InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion on Tuesday, 17 August 2021 entitled “Exit Strategy: The Drivers and Implications of American Withdrawal from Conflict Zones in the Middle East,” hosting Dale Sprusansky, Managing Editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in the US capital Washington. The workshop was moderated by Jamila Saif, InterRegional’s Academic Collaboration Officer, and was attended by staff members and non-resident researchers. The main takeaways of the discussion were as follows:
1- A majority of Americans support stopping “endless wars”: The keynote speaker noted that a majority of Americans from both the Republican and Democratic parties support the withdrawal that began its early stages during the administration of Donald Trump, who supported negotiation with the Taliban. Americans tend to believe that involvement in wars not directly related to US interests should end.
2- Marginality of the Afghan issue in public opinion: Afghanistan does not occupy much space in American public opinion. The most pressing questions Americans have are why American forces are still there in the first place and where Afghanistan is on a map. Public opinion polls will not be long affected by the withdrawal, such that the Afghan issue will not have much impact in the upcoming midterm elections.
3- Priority of the economy and cost-benefit analyses: The American public’s preferences are based primarily on financial cost and the gains achieved. For that reason, Biden’s speech about bearing the cost of $2 trillion over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan met with support from American public opinion.
4- Invisible military cost of the war: The speaker mentioned that US troops suffer from many psychological and social issues due to the wars, such as suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to the loss of limbs in combat operations. This raises the cost of rehabilitating those returning from war. A broad segment of Americans support reallocating sums spent on foreign wars to infrastructure, jobs, and stimulating the economy (funding life, not destruction).
5- Preference for investment at home in the US: At this point, Americans prefer to invest fiscal surpluses at home in America and to avoid investing in foreign policy—be it aid, diplomacy, wars, or any costly solutions that may result in raising the budgets of the Defense or State Departments.
6- Recalling the stances of military officials in the “Afghanistan Papers”: The participants felt that the US army had long held positions in support of withdrawal, though in a more organized way. They referred to the “Afghanistan Papers” leaked to the media and published by The Washington Post in 2019, which confirmed that senior leaders in the American armed forces believed the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable and lacked the criteria for a decisive outcome even as commanders were engaged in manipulating field operations reports to deceive public opinion about the results achieved there.
7- Criticism from “hawks” of repeating a “Saigon Moment”: The most prominent groups in the camp opposed to withdrawing from Afghanistan are the neoconservatives and hawks in the Republican Party, as well as some groups supporting the use of military force in US policy, such as the military-industrial complex and the Israel lobby. The reasons for the opposition range from fear for the image and stature of the US in the world and discontent with the repetition of a “Saigon Moment” in Afghanistan to anticipating that US adversaries stand to gain from the current situation. There is also fear of a return to isolationist policies and ceasing military intervention to protect Washington’s allies.
8- Intelligence failure to predict the speed of Kabul’s fall: The participants noted that, despite an American presence for 20 years on the ground in Afghanistan, intelligence services failed to predict the speed of Kabul’s fall, revealing the gap between intelligence estimates and actual developments, as well as that the Taliban was more powerful than estimated.
9- Elite divisions following Biden’s speech: Followers of the two camps are divided. The first camp sees Biden as confident in his decision, strongly backing it up and presenting a convincing vision. The other camp sees Biden’s position as cold, indifferent, and insensitive to humanitarian considerations in the matter. But this debate is among elites, and is limited to decision-making circles in Washington. That is related to watching the contradictions between the “America is back” proposals for global policy that Biden adopts as a slogan for his foreign policy, and the chaotic scene of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
10- End of the era of nation- and system-building: The participants felt that decision-makers in Washington had reached a final conclusion that rebuilding states and ruling regimes is not possible and extremely costly, and that the US would not again undertake such tasks as they are futile and end in failure, as happened in Afghanistan.
11- An era of conditional engagement in the Middle East: The participants pointed out that withdrawal does not mean the end of engagement in Middle East affairs, but that conditions would be set connected to American interests and its view of their commitment to the rules of democracy, human rights, and others, at least on the surface.
12- Declining trust in and credibility of American deterrence: US allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe no longer have confidence in Washington’s defense commitments towards them in the face of threats. That will also strengthen the power of countries such as Russia, China, and Iran in challenging American policies, pressuring neighboring countries, and threatening their security because of the cracking of American deterrence.
In conclusion, the participants agreed that American foreign policy is going through a transitional period and in the next phase will seek a balance between isolationism and intervention, reconsidering its priorities in accordance with a cost-benefit analysis of military intervention around the world. Countries such as Russia, China, and Iran will exploit this to expand and extend in neighboring regions to exploit the complex calculations of American foreign policy and Washington’s preference for economic and diplomatic tools, as well as military actions without direct military involvement.