The rise and dominance of European empires in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave birth to two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The two nations were collaborators during World War II. But they turned into a vicious rival during the Cold War (1947-1991), a global conflict that lasted almost five decades. What had driven this conflict? The ideological differences and an unquenched thirst to dominate! The US de facto pledge to capitalism and democracy while the Soviet’s commitment to communism escalated the rivalry. The principal characteristic of the Cold War was proxy confrontations such as Korean War and Vietnam War. Not a direct, face to face warfare tactic was adopted where the two opponents lock the horns on the battlefield.
You must know that the relationship of the United States with the Middle East was all peaceful when the US appeared as a superpower first time. The consensus preceding the Cold War in many parts of the Middle East was that the US is pure of any imperialistic objectives. But the advent of the Cold War set the Middle East on fire. Both the US and Soviet Union felt that this central location would be a suitable battle arena to confront each other. Why did they think the Middle East was an essential region? The core reason perhaps was that the travel and trade routes (land, sea or air), which connects East to West, could be the vital strategic tools in war. In addition, both the superpowers craved to have ‘friends’ in the Middle East because of their extensive oil and energy reserves.
After identifying the significance of the Middle East, they competed with one another to build alliances with different Middle Eastern regimes. The Soviet Union’s influence in the region was making roads during the 1950s. The US was constantly finding ways to neutralize these developments. To further their efforts to curb Soviet power, the United States decided to take Saudi Arabia as an ally. The US understood that Islam as a political tool could be a vital weapon to deracinate the Soviet Union from the region.
The different ethnic groups in Afghanistan united against the Soviet Union troops installed to support the communist government came to power in 1978. The US also offered resources, weapons and guerrilla warfare tactics to the politically motivated Afghans. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a project worth $51 million. They printed millions of school textbooks, which glorified jihad, celebrated martyrdom and dehumanised Soviet Union—the foreign invaders. This schoolbook is on display in National Army Museum in London to demonstrate ‘the reality’ about their society. The USAID stopped funding this project in 1994, but countless copies of such texts were in circulation in the late 1990s and 2000s. Finally, the Afghans drove the Soviets out from their land in 1989, and the great Soviet superpower collapsed in 1991.
Meanwhile, Americans started spreading their imperial wings in the Middle East and one of the examples was the deployment of their troops in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). A group of the same Afghan resistance forces emerged against the US and laid the foundation of al-Qaeda as they opposed the increasing American presence in the Middle East. This group revolted against their former benefactor and collaborator—the United States because of their continuous encroachment on Muslim land. The same people were behind the unfortunate 9/11 attack.
In the post 9/11 analysis, President George W. Bush and his administration offered no critical assessment on such factors and their long involvement in the Middle East. They picked the easily accessible explanation for such attacks: the clash of civilisations—a theory invented and popularised by Zionist scholars like Bernard Lewis and his colleague Huntington. The President created a binary between superior and civilised “us” and malign and backward “them”. Thus, the clash between both was inevitable. Lewis had a significant influence in the Bush administration, which reflected when the clash of civilisations was considered the ideological foundation for the “War on Terror”. The clash of civilisation theory was meant to establish that something inherently problematic within Islam that made all Muslims into violent terrorists. Bush even used the terminology “crusade” to refer to “War on Terror”, which implies a holy war against Muslims, reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
The nexus between power and knowledge needed additional fuel to charge their imperial circuits. They then used the portrayals of Afghan Women in the popular imaginary to legitimize Western intervention. Dr Nivi Manchanda (Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London) critically uncovered Anglo-American portrayals of Afghan women after 9/11. She demonstrates how the discourse of ‘saving women’ composes Afghanistan, particularly its women, as an object of ‘empirical’ knowledge and physical intervention. She argues, “The preoccupation with the markers of physical or visible difference—evident in the declaration that the clothes these women wear are windows to ‘their’ mindsets, soul and lifeways—is an overt tactic in the preservation of the (Western) Self. The posting of the Other women as fundamentally, indeed visibly, different is used to cast her as either intrinsically suspicious or as needing to be rescued and ‘normalised’.” Her critique on undermining the agency of the Afghan women, and exploiting them as a channel to stigmatise Afghanistan, particularly Islam, can be found in the recently published book “Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of imperial Knowledge”.
The US received solid support from the UN security council and other international organisations. Ultimately, the Bush administration launched attacks on Afghanistan to cure “Islamic terrorism”—the terminology exclusively associating terrorism to a religion of 2 billion people. Such language of placing the word Islamic with terrorism or fascism or extremism reinforced the purportedly tangible and organic link between Islam and barbarism. It diffused a message to the world that this war was against Islam. Therefore, this connection between Islam and violence permeated into world political discourse with time. The continuous reiteration and dissemination of these engineered tropes and stereotypes gradually ossified in minds as the ‘truths’.
Later in 2003, the US forces invaded Iraq to disassemble Saddam Hussain’s regime and established new governments under their control. The US administration made a case to drive local and international support that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam hid al-Qaeda members. Since the US had nothing to substantiate these charges, the critics continuously pressured them to reveal their ambitions for invading Iraq. The American administration invoked Islamophobic narratives to drive support on a larger scale.
What was the “War on Terror”, if not a new colonialism, this time claiming to civilise the Other of their ‘innate terrorism’? It exhausted their resources and led to almost 117,000 innocent dead in Iraq and 19,000 in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2003. This mobilisation of terror to purportedly overcome terror also razed most of the basic infrastructure in these countries such that it affected health supply and clean water, resulting in widespread disease and more deaths. In addition, approximately 4 million Iraqis and 2.7 million Afghans, as estimated by 2013, were displaced and scattered to over 80 countries. The refugees often live in poor conditions and are therefore vulnerable to diseases and death.
Afghanistan is an inherently violent state in the Western imaginary. According to the west, they have little to do with this violence.
Muhammad Zuhair is a PhD scholar (Geosciences) at Monash University based in Australia. He is a founding member of the Australia India Muslim Forum (AIMF), an educative initiative to spread awareness regarding the effects and operations of global Islamophobia, Hindutva and settler colonialism. Besides Science, Zuhair is interested in History, Islamic Sciences, Sociology and Geopolitics.