Limits to Power: Taliban In Kabul, Jailbreak In Israel
By Saeed Naqvi
What could possibly be common between the Taliban brandishing their weapons in Kabul and Palestinians twirling their spoons (yes, teaspoons) with a flourish? Well, the latter were celebrating because six Palestinian prisoners had pulled off a seemingly impossible escape from the high security Gilboa prison in Northern Israel. Clearly an embarrassment for a state which flaunts national security as a marketable commodity. The spoon has become an emblem because the six used it as an implement to dig a hole in the toilet attached to their cell.
The prisoners, according to Israeli authorities, were affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to the Times of Israel, the leader of the group, Zakaria Zubeidi, was “a former commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.” That Zubeidi and three others (at the time of writing) have been arrested is a separate chapter. Kabul and Gilboa establish without any shadow of a doubt a reality all too common in history: limits to power. In this instance, the US globally and its ally Israel, regionally — particularly considering its stalemate with Arab militias like Hezbollah.
Massive intelligence failure attended both the events. True, a jailbreak cannot be compared with the reconquest of a country but that is not the way Palestinians see it. The Times of Israel reports: “The escape is considered a highly symbolic success for the terror groups. It is being celebrated with ‘euphoria’ among Palestinians.”
The Taliban, likewise, in the initial flush are folk heroes in Afghanistan and beyond having done a David on Goliath. To bring out the irony in sharp focus on the US debacle in Afghanistan, recall the January 29, 2002, State of the Union address by President George W Bush. The President sketched in bold colours the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Ironies upon ironies attend that speech. Bush welcomes Hamid Karzai as “leader of liberated Afghanistan.” Karzai is now under house arrest. Bush gloats “Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay.” There is a disconcerting update on this too. Not only have the Taliban returned to power in Kabul, at least five in the new Kabul power structure were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2015.
What does all this portend? Is a phase of Imperialism coming full circle? One cannot expect US President Joe Biden to say it in quite that language, but what else does one make of his promise to end “never ending” wars. American youth, who are now 20 years of age, have never seen “America at peace.” Suicide rate among military veterans as high as 18 per day? Biden clearly abhors this data.
The problem, of course is, that Biden is only the President, not the system. Even so he is proceeding with some sense of the consensus he has forged around him. For him to declassify the secret FBI report which reveals the connection of Saudi Nationals to 9/11, indicates a sharp departure from past practice. Remember the days of George W Bush and his buddy Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, or Bandar Bush as he was called because of his chumminess with the President? Those days seem like ancient history, days when Israel and Saudi Arabia were equally sacrosanct. Both had to be protected from bad copy.
And now even military protection is being withdrawn. In recent weeks the US removed its most advanced missile defense system, and Patriot batteries from the Kingdom which faces attacks from, say, Houthis in Yemen. Troop reductions from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan have also been confirmed by the Pentagon. Departure from Afghanistan will remain vivid in our minds for years. Despite these stories every American strategist will tell you “the Middle East is not being abandoned.” There is that ‘over the horizon’ capability which includes updated drones. British premier Boris Johnson calls it “outside-in” ability.
Israel, which is busy adjusting to limits on its power as a concept, must place in its calculus the US distancing itself from the Arab theatre. Yes, support for Israel in the US remains durable — Jewish control of banks, media, institutes of learning, election, finance. What is not so well known is what Noam Chomsky describes as much the most powerful support for Israel — Christian Zionism. Former Israeli Ambassador in the US, Ron Dermer, has urged Israel to prioritise maintaining the support of the American evangelical Christian. It must be assiduously wooed. “People must understand that the backbone of support for Israel in the US is the evangelical Christian.” The quote is from The Palestinian Policy Network, Al-Shabaka. Israel can breathe easy because there is no indication of Biden distancing himself from this line of thinking.
US thinning out from the region will accentuate popular perception of Israel’s exclusive support base inside the US. As Israel rolls its eyes around to size up the neighbourhood for subtle adjustments, it will find to its chagrin, Iran undiminished. Houthis in Yemen, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, groups supportive of President Assad in Syria and increasing reports of Iranian role in Afghanistan, initiated by the late Quds Commander, Qasem Soleimani — all of these enhance Iran’s position in the region. The cookie in Afghanistan having crumbled the way it has, Iran’s role in this theatre may in the future be of interest to the US.
The launch of AUKUS (Australia, UK and US), an idea borrowed conceptually from ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and US) against the Soviet Union, shows the urgency Biden accords to what Barack Obama called ‘pivot to Asia’. The pivot was of much greater saliency. West Asia, though still important, had placed a disproportionate demand on Washington’s attention. The nuclear deal conferred on Tehran the kind of legitimacy that was to have enabled it to balance power in the region. This would be in concert with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey. The regional balance of power would then require less day-to-day attention, freeing Washington to pay greater attention to the pivot. That appears to be the route on Biden’s GPS.”
Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal.