The Middle East is a land where prophets walked, where civilizations rose and a place where much history and culture was created. Unfortunately it has also been a consistent victim of war and violence, and the turn of the 20th century exemplifies this reality more than ever. Today, the Middle East is more associated with dictators like Bashar Al-Assad and terrorist organizations along the lines of ISIS and Al Qaeda than with its amazing culture, history, and people. The question is: how did this come to be?
One can point to many factors, such as a lack of structured bureaucratic institutions due to Ottoman and European colonialism, or a lack of unity spurred from nation-states which hold competing ethnic groups. However, American foreign policy and its mistakes have been one of the biggest culprits. For the past 70 years, American foreign policy has been the ultimate cause for the destabilization of the Middle East. It has involved America funding and arming terrorist groups, militarily intervening with imperfect execution, holding their oil interests above the interests of the local population.
Arming and funding terrorist groups:
Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has continuously funded proxy groups to fight wars on its behalf in order to further its interests. In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States funnelled monetary assistance to the Afghan Mujahideen to fight off the expansion of the USSR’s ‘Iron Curtain’. According to Jason Furke of the Guardian, the CIA gave over $500 million to groups in Afghanistan, enabling them to conduct guerilla warfare against the Soviets. One of the main leaders of these groups was Osama bin Laden, who used his family fortune from Saudi Arabia to aid the resistance in Afghanistan. The United States had so much admiration for these fighters that President Ronald Reagan famously said, "These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of the founding fathers". The United States also provided billions of dollars to an Islamist military dictatorship in Pakistan to help train and equip the Mujahideen.
After the Soviets retreated in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war with competing factions fighting for control. Large areas of Afghanistan would fall under the control of the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar, a strict fundamentalist who wanted to impose Sharia Islamic law in Afghanistan. Twelve years later, as the events of 9/11 transpired, the United States would be hunting for Osama bin Laden and would wage war against the same groups, this time not as freedom fighters but as terrorists.
This is a classic example of how the United States created its own problem by focusing on one particular interest but ignoring the future consequences that could follow. In the case of Afghanistan, the United States was determined to stop Soviet expansion, but ignored the consequences of funding, equipping and propping up the most radical elements of Afghan society. These very same elements would later form the Taliban and shelter Osama bin Laden. One can make the argument that the threat of Soviet expansion was too great a threat, and the United States simply had to act. Whilst this argument has an element of truth, the United States also had a responsibility to ensure the stability of Afghanistan after the Soviets retreated which they failed to do.
Military interventions with imperfect planning and execution:
Another way in which US foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East is through its imperfect military interventions, the most famous of these being its invasion of Iraq in 2003. To begin with, the war was advertised with the wrong premise of attempting to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The war should have been advertised as a liberation of the Iraqi people from the brutal tyrant, Saddam Hussain. This message would have resonated better with the international community and the Iraqi people, especially as Saddam Hussein’s brutality could be considered ‘satanic’. An example of this is when Saddam ordered his army to launch a chemical attack on Kurdish villages, killing 40,000-100,000 Kurds. Known as ‘The Anfal’, this genocide happened between 1986 to 1989.
Secondly, the method and planning behind the invasion were flawed, resulting in far too many civilian deaths. The US should have done a better job to avoid collateral damage. According to Kerry Sheridan of the Huffington Post, over half a million Iraqi civilians died due to war related causes since the start of the American invasion in 2003. Reckless bombing has only spurred on terrorism in the region and has allowed terrorist groups to recruit new members, capitalizing on the peoples anger and resentment towards the US. According to an article by Quartz, top US military generals working under the Bush administration said that “drone strikes in particular are creating more terrorists than they’re killing”. If America wants to stop the rise of terrorist groups, America “should stop the barbaric blind bombings that are fueling radicalization”.
Prematurely withdrawing forces from the war-torn country in 2011 is another example of how imperfect execution during the Iraq war led to the current destabilization of the region. Whereas Bush made the mistake of invading, Obama made the mistake of prematurely pulling troops out when the country was in absolute turmoil. Iraq as a nation was created by the British empire to serve their oil interests in the region. In the process of doing this, the British paid no attention to ethnic divisions and formed a fragmented country with no definite national identity. Surprisingly Saddam Hussain, with his utilization of brutality and tyranny, came the closest to holding this fragmented country together. When the US removed him and left, they created a power vacuum which allowed groups like ISIS to rise, and enabled terror funding states like Iran to have a larger presence. Ideally, the US should have remained in Iraq for an extended period until a viable solution would have been created to solve the communal differences in the country. A possible idea could have been to implement a three-way-president system such as that followed in Bosnia & Herzegovina. A Sunni Arab president, a Shia Arab president, and a Kurdish president would allow total representation of all three major groups in Iraq. Not learning from its mistakes, the US and NATO did something similar in Libya, but to get into that would make this article into a book!
