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Afghanistan: A Warning Lesson for the Gulf States?

Over the last month, discussions about the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban have dominated the news and international politics, with particular attention toward its implications for America’s standing in the world. Many have connected America’s refusal to aid the internationally-recognized, legitimate government to its increasing reluctance to take part in Middle Eastern conflicts, with ominous consequences for existing U.S. partners. The discussion about the earthquake that happened in Afghanistan that happened over the last few weeks has dominated the news and international politics, with particular discussion about America’s position in the world and with its allies and partners. In the Arab world, a quote  by the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, succinctly summarizes this situation: “Those who are covered by America are naked.” Mubarak would have been wise to take his own words into account; after three decades of loyalty to the United States, Washington declined to use its leverage to keep him in power during the protests of the Arab Spring.

No one truly understands if the former Egyptian leader said the quote under pressure, or as a reaction to a specific situation rather than as a general rule. However, the quote has been taken up by the anti-America camp in the Middle East, used as a criticism of the GCC states that have reliably sided with the U.S. at every turn, and an implicit suggestion that they broaden their relations to include other international partners. However, the U.S. abandonment of, and withdrawal from, Afghanistan was described as “confused and chaotic”, and has reinforced the idea that America is weak, illegitimate, and headed for the exit. This has led to an expectation in some corners that America’s departure from Afghanistan is prologue to a more lasting departure from the Middle East.

Every Occupation is Different

However, repeating the same scenario is highly unlikely, because U.S. presence in the region is different in each case. Afghanistan is different from Vietnam, a second cautionary tale for U.S. intervention. Both are different from Iraq, and Iraq is far different from the U.S. presence in the GCC states, which has primarily been peaceful and intended at maintaining the security of those states from outside actors. In each country, the U.S. presence has different motives and challenges.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein only to come to face a far more chaotic and dangerous insurgency, is far different from the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War. In both cases, the U.S. played an active role in reconstructing the countries, and U.S. planners and policymakers had excellent knowledge about the society and intelligence information related to both countries – a product of having fought a long war against them, a war in which the outcome was never a foregone conclusion, as it was in Iraq. However, in 2003, Paul Bremer, the U.S.-appointed “czar” of Iraq, assumed total control of the country with extremely limited knowledge of its background and society, and was appointed primarily because of his political connections rather than any relevant experience.

Critics of American military presence abroad have often argued that it would be better off focusing on its domestic problems. One of these issues is an increasingly partisan atmosphere, which has infected every aspect of American government and put its democracy in danger. An example of this is President Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and his refusal to attend the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the winner of that election, on January 20. Despite the many “think tanks” and research centers in the nation’s capital, America cannot find a solution to this dysfunction – and, the argument goes, should try to address it before attempting to export democracy abroad.

To be fair, think tanks are often wrong. Before the 2003 invasion, a research center in London took a poll of experts regarding “the next day” after toppling Saddam Hussein. Most of the experts argued that the era after the dictator’s removal would be peaceful and orderly and would not be a significant U.S. concern. This spectacularly incorrect conclusion is a clear example of Western democracy’s inability to understand and respect the differences in other societies.

The failure of the U.S. to understand Afghan society is another salient example of this point. The easy solution that President Trump chose to negotiate with the Taliban, striking a deal with them before securing a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Despite the strong reservations of his advisers, President Biden carried on and implemented this deal, succumbing to popular pressure to end America’s “endless wars” and give more attention to its domestic problems.

All of these might not answer the question of whether U.S. influence on the world’s conflicts is over or not. While some like to answer with “yes” or “no”, it is better to avoid the decisive answer because America’s relationship with, and presence in, the Arab world is subject to changes happening in the region and its continued grievances and conflicts. Above all, the right approach to understand the correct path for America’s foreign policy in the Middle East is for it to form partnerships, organize its relations, and separate its long-term strategy from its short-term policies – policies that, because of their implementation in response to immediate events, could at times contradict the overall strategy.

American Hegemony Continues

With the Afghanistan debacle, the U.S. has taken a beating on the international stage, but gleeful reports of its impending demise are vastly overstated. In terms of political, economic, and military might, it remains the most powerful country in the world. It has the strongest army and retains the most influential position in issues around the globe. Through taking a close look into the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, it appears that America is separating its values from its ability to export its democratic model to other parts of the world. It is not necessarily that other nations would exactly copy America’s democratic experience, because they have different cultures and experiences that would impact their understanding of democracy. Any application for a representative government should take into consideration respect for these special conditions and cultures, as long as that nation respects human rights.

The struggle for Afghanistan is not over yet, and its next chapter has yet to be written. A concern for the nation’s future is that it will turn into a safe haven for terrorist organizations, as it was during Taliban rule in the 1990s. Another scenario is that there will be a global resistance to the new government formed there, with increased domestic resistance to the Taliban’s rule – made more potent by the group’s apparent unwillingness to change to a less radical form of governance. The third possibility is an eruption of civil war between the different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups within Afghanistan, which would be a challenge for Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan. Even the GCC states would prefer to avoid this outcome; they might not share borders with Afghanistan, but the presence of the Taliban in power and the risk of turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorists will be deemed an extreme security risk to these states.

In short, whether the Taliban manages to preserve uncontested control over the country or not, the future involvement of the international community in Afghanistan in one form or another is extremely likely. Any future intervention in the country, though, must take into consideration the different experiences within Afghanistan during the last decades, and ensure the future stability of the country.

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

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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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