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Limits on Lessons From the Disastrous Afghanistan Withdrawal

To describe the American withdrawal over the weekend from Afghanistan as ignominious would be to undersell the meaning of ignominy. The sight of the U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan army literally melting away over a matter of hours in the face of the Taliban assault would be bad enough; the scenes of Afghans falling hundreds of feet to their deaths as they tried to escape in the wheel wells of U.S. transport planes will endure for decades as a reminder of America’s shame. The fate of Afghanistan and its people is and should be front and center, but foreign policy does not unfold in a bubble, and there is speculation about how the disaster that has just unfolded will impact U.S. power and credibility and what lessons there are for other conflicts around the globe.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a number of unsurprising lines of argument have emerged. The most prevalent from the right is that this is the latest demonstration of the folly of withdrawing from territory, as it only leads to a security nightmare that will be exploited by fundamentalist terrorist groups. Afghanistan is seen as an incarnation of Israel’s experience in Gaza, where Israel withdrew and left the territory in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, only to have Hamas take over within two years and remain stubbornly resistant to being dislodged nearly fifteen years later. The Taliban’s success on the literal heels of departing American soldiers is viewed as a preview of coming attractions for Hamas’s allegedly inevitable takeover of the West Bank should Israel ever leave the territory.

There is also an argument from the left that the U.S. failure to build anything sustainable that could counter the Taliban demonstrates the folly of foisting and propping up a corrupt and kleptocratic apparatus that does not have the necessary popular domestic legitimacy to be the foundation of a state. The Palestinian Authority, upon which any hopes for an independent Palestinian state in a two-state outcome rest, and its methods of governance and control are viewed as the equivalent of the Afghan government and the waste and venality that plagued it throughout the two decades of an American presence in the country.

Finally, there is an argument about the U.S.’s role in the Middle East, and whether President Biden’s determination to follow through on President Trump’s pledge to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan, come hell or high water, is yet another signal of American decline and disengagement from the world. In this line of thinking, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will embolden Iran while leaving Israel feeling as if its only recourse is to act on its own, while at the same time emboldening revanchist Palestinian groups as the few Palestinians willing to take chances and follow an American lead determine that U.S. commitments are worthless beyond the short term.

There is a measure of accuracy to all of these arguments, and none of them can be blithely dismissed as meritless. But neither are they self-fulfilling prophecies or fully accurate comparisons. No two situations are ever perfectly equivalent, and assuming a straight line of conclusions that can be drawn from Kabul through Jerusalem is analytical overreach.

To start with the U.S. part of this equation, not all commitments are the same and not all interests are the same. While I’d argue that the U.S. has counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan that are being elided by Biden, I don’t know of anyone who would argue that American interests in Afghanistan are as strong as American interests in countering China, or providing a security umbrella for our European allies, or ensuring the free flow of global shipping and trade. The fact that I wouldn’t pursue a pickpocket to the ends of the earth is not an indication that I would let someone as easily kidnap my children.

This is the third consecutive American administration during which Israel and other American regional allies have been concerned about a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, yet the U.S. is still there, is still conducting military operations, is still selling arms to Israel and Sunni states to counter Iranian capabilities, and has not indicated any newfound ambivalence about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear military capabilities. The U.S. has been in Germany and Japan for seven decades, the Korean peninsula for six decades, and the Sinai for four decades. Afghanistan raises questions about American impatience, time horizons, and quite frankly competence, but withdrawing from one place does not mean a withdrawal from every place.

Similarly, not every withdrawal unfolds the same way. Israel has learned hard lessons from withdrawing from territory, to which years of rockets from Gaza attest. But the lesson is not about never withdrawing from anywhere; it is about how you do it, when you do it, and what the withdrawal entails. Israel withdrew from the Sinai completely, with no IDF troops or Israeli civilians in the territory for the past thirty-nine years, and nobody views the Sinai as a serious security threat that requires the resumption of an Israeli presence. Yet somehow it is never cited as proof that Israeli territorial withdrawals guarantee peace and security in their wake the way that Gaza is infinitely cited as proof of the opposite. There is no iron rule about territorial withdrawals, because the specific circumstances of each one dictate different decisions and lead to different outcomes.

Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai was unquestionably the correct decision, and it brought peace with Egypt and quiet along Israel’s southern border. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza has not bought the same measures of peace or quiet by any means. However, 230 IDF soldiers were killed in Gaza between the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000 and Israel’s disengagement in 2005, so while Hamas rockets bring a different type of challenge, Israeli casualties across the board are much lower. That renders the Gaza withdrawal not the unambiguous success that the Sinai withdrawal was, but still arguably relatively successful on balance to the alternative.

The U.S. decided to pull out every troop and military adviser from Afghanistan by an arbitrarily selected date on a calendar. Israel withdrew from Sinai in phases as part of an agreement with Egypt, and withdrew all at once from Gaza unilaterally without an agreement. Any eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will almost certainly not encompass the entire IDF presence there, will not be unilateral, will not be all at once, and will be based on benchmarks rather than a date on a calendar. The aftermath might look like Sinai or might look like Gaza, but will more likely look different than both. The point is, anyone pointing to what just happened in Afghanistan and asserting it as incontrovertible proof of what happens in the aftermath of territorial withdrawals is engaging in sophistry rather than analysis.

Finally, there is the question of the PA and its staying power and legitimacy. As I seem to note every other week, the PA’s problems and drawbacks are legion. But I don’t think that comparing it to the just-deposed Afghan government and tarring it as a foreign import imposed by an external power is accurate. That the PA has been waylaid is beyond dispute, but it was created by Palestinians, all of whom had impeccable Palestinian nationalist credentials, with the raison d’être of moving toward Palestinian statehood—a goal still shared by a plurality of Palestinians. The PA was not foisted upon Palestinians through foreign military intervention or an occupying power, and it is not a Western import that is supposedly incompatible with Palestinian culture or values. There is no excuse for PA autocracy and corruption, but the alleged lesson of the collapse of the Ghani government is about imposing external structures and institutions on a society that does not or cannot support them. That is not the case here.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly have ripple effects. How large those ripples will be and which direction they travel is in no way preordained. Anyone can read any lessons they like into this sad and jarring episode, but no situations are identical and there is no predetermined path that follows from withdrawals. Everyone should wish the best for the people of Afghanistan and hope that the U.S. quickly rights some of the egregious wrongs that it just perpetrated, and remember that Israel, the Palestinians, and other regional actors will chart their own course that depends on thousands of variables that do not exist in the Hindu Kush in August 2021.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.