A Repeat of History On The Horizon For The United States In Afghanistan?

As the US drawdown from Afghanistan speeds up, with 90% already complete according to CENTCOM, the Taliban continues to push Afghan government forces out of many districts. At the same time, Taliban representatives continue to negotiate with government representatives in Doha, Qatar. The languid pace of the peace talks underway provides a striking contrast to the war raging back home, along with a sliver of insight to the Taliban’s present strategy. As the talks go on, Taliban forces are making gains back home. The Doha Peace Process now gives the Taliban cover as it gobbles up additional districts controlled by Afghan government forces. When Kabul protests the increasingly aggressive Taliban military offensives currently taking place, the Taliban representatives in Doha can correctly state that their presence there represents a sincere effort to bring the fighting to a close. The question is, how many nations in the region and around the world are going to buy that argument? And in the process, provide the Taliban with a sheath of legitimacy it could not have dreamed of obtaining one year ago.  

The deterioration of the situation on the ground is raising questions about the Biden Administration’s plan (or lack thereof, as the case may very well be) for the Afghan withdrawal. The administration has been insistent upon all US forces being removed from Afghanistan by 11 September, 2021, not coincidentally the twentieth anniversary of the event that initially brought US forces to Afghanistan. It seems that the pullout will be completed earlier than September, raising the possibility of the Taliban having complete control of the country by the end of the summer. This would be a foreign policy disaster for the administration and have a detrimental effect on US efforts in other parts of the world.

Images of helicopters evacuating the last Americans from the embassy rooftop in Saigon as the city fell in 1975 have been branded into the US foreign policy psyche. Now, as two US aircraft carriers move into position to support the evacuation from Afghanistan, those ghosts from the past are slipping back into the national conscience. The prospect of a similar exit from Kabul in the coming months is now quite real and the Biden administration has to take steps now to make certain to does not become reality.  

Thursday 20 July Update: The Saudi Miscalculation

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Saudi Arabia expected a swift capitulation after it imposed sanctions, and a quasi-blockade on Qatar last month. The action came about in large part because of Qatar’s independent foreign policy, as well as its penchant for pursing endeavors that were in direct conflict with those of the other Gulf States. Crises among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula are nothing new. The majority have been short-lived, and generally wind up resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

This crisis is different in many aspects. Saudi Arabia, and its anti-Qatar partners went straight for the jugular. Riyadh’s demands amounted to a virtual surrender Qatar’s sovereignty. There were no indications that this action was in the works or on the horizon. It came as a bolt out of the blue, likely just how Riyadh intended for it to be. The Qataris did not capitulate. They brushed off the shock of the blockade, made the necessary adjustments, and soldiered on with a business-as-usual attitude. Efforts were made to resolve the crisis diplomatically. However, Qatar was not prepared to accede to any of the demands of the Saudis and their partners. The subsequent list of demands, and accompanying ultimatum that the Saudis handed down is dead in the water. Doha didn’t bite.

Now, as we move into late July, the Saudis are realizing they’ve placed themselves in a box. One which they cannot extricate themselves from without suffering a severe loss of face. The US is not going to be able to rescue them. Washington is frustrated with the lack of flexibility shown by the Saudis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been pushing hard for a diplomatic resolution, essentially forcing the Saudis to negotiate on items they had previously considered non-negotiable.

The longer the crisis drags on, the worse the consequences will become for Saudi Arabia. It is losing face as a regional leader. Their move against Qatar has served to destabilize the Gulf region instead of bringing it in line with Riyadh’s wishes. Iran is gaining an advantage as the crisis brings the already chummy Tehran-Doha relationship even closer. Through its efforts to assist Qatar, Iran has helped derail a major power move by Riyadh. Finally, the Saudis have learned the hard way that President Trump’s enthusiasm for them will not translate to Washington blindly supporting actions or policies that benefit Saudi Arabia but simultaneously damage other US allies, as well as interests in the region.

Tuesday 4 July, 2017 Update: Can the US Help End the Qatar Crisis?

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As the Qatar crisis moves into a new phase with the Saudi deadline being extended by 48 hours, and the Qataris delivering a response to the ultimatum shortly after, it is becoming clear that the United States holds the key to resolving the crisis. All of the involved parties are US allies, and following his visit to the region in May, President Trump wields tremendous influence with the Gulf states. Mediation sponsored by the US would likely be favorable to both Qatar, and the Saudi-led coalition. Unfortunately, the United States is not be ready to assume the role at any point in the near future.

The Trump administration is divided on the Qatar situation right now. At the start of the crisis, President Trump unexpectedly voiced strong support for Saudi Arabia’s actions, and he has remained steadfast in his support since then. For most of June, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis worked tirelessly to defuse the crisis. Tillerson held meetings with senior officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations involved, urging them to keep the door to negotiations open. However, his efforts have been undermined by Trump’s vocal backing of the Saudis.

