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Taliban Rule in Afghanistan Inflames Sectarian Impulses in the Middle East

ARTICLES - 25 August 2021

Both the Arab and wider Muslim worlds are watching with horror at the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. A jihadist group has run over the corpse of a failed state and conquered a vast territory through force and faith. It is the first consequence of the American withdrawal from the Middle East, and more will follow-for if the US is once again giving in to the view that Afghanistan is only a peripheral concern and, ultimately, a lost territory, this is obviously not true for the other countries of the Middle East. A wind of panic is blowing over the entire region.

Islamist movements across the region, both Sunni and Shi’ite, are celebrating America’s "historic surrender". The Palestinian Hamas movement congratulated the Taliban on their victory. Mohammad al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra-the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda-said that "Allah has triumphed over the forces of foreign evil, let us pray for joy to spread in the Levant and throughout the oppressed Umma". He hopes that, in return for offering Washington some guarantees, his movement will also be able to keep hold of its small Islamic emirate in northern Syria. In effect, American officials have stated that Al-Nusra could be a useful interlocutor as it fights ISIS and its supporters in Syria. He also gradually finished off groups of foreign Jihadis who had come to fight on its side, including Chechens,Turkestanis, and Uyghurs, which was highly valued by both the Russians and the Chinese.

On the Shi’ite side, the Lebanese Hezbollah pokes fun at the US administration "America is back, who will still believe it? The last spike has been driven into the war on terror. The United States has been humiliated by a poor, exhausted nation, what will it be able to achieve in the face of more organized forces?" citing Iran and China as examples.

The final death knell in the war on terror.

Governments however, the Iran regime in this case, do not entirely share this outlook. While it certainly welcomes the departure of American forces, it remains deeply worried about the black hole that Afghanistan, with whom it shares an 800km border, might become.

Its immediate concern is related to a likely massive influx of refugees, as well as the situation of Afghan Shi’ites, who comprise around 20% of the population.

Iran would prefer to see a reconstituted government of national unity, ideally as a result of something similar to the 2001 Bonn Conference, followed by the meeting of a new Loya jirga. But the Taliban had been excluded then, and today they are unlikely to find such a proposal attractive. Politically, President Raisi’s Iran is assessing the consequences of the American withdrawal. Will it mean that Biden, anxious to gain a much-needed diplomatic victory, will show greater flexibility in the negotiation with Iran over the nuclear deal to try to win a badly needed diplomatic victory? Or will it instead lead the US to harden its position in an attempt to rebuild its image after the discredit brought on America after its messy withdrawal? Israel continues to press for maintaining a hard line in the Vienna negotiations and hopes to convince Biden not to pursue a disengagement from the region. Such a withdrawal, it believes, would leave the Jewish state largely alone as the only regional power capable of countering the threat from the Islamic Republic. 

Arab countries, who all have nationals involved in the various jihadist movements, are petrified. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was essentially the operating arm of America’s strategy in Afghanistan, providing the religious legitimacy that motivated the jihadists. But times have changed and the jihadists having become the bête noire of the Saudi regime-at a time when it has become all too aware that America might not come to its rescue if it is threatened. The Gulf royals so earnestly wish they will be able to find accommodations with a Taliban movement turned pragmatic, and try to imagine them as wise managers of this vast territory, seen as strategic only because of the threats it causes to its neighbors and beyond. But will the Taliban drop their AK-47s to sit in government offices? If they successfully assert full control over the country, Afghanistan may again become a magnet for jihadist groups across the Muslim world, including those Muslim minorities in Russia and China. Having long enjoyed the existence of a precious sanctuary in Pakistan without which they could never have triumphed- they may, in turn, form a safe haven and a staging ground for the export of jihadists to many predominantly Muslim fragile states of the Middle East and Africa.

The Taliban movement is relatively fragmented. The older generation, supposedly more reasonable, might not be able to resist younger, more educated, and more radical factions who are eager to expand upon their recent success.

If, on the other hand, their governance of Afghanistan fails - as is highly likely -, the country will once again descend into anarchy and will require long-term management by its neighbors of the resulting insecurity. A less worrisome scenario in the short term might be that of a weak government in Kabul, with each influential player of the region seeking to place its men in order to have a say. The result would be a highly unpredictable and erratic governance system.

Gulf royals earnestly wish they will be able to find accommodations with a Taliban movement turned pragmatic.

The security concerns of the West carry little weight in the face of the turmoil that is brewing in Muslim societies. The rise to power of Sunni jihadists emboldens their strain of militancy while also exacerbating sectarian impulses across the region. Most Christians have already left the Middle East, and the few who remain are unlikely to stay. Narendra Modi’s government has called on the Sikh and Hindu minorities in Afghanistan to say they would be welcome in India.

Farewell to democracy, authoritarian regimes are gaining a new lease on life. Their iron fist in Egypt or Algeria seems to be the only way of pushing back the jihadists-without ever managing to eliminate them. Human rights, women’s rights, and societal diversity have been dispensed with. The voices of the seculars and the liberals will soon die out, and the tide of migrants will continue to rise. It will overwhelm the neighboring countries first, especially Iran, then Turkey. A happy few will be allowed into Europe, then larger numbers will manage to slip through the net in a continuous stream of illegal migrants. Europeans' concerns are entirely focused on the risk of seeing a new flood of migrants while ignoring for now the more serious security risks.

The Afghan failure will remain a textbook case for everything wrong in a military and security strategy against terrorism, but there is still a more important lesson to be learned from this collapse: it is the inability of the Afghan national elites to produce a credible political system that has the public interest at heart, and the failure of the United States to draw the consequences, namely to realize that this deeply corrupt, foreign aid-pilfering regime could not possibly convince the national army to fight for its country. This recalls the rout of the Iraqi army by ISIS six years ago. "We were doing nation-building in Afghanistan," said Joe Biden’s national security advisor defensively. Yet this is what America was actually trying to do and failed to achieve over 20 years-a failure mirroring similar French efforts in the Sahel.

America does not hold back when it comes to defending its own interests, and this has included making deals with terrorists. It has the privilege-unlike countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa-of not being part of the geographical area in which the jihadists move. Turning his back on this region and shuttering the American borders appears as an option to Joe Biden. It seems that the lessons of 9/11 are well and truly forgotten across the Atlantic.

 

Copyright: Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP

 

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