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The Afghan debacle: the view from Israel

Aug 21, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Image: sameer madhukar chogale, Shutterstock
Image: sameer madhukar chogale, Shutterstock

Update from AIJAC

08/21 #03

This Update deals with the aftermath of the sudden reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban last weekend, in the wake of a withdrawal from the country by the US and its allies and the collapse of the Afghan army. A very great deal is being written on this dramatic development, so this Update attempts to offer something a little different by focussing on Israeli strategic analysis.

However, for those looking for a more general perspective, we strongly recommend AIJAC’s recent webinar titled “Implications of the Afghanistan Disaster” featuring American expert and former official Michael Rubin, who gave a superbly forthright and knowledgeable presentation.

Our first article comes from Times of Israel editor David Horovitz – a top-flight general Israeli commentator with centrist views. He reviews how Israel has also staged unilateral pullouts – from Gaza and Lebanon – and also suffered serious consequences, just as the US is likely to in the aftermath of Afghanistan. He then makes the case that the humiliation of the US in Afghanistan will harm not only US allies like Israel and moderate Arab states – but seriously damage US national security. For his analysis, which is similar to what many in Israel are saying, CLICK HERE.

Next up is former senior IDF General and Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror – who looks at what is likely to happen now in the wake of the Afghanistan collapse. He says the change in US global standing will be less than some expect, but the real impact will be at the regional level, as the US withdrawal from there leaves a void waiting to be filled, potentially by dangerous actors. He suggests, however, that there is an opportunity for moderate Middle East countries to develop a relationship with Israel that can help provide them with security against these dangerous actors – Iran, Turkey, Islamist groups, China and Russia. For Amidror’s detailed discussion of the new strategic realities, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Yossi Melman, a strategic affairs correspondent for Haaretz, explores two elements of this new strategic reality in more detail – namely Iran’s situation after the Taliban victory, and the opportunities for a defensive alliance between Israel and moderate Sunni Arab states. He suggests that, despite the Iranian regime’s celebration of the Taliban victory as a defeat for the US, Iran feels vulnerable in a number of ways with the Taliban on its western border, and looks at the history of Iran-Afghanistan relations to explain why.  He also discusses the opportunities for enhanced Israeli cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE etc, in an alliance with US diplomatic, economic and intelligence support. For his argument in full,  CLICK HERE.

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Catastrophe in Afghanistan — for Afghans, Israel, the region… and for America

 

As the Taliban retake power, the imminent 20th anniversary of 9/11 underlines the horrific consequences of the US failing to reckon with this region’s darkest forces

By DAVID HOROVITZ 

Times of Israel, 19 August 2021


The US “has handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban…  who, when they last controlled the country, oppressed women with a methodical viciousness” (Photo: Jan Chipchase, License details).

Like every national leader, the president of the United States has a prime obligation to safeguard the security and well-being of his citizens. And like his predecessor Donald Trump, President Joe Biden concluded that the presence of US troops and contractors in Afghanistan was having the opposite effect — that the American military deployment, as Biden put it on Monday, was “not in our national security interest.”

Thousands of Americans had lost their lives in the course of the 20-year war since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the Bush administration began targeting Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda terrorists. And Biden, inheriting an agreement to withdraw the last few thousand US troops, decided to go ahead with it and, he said this week, avoid a “third decade” of war.

Before we get into the profound and dismal wrongheadedness of this decision — which in a matter of a few days has seen the United States humiliated and weakened in the eyes, most especially, of its Islamist enemies — we should note that Israel has twice in recent decades carried out its own hasty military withdrawals on our very own doorstep, under circumstances and with consequences it has to some extent lived to regret.

We left southern Lebanon unilaterally in 2000, under public pressure amid the relentless loss of soldiers’ lives in the Security Zone, and were plunged into the Second Lebanon War six years later. Now we face a full-fledged Hezbollah army on that front. We left Gaza unilaterally in 2005, choosing neither to negotiate the pullout with the Palestinian Authority nor to heed the warnings that emboldened terror groups, claiming vindication, would fill the vacuum. Now we face endless friction and intermittent bloody conflict with Hamas.

Israel, in other words, is not immune to the urge to cut and run.