Oil interest superseding those of the local population:
Another example of how American foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East is the United States’ continuous placement of its petroleum interests above the interests of the local population. After the end of World War 2, oil became the most important commodity in the world. To ensure they had sufficient and sustained access to oil, the US made it their number one priority to ensure the free flow of oil from the Middle East. Therefore, if any oil rich country became hostile towards the US or sought to stop the free flow of oil, the US would try to immediately intervene to preserve their interests. A perfect example of this is the CIA backed coup in 1953 to topple the Iranian government. The Iranian people elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was widely loved for his social and economic policies, the most notable of these being the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. The aim of this was to bring the once British controlled Iranian-Anglo Oil Company under the control of the Iranian government and its people. In an initiative to take back control of Iranian oil, the CIA along with British intelligence orchestrated two coups in Iran to place Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power. The U.S and U.K believed they could count on Shah Mohammad to allow for more British involvement in the Iranian oil industry. Although the Shah wanted a more liberal society, he would go on to brutally oppress the people of Iran to achieve this. This and many other factors would lead to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which would lead to Iran becoming even more anti-western and radicalized. Now Iran plays a major role in funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah and furthering the sectarian divide in the Middle East. These events are the direct result of a US led coup to topple a democratically elected leader, simply because he wanted to act in the interests of his people and nationalize the oil industry so oil revenue could be redirected towards the Iranian people.
In conclusion, American foreign policy has been one of the biggest contributors to the destabilization of the Middle East post World War 2. Of course, there are many other factors which have also contributed to this destabilization, yet it must be stated that the US was the major party which had the greatest ability to limit its mistakes. Toppling leaders to preserve oil interests, funding terrorist groups and invading on false premises further destabilized a region where peace and harmony have always been fragile.
The Middle East today is in a dire situation. It is at a crossroads, and not even the best insiders can predict where the region will be in five years. The US has made mistakes, and at this point needs to refill the ditch it has dug for itself. It cannot simply have a pacifist and withdrawn stance towards the region, rather it must continue to involve itself in the region. This needs to be done through giving aid to countries like Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, which continue to hold thousands of refugees from the region who have become ‘collateral damage’. It should also hold a strong military presence in Iraq, not just to stop Iranian influence but also to hold ground until a viable solution is created for the future of the country.
The US must choose: will it learn from its mistakes and solve the problems, or will it let other much less responsible nations such as Russia, Israel, Turkey, and Iran take over the region and plunge into absolute chaos.
Muhammad Asfand Yar
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Kohn, Sally. “Drone Strikes Are Creating Hatred towards America That Will Last for Generations.” Qz, Quartz, 9 Dec. 2015, https://qz.com/569779/drone-strikes-are-creating-hatred-towards-america-that-will-last-for-generations/
Sheridan, Kerry. “Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start Of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says.” Huffingtonpost, 15 Oct. 2003, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/iraq-death-toll_n_4102855.html."
“I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities.”
Josef Broz Tito, a charismatic and divisive socialist leader famously uttered the above words describing Yugoslavia. He envisaged his nation to be a torchbearer in overcoming ethno-religious tensions through autonomous and decentralized governance, whilst gravitating towards certain common interests. The central design behind such a structure was to integrate a group of regions blessed with different yet diverse resources and encourage an unheralded form of cooperation which would lead to the formation of a stable, developed nation. Post-imperialism, in theory Yugoslavia was one of three nations that represented a beacon of hope for a new world order.
In reality however, the ship began to burn as soon as its journey began. India, one of the aforementioned nations, underwent a bloody partition which split the subcontinental region along religious lines. After the death of Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia descended into a series of civil wars between the ethnic groups that lived within its boundaries. These events led to the creation of separate nations, formed on the basis of the ethno-religious differences that had failed to be overcome. These nations still harbor resentment towards each other as a result of the destructive turn of events that led towards their creation. However, they are now relatively stable and have enjoyed certain measures of success.
However, it is the third and final nation that remains knee-deep in chaos and strife. At its peak, Iraq was a key region for the Abbasid Islamic Caliphate. Its capital Baghdad was established as a major city of culture and knowledge at the time (a position it has failed to reclaim since being sacked by the Mongols). At present, the country is in ruins, deeply divided amongst sectarian lines and feebly attempting to emerge from dictatorships and a series of devastating wars. Although the clear majority of the population is descended from one ethnic group and follows the same religion, the lines of divide are formed via sectarianism. Around two thirds of the population follow the Shia sect of Islam, whereas one-third follows the Sunni sect. Although historically these sects have lived in peace, recent history and external forces (namely the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran) have amplified the divide which has led to the conflict we see today. Sprinkled into this casserole of religious conflict is an ethnic divide with the Kurdish population in the north of the country and the Arabs that constitute the remainder of the demographic. With common consensus that Iraq has failed as a state, a question that is increasingly being asked is whether Iraq should be split into three separate nations.
