Biden Faces His First Disasters in Yemen and Afghanistan
If the Biden administration isn’t careful, it could soon find itself confronting at least two major disasters in the broader Middle East. The first: the permanent entrenchment in Yemen of an Iranian-backed Houthi regime—a version of Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, armed to the teeth with long-range precision weapons capable of targeting U.S. partners and interests across the region from Egypt and Israel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Monday’s reports of another barrage of lethal drones and ballistic missiles fired at targets across Saudi Arabia are just the latest reminder of how bad things can get.
The second disaster: the full-blown collapse of the U.S. and NATO position in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, who remain in league with al Qaeda terrorists who helped Osama bin Laden perpetrate the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington nearly 20 years ago.
U.S. President Joe Biden certainly didn’t create the dire circumstances the United States now faces in both countries. They’ve been in the works for years. But the policies his administration has pursued in its first two and a half months in office have almost certainly made two bad situations even worse. Equally clear is if the scope and consequences of these pending defeats for U.S. policy be fully realized, Biden will inevitably be saddled with the bulk of the blame.
The folly in Yemen is the most obvious. The administration entered office in high moral dudgeon, determined to punish the Saudis for their multitude of sins, including their inept and brutal prosecution of the war against the Houthis. Pending arms sales to the kingdom were immediately suspended. All support for Saudi offensive military operations ceased. The Trump administration’s last-minute decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization was reversed. An intelligence report announcing the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for the grisly 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was made public. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The casual observer of Biden’s start in office could have been forgiven for concluding that U.S. foreign policy had no higher purpose than finding new ways to demonstrate its disgust and disdain for the House of Saud.
What happened next should not have been a surprise—at least not for anyone who has spent more than five minutes analyzing who was on the other side of the Yemen conflict: a murderous band of radical ideologues in bed with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and determined to conquer most of Yemen in service to their slogan “Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.” You don’t have to be former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to appreciate the most likely response to a U.S. decision to pull the rug out from under the Saudi war effort would be a dangerous escalation of the Houthi military campaign.
The acceleration of rocket, drone, and ballistic missile attacks against Saudi towns, airports, and critical oil infrastructure has been unrelenting and breathtaking in its scope and audacity. It’s been coupled with a surge in the long-running Houthi effort to take the strategic city of Marib, the last toehold of the United Nations-recognized, Saudi-backed government in north-central Yemen and the location of the country’s largest oil and gas fields. Should the Houthis succeed, it would effectively be game over for the seven-year effort to block the consolidation of a Hezbollah-like revolutionary regime across northern Yemen, abutting the Red Sea and Saudi border, beholden to Tehran, and—much like their Lebanese counterpart—brandishing a rapidly growing arsenal of weapons capable of raining down destruction on high-value targets in every major U.S. regional ally with potentially catastrophic effects.
For its part, the Biden administration seems to be taken aback that a band of anti-United States fanatics backed by the IRGC ended up interpreting Biden’s promise to “reassess” relations with Riyadh as an open invitation to press their military advantage rather than lay down their arms. On more than one occasion, U.S. officials have expressed “alarm” that their good-faith peace gestures to end the war have triggered a major uptick in Houthi attacks on the kingdom. The administration’s spokespersons have dutifully condemned each new Houthi outrage. And they have repeatedly underscored their commitment to help Saudi Arabia protect its territory from the assaults, pledging “we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice.”
But it all rings a bit hollow. It’s hard not to read these statements as an effort to divert attention from the unfortunate reality that the administration’s policies, however well intentioned, have predictably been taken by the Houthis and their Iranian backers not as a sign of U.S. goodwill but as a sign of weakness and retreat that exacerbated the immediate threats faced by one of Washington’s oldest and most important Middle East partners.
That’s hardly a good look for a superpower that depends on its global alliances as a major asset in its intensifying competition against a rising China and revanchist Russia and where the credibility of the United States’ commitment is the coin of the realm. Biden officials can talk all they like about their resolve to help defend Saudi territory from Houthi missile and drone attacks. But those words sound rather empty when Washington has simultaneously cut off all assistance, including precision-guided munitions and target intelligence, for the sort of aggressive Saudi military actions in Yemen that are essential for suppressing those attacks.
Refusing to provide Saudi Arabia with the arms it needs to stop the targeting of its cities and infrastructure may be what passes for reliable U.S. support in the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party. But to the Saudis and many other countries that, for better or worse, have hitched their security to Washington’s wagon, it no doubt looks a whole lot more like abandonment—if not betrayal. Important corrective action by the Biden team would include reversing the suspension of U.S. arms deliveries and mobilizing an aggressive international effort to staunch the flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthis.
The Afghan government almost surely feels Riyadh’s pain. The United States has been negotiating Afghanistan’s future directly with the Taliban for more than two years, systematically marginalizing and undermining the country’s elected, U.S.-backed government. Biden inherited a deal the Trump administration made with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country by May 1—a virtual death sentence for the government in Kabul if it is implemented. That issue confronted Biden’s team early on with a fateful choice: It can fulfill Trump’s commitment and thereby accelerate the Taliban’s final victory, or it can delay the withdrawal and risk renewed Taliban attacks on U.S. forces.
Although the administration certainly can’t be blamed for the dilemma its predecessor foisted on it, it’s actually made the situation worse by adding insult to injury in terms of its mistreatment of the Afghan government. In early March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a dishonest and threatening letter that, for all intents and purposes, blamed Washington’s Afghan partner for the failure of peace talks with the Taliban to make progress. Nowhere did Blinken mention the Taliban have consistently rejected any form of power-sharing arrangements with the Afghan government, insisting instead the only acceptable political outcome is the full-blown restoration of the Taliban’s pre-2001 Islamist emirate. He made no mention of the fact that the Taliban exploited negotiations with the United States to dramatically escalate attacks on Afghan security forces and seize control of more territory. Nor did Blinken acknowledge that the Taliban have yet to take a single step to fulfill their own commitment to sever their long-standing alliance with al Qaeda.
A New York Times’ correspondent accurately characterized Blinken’s letter as using “language more likely to be used with an unruly schoolboy than a head of state.” Abandoning Afghanistan, an embattled ally fighting for its very existence, to a Taliban restoration will be traumatic enough for U.S. interests should that end up being Biden’s chosen course. But the damage done to Washington’s battered credibility in the eyes of allies around the world will be significantly compounded if the administration persists in insulting, humiliating, and kicking its Afghan partners on the way to the exits. The scapegoating should end immediately, further troop withdrawals delayed, and a comprehensive and sustainable plan developed to prevent the Afghan government’s precipitous unraveling.
In both Yemen and Afghanistan, the Biden administration is courting major dangers—not just that vehemently anti-United States forces will score victories in regions where important U.S. interests are at stake, but that they will be seen to have done so as an immediate result of Biden’s purposeful decisions to leave long-standing partners in the lurch. If that’s a theme that gains traction early in the administration’s tenure, as it now threatens to do, its corrosive effects could be very hard to shake.
The implications are particularly risky at a time when doubts about the United States’ will to sustain its global leadership role are intensifying, and near-peer competitors like China are making a growing play to take Washington’s place. In no time at all, a vicious cycle could develop that sees the United States’ adversaries mounting increased challenges while its traditional friends engage in more and more hedging behavior—distancing themselves from an increasingly unreliable patron, accommodating enemies, and trying to take matters into their own hands through risky and destabilizing military actions. Once such a cycle gains momentum, it could be very hard to reverse the resulting downward spiral—with potentially grave consequences both for Biden’s presidency and the United States.
John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Originally published in Foreign Policy