And that is what the United States has now done in Afghanistan, to devastating effect. It has handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban — brutal and benighted Islamic fundamentalists who, when they last controlled the country, oppressed women with a methodical viciousness unparalleled by any other regime worldwide; indiscriminately massacred civilians; restricted education; destroyed agriculture; banned culture and recreation…

In consigning Afghanistan to its grisly fate, moreover, the US has shown itself to have been incapable of forging the Afghan military into a competent fighting force, despite all the training, the tens of billions in equipment, the lives lost.

And while Biden now blames Afghanistan’s political leaders for fleeing, and the Afghan army for laying down its arms, the US also reveals itself to have been unable to recognize the unreliability of its Afghan allies. As recently as July 8, Biden asserted with outrageously misguided complacency that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

For Israel, the debacle is a reinforcement of our insistence that we, and we alone, put our lives on the line in the defense of this country — even as we forge and nurture our alliances with our vital allies, and none more so than the United States. We do not and must not ask US or any other forces to risk their lives for us, and we dare not rely on any other country or alliance to protect us from our enemies.


US troops in Afghanistan: The US mishandling and loss has hurt Israel and other US allies in the region – but damages American security most of all (Photo Credit: CPL Sam Shepherd: License details)

For Israel and its allies and semi-allies in the region, the US mishandling of Afghanistan also shocks and horrifies because it gives succor to terrorist groups and extremist regimes. First and foremost of these is Iran, closing in on the bomb, toying with the US in negotiations over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, determined to destroy “Little Satan” Israel, and now even more contemptuous of the “Great Satan.”

For the United States, however, what’s ultimately worst about the abandonment of Afghanistan to some of the darkest forces on the planet is that it negates, rather than serves, that core presidential obligation to ensure the security and well-being of the American people. The US deployment had been greatly scaled back, and the losses, still of course terrible, reduced to a fraction of those in earlier years. The hapless departure and its consequences, bitter experience indicates all too well, will exact a far greater cost than maintaining that deployment would have.

Biden’s two immediate predecessors complained that, notwithstanding the US commitment to championing freedom and democracy, it was not America’s job to solve all the problems of this part of the world (Barack Obama) and fight our region’s stupid wars (Donald Trump). But that the debacle is playing out around the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when 3,000 people lost their lives in al-Qaeda’s horrific terrorist assault on America, serves to grimly underline the direct consequences for the United States itself of failing to reckon with the ruthless, amoral and sophisticated forces plotting to harm it.

Those regressive forces, most of them strategizing in our part of the world, are murderously hostile to everything that is best about America — its defense of freedoms, its commitment to democracy, its striving for opportunity and equality, its fundamental humanity. Today, they are more confident and stronger than they were just a few days ago. And the bastion of the free world’s defense against them, the United States of America, looks tired and irresolute.

This, at the risk of catastrophic understatement, is not in the US national security interest.


What’s Next, After the Withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror

The Middle East is doomed to remain difficult, brutal, violent, repressive, and culturally Islamist. Regional powers, including Israel, must come together, to guarantee stability.

Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy Policy Papers, 18.08.2021


The 20 year US war in Afghanistan is now over – with a Taliban victory and badly dented US international standing (Image: Wikimedia Commons | License details)

Earlier this week, I spoke with a respected American journalist who asked about the impact on Israel of the US withdrawal and fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. He is not the first person to ask about this, even though Afghanistan is very far from Israel and never was an enemy of Israel on the battlefield. Some expand the question and tie the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan with the decision to stop fighting in Iraq and leave behind only US troops that will train the Iraqi army.

The first to define the expected process was President Obama who talked about a pivot to the East, in other words shifting US efforts from the Middle East eastward, alluding to China. President Trump followed suit and decided to withdraw all American forces from Syria and Iraq (although this was not fully acted upon). President Biden continued this process and brought it to a difficult end in Afghanistan, taking another step towards a complete withdrawal from Iraq. In other words, this move is not a personal idiosyncrasy but rather an inevitable historical process reflecting deep-rooted American sentiment. The enormous American investment in wars in the Middle East, the trillions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of dead and wounded, did not yield the desired result for the US

The question is not limited to Israel. The question is how the US decision to reduce US military involvement in the Middle East, and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, will impact the international and regional order within which Israel operates. Thus, three spheres need to be addressed: the global, Middle Eastern, and Israeli spheres.

From a global perspective, US nation-building failure in a country that America took responsibility for in 2000 is a resounding failure, especially considering the lightning speed of collapse of the military and political system in Afghanistan which the US attempted to build.

