The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, although surprising in its speed, has been expected since former U.S. President Donald Trump signed an agreement that set the terms for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the scenes of thousands of stranded Afghans attempting to board the American evacuation flights leaving Kabul airport – some of whom have worked closely with U.S. forces during the two-decade American war in the country – have already led many to question the U.S.’ credibility as an ally. Armin Laschet, the head of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, described the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan as the “biggest debacle” that NATO has suffered since its founding, and Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman went so far as to claim that President Biden’s credibility “has been shredded in Afghanistan.”
The hasty manner of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may have ripple effects far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The manner of the withdrawal will very likely reinforce the need among regional actors in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, to form alliances not based on the United States.
This need has already emerged in the Gulf states following the Iranian attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019, after which then-U.S. President Donald Trump declared: “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.” The lack of a strong U.S. response to a direct attack on the kingdom has already led some policymakers in the Gulf to second guess the traditional reliance of Saudi Arabia on the United States for the kingdom’s security needs.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan today, which appears to leave behind many Afghan personnel who have worked with U.S. forces in the past two decades, may cause some to search for alternatives to American security guarantees. In Iraq, the other country in the region that hosts a large presence of U.S. military forces, some are already fearful that they could be next to be abandoned.
The need for alliances not based on the United States may lead Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to strengthen their security ties with Israel. Security relations between some of the Gulf states and Israel are of course nothing new: Riyadh and Jerusalem have cooperated covertly for years, mostly around security issues and intelligence-sharing. Cooperation between some Gulf States and Israel has only accelerated in the last year, since the signing of the Abraham Accords. The images of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul and the Taliban takeover of the capital that followed it are very likely to accelerate this trend as regional actors look for more stable and credible security partners.
However, the turn to Israel for closer security ties is not limited to Arab states. As experts in a recent Wikistrat simulation argued, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan poses multiple security risks for India as such a scenario is assessed to be a major gain for Pakistan. With a reduced U.S. footprint in South Asia, an emboldened Taliban, and greater Pakistani influence in the region, India may very likely wish to increase its already strong security ties with Israel. Here, again, Israel may prove to be a more reliable security partner than the United States.
Finally, NATO-Turkey relations may also contribute to this trend. Turkey’s relations with NATO have been rocky in the past few years; according to some observers, Ankara is regarded in Brussels and Washington as more of a problem than an ally these days. The West’s wish to “balance” Turkey with a more reliable and predictable partner may also work in Israel’s favor.
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Israel participated in NATO Operation Sea Guardian as recently as December 2020, and according to Vice Admiral Keith Blount, Commander of NATO Maritime Command, “Israel has been an important partner to NATO for more than 20 years, as well as an active member of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue.” As a recent Wikistrat special report on the U.S. withdrawal argues, a new refugee crisis offers the Erdogan government something to exploit in Turkey’s relations with the West, exacerbating existing internal tensions in NATO. A reduced U.S. commitment to the Middle East, embodied by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with deteriorating relations with Turkey, may push NATO to expand its security and political ties with Israel.
The dust has yet to settle on the geopolitical implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is still in progress as evacuation flights from Kabul airport continue. What is clear, however, is that Afghanistan has entered a new era. As the world watches the United States complete its messy withdrawal from the country, these days may also mark a new era for Israel’s regional standing: regional actors from the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia may look to Israel as a more reliable and committed ally in facing the various security challenges they are confronted with.
Adam Hoffman is the head of the Middle East Desk at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy. Twitter: @AdamHoffm