Editor’s note: In early August, The National Interest organized a symposium on American foreign policy in the Middle East under the Biden administration. A variety of scholars were asked the following question: “Given Joe Biden’s recent decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the president right to be reducing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East?” The following article is one of their responses:
These questions do not lend themselves to a simple “yes” or “no.” Perhaps we can answer these questions with more certainty a decade from now. However, what is clear is that the U.S. military involvement and heavy presence in the greater Middle East in the past two decades has not served American national interests. Authoritarianism and war are more prevalent today in the region than before the U.S. military build-up of the past twenty years. Post-Saddam Iraq is still a fractured country that suffers from a myriad of economic, social, and political malaise and has become a battleground between domestic Iraqi groups and regional contenders for influence. There is no guarantee that the Islamic State (ISIS) or its offshoots will not once again threaten Iraq’s territorial integrity and become a serious threat to Iraq’s neighbors, especially to Iran’s national security. In fact, Iraq today is in a state of suspension between a failed state and a permanently unstable and fractured entity.
Furthermore, reports of the U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East are exaggerated. The Biden administration may reduce overt U.S. military presence here and there, but these may simply be either repositioning the military presence or redefining it. For example, the Biden administration has announced the termination of the U.S. combat presence in Iraq but not the U.S. military presence in that country.
The desire to disengage the United States from the Afghan conflict, its longest war in history, was first manifested in the Trump administration. After years of maintaining a significant military presence in Afghanistan, the Biden administration must have concluded that there is no end in sight to the internal conflict in that country and that the United States was not “winning” the war there. Consequently, the United States began to engage in a series of talks with the Taliban, its previous nemesis, to prepare the ground for the termination of its official military involvement in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
What can be observed at this time is that several countries in the region, especially Afghanistan’s neighbors, have concluded that without the Taliban’s acquiescence and involvement, not only will peace remain ephemeral in that country, but their own national security interests will be endangered. That is why some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have sought to arrange peace talks between the Taliban and the other contenders for power in that country, including Ashraf Ghani’s ruling government.
Iran has tried to mediate between Afghan groups by arranging talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Iran shares a long 921 km porous border with Afghanistan with several security threats emanating from that border area. Today, Iran fears that a forceful and violent takeover of Afghanistan will result, inter alia, in another massive refugee influx. Although the Taliban’s advances in the current conflict have been generally in areas away from the Iran-Afghan border regions, we are already witnessing a massive influx of would-be Afghan refugees to the Iranian border waiting to cross into Iran. If conditions continue to deteriorate inside Afghanistan, Iran will take a more active role in securing its border from the refugee influx and Taliban threats. Even Beijing, which only has a short and relatively unpassable 76 km border with Afghanistan, may feel compelled to try to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan to secure China’s Tajikistan flank which will become a transit point for extremism in Central Asia.
Nader Entessar is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of South Alabama.