Will this failure impact America’s international standing, primarily the race between the US and China? Most likely, it will impact US standing very little. US competition with China is not related to any one event. China is driven by its belief and wide-ranging assessment over time of America’s decline; that the democratic system has run its course and China has emerged on the world stage to change the world, not to integrate into it, certainly not according to the rules set by the West.

It is not at all certain that China is interested in Afghanistan becoming a terror state – but the situation in Afghanistan is not a major event that will dictate China’s actions.

Europe will also not change its cautious position regarding the struggle between China and the US because of America’s success or failure in Afghanistan or Iraq. Europe will continue to speak grandiosely about protecting human rights in China and simultaneously expand its trade with China. The Europeans certainly would be happy if the US succeeds in isolating the Taliban, and they even were willing to provide some help during the various stages of the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda – but most Europeans believe that trade is preferable to war, and when the largest trade partner is China, you cannot really fight against it, even if there are obvious moral reasons to do so.

Former Israeli national security advisor Major Gen. (ret) Yaakov Amidror: “Countries in the region must recognize that the political and security conditions around them are changing, and that the US umbrella is growing weaker” (Photo: JISS)

The real lesson the world learns from the US failure has to do with the entire Middle East. The failure shows the world that history cannot be replicated, and that what succeeded after World War II in Germany and Japan does not work necessarily in the Middle East. The US failed in changing the local culture in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Middle East, and the different Muslim countries that make up this region, are not ripe for change.

It should therefore be quite clear that the Middle East, between the Atlantic Ocean and India’s borders, will not change dramatically soon, just as it did not following the Oslo agreements nor following the mislabeled “Arab Spring.” This region is doomed to remain difficult, brutal, violent, repressive, and culturally Islamist. The dual failure of the US demonstrates this once again. Healthy suspicion must accompany every announcement or assessment about a change for the better, because it is difficult to impossible to realize such a change in the area. The world must recognize this and view regional processes accordingly.

At the same time, we must take into consideration that after the US partially or completely leaves, there will not be a void. There is no vacuum in the real world, and the obstacle to the involvement of other powers which the US posed by its very presence – will have been removed. This will enable China and Russia to expand their influence in the area. There will be economic indications of this. They will take part in rebuilding Syria as well as in the rebuilding of Iraq and Lebanon, and probably Afghanistan too (mainly by China), and they will expand their influence by building military bases in the region and selling arms. The Chinese interest, besides competition with the US, stems from China’s energy needs. The Russian interest is geo-strategic. It sees the Middle East as “the neighboring area” from which problems can spill into former Soviet countries and even into Russia itself.

China and Russia will be glad to stake their presence and expand their influence, even symbolically, any place from which the US withdraws – if for no other reason than to signal a change in their favor. Their more prominent presence in the region likely will bring about a change in behavior of Mideast countries, since it will not be possible to ignore Russian and Chinese interests. The world looks different when there is a Chinese or Russian military base, instead of an American base, nearby.

As for the Middle East itself: Countries in the region must recognize that the political and security conditions around them are changing, and that the US umbrella is growing weaker (because America decided to fold the umbrella, for better or worse). For Iran and Turkey, two countries with imperial pasts that dream of restoring their former glory and expanding their influence, this is an opportunity that they will not miss, and therefore they likely will become more aggressive.

For the countries seeking to maintain the status quo and which are concerned about the Shiite axis of evil, as well as a reemergence of the Ottoman Empire driven by a Muslim Brotherhood-like ideology – now is the time to act collectively to protect themselves.

These countries are Arab countries, some rich, some heavily populated, and some with serious economic and social problems. They are dictatorships at some level or another, exerting harsh control over their population and suppressing the opposition. At the same time, they are threatened by extreme Islamic organizations, both internally and externally. Each of them separately will find it very difficult to contend with Turkish or Iranian pressure as well as with the lurking danger of internal enemies from within, in different forms.

However, if they act together, in mutual assistance regarding economic, intelligence and military matters, they will be able to contend with the two non-Arab countries that seek to control the Arab world. Each of these countries will be left with difficult internal challenges, but they will also be able to deal with this more easily if the external threat is mitigated and they receive “Arab sister” support from the outside.

It is entirely unclear whether the Arab world is ready for such a change. Perhaps the old rivalries between and within these countries will not enable them to cooperate, which seems to be so crucial to anyone who examines their external problems. If this proves to be the case, Iran and Turkey will have an easier time in threatening countries across the Middle East. At the same time, radical Islamist movements will be encouraged by the Taliban’s success and will increase their efforts in these Arab states. Whether Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or a new organization with similar ideology emerges remains to be seen.

From the Israeli perspective, the weakening of US commitment to, and involvement in, the Mideast poses a problem mainly because Israel will be left bearing the burden of contending with the countries threatening Israel and the entire region.

At the same time, this also presents Israel with a genuine opportunity. After all, Israel is less impacted by US withdrawals than Arab countries. Israel never built its defense capability on active American partnership, certainly not on the battlefield. Israel has expected the US to provide only the means for Israel’s victory – through assistance to purchase US arms, through diplomatic support that enables Israel to use force until achieving victory on the battlefield, and through deterrence of forces that harm or threaten Israel. In these areas, the US has not backed away from its commitment to Israel, and therefore the conditions for conducting future warfare have not fundamentally changed from Israel’s perspective.

Nevertheless, it is true that Israel is now more alone in bearing the day-to-day burden of dealing with aggressive forces in the region, both to prevent and win wars. Israel will have to address this additional burden in its military force build-up. Israel should try to convince the US to assist in this additional effort. But under no circumstances should Israel call on the US to return its soldiers to the region.

It is not Israel’s business how the US sets its priorities and where it is willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice the lives of its men and women. Again, Israel must enhance its military power, and to this end receive as much assistance as possible from the US so that it will not need American assistance on the battlefield. Israel repeatedly must emphasize that it will defend itself by itself. Israel is willing to pay for this capability and will be happy to receive US assistance in easing the burden of realizing this capability.

Israel’s regional standing may in fact grow stronger in two areas. Perhaps Mideast countries will come to understand that an open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves. In contrast to Iran and Turkey, Israel does not have any pretensions or aspirations to control or influence Arab countries, besides its desire to prevent them from threatening it. Thus, Arab countries can gain significantly from open relations with Israel because Israel can provide knowledge and technology in areas that are important to these countries such as water, agriculture, education, and health. Israel can help them defend themselves by way of intelligence cooperation as well as overt and covert security assistance.


The Abraham Accords signed last year between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain could become the basis of a regional scheme for the moderate nations to jointly defend themselves against the growing threats in the wake of US withdrawal. (Photo: Flickr | License details

Israel is not a substitute for the US, but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats. If it responds correctly to the US decision, the Arab world can mature and learn to deal with its problems on its own – together with Israel.

From the US perspective, the importance of Israel for securing American interests in the region (and necessarily also of Israel’s standing as a component of US national security) will increase. If the US assesses the situation correctly and does not let clamor from the anti-Israeli ideological flank on the far-left margins of the Democratic Party impair its rational and professional thinking, it will understand that Israel is the only country in the region on which the US can count.

Israel is the only country where the US has a serious partner and a safe forward deployment area; the only country about which the US can be confident of regime resilience and friendship. It is the only democracy in the entire region, on which the US can rely in the deepest sense of the word. “Shared values” is not an empty slogan, but rather the basis for cooperation in the face of difficult predicaments.

The decision of recent American presidents to cut back on investments in the Middle East (mainly to direct energy and budgets to the Far East) is undoubtedly of historical significance for the entire Middle East. The US shift does not ensure US success in the race against China, but it certainly undercuts the feeling of countries in the Mideast region that there is someone to rely on in case of a crisis, particularly with respect to Iran and Turkey and with regard to the fight against global terror.

Nevertheless, if they act together, Arab countries should be able to defend themselves against Iranian and Turkish aggression. Adding Israel to this undertaking will make it much easier to contend with the regional powers that are not Arab but that aspire to rule the Arab world. Israel must continue to strengthen its ability to defend itself by itself with the assistance of the US. Israel will remain the US ally that most can be relied upon in the face of threats and changes washing over the region.

Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror is the  Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). Previously,  he  was National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and chairman of the National Security Council (April 2011-November 2013) and  served for 36 years in senior IDF posts (1966-2002). 


Taliban’s Thrust: No Surprise, but Maybe an Opportunity

The emerging situation in Afghanistan, while dangerous to the standing of the U.S., could spur Israel to pursue greater cooperation with Sunni states

Yossi Melman
Haaretz. Aug. 16, 2021

The chaotic scenes at Kabul airport cannot help recalling the US evacuation of Saigon in 1975 (Photo: twitter). 

There’s no disputing the fact that the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan – which is provoking a sense of déjà vu from 30 years ago and also, rightly, recalls scenes from Vietnam in 1975 – is seriously harming the United States’ standing in the world and is casting a shadow over the Middle East too. As one of America’s strategic allies, Israel is certainly hurt by the image of the superpower in decline. But in terms of international relations and interests, what is happening in Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game.

China and Russia, America’s rivals for world hegemony, also need to be concerned. The Taliban could try to export terror to Central Asia in order to destabilize the “stans” – primarily Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. China, which is oppressing its Muslim Uyghur minority, shares this fear.

The same goes for IranThe establishment of a Taliban government in Kabul by a Sunni movement with a religious-fundamentalist ideology does not bode well for the Shiite regime in Tehran. And from that point of view, Israel could benefit in an indirect way.

Iran has a lengthy 950-kilometer (590-mile) border with Afghanistan, in the vicinity of Balochistan, a province that straddles the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. On the Afghan side, the border has been controlled by means of three properly managed crossings that have now been seized by the Taliban, whose personnel are now rubbing shoulders with the Iranian border guards. But most of the area is wide open to smugglers, thieves and Balochi Sunni militias that are opposed to the Iranian regime and sometimes launch hit-and-run terror attacks on it.

According to foreign reports, the Mossad exploited the situation to smuggle across these borders Iranian Jews whose lives were in danger or who were barred from leaving their country in the 1980s and 1990s (and ended up in Israel)

Until about a decade ago, the most prominent of Sunni militant organizations in the area was Jundallah (“God’s Soldiers”), also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran. Jundallah was founded in 2002 with the aim of protecting the Balochi minority from discrimination in Iran, primarily in Sistan and Balochistan Province. The regime in Tehran maintains that the movement was behind numerous terror attacks in recent years and has accused it of conspiring with Al-Qaida, and of receiving support from the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, the British MI6, the American CIA and the Mossad in order to undermine Iran’s central government. During his tenure as Mossad chief in the first decade of this millennium, Meir Dagan often spoke about Iran’s complex ethno-religious mosaic, including the Balochi Sunnis, as one of Iran’s vulnerabilities.

In February 2010, in a bold operation that was probably facilitated by the Islamic State, Iranian intelligence abducted Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan. He was flown to Tehran, where he was tried and convicted of acts of terrorism and murder, and executed by hanging. Since then, the organization has weakened, but the regime change in Kabul could give it new life.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest exporter of hard drugs, especially heroin and opium. According to United Nations reports, 84 percent of the world’s opium production in the past five years came from Afghanistan. Much of it is smuggled into Iran. Some remains in the country for local consumption – Iran has one of the world’s highest percentages of addicts (and prostitutes) per capita – and the rest is transported across Iran into Turkey or Iraq, and then on to Europe. Taliban leaders have traditionally been involved in the drug trade and have profited from it.

A majority of the air strikes conducted by Iran’s outdated air force (comprising U.S. Phantom jets and F-14s, as well as Russian MiGs and Sukhois) have targeted smugglers and militias in the border areas with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The hard-to-defend and poorly supervised borders have enabled millions of Afghans to sneak into Iran in search of work and a better future during the past three decades. The stream of refugees has swelled in recent weeks as the Afghan army and security forces have collapsed like a house of cards. Tehran has thus tried to beef up border security and various reports say that Iranian army units have replaced the regular border guards. The aim is to prevent refugees from entering and to send them back to Afghanistan – but that hasn’t really happened.

Now Tehran is expected to pay the socioeconomic price of the refugees flooding into its territory in search of a livelihood. And this is all happening when Iran’s economic situation is already in dire straits due to the pandemic and the sanctions regime, which the United States will not lift as long as Tehran persists in its refusal to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is trying to keep the Afghan refugees moving toward Iraq and Turkey, and boosting their hopes of continuing from there to Europe, but neither of those two countries, crumbling under the weight of millions of Syrian and other refugees, is about to welcome the Afghans with open arms.

It’s true that the influx of refugees to Iran enabled it in recent years to recruit mercenaries from among their ranks, and to assemble the Shiite militias now operating in Yemen and Syria. Iran paid the recruits a monthly salary of several hundred dollars, trained them and sent them off to the killing fields with the promise that, when they completed their service, they and their families would be granted official residency in the country.

These militias, especially in Syria, played an important role in the Iranian effort (in collaboration with Hezbollah, in Lebanon) to establish a new front opposite Israel in the Golan Heights. The vision of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in an American operation with Israeli intelligence assistance, was to settle 100,000 Shiites along the border with Israel so they would serve as a frontline corps in the event of war. Israeli air force strikes against Iran and the Shiite militias seeking a foothold in Syria kept this vision from coming to fruition. Currently, there are several hundred Iranian and Hezbollah advisers in Syria, and several thousand imported Shiites.

But this presence has thinned, too, in recent months. Some weeks ago, in anticipation of the events about to unfold in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Guards began evacuating some of the Shiite militias in Syria to use as reinforcements in the event of the Taliban’s takeover.

As noted, Iran’s hostility toward and apprehension about Taliban rule has numerous roots – a shared border, the drug trade, economic interests, the refugee problem and contrasting political interests – but above all is the unbridgeable conflict between their religious ideologies and outlooks.

In the early 1990s, the Taliban, who have Pashtun tribal origins like the majority of Pakistan’s population, seized control of Afghanistan. This happened in the wake of Soviet military personnel being swept out of that country in 1989. The Afghans were aided in this effort by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

The long and porous Iran-Afghanistan border could be a headache for Teheran with Afghanistan under Taliban control, in terms of ethnic Baluch guerillas, refugees, and drug smuggling (Image: US Library of Congrees). 

The Taliban’s reign of terror, motivated largely by the goal of achieving “fundamentalist Sunni purity,” a thirst for power and the ethnic and religious oppression of minorities, has also hurt the Hazara, a persecuted Shiite minority. The Islamic Republic of Iran sees itself as the representative and defender of Shiite communities around the world, a perception that’s somewhat similar to Israel’s view of its relations to the Jewish people. Because of this, and after Taliban forces slaughtered eight Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist at the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Tehran considered invading Afghanistan, but refrained at the last moment.

During the 20 years of U.S. dominance and influence, Iran had an ambivalent attitude toward Afghanistan. It maintained good relations with the pro-Western central government in Kabul, which was propped up by the American military, but at the same time, Iranian intelligence secretly cultivated channels of dialogue with the Taliban. On several occasions, President Donald Trump accused the regime in Tehran of aiding the Taliban in operations against U.S. and NATO forces.

From time to time, American military and intelligence officials have accused Tehran of providing a haven for senior commanders of Al-Qaida, the Taliban’s ally. In August 2020, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Al-Qaida commander who was involved in planning the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, was assassinated in Tehran. Foreign press reports said the hit on Abdullah was carried out by a Mossad unit, at the CIA’s request.

“In many areas, the Islamic Republic balances extremism with pragmatism,” says Prof. David Menashri, a veteran Israeli historian who specializes in Iran. “What’s happening now in Afghanistan is definitely a headache for the regime in Tehran.” In other words, Iranian “wins” from the perceived American weakness balance out Iranian “losses” from the Taliban victory.

But the more important lesson that Israel must draw from this situation is that the age of American involvement in the Middle East is ending. So the collapse of the regime in Kabul, which cost the American taxpayer many trillions, should not come as a shock. Just the cost of the military equipment supplied by the United States to Afghanistan’s army and security forces over the years is estimated at $83 billion. Most of it – unmanned aircraft, brand new armored vehicles, helicopters and ammunition – has now fallen into the Taliban’s hands, and some has already found its way to Iran, to which entire Afghan army units have deserted.

“The American strategy that has characterized the last three administrations – of Obama, Trump and now Biden,” says a former senior Israeli intelligence official, “is that all the Middle East has produced for America are huge expenses and coffins, and that nothing good has come from it, so the time has come to end America’s military involvement in the region.”

As with any crisis, the emerging situation within and outside of Afghanistan also presents an opportunity. The Sunni states, as well as Iran, worry that the Taliban will renew its alliance with Al-Qaida, and that together they will return to spreading the idea of global jihad in the form of pre- and post-9/11 terror attacks. This concern and the profound shift in American policy could spur Israel strategically to pursue greater cooperation with Sunni states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Washington will continue to offer these countries diplomatic, economic and intelligence support, but not outright military backing. As the strongest power between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, Israel could leverage this nascent reality and make itself the backbone of military and strategic support for the Sunni world, which is fearful of Iran and of fundamentalist terror that may well rear its head again.

Yossi Melman is an intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for Haaretz

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