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Hindsight Up Front: Implications of Afghanistan Withdrawal for the Middle East

Date & Time

Nov. 2, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am ET


The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power have major implications for the Middle East. What do developments in Afghanistan mean for the interests of countries in the Middle East and their relations with the United States and Afghanistan? What do these developments mean for Islamist political parties, extremist groups, and civil society (including women’s rights groups) in the Middle East? And what do they mean for U.S. human rights and democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East? 

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan has initially signaled that the United States might not be a reliable, long-term ally, and therefore may encourage countries to pursue relationships that are more beneficial to them. While the initial assessment is that extremist groups feel empowered by the Taliban takeover, how they govern and respond to the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan will determine how the Taliban will be perceived, and with them other Islamist groups across MENA.
  • One lesson learned from Afghanistan is the importance of supporting civil society as a critical counterforce to authoritarianism and extremism. The international community is better served if it equips MENA’s civil society with the skills and resources to uphold human rights and rule of law norms on the ground, or risk further backsliding into political instability.
  • Countries in the MENA region will respond differently to the new reality in Afghanistan with the Taliban at the helm. How they respond and whether there will be competition amongst them for influence there depends largely on how they see their national interests best served. 

Selected Quotes

Ambassador Mark Green

“We're far from finished, though, which brings us to today and this discussion on the implications of the withdrawal in the Taliban takeover for the Middle East. Why the Middle East? Because at least for now, the Biden Administration sees the region as a launching pad for what it calls ‘over the horizon counterterrorism’ activities. Because two of the three countries that recognize the Taliban government during the 1990s are in the region. Because the Middle East is home to a variety of Islamic terrorist groups that are likely to have been emboldened and energized by the Taliban takeover. Many fears of withdrawal may have created questions in the minds of some about U.S. military and diplomatic staying power of the region. Others are worried about its implications for human rights and democracy promotion, not just in Afghanistan, but elsewhere. That's a lot to discuss and unpack.”


Rami Khouri

"My analysis over the recent years, has been that the Middle East has lost its strategic importance to the U.S. Other than terrorism and mass migration to Europe, which are the big cutting issues for Western powers, oil is not an issue, Israel safety is not an issue, and therefore the Middle East is not strategically important. It is the first disposable region in the annals of Western diplomacy. As Somalia was the first disposable country when it started to fall apart in the 1980s and today we've had Iraq, we've had Libya, we've had Yemen, we've had Lebanon now, many countries falling apart and people don't particularly care. Even if there are countries like Libya, the world can live with these things. So our strategic importance as a region was not serious for the world anymore. Though it could become a problematic region where things get much worse. And you get more terrorism or cutting trade routes or whatever. I mentioned that because people are going to look at Afghanistan more realistically now. They've learned from the last 20 years, they learned from Vietnam, they learned from Iraq, and maybe they haven't learned everything but I think there's a more rational attitude among Western officials, among Western publics. These are, you know, number 10 on the list of what people care about, so there's not going to be any public pressure for these issues, and therefore, people are going to wait and see what the Taliban are doing try to have good relations mutually, without being seen to be supporting terrorists or repressing one and that's how that's how countries do foreign relations."


“The Afghanistan situation, both the war and the American withdrawal have been highly exaggerated in the Western World, especially in the United States, for understandable reasons. This was a traumatic experience at some level for the United States, it was a strategic mishap, but at some level American senior military and political people have mentioned this: if you look at this from the region, which is what I advocate, you see that the Afghanistan situation and the American pullout has slightly marginal issues, not totally marginal, but slightly marginal when you look at the complete military presence in the region… the strategy of fighting terrorism, the counterterrorism strategy over the last twenty year has been a limited success, it’s protected the US from a major strike but it has only seen the terror groups expand.” 

James F. Jeffrey

“This is a failure, first of all. It's the biggest failure that Washington has seen since Vietnam. Secondly, it is not unlike Vietnam, and unlike the half or one-third, or two-thirds failure of Iraq. This is not just a failure of the United States. It's a failure of the West because Europe was at least as committed, in some respects more committed, to what we were trying to do in Afghanistan, and up until the end, had a very big role in how we go about doing it. Now this is very important for the entire world, what I'm going to say will be controversial, but I spent my whole lifetime seeing this in operation, and I believe it's true. Since World War II, that's almost 80 years ago, the major and primary fact of international life has been a global system whose core is global collective security run by the United States with close and intimate support by Western Europe and other levels of support by Eastern Asian and other countries. That again has largely kept the world from a massive block, anybody in the Middle East would say, ‘wait a second, what about us?’ I'm talking about blocks like World War I, World War II, which involve not only the Middle East dramatically, but the whole rest of the world, and has also been a purveyor of various values: economic, monetary, cultural, and so forth. That system took a blow with Afghanistan, and we all have to deal with it because most everybody is in the system, or in the case of China and Russia, attempting to work around, outside, or undermining the system, but the system is a primordial issue in international relations.”


“The counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan failed because we got confused between either indigenous revolution or insurgent force, the Taliban, which had very significant populous support, or at least popular acceptance, and who use terrorist tactics, terrorist actions with pure kind of terrorism which began with Al Qaeda and later involved the Islamic state. That didn’t work out.”

Merissa Khruma

“This is really interesting because you know, I follow what columnists and what social media says about all of this, or people on social media engage on, new military agreements or bases, and there's initial criticism, of course, by the people. Why should we be housing the American military? What does this say about us or sovereignty? All these different questions pop up. But then when you ask these same people about their concerns, or their support for the military in their own countries, security continues to be a number one concern for them and support for the security establishment or the military, and we can look at polling, continues to be much higher than their support of governments. So this is sort of, as Nadia said, perhaps it's an old narrative that keeps on playing in different ways.”


Nadia Oweidat

“The region is in flux, so what we do now can make an enormous difference. We cannot just watch authoritarian powers provide millions if not billions in support of dictators and authoritarian governments, authoritarian ideas, and we just watch and hope for democracy to have a chance. We can’t do that, we have to support our ideals like they support theirs.” 

“The reason why a lot of these terrorist groups are expanding, even though they are, you know, definitely a small percentage, but a small percentage can do phenomenal damage. Again, they do have resources, I mean without resources these extremist groups cannot go far, and weapons and all these very expensive resources, so, why don’t we try to dry them out of these resources? And the second thing is, like Rami said, if it wasn’t for the active military interference of the U.S., ISIS was taking over parts of Iraq and Syria, forming its own country and terrorizing entire populations, so there is a legitimate use of force, our so called allies will continue to allow spaces to shape public opinion against the U.S. But, I think that is why we need also to use our own platforms… to counter these messages and show with facts how this is not true.” 

Hosted By

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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