The Taliban’s return has plunged the Middle East into uncharted waters

CNN  — 

Afghanistan may not be part of the Middle East but its geopolitical fate has for decades been inextricably linked to that of the nearby region.

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’s return to power in Kabul has thrust the region, still limping from the unspeakable damage of that war, into uncharted waters.

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

A flurry of diplomatic and military activity preceded the withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year ago, a wave of normalization agreements between some Arab countries and Israel spurred then-President Donald Trump to say: “We don’t have to be there anymore … we no longer have to be in areas that at one point were vital.”

President Joe Biden has continued down that path. On Tuesday, the US President vigorously defended the pullout and final chaotic scenes in Kabul, adding that the era of invading countries with intentions of installing American values was no longer viable. He argued that the US “no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan” and that the US’ withdrawal signaled “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

With a laser focus on China, Biden’s administration has made it crystal clear to US regional allies that they should no longer depend on the US for their security needs. States would need to fend for themselves. For the Middle East, this changes everything.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative FII conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018.

“The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the strong return of the Taliban to the Afghan capital and the escalation of the Iranian threat indicate that the Gulf security equation will be very different this century compared to the last,” wrote UAE political commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in an opinion piece for the Abu Dhabi-based The National newspaper.

“The Gulf is on the verge of huge security and military transformations, perhaps the largest since 1971, when the US assumed responsibility for its security and turned it into an ‘American Gulf,’ in a strategic sense,” wrote the Emirati professor, who is believed to be close to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. “It may not be the same during the next five decades.”

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

There are two main schools of thought about a post-American Middle East. One says that existing regional axes will become more fortified and more brazen – so Gulf Arabs will continue to coalesce around Israel to counter an Iran axis emboldened by an American exit.

The other theory suggests that the absence of a reliable US military partner will expedite diplomatic efforts between traditional foes to dampen tensions and reduce the need for a robust defensive strategy. Gone are the days when the US would throw its military might into rescuing regional allies, such as in the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The US military’s inaction after Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries were attacked in a 2019 drone strike blamed on Iran (Tehran denies the charge) spoke volumes about the US’ new regional calculus.

Both routes – military polarization and increased diplomacy – are already being trial ballooned. When Israel and the UAE made their covert relationship official last year, they embarked on a whirlwind honeymoon that blindsided most observers. The agreement has seen them cooperate broadly and apparently intensively on technology and, potentially, on security. The UAE, along with other Gulf powerhouses, use Israeli spyware extensively. Despite an Arab outcry about the threat of forced displacement of Palestinians in the east Jerusalem quarter of Sheikh Jarrah earlier this year, those relationships don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Rapprochements are also cropping up in other unexpected quarters. 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 adviser Anwar Gargash said the normalization agreement should not be seen as escalation against Iran, but instead perceived as 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.

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

There are also signs of other regional rivalries being tempered. The UAE has held high-level talks with Turkey and Qatar, who it long accused of supporting terrorism. Saudi Arabia has made similar overtures.

Last weekend in Baghdad, a regional summit also appeared to send complicated signals about the future of the region. A meeting between Tehran’s newly minted Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid on the sidelines of the event was the most high-level meeting between the two countries in years.

But Amir-Abdollahian has apparently not met with his Saudi counterpart, who was also present at the summit. Instead, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid him. Breaching diplomatic protocol, the Iranian top diplomat stood in a row with country leaders during a group photo. His assigned placement was next to the Saudi top diplomat, alongside other foreign ministers.

Breaching diplomatic protocol, the Iranian top diplomat stood in a row with country leaders during a group photo. His assigned placement was next to the Saudi top diplomat, alongside other foreign ministers.

“When was the last time there was a regional hosted conference? [The Baghdad conference] really shows what’s happening in the region. There was no American there,” Iran expert and editor of Amwaj.Media Mohammad Ali Shabani told CNN. “The empire is gone. It’s gone.”

At breakneck speed, the region has seen local actors trying to fill American shoes. Sometimes this is literal. Images of Taliban fighters kitted up in US military gear inspecting aircraft hangars shocked people around the globe. What an extremist group will do with access to some of the world’s best weaponry is not yet clear. And the wider region is on the edge of its seat as those surreal scenes flash on its screens.

As uncertainty abounds and the Middle East becomes crippled by diminishing resources, Shabani predicts that the region’s many autocrats will double down, and that unrest will worsen.

Already this has manifested in some parts of the Arab world, such as in Tunisia where a sweeping power grab by President Kais Saied last month, ostensibly to weed out corruption and mismanagement, met virtually no popular protest. In crisis-battered Lebanon, which is quickly descending into lawlessness, many on the country’s streets openly call for a military dictatorship.

“We’re going to turn more towards less ideology and more towards good governance,” added Shabani. “What this means is more tolerance of authoritarian rule if it is accompanied by prosperity. But if it’s not accompanied by prosperity then we’re going to see even worse ahead.”