The topic of the hour (and one likely to remain so for weeks and months to come, at least until another major event occurs) is the US withdrawal, ahead of schedule, from Afghanistan, and Taliban’s entry to Kabul. There was a significant element of surprise, especially after everyone expected it to go without a wrinkle. The US had announced that it planned to withdraw its troops by the eve of the 20th anniversary of 11 September 2001, which was only a few weeks away. Taliban, too, seemed to be banking on this. It was the party that would receive the key to power because it was the party the US negotiated with under former president Trump.
Talks were modelled on Henry Kissinger’s talks with the Vietcong, who were fundamentalist communists but nevertheless indicated their intent to share power after the Americans left. This time, the party sitting across the negotiating table from the Americans in Doha were fundamentalist Islamists, with their long beards, turbans and knee-length perahans topped by black vests. In both cases, Washington had the wool pulled over its eyes. More precisely, it was ready to be deceived, so desperate was it to be out of the never-ending nightmare of an endless war.
Surprise reared its head out of the quirks of time: the Americans had a timetable for withdrawal, while the Taliban were on a different schedule. As anyone who has studied international relations knows, there is always a large space in major events for the unintended, unplanned and unimagined. On this occasion, contrary to plans and expectations, the Afghan government forces were as ready to surrender as the Taliban were eager to proceed ahead of the US schedule. So Afghani cities and provinces fell before the Taliban advance at an unimagined pace.
Before the Americans knew it, the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul and it was too late to work out a revised schedule, even if the Taliban had been prepared to listen. Their forces stormed the capital from all its four entrances, where the Afghan army repeated its disappearing act. Taliban leaders took control of the city after reaching an understanding with local leaders. There was no combat or resistance. For the record, nor were there cheers and flowers welcoming the “mujahideen”.
Washington found itself overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events and by questions from all directions as it shifted its focus to rescuing whoever it could, starting with Americans. Other Westerners came next while Afghan civilians were at the end of the queue. It also rushed to rescue what weapons it could, after the Taliban had begun to seize everything.
Here in the Arab world, we watched it all unfold, stunned and bewildered, and in that state, as always, talk turned to conspiracy. The general thrust of one theory is that the US, being the most powerful nation in the world, can’t be defeated. So if it is defeated, something fishy must be going on, and here is what it is: Washington has struck a secret deal with the Taliban. They get to return to power in Kabul and, in exchange, start making a lot of trouble for China and maybe Russia, another rival, if not an enemy, of the US.
Another popular conspiracy theory features different actors, though the stage is the same and the US still benefits. It goes like this: now that terrorism has been defeated in many parts of the Arab world, it is time to rekindle it. The key to this is to turn the clock back a few decades in Kabul so that Afghanistan can once again become a host country for Al-Qaeda and ISIS and, if need be, some Hamas and Hizbullah contingents. These terrorists will then be unleashed to wreak new waves of havoc in the Arab region which will go to the US crawling on its knees and lay all its oil and money at Washington’s feet.
Conspiracy theorising gives free rein to the most bizarre fictions without a shred of evidence. More importantly, nobody is asking for evidence. But what is certain - and this conspiracy theorising is a sign of it - is that events in Afghanistan have been greeted here with no small degree of misgiving and gloom. Apart from the mufti of Oman and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, few have rushed to embrace the new-old Afghanistan. Instead, some praiseworthy waiting and seeing, a lot of consultation and a good amount of strategic position assessment have been the order of the day.
Perhaps the first factor being taken into account in this process is that Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked country. For more than a half a century, it has seen nothing but war. At one point the warfare was against the Soviet Union; at other points the country plunged into civil warfare and strife fed by rampant sectarianism. After the attacks against the World Trade Centre in New York, the US invaded Afghanistan and became bogged down there, leading to the current situation four US presidents later.
At worst, Afghanistan will be nothing more than a terrorist training field and breeding ground, not that this region has lacked such spaces as demonstrated by Syria, Iraq and, at one point, southern Lebanon. Most likely, Afghanistan will be of greater concern to other parties than to the Arabs. China with all its weight and prestige, India with its many abilities, Pakistan with its nuclear weapons, and perhaps Russia and its neighbours are more immediately affected by the quake that had its epicentre in Kabul. Even the US, whose stay there will end before autumn, will keep its satellite surveillance running, its warships ready to hand, and its airplanes prepared to strike without fear of reprisal. But this does not mean that in the Arab world we have the luxury to relax.
Of particular importance, here, is that we are in the process of implementing two major projects, one to promote development and progress, and the other to establish stability and security. They are being carried out in tandem because they support each other. But they are both threatened by terrorist groups and non-Arab regional neighbours bent on infiltrating and expanding their influence in Arab lands. The Arabs have what they need to take on the challenges of fundamentalist and radical extremist thought. And while these may acquire some impetus from Afghanistan, it is unlikely that this will add much to the threats we already face. More crucial, therefore, is the need and, indeed, the duty to sustain the process of reform and to build our sources of strength while, of course, remaining vigilant and prepared to protect our progress.
It is too soon to predict what will happen in Kabul and whether Taliban still has energy and momentum after 20 years of fighting or whether Afghanistan might produce something new after two decades of modernisation. What matters is how we prepare ourselves regardless. This involves continuing to build our already tested immunity and reinforcing it for what may or may not come. Above all, we need to build a regional structure to contend, not just with potential developments in Afghanistan, but also and, more importantly, with what is already happening in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, as these countries, for better or worse, are an integral part of the Arab region.
Afghanistan belongs to another region. True, it has produced various terrorist waves, but other countries were more affected by these than we were. Yet China, at least until the situation in Kabul took everyone by surprise, made overtures to the Taliban in the hope of working out a modus vivendi because it wants its Belt and Road project to pass through Afghanistan. Russia remained wary while India weighed its options. Every country assessed its interests and acted accordingly. This is the lesson the Arabs need to learn.
*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 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly