It’s far too soon to know what will come out of Afghanistan, but it is a timely reminder to think in terms of relationships before transactions, writes former diplomat David Landsman
I had intended to write this month about the Middle East. I wanted to explain why the rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States like the UAE is likely to endure, and why a serious rapprochement between the US and Iran (and so a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions) remains extremely unlikely under President Biden as it was under President Trump.
But then came the news of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the frighteningly quick Taliban takeover, so it seemed odd to carry on with the piece I’d planned as though nothing had happened.
But in fact, what’s happening in Afghanistan illustrates perfectly what I was planning to say on Israel, the Gulf and Iran. Israel and the UAE have much to gain from working together. Just look at the recent surge of co-operation in, to mention just a few sectors, tourism (Covid notwithstanding), tech and the law.
At the same time, they have much to fear from Iran. As the era of Clinton and Bush is succeeded by the era of Obama, Trump and Biden (yes, the last three all fit together, as this week shows), they can be less confident that the US backstop will be there for them.
Meanwhile, Iran can’t trust the US and, because the US is sure it can’t trust Iran, Biden’s room for manoeuvre domestically for reinstating the JCPOA is vanishingly small.
Even if both sides – and the world – would benefit from a stable deal between the US (along with Europe) and Iran, it’s not one I’d stake my money on.
Unlike many of my former diplomatic colleagues, I’m not an expert on Afghanistan so won’t give you a view. Personally, I was always sceptical, not least about the ‘mission creep’ which took us from taking out Al Qaeda to trying to transform Afghanistan, dressed up with the conceit of ‘nation building’ – which makes most sense to the cadre of ‘experts’ whose expertise is on anything other than the country itself.
Maybe it could have succeeded in the end, but certainly not on the timescale that, as we’ve been reminded this week, the Western attention span can cope with. It has, after all, been tried unsuccessfully several times before.
A major theme of Peter Frankopan’s masterly The Silk Roads is that timescales and memories are so much longer in the East than in the ‘modern’ West. They know their history and remember how our ancestors behaved decades and centuries ago: so, they’re incredulous (or worse) when they find that we seem to believe that the only world that matters began in the last twenty years.
This reminds me of those ‘doing business in [one remote country or another]’ guides which start by insisting that you can’t expect to do business in a transactional manner and have to invest time and effort in building a relationship of trust.
Building trust involves trying to understand where the other person is coming from and how he (or she) sees you. Those of us who come from the US or the UK in particular, even if we have no connection with the Governments of those countries, will now have to come to terms with the fact that this week’s developments in Afghanistan have reinforced that sense of Western short-termism which undermines trust.
This is of course only one part of what I think of as the ‘Great Power’ syndrome: just as we have our stereotypes when we go abroad, others have them too. As a British diplomat, it often seemed that my country’s powers were being over-estimated – which can feel great but is not necessarily a good thing.
When something happened, it must be because we wanted it to. When we said we couldn’t deliver what was being asked, it must be because we didn’t want to help because we didn’t like the person asking.
This isn’t of course always rational. While the ‘Great Powers’ were all-powerful at the strategic level, on the ground we could be easily outwitted. To those who’ve done deals in ‘challenging’ environments, that might seem quite familiar.
It’s far too soon to know what will come out of Afghanistan, though it’s hard to be optimistic. But it will without a doubt have an impact on how those who ‘represent’ the West are seen, business as well as governments. The only answer, as always, is to think in terms of relationships before transactions: which ones are more likely to endure – and how we can build up our own.