Afghan Chaos Will Have Broad Consequences

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The world has been stunned by the dramatic collapse of Afghanistan’s government after a lightning military campaign by the Taliban. Even if the outcome was no great surprise to many, the speed of the victory was. The Taliban was emboldened by a US plan to withdraw troops by an accelerated deadline of Aug. 31. That withdrawal was largely complete before thousands of US military personnel were redeployed to support the emergency evacuation of diplomatic staff. So what does the end of this 20-year era of US intervention in Afghanistan, and the return of the Taliban to power, mean for the energy business? Energy Intelligence outlines five key issues that should be on the industry’s radar screen. President Joe Biden's move to restore US global leadership and credibility has been dented. Former President Donald Trump signed the peace treaty in 2020 that laid the groundwork and began the large-scale withdrawal. But Biden made the call to go ahead and order the full drawdown of the remaining 2,500 troops, also cutting funding for military operations there. Biden has repeatedly promised allies that "America is back," striking a tone of multilateral leadership, but the chaotic Afghan withdrawal could damage that credibility. The withdrawal itself -- resembling a Trump-like move to pull out whatever the consequences -- appears to outsiders to reflect an inward-focused foreign policy bias. Biden, speaking at the White House Monday, sought to reinforce ownership of the decision amid mounting criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats. "I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president," Biden said, warning that ending US military engagement in Afghanistan was always going to be "hard and messy." Biden already faced an uphill battle to restore US credibility on the world stage. Fallout from Afghanistan could compound those obstacles, especially with pressure building for Biden to secure lasting big policy moves on climate and clean energy -- in the face of domestic political divisions -- ahead of international talks in Glasgow in November. Mideast rulers will ask more questions about Washington's commitment to their security. The precipitous exit in Afghanistan could intensify Mideast Gulf Arab leaders' concerns about US staying power in their region. The US -- under Trump and now Biden -- has become a more reluctant security guarantor as it seeks to prioritize its China policy, in particular. No plans to withdraw US troops or close down bases are in the works, nor are they likely to emerge in the foreseeable future. But for Mideast leaders, the events in Afghanistan are another reason to worry that they no longer figure as prominently in US strategic thinking. Saudi Arabia was already looking to balance its US relationship through stronger ties with China and Russia, which could accelerate. In the energy sector, this could see strategic deals to cement alternative partnerships -- especially as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates look to monetize energy assets and infrastructure. "Given the shock of what's happening in Kabul, yes, many may be reflecting on their understandings with the US on regional security," says Yesar al-Maleki at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. But this may be an immediate response to events, he added, noting that swift changes are unlikely given the importance of the US presence in countering Iran's influence. While the Mideast angle is most relevant to the international energy industry, Washington's allies in East Asia and Eastern Europe may be asking similar questions about the value of US security guarantees. However, the US footprint in Iraq could endure for longer. Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi recently agreed a timetable for a withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of 2021, after which remaining US troops would focus on training and advising the Iraqi military. A withdrawal of combat troops is seen as key to fulfilling US aims of ending its so-called "forever wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the collapse of the Afghan army and government suggests the US will be more cautious about how it manages its downsizing in Iraq, if only to avoid the optics of two bad withdrawals in quick succession. The presence of US and other Western companies in Iraq's energy sector and Washington's recently demonstrated sensitivity to high oil prices reinforce the notion that greater care will be taken in exiting Iraq than Afghanistan (IOD Aug.11'21). The US experience of the country's previous military exit from Iraq may also resonate: US troops withdrew at the end of 2011, only to re-enter in 2014 to fight against the militant Islamic State group after it swept through Syria and northern Iraq. That said, there are also key differences between Iraq and Afghanistan: Iraq does not face an organized insurgency like the Taliban, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias (the Popular Mobilization Units) would likely provide some stability and have a strong interest in countering the Sunni Islamic State. Iran could tilt toward a nuclear deal. The rapid Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the prospect of extended chaos could potentially help tilt Tehran toward finalizing a stalled nuclear deal with the US. True, Washington's chaotic Afghan exit will allow the new government of President Ebrahim Raisi to score political points against a weaker-looking US and help fulfill a long-standing Iranian wish for US forces to leave the region. But increased instability on its Afghan border, the prospect of an influx of refugees and an intensifying Covid-19 crisis within Iran add to Tehran’s long list of problems. That could push the need for a nuclear deal and restored oil exports higher up the list. Iran's economy is already feeling the strain, and it has recently faced power outages and water shortages. Afghanistan was briefly a rare area of cooperation for the US and Iran in the run-up to and aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which ended when former President George W. Bush included Iran in his "axis of evil." Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Taliban's Sunni militancy make for natural enemies, although Tehran has reached out to the Taliban leadership in recent months -- likely in a bid to manage the impact of their return to rule as the US prepared to depart. Militant Islam could regain some momentum. In its February 2020 peace deal with the US, the Taliban said it would not allow the country to be a safe haven for Al-Qaeda or any other extremist group. But a lasting cease-fire and cessation of violence were also part of that deal, and the Taliban did not comply with those commitments. It is no longer the 1990s, however, and the Taliban may now recognize that allowing Afghan territory to be a base for organizing terrorist attacks on Western targets brings more risks than rewards -- particularly if its main aim is to stay in power without inviting outside military intervention and restrictive sanctions. China is also wary of Afghanistan becoming a haven for separatist Uighurs or fueling extremism, and the Taliban will be looking to Beijing for investment and support. A UN report this year said the Taliban still has strong ties to Al-Qaeda but has started to "tighten its control … by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them." The report estimated that 200-500 Al-Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan, plus up to 2,200 members of Islamic State Khorosan (the group’s Afghan branch). The Taliban is not expansionist, but it does promote an Islamist ideology. Support for such groups could still prove to be a natural fit -- and hard to resist -- although there is some rivalry with Islamic State Khorosan. If nothing else, the Taliban's success in sweeping across Afghanistan and reclaiming Kabul in less than two weeks could also inspire other jihadist movements whose momentum is flagging. Jill Junnola, London, and Bridget DiCosmo, Washington

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