Arab writers opine on the political landscape of the Middle East following the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the Iran’s unshakable bond with Syria.
America and Afghanistan: Two different options on the table
By Waheed Abd Al-Majeed
Al-Ittihad, UAE, September 9
The United States’ troubles in Afghanistan didn’t end with its withdrawal a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that the US military conducted an impressive evacuation operation (perhaps one of the largest ever conducted in such a short time frame), the strategic consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan haven’t changed. Simply put, the Americans left Afghanistan, but they cannot abandon their role in Central and East Asia.
That’s why US President Joe Biden’s main concern these days is determining the policy his administration will follow regarding the new situation in Kabul, and how to manage America’s relations with the new Taliban regime.
The direction in which this policy is headed is still unclear. The official US discourse revolves around waiting to see whether the Taliban keeps its word and adheres to its commitment to battle al-Qaeda. The US is also keeping tabs on the way in which the new Taliban government treats women and citizens wishing to leave Afghanistan, while avoiding retaliation against people who worked with the US and its allies in recent years.
However, the limited information available so far about the debate within Biden’s national security team suggests that there are two approaches, each taking a different path. The first approach revolves around containing the Taliban through a combination of sticks and carrots. The second and more hawkish approach states that the US must prepare for a full-fledged confrontation with the Taliban.
This discrepancy in approaches isn’t surprising, given the confusion that has been evident in Afghanistan since the beginning of the American withdrawal and the arrival of Taliban forces to Kabul faster than the Americans had expected.
Each of these options has clear advantages and drawbacks. The option of confrontation may force Washington to get involved in Afghanistan in another way, which is counterproductive to Biden’s goal of redirecting America’s focus to other theatres. As for the containment option, it requires Washington to be patient, and it also forces it to disregard some of the conditions it has set for establishing positive relations with the Taliban government, as previously mentioned, because the new government’s commitment to all of them is not certain.
Therefore, it seems difficult at this point to conclude which of the two options the Biden administration will pursue.
It also means that several tactical decisions have been postponed in order to keep all options on the table.
For example, the US still has the Taliban on the list of terrorist organizations, allowing it to freeze the assets of Taliban leaders held in foreign banks. Meanwhile, the Taliban government desperately needs these funds to ensure its survival.
Perhaps experimenting with temporary measures will provide an opportunity to formulate a more nuanced US policy that combines some aspects of each of the above two approaches, with the hope that both sides will find a middle ground that suits their long-term goals.
– Waheed Abd Al-Majeed
Taliban: from Caves into a full-fledged Emirate
By Suad Fahad Al-Mojil
Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, September 8
Since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban has made strides and taken over the capital city of Kabul.
At the same time, the movement has sought to rebrand itself as a moderate organization that differs from the terrifying images the world has come to associate it with over the past 20 years.
But let’s make no mistake:
The Taliban committed massacres against Afghan civilians, burned fertile croplands and destroyed thousands of homes; banned all forms of arts and culture in the country; harassed women and schoolgirls; destroyed historical and cultural artifacts (recall the bombing of the famous Buddha statue in Bamiyan, which dates back more than 1,500 years).
However, there are those who seek to reconstruct and rewrite history in order to protect the Taliban.
One political pundit recently described the Taliban as a “legitimate” movement that simply sought to expel the American occupier from its lands. Now, with the withdrawal of US troops, the movement completed its mission and pushed the Afghan people one step closer toward freedom. In this pundit’s view, the Taliban will now foster democracy, governance, development and human rights in Afghanistan.
Similar opinions are being voiced around the world in an attempt to distinguish between Islamic State and the Taliban.
But the fact remains that both entities, ISIS and the Taliban, have been promoting flagrant hostility to Western democratic concepts such as equality between men and women, respect for minorities, pluralism, human rights and freedom of expression. They grant themselves the absolute right to apply penalties to those who violate their approach and ideology, whether by public execution, amputation or stoning to death.
The problem is that the West understands this reality very well but refuses to act upon it.
Whether we like it or not, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will not turn the Taliban into a peace-seeking movement that believes in liberal democracy and respects human rights.
The only change we’ll see is that the movement’s leaders, who once hid in caves, will now sit in the presidential palace and government buildings of the emirate they de facto established in Afghanistan.
– Suad Fahad Al-Mojil
Separating Damascus from Teharan is Impossible
By Charles Jabbour
Al Joumhouria, Lebanon, September 9
Arab and international policy-makers placed their bets, on more than one occasion, on the hope that the Syrian regime could be separated from Iran. Immense efforts were exerted on the matter, but all attempts have failed, time and again.
In essence, the Syrian regime has two options to choose from: strengthening its ties with Iran or taking a step back from it. If it chooses the latter, it will collapse. Therefore, it has chosen the former.
The idea of decoupling Damascus from Tehran in order to weaken Iran stems from three key understandings. The first is that defeating Tehran in a knockout is unrealistic. The second is that hedging one’s bet on an internal revolution that would topple the mullah regime – despite the growing frustration within Iranian society – is dubious. The third is that the only way to entice Iran to change its behavior is to shift the regional balance of power, mainly by weakening Tehran’s grip on the Bashar Assad regime.
Despite attempts to pull Syria away from Iran, the reality is that what links the two regimes to each other is too big and deep to be easily dismantled, especially since their relationship dates back to the Iranian Revolution. In other words, the alliance between Syria and Iran is based on common convictions and worldviews, not just narrow political interests.
Furthermore, the balance of power between the two sides of this relationship – the Assad regime on one hand and the mullah regime on the other – is asymmetrical. If the alliance is to break, it would break because the Iranians decided to put an end to it.
And without extensive Iranian military backing and financial support, the Assad regime would have long collapsed. Assad is thus personally indebted to the mullahs.
Accordingly, it’s completely wrong to continue betting on the separation of the Syrian regime from Iran. All of those who fantasize about this scenario coming to fruition are simply deluding themselves.
– Charles Jabbour
*Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.
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