by Neville Teller
Israel was not directly involved in the events surrounding the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and it would be reasonable to assume that the main effect on Israel of the US’s undignified scramble out of the country was simply that one more radical Islamist regime had been added to its sworn enemies.
There was a more direct consequence, though – the wave of triumphalism that swept across the jihadist world following the Taliban victory. It engendered a mood that stiffened anti-US and anti-Israel hostility. Israel’s enemies – Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the east, ISIS in Sinai in the south, Iran and the Iran-backed militias operating in Syria, Iraq, Yemen – all are recorded as having rejoiced at America’s discomfiture.
Whatever spin the Biden administration chooses to put on the debacle, Islamists are well aware that the events of August 2021 represent a turning point in jihadi-Western relations. With the possible exception of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, jihadist conflicts have rarely ended in success for the extremists. In 2021 the Taliban emerged as the undoubted victors of the 20-year war. Jihadist militias would forever hold up that undisputed triumph as proof positive that the West and Western values were far from invincible.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas in Gaza, phoned to congratulate the Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar. The victory, he said, “is a prelude to the demise of all occupation forces, foremost of which is the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” Baradar, in turn, wished Palestine “victory and empowerment as a result of their resistance.”
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah, said: “This is a portrayal of America’s full defeat and the US demise and failure in the region.”
Fighters from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen celebrated the Taliban’s return to power with fireworks and gunfire. In a statement, the group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), declared: “This victory and empowerment reveals to us that jihad and fighting is the only realistic way that is compliant with Islamic law to restore rights and expel the invaders and occupiers.”
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which is based in frontier regions in neighboring Pakistan, described the events as a “victory for the whole Islamic world”, while Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said during a ceremony in Islamabad that the Afghans have broken the “shackles of slavery.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Syrian-based group that formally split from al-Qaeda in 2016 and now dominates the north-western province of Idlib. One senior member of the group described the Taliban takeover as “a victory for Muslims, a victory for the Sunnis, a victory for all the oppressed.”
A victory for the Sunnis was not Iran’s perspective. It viewed the events through the other end of the telescope, emphasizing the defeat for America and the West. It welcomed the departure of US forces and pledged to work with the Taliban government. New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said: “America’s military defeat must become an opportunity to restore life, security, and durable peace in Afghanistan.”
Unsavory as all this gloating and jubilation is to Western ears, it was impossible to ignore the irony in the iconic date originally selected by Biden for the final withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan – September 11. Although he could not have foreseen the rapidity of the Taliban conquest, nor the speed with which the Afghan government and military forces would collapse, when the 20th anniversary of 9/11 dawned – a bitter enough date in all conscience – the Taliban, the target of the US invasion in 2001, was in undisputed control of Afghanistan. The wheel had come full circle.
As well as its effect on Israel’s enemies, America’s loss of prestige will undoubtedly have an effect also on its friends. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the UAE, and perhaps even Egypt and Jordan will be wondering whether the US is able, or indeed now wants, to regain its pre-eminent position in the Middle East.
One fortuitous, and unforeseeable, effect of the US retreat has been to strengthen Israel’s position on the political scene. Some commentators believe that major regional players are already reassessing the political landscape. With the US playing a reduced role, Israel’s position as a major regional power strengthens, and particularly so in the continuing effort of many states to restrain Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region by acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
Israel has another, somewhat bizarre, connection to the developing situation in Afghanistan. The Pashtun are a large ethnic group within the country, more than 15 million strong and forming some 40 percent of the population. The Taliban themselves originated as a Pashtun tribal movement, and still today hold great power in the Pashtun’s cultural heartland in Afghanistan’s south. But, as the media network i24News discovered, the Pashtun community is far from united with respect to the Taliban. Many served in the Afghan National Army and support the democratization fostered by the coalition. Both of the country’s recent former presidents are Pashtun.
Also unearthed by i24News is the fact that within Pashtun consciousness there is a bond of empathy with Israel. Well-established within Pashtun tradition, but little known outside it except to some anthropologists, is the theory that the Pashtuns are descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. This belief runs strong in Pashtun folklore, and although most Pashtun are Sunni Muslim, some feel a strong connection to Judaism and the theories about their Israelite origins. i24News quotes one Pashtun Afghan as saying: “”We both have the same blood. We are Bnei Israel (sons of Israel),” and another: “Israel is my country”.
Whether the philosemitic strand that runs deep within Pashtun tradition could ever influence future Israeli-Afghanistan relations is a matter for intriguing speculation.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com