Last week US President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by 11 September which, this year, marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Around 3,000 people of diverse nationalities died in those attacks, carried out by Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation, thus triggering a new world war: the fight against terrorism, which is essentially a war between state and non-state actors.
11 September 2001 was a turning point in the history of mankind. Washington’s and, subsequently, NATO’s decision to invade Afghanistan, which hosted Al-Qaeda, inaugurated the new era. For nearly two decades since then, Afghanistan and then Iraq, which the administration of George Bush Jr decided to invade next, were a major determinant of the policy outlooks of subsequent administrations. The Obama administration held that the war in Iraq was wrong and that the US should focus on Afghanistan, where the tide of terrorism originated. But, after some study and escalation, it determined that it was best to withdraw.
The Trump administration also vowed to withdraw but it simultaneously entered peace negotiations with the Taliban. The agreement they struck was to pave the way for peace talks between the Taliban and the elected Afghan government.
But those negotiations failed because the Taliban continued to insist they were the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. The US forces had driven them from Kabul early on, but afterwards they rallied and then proceeded to “liberate” nearly half the country. In short, the extremist fundamentalist movement that had close ties with many terrorist organisations has compelled the new Biden administration to dismiss the option of further negotiations in favour of withdrawing from a country that has defied all modern powers as it defied colonial ones before them.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will considerably weaken Kabul. It will tip the balance of power against it and in favour of its various extremist adversaries and jeopardise the development of a modern Afghan civil state, which faces greater likelihood of increased violence, terrorism and deterioration of minority rights. However, it is the international arena that will experience the greatest change. The US exit from Afghanistan will be another landmark, on top of other setbacks in the Middle East, in the decline of US influence, might and status. China and Russia stand to gain, of course.
But, at the same time, these two countries are uncomfortably close to Afghanistan and may soon find themselves looking at a militant Islamist state whose Taliban leaders boast about defeating the Soviet Union and precipitating its collapse and will now brag about forcing the world’s number one superpower to turn tail and, perhaps, precipitating its ultimate demise as a world power as well.
During a visit to China in 2002, I asked the Foreign Ministry in Beijing what they thought about the heavy US military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and whether they perceived it as a strategic threat to their country. Their answer took me by surprise. The US military operation in Afghanistan was a positive development from their perspective, because it was doing their work for them.
It was confronting extremist groups that had a negative influence on the Muslim minority in China, large concentrations of which were near Afghanistan. I flashed back to the view, commonly held during the Vietnam War, that China welcomed US presence that Southeast Asian neighbour because it rendered US troops within reach of China’s military arm in the event of a conflict. Now, China is especially nervous because of how the evolving situation in Afghanistan might affect the particularly sensitive question of the 50 million strong Muslim population in China. Beijing’s handling of one significant component of this demographic, the Uyghurs, has been a constant source of international diplomatic troubles for China.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may cause Russia an even greater headache than it does China, in view of the proliferation of Islamist extremist groups in countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as within the Chechnya and Tatarstan regions in the Russian Federation.
Terrorist groups around the world must be greeting the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a major victory or at least a reversal of the defeat the regional and international alliance delivered to the ISIS “caliphate”, forcing its members to disperse to remote spots in Africa and Asia. If ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other groups feel this way, they will also perceive it as an opportunity for a new resurgence in the greater Middle East stretching from Pakistan to Morocco. The Muslim Brotherhood will naturally attempt to reap some benefits from the shift in what they see as their global confrontation against the West and the US, in particular.
The Arab region will certainly be one of the first to feel the effects given how active these Islamist organisations are in many Arab countries, above all, in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and given their ties and alliances with Iran and the Taliban in Pakistan and their proliferation in Somalia and the Sahel and Sahara in Africa. All this will present a major threat to Arab national security and to the national security of individual Arab states. While Islamist terrorist groups are to be found around the world, including among Muslim communities in Western nations, they feel their greatest prize awaits them in this part of the world which is home to the language of the Quran, the Islamic holy sites and the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. It is also the birthplace of all Islamic movements.
This looming threat has made a number of measures more urgent than ever. The first is to monitor the activities and movements of terrorist organisations in Afghanistan and elsewhere closely. Secondly, Arab governments must work more closely together and raise their security agencies’ levels of preparedness for responding to new situations in the region. They must simultaneously work to resolve conflicts and restore stability in Iraq and Syria where strategic lacunae still enable radical groups to thrive, recruit and train.
Fourthly, despite the US’s and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, an international conference under UN auspices should be held in order to promote more intensive global action to prevent the funding and recruitment drives of terrorist groups. Lastly, the US and NATO do not have the luxury to slacken their efforts in the war against terrorism given that their territories have been frequently targeted by terrorist groups. It will be useful for the Arabs to remain in close contact with the US and NATO countries during this new and precarious period in the history of the world and the region.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly