The return of the Taliban has plunged the Middle East into uncharted waters

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In 2001, the fall of the taliban was the first major milestone in America’s so-called “war on terror” that ultimately transformed both the country and the Middle East. Twenty years later, the group return to power in Kabul pushed the region, still limping from the untold damage of that war, into uncharted waters.

If the US invasion of Afghanistan prompted intensified US intervention in the Middle East, then its exit from the country also signals an accelerated withdrawal from a region that has long served as a gravitational center of political tension. The dramatic scenes in Afghanistan raised alarm bells across the Middle East, raising the specter of a hasty dismantling of an economic and political order that relied on, or sought to counter, a strong American presence in the region. .

A wave of diplomatic and military activity preceded the withdrawal from Afghanistan. One year ago, a wave of normalization The agreements between certain Arab countries and Israel prompted then-President Donald Trump to declare: “We don’t need to be there anymore… we don’t need to be in areas that have a given moment were vital.
President Joe Biden has continued on this path. Tuesday, the American president vigorously defended the withdrawal and the final chaotic scenes in Kabul, adding that the era of countries invading with the intention of installing American values ​​was no longer viable. He argued that the United States “no longer had a clear goal in an indeterminate mission in Afghanistan” and that the United States’ withdrawal marked “the end of an era of major military operations to remake other countries “.

By laser-focusing on China, the Biden administration has made it clear to regional allies of the United States that they should no longer depend on the United States for their security needs. States should fend for themselves. For the Middle East, that changes everything.

“The precipitous withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, the return in force of the Taliban in the Afghan capital and the escalation of the Iranian threat indicate that the security equation of the Gulf will be very different this century compared to the previous one,” he said. writes United Arab Emirates political commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in an opinion piece for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.

“The Gulf is on the brink of enormous security and military transformations, perhaps the most significant since 1971, when the United States took responsibility for its security and made it an ‘American Gulf’, in a strategic sense.” , wrote the Emirati professor, who is said to be close to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed. “It may not be the same over the next five decades.”

The modern Middle East – whose borders were carved out by Western colonial powers and where American interests in the oil-rich region have long served as the centerpiece of regional geopolitics – barely has a clue of what a minimal western presence.

There are two major schools of thought on a post-American Middle East. One says that the existing regional axes will become more fortified and brazen – thus the Arabs of the Gulf will continue to regroup around Israel to counter an Iranian axis emboldened by an American exit.
The other theory suggests that the absence of a reliable US military partner will accelerate diplomatic efforts between traditional enemies to ease tensions and reduce the need for a solid defensive strategy. Gone are the days when the United States put its military might to the aid of its regional allies, as during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The inaction of the American military after the attack on the oil refineries of ‘Saudi Arabia in a Drone strike 2019 blamed on Iran (Tehran denies the accusation) speaks volumes about the new regional calculation of the United States.
Both routes – military polarization and increased diplomacy – are already being tested. When Israel and the UAE formalized their secret relationship last year, they took the plunge on a swirling honeymoon which has blinded most observers. The deal saw them cooperate widely and apparently intensively on technology and, potentially, on Security. The UAE, along with other Gulf powers, makes extensive use of Israeli spyware. Despite an Arab outcry over the threat of forced displacement of Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah earlier this year, those relationships seemed to be going nowhere.
Reconciliations are also happening in other unexpected neighborhoods. The UAE has been keen not to aggravate Tehran with its forays into an apparent alliance with Israel. In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson last year, UAE Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash said the normalization deal should not be seen as escalating against Iran, but rather seen as making part of a growing trend to stabilize the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who once compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler, said earlier this year that he was seeking new relations with Iran.

At his first press conference after becoming Iran’s new president in June, the diehard Ebrahim Raisi returned the gesture, saying he wanted to reopen the embassies in the Saudi and Iranian capitals. The two countries have held several rounds of talks since early 2021 in an attempt to ease decades of tensions.

There are also signs of abating other regional rivalries. The UAE has had high-level talks with Turkey and Qatar, which they have long accused of supporting terrorism. Saudi Arabia has made similar overtures.

Last weekend in Baghdad, a regional summit also seemed to send complicated signals about the future of the region. A meeting between Tehran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid on the sidelines of the event has been the highest-level meeting between the two countries for years.

But Amir-Abdollahian apparently did not meet his Saudi counterpart, also present at the summit. Instead, he seemed to be doing everything he could to avoid it. Violating diplomatic protocol, the senior Iranian diplomat sided with the country’s leaders in a group photo. His post was next to Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat, alongside other foreign ministers.

Violating diplomatic protocol, the senior Iranian diplomat sided with the country's leaders in a group photo.  His post was next to Saudi Arabia's top diplomat, alongside other foreign ministers.

“When was the last time there was a regional conference organized? [The Baghdad conference] really shows what’s going on in the area. There was no American there, ”Mohammad Ali Shabani, Iranian expert and editor-in-chief of Amwaj.Media, told CNN. “The empire is gone. Let’s go.”

At breakneck speed, the region has seen local players attempt to fill America’s shoes. Sometimes it’s literal. Images of Taliban fighters in US military uniform inspecting aircraft hangars shocked people around the world. What an extremist group will do with access to some of the best weapons in the world is not yet clear. And the wider region is at the edge of its seat as these surreal scenes flash across its screens.

As uncertainty reigns and the Middle East becomes paralyzed by dwindling resources, Shabani predicts that the region’s many autocrats will double and the unrest will escalate.

This has already manifested itself in parts of the Arab world, such as Tunisia where a sweeping takeover by President Kais Saied last month, ostensibly to stamp out corruption and mismanagement, has met with virtually no popular protest. In Lebanon in crisis, which is quickly sinking into anarchy, many in the streets of the country are openly calling for a military dictatorship.

“We will turn more to less ideology and more to good governance,” Shabani added. “What this means is more tolerance for an authoritarian regime if it comes with prosperity. But if it doesn’t come with prosperity, we’re going to see even worse in the future. to come up.”


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