Some are deliriously convinced the United States “handed over” Afghanistan to the Taliban as part of a plan to use the Sunni Islamists against Iran. Others, including many nationalists and leftists, claimed it as a victory of a national liberation movement against U.S. imperialism. Everyone seems to have something to say about the United States and its failure, but there is little introspection in what the Taliban victory says about the Middle East itself, its societies, states and politics. On this, five things stand out.
First, advocates of liberal democracy, such as myself, are not a reliable political force. They failed to build their bases gradually under modernizing authoritarian regimes such as those of pre-1980 Iran, Turkey, Egypt or Tunisia. They failed to lead popular uprisings or take advantage of the political opportunities they created in 2011. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, they failed to consolidate their presence despite long years of state-building efforts supported by the United States, the United Nations and Europe. Of course, none of these contexts was ideal; corruption, mismanagement and foreign interference all played important negative roles. But this is how real-world political conditions often are. And in this real world, Middle Eastern liberals are, at best, guardians of democratic ideals. For political players, they are useless.
Second, state-building and democracy promotion by force are dead. The return of the Taliban closes the arc that opened on Sept. 11, 2001, and shatters the dreams of using American power to eradicate Islamist extremism by triggering domestic political changes in the Middle East. This also means a return to accepting authoritarianism as a necessary evil. Whether it is a military, dynastic or majority-rule dictatorship, Middle Eastern autocracy will have a much freer hand than any time in the past two decades. Dictators can still be criticized for their human rights violations, but just to make a point. No foreign government is likely to jeopardize its relationship with these dictators in order to push them to undertake democratic reforms.
Third, the nuances among Islamists are just that, nuances. Islamist apologists have been chastising commentators for putting “extremists” such as the Islamic State and the Taliban together with “moderates” such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its sister organizations. But when the Taliban took over, these differences evaporated. As expected, extremists celebrated. But so did the “moderates” who hailed it as a Muslim liberation force and commended its recent moderation. Leaders of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, congratulated the Taliban for setting an example and not being fooled by false promises such as democracy and elections.
Fourth, this doesn’t mean more stability for Middle Eastern regimes, but rather a return to stagnation. As in the past, the surface of traditional authoritarian control conceals social conflicts resulting from modernization, without addressing them. In most cases, it exacerbates these conflicts. This is how the struggle between modernizers and traditionalists grew over time into the mutually exclusive paradigms that secularism and Islamism have become. When traditional authoritarian control falters, Middle Eastern states collapse into the hands of Islamists who, in turn, form a new authoritarian rule.
This is what happened in Iran by revolution in 1979, in Sudan by a military coup in 1989, in Turkey by elections in 2002 and in Afghanistan by armed conflict since the 1970s. And this is what is likely to happen to the next authoritarian rule that loses control. No reliable political force is pushing for a pluralistic regime that founds its stability on its ability to manage and represent competing interests and identities. At least not yet.
Fifth, the diminishing American role in the Middle East triggers more regional rivalry, not cooperation. All the key regional players — Iran, Israel, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — all have designs to shape the region. But none of them can prevail. They have been unable to reconcile their competing designs. Historically, foreign powers have kept regional rivalry in check and contained conflicts when necessary. Today, neither the United States nor China nor Russia have the will or the ability to play this role.
In sum, it is bad news all around. The Middle East was not a stable region with functioning states and self-reliant societies before 9/11. It is less so after decades of turmoil, frustrated expectations and diminished American leadership. With nobody at the helm, it is likely that more things will go wrong than right. President Biden was keen not to bequeath a failed Afghan operation to his successors. He may have just opted to bequeath them a bigger problem.