These two articles discuss the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the security and political agendas in a number of Middle Eastern countries. In the first article, analyst Aaron Majid presents his analysis of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and discusses how it benefits Jordan. Given the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s strong support for the Taliban movement, Abdullah will likely face few repercussions from the Biden administration for continuing to clamp down on the organization, despite its implications for Jordan’s democracy. Jordan may also benefit from international attention due to the difficulties in absorbing refugees after the Taliban’s conquest.
In the second article, political writer Mohammad Barhouma discusses the position of Gulf states following the U.S. withdrawal as well as what their next steps should be. Barhouma explains that there are two important next steps for the Gulf states: obtain reassurance from Washington that they will not be left to face regional security challenges alone and quickly adapt to this new reality so that they can raise their standing with Washington.
The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan May Benefit Jordan
After the troubling images from Kabul’s airport, Biden will likely prioritize stability in dealing with King Abdullah despite human rights concerns.
Only weeks before Kabul’s fall, King Abdullah of Jordan discussed U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, telling CNN: “Knowing its culture, knowing that empires have bled there for centuries, to try and get a western democracy in the shortest amount of time… may have been a bridge too far.” Abdullah’s downplaying the importance of Afghan democracy as ill-fitting for the country’s culture is not too different from his own unwillingness to significantly cede power over his 22-year reign. Abdullah’s advice on Afghanistan was perhaps not heeded by U.S. presidents over the past two decades, but it seems that after the Taliban’s conquest that resulted in scathing Congressional and media criticism of its Afghanistan evacuation, Biden administration officials will look to prioritize stability in its relations with Jordan and other longtime U.S. allies regardless of whether Abdullah advances democracy in his country.
While on the campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden vowed to center his foreign policy on defending human rights overseas, insisting that “strengthening democracy” would return to the global agenda on his watch. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the U.S. would ensure that “those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.” Accordingly, some members of Congress have called on the Biden administration to condition U.S. aid to Jordan’s neighbors – Egypt and Israel – based on those countries’ abuses of human rights. As the issue received greater emphasis, some questioned how Jordan, deemed “not free” by Freedom House, would fit into the new U.S. administration’s priorities on democratization since Amman receives the third-largest amount of U.S. annual aid worldwide.
Although the Hashemite Kingdom found greater agreement with Biden on the Palestinian cause compared to Trump’s presidency, meeting Biden’s human rights agenda inside Jordan poses a challenge. Parliament holds few tangible powers with King Abdullah maintaining a dominant role in governing, which includes appointing and dismissing premiers. In a 2020 report on Jordan, the State Department said that "significant human rights issues included: cases of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as punishment, arbitrary arrest and detention of activists and members of the press." Concerned about even mild forms of criticism, Jordanian authorities dissolved the teachers’ syndicate last year and sentenced five of its leaders to prison after the group protested poor teachers’ pay. With Washington providing Amman nearly $1.5 billion in annual aid, Jordan has much to lose should ties decline, given the country faces a record public debt of $45 billion.
A senior Biden administration official has, however, presented an alternative set of foreign policy priorities in an August 25th briefing. “We’re not trying to transform the Middle East. We’re not trying to overthrow regimes. We are pursuing a very steady course, centered on achievable aims; alignment of ends and means; and, first and foremost, support to our partners,” said the official. Stability will be prioritized in its decades-long relationship with Jordan, as the Biden administration can not afford the appearance of abandoning another close ally. Jordan hosts around 3,000 U.S. troops as part of Washington’s counter-terrorism efforts, and Amman has maintained a peace treaty with Israel since 1994, an important U.S. priority in the region.
Although King Abdullah has struggled to democratize Jordan, he is largely able to present the Hashemite Kingdom as an island of stability bordering Iraq and Syria, both plagued by years-long conflicts. Jordan has suffered from a relatively small number of deaths from terrorism in the past two decades by regional standards, as well as thwarted the alleged April sedition “plot” involving Prince Hamzah. After Kabul’s fall, Biden implementing Amnesty International’s July demand of strong U.S. pressure against Abdullah on human rights appears increasingly unlikely, along with moves to reduce Amman’s nearly $1.5 billion aid package. Washington will avoid actions that may provoke Abdullah’s collapse, regardless of how improbable.
The Taliban takeover also highlights how Jordan’s main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, lies in stark opposition to U.S. interests. In response to the Afghan government’s collapse, the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood offered its “congratulations” to the Taliban for the “defeat of the brutal American occupation.” Indeed, Abdullah, who maintains a difficult relationship with the Islamist group, once called the Brotherhood a “masonic cult… run by wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Last year, Jordan’s top court dissolved the country’s branch of the Brotherhood, citing legal challenges, even as the group maintains strong grassroots support. With the Muslim Brotherhood so forcefully taking the side of the Taliban, Abdullah will likely face few repercussions from the Biden administration for continuing to clamp down on the organization, despite its implications for Jordan’s democracy.
Jordan may also benefit from international attention to the difficulties in absorbing refugees after the Taliban’s conquest. A decade after the 2011 Syrian war began, the Hashemite Kingdom continues to host over 600,000 Syrian refugees, despite the fact that 25 percent of Jordanians face unemployment. On August 23, Jordan’s Foreign Ministry announced it would accept 2,500 Afghans on transit to the United States as a humanitarian gesture. While some European nations look to avoid accepting Afghan refugees, Abdullah can point to Jordan as a responsible country shouldering the burden of regional conflicts.
The ISIS-K bombing at Kabul's airport on August 27 that killed 13 U.S. troops along with at least 170 others will serve as a lasting image of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It appears that after the Taliban conquest – and perhaps because of it – Biden will be reluctant to pressure Abdullah on democratization. As both Jordanian officials and the Biden administration are concerned with Islamist parties praising jihadists, it seems likely that the two countries' interests will converge in stabilizing the Hashemite Kingdom's rule.
Aaron Magid is a Washington-based Middle East analyst. His articles on Jordanian politics have appeared in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Al-Monitor. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronMagid
The Reverberation of the American Withdrawal from Afghanistan in the Arabian Gulf
As Gulf countries try to adapt to the new reality created by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, they strive to hold their standing with Washington amidst fear of security challenges in the region.
Over the past few decades, Washington’s Middle Eastern allies’ regional alignments and interests have been directly connected to U.S. foreign policy priorities.
Today, however, the Biden administration is adopting a new approach towards the Middle East, decreasing its direct involvement in the region. As the U.S. turns the page on twenty years of military intervention in Afghanistan, its Middle Eastern allies are left to handle the aftermath of the American withdrawal by relying on strategies that aim to strengthen their home fronts, increasing cooperation, and decreasing conflict. Allies are also looking to adapt foreign policies that create economic partnerships with friends and foes, establish regional security cooperation plans that are able to meet the challenges arising from Biden’s new foreign policy approach, and address the repercussions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gulf countries will face difficult tests as they need to navigate complex and competing interests to reshape and strengthen regional alliances. Immediately after U.S. troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan, Gulf states swiftly took action to assist in the withdrawal plan and to prepare the country for a stable transitional period led by the Taliban. Qatar is a prime example, possessing a mediation policy with the Taliban that became even more effective after the Gulf Crisis of 2017. In addition, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) recent election to the United Nations’ Security Council as a non-permanent member for the 2022-2023 term raised its expected diplomatic and logistical role in Afghanistan.
As for Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s most consequential antagonists, there is no telling whether they’ll continue to lock horns in Afghanistan or turn to a more conciliatory note, especially after the talks both parties held in April 2021 that eased tensions and exhumed an air of optimism.
Considering recent U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Gulf countries are now tackling two major challenges; the first is facing their fears of handling regional security threats without U.S. assistance, and the second is adapting to the Biden administration’s strategy in the region at a speed that will enable each country to remain in America’s good graces. There is now an unspoken acknowledgment that moving regional rivalries back to Afghanistan will create grave risks for all its competitive neighbors, whether in the Gulf or in India and Pakistan. In fact, if the Gulf Council Countries (GCC) decide to follow a smart strategic approach to Afghanistan’s situation, they may well be able to stabilize the interests of the United States and China in a Taliban governed country.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan coincides with the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the peace treaty between Israel, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, which many analysts believe can be explained, though only partly, by the withdrawal. Witnessing the declining levels of U.S. commitment in the region, the UAE and Bahrain saw the Abraham Accords as a hedge against this, by signaling their readiness to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Further, the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan serves as further motive for these states to make regional arrangements, such as that with Israel, to manage the repercussions of the decline and ensure their continued state of security.
In the medium and long term, international and regional powers may cooperate to ensure stability in Afghanistan and to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for terrorist groups. This, of course, does not mean that these powers will refrain from pursuing their own strategic, ideological, and economic interests in the country; in fact, other players will probably join the scene acting on their own behalf or on that of other clients.
In all cases, Washington’s allies will have to come to terms with a new political reality under the Biden administration; a reality that seems to sever itself from the long-standing traditions of liberal internationalism and human rights support that began with Woodrow Wilson and reached their peak in the nineties of the twentieth century.
Mohammad Barhouma is a Jordanian writer and Gulf affairs researcher. He writes for multiple newspapers including the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper (1994-2018), and the Jordan-based Al-Ghad newspaper (2007-2018). In 2014, he published his notable work, a book on religious reformations and the modern era, titled "Moral Consciousness and Its Role in Religious Reform.”