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Going through Withdrawal?

November 4, 2021

by: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Members of the US Army in Afghanistan

For almost 20 years, the world was a different place. On October 7, 2001, the United States launched a military campaign in Afghanistan with a massive military focus on the Middle East. Then, on August 30, 2021, the American forces left—in an expected but criticized withdrawal that had enemies of the US celebrating. But is it simply a victory for the bad guys? What does it mean for Israel, Iran and ISIS?

Not All Gone

Although the sizable US force left Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean the Americans are no longer present in the Middle East. Yoram Schweitzer is a senior research fellow and head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel and a former member of the Israeli intelligence community. According to Schweitzer, the US still has “a lot of bases” in the Middle East. Moreover, just because there aren’t American boots on the ground doesn’t mean the US won’t act. Even after the Americans reduced their forces in Syria, the US used drones “to surgically kill” terrorists there, he noted.

Schweitzer doesn’t believe the Afghanistan withdrawal “even remotely” equates to “total disengagement of the United States from the Middle East.” Instead, he sees the US move as part of a shift in both focus and resources from combat in the Middle East to other priorities.

Even when the US does act in the Middle East, the approach may shift. According to Col. (ret.) Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at the INSS and a former Israeli intelligence colonel, if the US feels the need to engage militarily in the Middle East, they will do so with alternative means, such as missiles, as opposed to “boots on the ground.”

Shavit also believes the threshold to provoke US military action against Iran may be higher. In 2003, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program out of fear of the US, he explained. Now, Shavit said he can only see the US engaging in military action against Iran if the Islamic Republic acts against US interests, attacks US targets or actually develops a nuclear weapon.

“Until [Iran has] a bomb, they can do a lot of military activity like they are doing today, and the response will not be military, at least not from the point of the Americans,” Shavit said, speaking against the backdrop of uncertainty regarding a potential renewal of the US nuclear deal with Iran. “The chances that the Americans will use military means against Iran are getting lower and lower.” That poses its own challenge.

Not All Good

Members of the US Army at the Kabul International Airport evacuation site

Beyond practical consequences, the symbolism of the US exit from Afghanistan can invigorate the bad guys, including Iran. “There is an issue, because there are assessments also that once the Iranians understand that the chances that the US will use military power against them are low, they are more aggressive, more ready to challenge Israel or challenge other regional powers like in the Gulf or Egypt. Also Hezbollah and also Hamas [are more willing to challenge],” Shavit explained.

Schweitzer similarly warned that terror groups would use the US withdrawal as inspiration. “Regardless of the results, regardless of the reasons, regardless of the motivations of the United States who abandoned Afghanistan, they will depict it as a victory of their…jihad [“struggle,” war with unbelievers (in Islam)] and it will impact the spirit, the motivation, and maybe the recruitment of others to continue engaging in this kind of confrontation with their deeper enemies,” Schweitzer said. He pointed out that Israel should be “very prepared for potential dangers that may emanate from Afghanistan.” However, he added that there remain many questions about the future of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the “almost inevitable” infighting for power between the Taliban and ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province, the Afghan offshoot of ISIS).

The situation can also spill into other areas in the region. Shavit said the Saudis had begun discussions with Iran against the backdrop of the shift in the US’s Middle East approach, including withdrawing support for Saudi activity in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia understands that they have to deal differently with Iran” when they are not sure that the US will support them “when it comes to threats from Iran,” he explained.

Not All Bad

Despite the problems, the US withdrawal could spell trouble for Iran and opportunities for Israel. Schweitzer pointed out that the Taliban almost went to war with Iran in the past. In general, Afghanistan will now be the problem of neighbors such as Iran rather than being the US’s responsibility, which makes these neighbors “very worried.” He highlighted that the Taliban and its terror allies are Sunni Muslims—the interreligious rivals of the Shiite Iranians.

Furthermore, Shavit said he believes now that the US presence in the Middle East is diminished, Israel becomes “even more important” in the eyes of the Americans, as the US can rely on allies to assist with their interests in the region. “When the Americans are not here, Israel becomes the main power,” Shavit pointed out. He sees this as an opportunity for Israel, depending on how Jerusalem approaches US interests. “…I think it is very important for Israel to have this strategic dialogue with the US administration in a way that maybe the administration will see even more than they saw in the past the need to have these good relations with Israel, at least for the coming years.”

Schweitzer said he believes the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not “changing anything…in dramatic fashion” for Israel. Moreover, both experts noted that Israel has “never asked” the US to fight its battles on its behalf.

As for the future, Schweitzer can say “with a certain amount of confidence” that the US is “not abandoning its counterterror polices”—including in the Middle East. “This is why I don’t think that Israel should be worried [about] the United States’ change of priorities because I don’t think in the counterterror priorities it changes,” he held. “Maybe there is a shift in strategy, or maybe there is shifting in [a] specific presence, or the amount of people present in certain countries, but the United States is here, in Africa, in south Asia, in Southeast Asia, in the Gulf.”

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