Australia/Israel Review, Featured


Editorial: Picking up the pieces

Aug 23, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein

A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 17 August 2021. (Credit: EPA/Stringer/AAP)
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 17 August 2021. (Credit: EPA/Stringer/AAP)

The collapse of the Afghan security forces like a house of cards, and the chaotic, humanitarian disaster that was left in the wake of the withdrawal of US and allied military forces from Afghanistan, will have effects far beyond the borders of that country. A powerful image has been created of victory for the Islamist fundamentalist Taliban over Western power, culture and values – which inevitably encourages and is likely to lead to explosive growth in Islamist violence, terrorism and extremism over coming years. 

After 20 years of military engagement at great human cost and two trillion dollars of investment, Washington’s desire to disengage completely from Afghanistan may have been understandable, but the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban was deeply problematic. Moreover, the haphazard, unduly hasty and perhaps even thoughtless way the US went about the withdrawal is difficult to comprehend or defend. US President Joe Biden’s failure to admit his Administration’s obvious failings in this regard is also troubling.

The heart-wrenching scenes at Kabul’s airport of refugees packing US transport planes and sometimes literally tying themselves to the aircraft, while the US, figuratively hat-in-hand, is asking the Taliban to give it time to leave – these are more than just signs of catastrophic operational failures. 

They are powerful recruitment tools for anti-Western jihadists that can and will be used to create a narrative of an America on the run, in decline and lacking resolve. With America’s reputation damaged, current US strategic partners will be pushed toward considering realignment with unscrupulous and dangerous actors like Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, with potentially disastrous consequences.

While some pundits unconvincingly argue there may be major differences in behaviour between today’s Taliban and the one that was ousted in 2001, there seems little doubt the country’s hard-fought advances in human rights ushered in by the US-supported government – including, especially, freedom and education for women and religious freedom – are now history.

The 2021 Taliban is unquestionably more media-savvy than its pre-war predecessor, but no amount of spin can obscure the fact that Islamist terror groups everywhere view the Taliban’s success as their own, and are looking for ways to both exploit and imitate it. And tellingly, the Taliban are unashamedly pandering to them.

For example, Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh warmly congratulated the Taliban’s leader Abdul-Ghani Baradar by phone, saying the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan “is a prelude to the demise of all occupation forces, foremost of which is the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” Baradar, in turn, wished Hamas its own “victory” in its efforts to do away with Israel.

That’s not to say that, for all the bombast, the Taliban’s success has any chance of rubbing off onto Hamas. On the contrary, in realpolitik terms, the ease with which the Taliban pushed aside the US-trained and equipped Afghan army should only increase Israel’s worth in the eyes of Americans and their Western allies – a capable and dependable ally that shares Western values, does its own fighting, and country for country, yields by far the best return on every dollar of military aid US taxpayers provide it.

Moreover, this heightened appreciation for Israel is likely to be widely shared across the region. With American credibility damaged, Sunni Islamism empowered by the Taliban victory, and Iran also becoming more aggressive, moderate Sunni Arab states will also potentially be looking to Israel as an ally and source of support in an increasingly precarious region.

While the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is a fait accompli, the US Administration must immediately look for ways to reverse the narrative of defeat and decline and rehabilitate both its standing with its allies and its reputation and credibility as a superpower that will not capitulate to either terror or the states that sponsor it.

The top priority now for the Biden Administration must be a toughening of its handling of Iran, addressing both its nuclear threat and its destabilising behaviour in the region through its proxies and clients such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Yemen’s Houthis.

A crisis point has been reached on the Iran nuclear file, and time is running out for meaningful action. On Aug. 6, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz informed a gathering of ambassadors that Iran had amassed enough nuclear material to build a nuclear weapon within ten weeks. Negotiations towards ending Iran’s violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), look all but dead, with many experts believing the Iranian regime, fronted by new ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, has already decided it does not want or need a new nuclear deal.

The fall of Kabul gives the US an opportunity it should seize to rethink its approach, and review and renew its relationships and alliances dedicated to preventing a resurgence of Islamist terror, while also putting the brakes on Iran’s conventional and nuclear military ambitions.

Israel too must play its part – making policy decisions that encourage regional states to agree that the Israel/moderate Arab alliance, made concrete by last year’s historic Abraham Accords, is now a solid, attractive model to provide security in an increasingly dangerous environment, and much safer than turning to China or Russia. 

Over the coming weeks, there will be much soul-searching regarding the 20-year failed nation-building project in Afghanistan and the decision to pull out the last US troops. Yet what shouldn’t be in dispute is the justice behind the initial decision to remove the brutal Taliban regime that sheltered al-Qaeda and its infamous leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. 

Despite everything, there is still reason to believe the sacrifices of the thousands of Australian soldiers who contributed to this noble effort, who gave their lives or suffered severe injuries, have not been in vain. But this requires the free world’s leadership to soberly reflect on the Afghanistan disaster in a clear-eyed way and act accordingly to restore moral authority, credibility and deterrence.

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