What does the fall of Afghanistan mean for Israel?

"I’ve been asked how the American retreat from Afghanistan strikes Israelis. The answer is simple: self-reliance...ultimately the Jewish people must defend themselves by themselves."
U.S. Marines guide evacuees on to a U.S. Air Force plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 21, 2021. (Photo via U.S. Marines on Twitter)

We’re curious…

What does the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan mean for Israel and the Middle East? As Americans and the West process the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government, scenes of desperation and chaos from Kabul, and implications for U.S. security, Israelis are discussing how this impacts the Jewish state.

Israel’s enemies including Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cheered the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover. Hamas called it “a victory that came as the culmination of more than 20 years of struggle,” while Islamic Jihad congratulated the Taliban on “the liberation of [Afghani] land from the Western and American occupation.” Meanwhile, the Taliban insisted they had changed since 2001 when they last held power, saying they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would not discriminate against women. 

In an interview with Israeli media, a Taliban spokesperson (who was unaware that he was speaking with an Israeli outlet at the time, even though the journalist identified his network as “Kan News”) said, “We will not allow our land to be used against other countries.” He also pledged that the Taliban would protect non-Muslim minorities, including Zvulun Simantov, Afghanistan’s last Jew. This week, we’re unpacking Israeli perceptions of the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover and what the implications might be.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban formed in 1994, but their history traces back to 1979 when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in an effort to bolster the country’s communist government. In the 1980s, they were Afghan resistance fighters who fought against the Soviet occupation until the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

In 1996, the Taliban captured the capital city of Kabul and seized power. They aimed to impose a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam on the country and ruled as an emirate with no parliament or elections.

Although some Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban for their attempts to re-establish order, “the welcome soon wore off as they banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers. They also persecuted and sometimes massacred ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, women were barred from attending school, holding jobs and leaving home without male escorts,” NBC News reported.

After 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan where the Taliban had provided a safe-haven to Osama bin Laden and the Sunni terror group Al Qaeda. The U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban government, but the group soon regained their influence in Afghanistan, and they have carried out an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government over the last 20 years.

How did Iran and Hamas respond?

According to Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan international affairs think tank, Iran welcomed the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover. This is despite the fact that in 2001, Iran cooperated with the U.S. in ousting the Taliban from power.

Sadjadpour explained the shift in the Iranians’ view of the Taliban this way: “Although the Sunni, fundamentalist Taliban may once have been Shia Iran’s adversary — the two sides nearly went to war in 1998 — today the primary driver of Iranian revolutionary ideology is not religion but opposition to the United States and Israel. The Islamic Republic is happy to partner with… Sunni radical groups — including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and even at times al-Qaeda — with whom Tehran shares common adversaries.”

Meanwhile, in a statement published on their website, the Sunni terror group Hamas wished the Taliban success, adding that “the end of the occupation of the Americans and their allies proves that the resistances of the peoples, and foremost among them our fighting Palestinian people, are promised victory and the achievement of its goals.”

Israel Hayom reported, “As a consequence of the Taliban’s ascent to power, training bases and facilities [in Afghanistan], which up until this week belonged to the Afghani army, could now be made available to Hamas terrorists. Israeli officials were also concerned that the Taliban will look to smuggle weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip from Afghanistan.”

Diverse perspectives from Israelis

Many Israelis reacted to the news by questioning the fundamental reliability of its American ally and underscoring the Jewish state’s need to defend itself on its own. Many wondered, if the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, would they be willing to do the same thing to Israel?

Former Knesset member Einat Wilf tweeted this basic idea: “I’ve been asked how the American retreat from Afghanistan strikes Israelis. The answer is simple: self-reliance. Yes, the US is a critical and valuable ally, but ultimately the Jewish people must defend themselves by themselves. We already knew that. It is just being reinforced.”

Moshe Ya’alon, former Israeli defense minister, expressed this philosophy using passages from rabbinic teachings, tweeting in Hebrew, “The withdrawal of the U.S. and the takeover of the Taliban will have implications for…Israel’s security. Israel should strive for ‘the righteous — their work will be done through others,’ but must prepare for ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?’”

Many Israelis also recalled their country’s own history of withdrawing from territory. Lahav Harkov, senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post, reflected, “It may have worked out mostly well with the Sinai Peninsula, but the two other times out of three, Islamist terrorists took over.” Harkov was referring to Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

“In both of those cases, a local population had been trained to keep the extremists at bay… and they were quickly overrun and massacred by Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively,” Harkov wrote. She added that because of this history, polls show that “while a narrow majority of Israelis support a two-state solution…fewer tend to support the territorial concessions [from the West Bank] that would allow that to happen.”

However, Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum based in Washington, D.C., cautioned against drawing immediate comparisons between Afghanistan and the West Bank. 

In a blog post, Koplow underscored that “no two situations are ever perfectly equivalent” and “not every withdrawal unfolds the same way.” For example, even though “Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai was unquestionably the correct decision,” “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.” 

Koplow concluded that the ripple effects of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan are “in no way preordained” because “no situations are identical and there is no predetermined path that follows from withdrawals.”

Meanwhile, Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as special envoy on Iran in the Trump administration, focused on a potential upside for Israel. Abrams predicted that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will strengthen the Abraham Accords and draw some Arab states closer to Israel.

“What is happening in Afghanistan will deepen the impression among Arab governments that they cannot rely on the United States to protect their security as they used to,” Abrams explained in a blog post. “Those states have increasingly drawn the conclusion that they have one neighbor who, unlike Iran or Turkey, poses no threat to them, and who continually displays a firm willingness to use military power against its enemies. That’s Israel.”

How did the Israeli government respond? Barak Ravid, correspondent at Axios, reported that, “While the Israeli government has been careful not to criticize the Biden administration in public, privately, several senior Israeli officials have told me they were stunned by what they saw as a major U.S. intelligence failure. Israeli officials hope the Afghanistan crisis will make the Biden administration rethink potentially pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq and Syria.” 

Gaby Lasky, a Knesset member in the Meretz party, argued that Israel should offer asylum to Afghan refugees, tweeting in Hebrew, “The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan puts hundreds of thousands in danger, their rights and their lives at stake. I have appealed to the foreign minister and alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, to open up Israel’s gates to accept refugees. This is the humane, humanitarian thing to do.”

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