The American Withdrawal from Afghanistan:
Lessons and Ramifications for Israel

Written by the Institute for Policy and Strategy Team, IPS
Executive Director
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead
August, 2021
Photo: VOA, Wikipedia Commons
The swift, chaotic and humiliating evacuation of American forces and assets from Afghanistan is a transformational event whose long-term impact it is too early to assess. At the same time past experience shows that victories of extremist forces across the Middle East generally carry with them radicalization processes and amplify terror threats.
In the shorter term, the American withdrawal embodies a number of lessons and implications on a strategic level from the standpoint of Israel.

Stability vs. Democracy

The rapid military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban constitutes a resounding expression of the failure of the “nation-building” project and inculcation of a democratic system embarked on by the United States some two decades ago.
Against this backdrop, the Israeli perspective - that preferred stability over externally “implanting” democracy and a liberal value set on countries of the region - was revalidated. Thus, Israel must continue to support the moderate and monarchic Sunni regimes in the Middle East, particularly in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even if these regimes are not democratic, they still curb religious forces of the political Islam, fight against what remains of ISIS, and like Israel, are disturbed by the growing shadow of Iranian influence and Shiite terrorism.
Moreover, Israel needs to deepen its cooperation with moderate regimes in the diplomatic, military and intelligence realms, and take action in every way possible to strengthen them. It appears that events in Afghanistan have created opportunities for Israel to step up military ties with the Arab states. At the top in order of priorities stands Jordan. There is no alternative to the Hashemite Kingdom which provides Israel with strategic depth and creates stability along its longest border, and constitutes a first rate strategic asset to Israel’s security.

The presence of the United States in the Middle East

the American withdrawal can be expected to strengthen the perception among components of the radical axis in the region that the "resistance" model against the United States and its attrition over time achieve results and bring an American “pull out”. Movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah are already presenting the American withdrawal as a realization of the historical Jihad principle against colonialist forces and infidels.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it appears that the struggle to remove American forces is focusing on the Iraqi arena. One should keep in mind that Iran has placed the objective of pushing the United States out of Iraq at the top of its priorities in the region, following the killing of the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. This is part of an Iranian broader perspective that views the exit of the United States from the region as an essential condition to change the balance of power in the Middle East and impose Iranian hegemony.
Under such circumstances, it is imperative that at the present place and time the Biden Administration dispel criticism, that is already being heard among Arab commentators, about the weakness of the American backing; and prevent further inclination of the Arab states to appease Iran, in an attempt to hedge their bets in the face of what is perceived as an exit in process of the United States from the region. The Administration must revalidate American guarantees for the security of the Gulf States, and the maintenance of free navigation in the Straits and energy flow; adhere all the more firmly to a military presence in Iraq, in Syria and in the Gulf States; and take declarative and determined action on the ground to pre-empt Iran’s malign behavior throughout the region.

The struggle over Iranian Nuclearization

Images of the retreat from Kabul can be expected to bolster the perspective in Teheran that the United States is not prepared to invest military resources in order to stop Iran’s nuclear progress. On the basis of this perception, the regime in Teheran is liable to speed up expansion of its nuclear program and leverage its improved technological baseline to force the United States to make additional concessions in diplomatic negotiations.

Israel must clarify to the United States that agreement to conduct negotiations “under fire” will only draw out the talks and deepen the damage to America’s image and perceptions of its resolve. Under such conditions, the United States and the international community must condition the continuation of the talks in Vienna on stoppage of Iran’s technological nuclear advancement. In this regard, it is more crucial than ever before that the United States re-present a credible military threat towards Iran, and make it clear to Iran that “all options are on the table” (the last to employ this phrase was President Obama).


Relying on local security forces against Islamic forces

Events in Afghanistan demonstrate again that in the Middle East determined faith-driven religious forces defeat armies of failed states even when the latter are superior militarily (weapons systems, ORBAT). In the Afghanistan case facing Taliban forces, the army was defeated, oft without any real engagement in combat, although it was trained and armed by the United States with state of the art weapon systems and at tremendous cost.
A similar dynamic occurred in the case of Iraq, where ISIS forces have taken over a third of Iraqi territory; in Gaza after the Disengagement; in Southern Lebanon after the IDF withdrawal; and to a certain extent in Judea and Samaria after the IDF’s withdrawal from A areas (following the Interim Agreement) that led to the entrenchment of a terror infrastructure and to terrorist attacks against Israel’s home front. A wave of suicide bombings forced the IDF to re-enter Palestinian cities and operate within them for years to gradually crush the terrorist wave and bring terrorist incidents down to a tolerable level.
Against this backdrop, from a security standpoint, the critical importance of the IDF’s presence in Judea and Samaria and its control over the area has again become evident - in order to ensure, among other things, that Hamas will not take over the West Bank and will not threaten the survival of the Palestinian Authority

To conclude, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a formative event whose projection strategically will reverberate for many years to come. Israel must prepare immediately, together with the Biden Administration, for challenges that are around the corner - first and foremost, due to the ‘tail wind’ the Afghanistan withdrawal has created for extremist forces in the region; and parallel to this, leveraging opportunities to upgrade relations and cooperation with the Arab states.