such an outcome must be avoided, even at the risk of resumed hostilities.

Ultimately, it may be in Lebanon — and in action against Iran — that Israel’s ability to turn the tide will be tested. There is nothing we can do about Afghanistan, nor is there any prospect of reversing the course of events there. But our actions closer to home will send a message.

These would be decisions driven by other considerations, and ultimately determined by the rate of progress of Iran’s military nuclear project. But at the same time, in other aspects of Israeli policy, the possible impact of the dark days that lie ahead should be considered. First and foremost, intensive intelligence sharing with like-minded forces, and informational cooperation in stemming the spread of the Islamist creed (in a war of ideas fought daily in the social networks) should be a key element of the joint regional and international response. The stakes are high, and the time to prepare is now.

IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.