By Niu Xinchun
US President Biden announced recently that all American troops in Afghanistan would be pulled back before September 11 this year, ending the 20-year war, the longest in American history. The withdrawal is symbolic as there are only 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, far from enough to affect the global strategic landscape.
The Afghan and Iraqi people will be most seriously impacted by the troop withdrawal as the two countries may be exposed to greater instability and turmoil for some time to come. Washington pulling its troops back before the post-war reconstruction is completed will destroy the fragile political balance in the region and aggravate regional turmoil in the short term, throwing the local people into greater misery.
Although the troop withdrawal is more symbolic and substantive, it reflects America’s intention of strategic contraction in the Middle East, which will greatly impact the political situation in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the center and pillar of the Middle East’s security order, and the security of regional countries depends largely on their relations with the US. In recent years, however, the US has kept releasing signals of strategic congtraction, with the upcoming comprehensive withdrawal being a culmination should it really come through, prompting regional countries to scramble for the vacuum of power left by Washington.
For America’s companions, since the Americans are no longer reliable, they must either find a new patron or rely on themselves; for America’s rivals, since the US is about to leave, it will soon be their turn to strut their stuff. As a result, countries in the region will no longer be limited to the pro-US or anti-US option but can diversify their diplomatic relations to strike a new balance among the US, Europe, Russia, and China.
The Middle East has never seen so many neck-and-neck protagonists on its political stage, nor has it ever seen so complicated a combination of power. The deep involvement of Israel, Iran, and Turkey in Arabian politics will lend a grave shock to the old landscape that’s already toppling. Still, a new landscape has not unfolded yet – the transition period is usually the most tumultuous.
America’s withdrawal of troops and strategic contractionwill affect the Middle East situation, but only to a limited extent. It will leave a strategic vacuum, but there will be no fierce struggle since major countries in the world have no intention of dominating the region. The US remains the most influential power there, but with much weaker confidence, will, and resolve to interfere. It is no longer the sole hegemon that designs, steers, and maintains the regional situation but is receding to be “first of the pack”.
America’s strategic contraction gives Russia the chance to return to the Middle East. Since 2015, Moscow, with Syria as the pivot, has maneuvered its relations with such Middle East countries as Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel, and Iraq and come back to the center of the regional strategic map. But the region has neither seen a so-called “US-Russia strategic rivalry” nor the alleged “a new Cold War between China and the US”.
The US is contracting its claws, Russia is biding its time, Europe is having its own plate full, and China is cautious – the once much-contended Middle East has become unattractiveto major countries for the first time.
The US floated the idea of shifting its strategic focus to the Asia Pacific in Obama’s term, and the Middle East has not been the center of its global strategy ever since. The China-US struggle is a strategic game between major countries while pulling troops from Afghanistan is just a tactical move – they cannot be mentioned in the same breath, and the US doesn’t count on the 2,500 troops from Afghanistan to deter China. Many people in the US are rooting for the quick troop withdrawal as part of the efforts to concentrate all energy on confronting China, but that’s just face-saving rhetoric to gloss over their crestfallen retreat from the Middle East.
Editor’s note: The author is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. And this article is originally published on huanqiu.com, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.