If the administration can unify under a somewhat more neutral position, the US is perfectly positioned to play a meaningful role in the crisis. Without a doubt, US interests are best served by a rapid end to the crisis on terms more or less agreeable to all sides. The longer the crisis drags on, it becomes more probable that outside forces will begin to play more dangerous, self-serving roles. Specifically, Iran, and Turkey come to mind. Neither Washington, or Riyadh want this. The difference is that the Saudis firmly believe they can choke Qatar into submission before either Iran or Turkey manage to gain influential political, and economic beachheads in Qatar.

A US backed effort to defuse the crisis through negotiations would go a long way in minimizing Turkish and Iranian influence on the Qataris. Unfortunately, the clock is not a friend of Washington right now, and the Trump administration does not appear to be anywhere close to presenting a united front on the crisis, and taking decisive action to alleviate the situation.

Monday 26 June, 2017 Update: Turkey Chimes In

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Qatar’s rejection of the demands issued by Saudi Arabia and its allies last week was widely expected and surprised few observers. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vocal support of the Qatari decision was not unforeseen either. However, the increasing role Turkey is taking in this crisis continues to raise eyebrows and questions. Erdogan labeled the ultimatum as being contrary to international law. The demand for Qatar to remove Turkish military personnel from its territory drew particular ire from Erdogan. He called the demand ‘disrespectful’ and stated that Turkey did not require permission to live up to its defense cooperation commitments.

Qatar and Turkey’s relationship was growing closer long before this crisis broke out at the beginning of the month. Both nations have similar ideologies and stances on regional issues. Neither considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization. The military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was strongly condemned by both Ankara and Doha, and the two nations share the same approach towards Iran. Following the failed coup in Turkey last year, Qatar’s emir was the first international leader to come out publicly in support of Erdogan. With Turkey’s increasing isolation on the international front, Qatar is considered a key ally.

So, the question is: how will Turkey’s involvement in this crisis play out? Although it is standing firmly beside Qatar, Erdogan does not want his nation to be regarded as anti-Saudi Arabia. Despite this hope, Riyadh’s demand that Turkish troops leave Qatar makes it clear the Saudis do not view Turkey as a positive influence in the region. Erdogan’s outspoken rhetoric, and bold actions since the crisis began has made the Saudi-led coalition suspicious of Turkey’s true intentions. Many diplomats feel its ultimate goal is to acquire permanent influence in regional matters, and that is an unappetizing prospect given Turkey’s stance on the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its perceived pro-Iran policies.

A major concern is what will happen if the current crisis leads to a coup in Doha, or a military confrontation. Will Turkey support Qatar militarily against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt? If Ankara decides to do it, what will the consequences be for Turkey’s relationship with the United States and NATO? Erdogan would be wise to consider these points as he attempts to embed himself and his nation deeper in this crisis.

 

Friday 23 June, 2017 Update: Riyadh’s List of Demands

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The economic and diplomatic blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and a select group of its allies is two and a half weeks old. Neither side has made much of an effort to alleviate the crisis. In fact, Doha and Riyadh seem to have used the time to dig their heels in even deeper. Attempts at mediation by Kuwait and other regional nations have resulted in nothing substantial. Vociferous Turkish support for Qatar, though self-serving, has served only to stoke the flames of anger and suspicion in Riyadh even more. The crisis has taken a back seat to other global matters and crises over time. The prime reason for this has been Saudi Arabia’s failure to present and explain its grievances with Qatar to the rest of the world.

As of today, however, that has changed. Today the Saudis delivered an ultimatum to Qatar, laying out in detail the terms Doha must agree to for the blockade to be lifted. The terms are heavy-handed, to say the least. The list of thirteen points include stipulations that Qatar shut down al-Jazeera, minimize its ties with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatari soil, and break off its relationship with groups that the Saudis and their anti-Qatari coalition consider to be terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has been given ten days to comply with the terms or else face undefined consequences.

Essentially, this is a list of demands, not so different from what a criminal gives to police when he finds himself barricaded with hostages. In that respect, this crisis has a few similarities with a hostage situation. The Saudis intentions here are as crucial as their actions. Riyadh could have made the terms so imposing in order to create room for negotiation and meet the Qataris somewhere in the middle. But the ultimatum could also be entirely straightforward and sincere. The Saudi terms do appear to mirror the laundry list of complaints that Riyadh, and its allies, have compiled against Qatar.

That being said, the demands are not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. Western nations are treading carefully through this diplomatic minefield, especially the United States. The US wants to see this crisis resolved amicably, as Washington understands that the longer it goes on, the greater the chance that Qatar will eventually align itself with Iran. At the same time, it wants to see the grievances between Qatar and its Gulf allies and neighbors resolved once and for all.