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After Afghanistan withdrawal, US faces distrust from its allies

September 15, 2021 at 11:11 am

Taliban fighters atop Humvee vehicles parade along a road to celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021 following the Talibans military takeover of the country. [JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images]

The world watched as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan and seized the capital Kabul, and the faction announcement of an interim government on 7 September was further evidence of the United States’ flawed military withdrawal.

Indeed, many US partners and allies who have traditionally relied on American military and security backing may feel unease and perceive that America’s support is not always guaranteed.

With the US’ perceived loss of global influence, some of its allies may look for support elsewhere, even forging new alliances outside of Washington’s traditional hegemony. Meanwhile, China and Russia’s growing dominance in the Middle East and surrounding areas may accelerate, as both superpowers seek to fill the ever-expanding vacuum that Washington is leaving.

Regarding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, one American partner that could face immediate consequences is Pakistan. Washington had often pushed Pakistan to do more to broker a peace agreement between the Taliban and the now-displaced Afghan government, despite Islamabad’s assertion that it has exhausted its leverage over the Taliban. A rift was evidently increasing before Washington’s full withdrawal.

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Furthermore, while NATO has stated that Pakistan has a “special responsibility” to ensure that the Taliban lives up to its international commitments, Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari responded that her country “would no longer accept being scapegoated for the failures of others.”

With such deteriorating sentiment between the US and Pakistan over Afghanistan’s political future, Islamabad may feel further alienated by Washington, serving as a cautionary example of how America’s allies may feel abandoned.

Shifting Middle East power balance

While Afghanistan’s neighbours may feel vulnerable, Washington’s declining influence in the Middle East may force its regional allies to reassess their stances. The US has already planned to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2021. Although America has supported the current Iraqi government, Baghdad may also feel exposed, should Washington fail to learn the lessons from its Afghanistan withdrawal.

More crucially for Washington, its relations with its Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could flounder, particularly if they continue to perceive US policies to be unreliable, or even dangerous.

The UAE has long been prepared to move away from Washington’s sphere of influence. This is indicated by its rapprochement with Iran since early 2020, due to its own security concerns after former US President Donald Trump’s escalatory position towards Tehran. A further case of this is Abu Dhabi’s pivot towards China and Russia, following both powers’ expansion in the Middle East, amid Washington’s dwindling clout. Even Saudi Arabia has warmed towards Moscow and Beijing as they have expanded their own sway in the Gulf.

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Additionally, Abu Dhabi’s recent attempts to repair ties with Turkey may be another consequence of states seeking to shift away from relying on US support, at least in part. It is no coincidence that Emirati de facto ruler and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 31 August following the unrest in Afghanistan, which observers lauded as a positive step in both countries’ relations.

Such a clear indication of the US’ declining influence and concerns over its ability to act as a guarantor of world security prompted Abu Dhabi to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards Ankara. Turkey was arguably receptive towards Emirati investments prior to the rapprochement, so it was largely Abu Dhabi’s own initiative and pragmatic position that led it to pursue friendlier communication with Ankara.

Turkey and the UAE’s rapprochement could be a microcosm of how different countries may take peace-making into their own hands. Indeed, as both Ankara and Abu Dhabi have expressed a desire to increase bilateral investments and economic ties, such relations could enable them to reach more common ground in areas such as Libya and Syria, over which they previously faced tensions, and where Washington struggled to assert leadership.

A rift within NATO?

Even NATO may face internal ruptures following Afghanistan’s unravelling. After all, many of Washington’s NATO allies felt Joe Biden’s administration did not collaborate well with its allies regarding its withdrawal plans. One key example is how European states called for Washington to extend its planned 31 August withdrawal, which would have given them more time to evacuate their nationals.

However, the US refused and proceeded with its initial plans. Washington and its European allies in NATO could indeed experience a wider rift. And if discord within NATO develops further, this would be a considerable boon for Russia, as it has often tried to exploit areas where NATO is perceived to be divided. Among these has been Libya, where Russia has sought to expand its influence in Europe’s “backyard”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.