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A Region in Flux: Lessons from the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan and its Implications for the Gulf

The consequences of the Afghani conundrum for actors in the Middle East and Afghanistan’s environs are unfolding in real-time, and the withdrawal of the United States from its longest war will surely impact the Gulf region. As is common with most major decisions, the U.S.’ hasty retreat from Afghanistan has provoked fierce discussion and sowed division between policymakers and analysts. Among the GCC states, U.S. withdrawal has generated two general sentiments. First, it has caused worry about the implications of a reduced American footprint in the region. It also evoked a sense of schadenfreude over America’s defeat. On the other hand, Western observers express cynicism regarding America’s failure in Afghanistan and what it means for the future of American power.

This same sense of skepticism and doubt surrounded the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. It was said then that a Russian field officer sought help from the Minister of Defense, asking his superior to go as far as militarizing factory workers to send them to Afghanistan—evidencing the desperation felt by those on the ground in the final months before evacuation. The events of the past weeks demonstrate the volatility of a country which has repulsed two superpowers in the last 30 years; in both instances, a lack of understanding of the country’s history and politics imperiled the invader.

The End of U.S. Democracy Promotion?

With the conclusion of its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30, many international observers have speculated whether America has retreated from its long-held policy of expanding and supporting democracy abroad. Indeed, President Joe Biden reflected this reluctance to aggressively promote democracy in a major foreign policy speech on August 31. “We had no vital interest in Afghanistan other than to prevent an attack on America’s homeland and [against] our friends,” he said. This apparent reversal of U.S. policy may reflect nothing but political theater, however, especially when one considers how it contradicts his administration’s other policies, such as the inauguration of the Global Summit for Democracy earlier this year.

Indeed, the Biden administration continues to speak out about human rights abuses and the curtailing of individual liberties in China, Russia, and other authoritarian states. Confusion, therefore, remains regarding President Biden’s approach to democracy promotion. The most likely lesson America will learn from its experience in Afghanistan is that spreading democracy through foreign military intervention is a futile endeavor. In the coming years, the Biden administration will likely look to shift democracy promotion efforts away from the armed forces toward economic, political, and diplomatic channels.

Washington’s linkage of partnership with domestic governance structures, evidenced by the growing push for an “alliance of democracies,” may suggest that the U.S. will eventually change its relations with undemocratic allies or partners. The results of the Arab Spring may inform analysis of this development. The widespread 2011 pro-democracy movement changed much of U.S. foreign policy toward Middle East allies and rendered regional governments—including the GCC states—increasingly resistant to democratic movements and unwilling to peacefully relinquish power. Perhaps America will reconsider its policy toward these governments in the future.

America’s limited understanding of Middle Eastern politics and societies—combined with a naive approach of democracy promotion where the cultural and social conditions do not allow—has merely replaced bad regimes with something worse. Many commentators put this false confidence down to a lack of ability and willingness to comprehend the values and developments of different societies and cultures, as well as America’s insistence on exporting  its own model of democracy even if it ignores the reality on the ground, the different characteristics of states, and the conditions of communities where democracy is to flourish. American policymakers of the past tended to conceive of democracy as a model of governance which may take root immediately, without considering the time societies need to adjust to new political systems. In reality, the mechanisms and government organs of Western democracies are a result of Western states’ particular experiences and cannot be forced on other states.

Indeed, Afghanistan has taught America that democracy cannot simply be applied to other societies by force because even where democracy may seem to function, it only does so superficially. The precipitous collapse of the Afghan government only demonstrates democracy’s fragility. Although democracy remains a tool and method of governance to promote cohesion and stability within state and society, its establishment is and should not be an objective in itself. Through democracy, nations may improve social equality, increase living standards, provide equal opportunities for work, form a more harmonious society, and reach greater stages of development while taking into account great socioeconomic, racial, and cultural diversity.

Prospects for Lasting Stability in Afghanistan

The rejoicing of some after the fall of Kabul and the withdrawal of U.S. forces likewise demonstrates a lack of understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. Of course, such reactions are the product of emotional outburst, not logical thought. Human history represents a long path toward progress, and the prospect that the Taliban will return to govern as brutally as they did in the 1990s is highly unlikely, even if radical groups and actors have promoted this idea. The transition we are observing right now is a result of the particular historical, military, and political context of Afghanistan. The new Taliban government could fail spectacularly, but there is little to be done by outside observers except bear witness.

The approach of the United States and its allies toward Afghanistan in the last 20 years—whether one considers the overarching framework a military operation or an attempt to shift Afghani attitudes toward Western ideals of governance, such as democracy—has utterly failed and should be subject to criticism and change. Afghans themselves must continue to wait for the promises of better governance, and such an outcome is inevitable. Changes can and will manifest in multiple unforeseen ways. If the Taliban fail to provide smart governance and leadership, infighting and unrest may emerge throughout the country. Unfortunately for ordinary Afghans, a lack of international legitimacy can only negatively impact the economy and the average citizen’s welfare and prosperity.

Public commentators and policymakers alike worry about the situation in Afghanistan, but I would assume they exaggerate the severity of the conditions on the ground because the domestic outlook and diplomatic approach of the new regime remain unclear. Of course, certain factions within the government may slide into radicalism and Afghanistan might reach a new level of intrastate conflict. Though less likely, some voices and actors within the country may push for compromise to preserve the security and institutions of the existing Afghani state apparatus.

A Changing Western Footprint and Lessons for the Gulf States

While much attention has been paid to the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent months, domestic developments in Western countries have also impacted international peace and security—an evolving phenomenon which also holds important implications for the Gulf. Largely a result of economic stagnation, the public in the West has increasingly turned to right-wing parties which support xenophobic and isolationist policies. Former President Donald Trump’s successful political rise and his “America First” foreign policy, Euroscepticism and Brexit, and the rise of many right-wing governments in Central and Eastern Europe all exemplify this trend.

Within far-right Western ideology, the “other”—particularly immigrants—are demonized as a burden on national cohesion and a drain on the nation’s resources. As these far-right groups find political success and turn their focus to domestic policy, Western interest in international aid and intervention abroad drops. Moreover, there are very few Western politicians fighting against this new strain of isolationism, fearful of public backlash. These developments should serve as a warning to the Gulf states, especially those which rely on foreign powers for their security.

The Gulf region must keep a close eye on developments in Afghanistan and try to understand how the situation there impacts the Gulf’s security environment. In order to understand this situation in flux and limit its repercussions for the region, Gulf states must act immediately to contain and diminish any negative knock-on effects from Afghanistan. The GCC states must create ways and means to collaborate and coordinate across multiple sectors. Gulf states must also be resolute in their security policies toward Afghanistan and more broadly.

The state of Gulf politics, which at times appears guided by emotions and personal spats rather than the objectives of good governance, only creates more turbulence in the region. Previous political rifts within the Gulf have not produced stability and will continue to diminish the region’s ability to respond to future events. The history of the Gulf is replete with competition over its resources. More chaos—whether the product of political infighting or instability in surrounding regions—will only render make the region’s states more divided and incapable of pursuing their national interests.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

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