The Gulf states must exert their maximum leverage, whether financial, political, or moral, on the Taliban to dissuade them from reimposing the barbarous regime of twenty years ago.
The rapid series of events over the past weeks in Afghanistan, culminating in total victory for the Taliban and painful humiliation for the United States, should also induce some humility among pundits, let alone generals, spies and diplomats still on active duty. We cannot avoid rehashing what happened and why, but that is a topic for another time. Right now, the Gulf States must deal with a changed but unclear reality following the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Reactions in the Gulf
The Gulf states, whether America’s allies, clients, or enemies, have watched as the devastating consequences of America’s retreat from Afghanistan made headlines all over the world. Each of the Gulf states must try to discern lessons learned from the U.S. debacle and then figure out how to chart a course forward. Did Biden’s abrupt decision to leave prove that the president is really a closet isolationist, and does it presage a greater U.S. withdrawal from the region? Should the Saudis see America’s flight from Kabul as somehow related to the equally sudden but far less consequential U.S. decision to withdraw its air defense assets from the Kingdom? Should Qatar worry that Biden’s speech blaming his Afghan allies for the enormity of the defeat presages further rhetoric linking Doha’s hosting of the Taliban leadership to the February Doha agreement which led to the withdrawal decision? Will the Houthis take a page out of the Taliban playbook and decide that they will pursue Yemen’s civil war to final victory while only playacting at negotiations? Certainly, if the Taliban revert to type and unleash the same blind savagery on women and minorities as they demonstrated the last time they were in power, any Gulf country linked to them risks being tarred alongside them in world public opinion.
Iraq, which labored under America’s other regional occupation, has seen this happen before. The United States tolerated – some might say encouraged – abnormally high levels of financial and political corruption in Baghdad. That corruption was so pervasive and debilitating that it caused the Iraqi Army to disintegrate before ISIL’s onslaught three years after the American withdrawal in 2011. The parallels with what happened in Afghanistan are blindingly obvious. Fortunately, for Iraq’s people, local militias – many of them supported by Iran – sprung up and fought ISIL to a standstill until America could return. In Afghanistan’s case, the U.S. made clear that it would not return, leading the country’s regional militias to surrender or be annihilated. The parallels are crucial in Iraq’s case, as the Biden administration has agreed to withdraw its remaining troops from the country over the following year.
Meanwhile, when the jubilation over America’s humiliation subsides in Tehran, that country’s rulers must confront the challenges that Afghanistan’s new rulers pose – in addition to its other woes, including stalled JCPOA negotiations, the continuation of American “maximum pressure” sanctions, and massive internal problems of its own making. The relative stability of Iran’s eastern border, guaranteed by American troops in Afghanistan, is no longer certain. Moreover, as the world’s largest Shi’a state, Iran has an interest in defending its influence over Afghanistan’s Hazara Shi’a minority – a minority against whom the Taliban virtually committed genocide in the 1990s. Can Tehran cut a deal with the Taliban that provides continued stability, or will the Taliban again begin to oppress the Hazara population and attack Iranian interests as they did in 1998? Equally disturbing for Iran itself, the last time the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, more than two million Afghans fled to Iran and have never left, straining Iran’s already-beleaguered social safety net. The prospect of another Afghan exodus, in which millions more move to Iran, is an understandable concern for the country’s leadership.
Jihadists and extremists of all stripes in the Gulf region are also jubilant, celebrating a rare victory of a kindred organization over the hated America hegemon. The Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan will likely bring about a new interest in extremist ideology, largely suppressed after heavy-handed repression and the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), among the Gulf’s many disaffected youth. The sanctuary provided by the Taliban makes Afghanistan an ideal location for Islamist extremists’ training camps, and so far, despite the Taliban’s diplomatic guarantees, there is little to indicate that they (and the money they bring) will not be welcomed back.
Although it is not, strictly speaking, a Gulf country, Pakistan’s population, politics and geoeconomics link its fortunes intimately with those of the Gulf. Pakistan almost certainly chalks up the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan as a major victory for its foreign policy. After all, Islamabad deserves the Taliban’s credit and gratitude for providing a safe haven for recruitment, sanctuary from Coalition airstrikes, and free passage back into Afghanistan. However, Pakistan watchers also fear that Islamabad has created a monster. The Afghan Taliban is ideologically identical to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a home-grown extremist movement that has challenged government authority, and the two Taliban factions have developed close strategic ties, with ominous consequences for Pakistani security. To further complicate Pakistani calculations, extremist groups previously tied down fighting the Americans in Afghanistan have now been freed up to attack India in Kashmir and beyond, with or without Islamabad’s approval.
How the Gulf Can Help (Itself)
This is a time for serious thought in the Gulf countries on how they should reshape their various regional policies to deal with this new, if uncharted, reality. For a start, and in the name of common decency as well as political expediency, the Gulf states must exert their maximum leverage, whether financial, political, or moral, on the Taliban to dissuade them from reimposing the barbarous regime of twenty years ago. Through their financial support of the mujahideen, the Gulf has been inextricably linked with Afghanistan from the beginning of its troubles in the 1980s and own what happens now. Every Afghan women’s rights activists extricated by a Gulf state will be voice speaking on its behalf. It may not work but they must be seen to be trying. The Taliban have claimed that their stances have moderated, and that women and minorities within Afghanistan will be respected; these claims have been met with considerable skepticism around the world. In their own interest, the Gulf states must play a role in helping to make them a reality.
Politically, the GCC states must also face the fact that both American political parties are seeing diminishing returns in acting as the policeman of the Gulf. Isolationism has begun to reassert itself as the default American foreign policy position. President Biden’s decision has many vocal defenders in the United States, even after that decision resulted in catastrophe. Western responses to the threat of climate change, and the Gulf’s oversupply of oil, have fed the perception – even if unrealistic – that the U.S. no longer has any need to bear the burden of protecting the free flow of hydrocarbons.
Moreover, the unsavory reputation of Gulf regimes’ human rights practices has lessened the American public’s appetite for committing troops to their defense over the past decade. The Gulf states must come to grips with the possibility that the U.S. willingness to fight Iran in their defense has significantly declined and may well disappear over the coming years. Given the threat that they perceive from Tehran, the Gulf states will need to find a way to resolve the petty squabbles that have put them at odds with one another. For that matter, they would also gain from drawing Iran back into the normal world, rather than demonizing it. Iran, for its own part, needs to reduce the challenges it faces, and political normalization with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is one of the easiest ways to do so. None of these steps will be easy to take, but if the intellectual and political elite of the region do not start thinking about how to manage the future, it will turn and bite them.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.