The three-state theory proposes one state for the Sunni Muslims in the northern region of Iraq, one state for the Shia Muslims in the southern region bordering Iran, and a Kurdish state in the north bordering Turkey and Syria. Primarily, one of the theoretical advantages of such a division is an immediate end to the current spate of conflicts occurring across the nation. With the removal of ethno-religious divides, such a proposal can provide these independent nations with the chance to form concrete foreign policies and trade agreements under the umbrella of their parent influences (Saudi Arabia for the Sunni region and Iran for the Shia region). Limiting conflict can also provide an avenue for foreign investment to re-enter the region, and additionally limit the resonant effects of violence and extremism on Iraq’s neighbours such as Syria and Lebanon, which have historically suffered. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages to the region of such a resolution in general is the chance for democratic principles to finally flourish. Iraq’s political institutions have been damaged by centuries of occupation, and for much of its modern history the only systematic way to govern the nation was by crushing religious tensions with an iron fist, easily done through the series of dictatorships Iraq has undergone since obtaining independence from the British.
However, one of the key barriers to this proposal is that of the major natural resource available to Iraq, and the resource that has developed the Arab nations as we know them: oil. The majority of Iraq’s vast swathes of oil reserves are in the south of the nation, which would place them under Shia control. In the unlikely situation that this is accepted by a predominantly Sunni state, over the long term this could lead to a significant discrepancy in income and development, fueling the possibility of cross border tensions. Additionally, despite its relative lack of urbanization, major cities such as Baghdad remain diverse in nature, and an exodus of families may lead to cultural flight as well as a struggle with redistribution and administration of evacuee property that a newly formed government will most likely be unable to address. Finally, the major point of debate is whether creating new states in the Levant region is the correct path forward, particularly as Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to widen their spheres of influence. The worry is whether newly formed and unauthoritative governments will look to these regional powers for support, and eventually become puppet nations.
It remains to be seen what direction the international community chooses to send Iraq in. If it is indeed a partition of the country, it spells the end of the idea of a democratic nation breaking past ethno-religious lines to focus on a common goal. Rather it then becomes critical to refocus on whether such an arrangement can only exist with the rule of an ‘iron fist’, such as in China, or whether in the future we will see a map consisting of small states based on common ethnicity and religion. However, regardless of whether or not this is a proposition that the is implemented, one thing is clear: decades of consistent warfare and destruction in Iraq has brought the country to its knees, and with it the last remnant of many hopes.
A nation of immense size and economic potential, the People’s Republic of China has established itself as a global superpower over the last decade. The nation has exerted its grip on world politics, using various forms of economic diplomacy to establish key allies across the region in order for economic and political benefit. In effect, China has not been afraid to flex its financial muscle, announcing $46 billion worth of infrastructure investment in Pakistan (CNN, 2015), a nation it views as a crucial part in its plans to gain access to the trade routes across the Indian Ocean and reduce its reliance on the increasingly volatile Pacific area, as well as demonstrating a stronger hold on international financial institutions such as the IMF. With ever increasing political instability in the United States, it is certain that China will continue its extravagant foreign spending to consolidate the considerable advantage it is beginning to gather in world politics. To the average onlooker, China portrays itself as a secure and stable nation with an ever increasing global outreach.
However, this image could not be more incorrect. China is facing a substantial internal crisis in one of its autonomous regions, Xinjiang.
China’s territory consists of five autonomous regions: Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Ningxia (China Today, 2017). These regions have a different ethnic distribution to the rest of mainland China, where the Han Chinese group enjoys a clear majority. Xinjiang is home to a majority Uighur population, however recently the population of Han Chinese in the area has grown significantly, with economic migrants hoping to benefit from the increased job creation in the resource rich area. The Uighurs are a Turkic Central Asian people who have historically had a strained relationship with the Han-Chinese due to the religious differences between the two groups. The majority of Han Chinese are atheist or follow more traditional East Asian beliefs such as Taoism and Buddhism, whereas Uighurs are mainly Sunni Muslim. The majority of Uighurs reside in Xinjiang, which was incorporated into the Republic of China as a province after the Chinese Civil War in 1949 (ThoughtCo, 2015) and was later classified as an autonomous region in October 1955. (Council of Foreign Relations, 2012)
In theory, Xinjiang is governed by its own independent local government and possesses greater legislatives rights than Chinese provinces, something that should provide the Uighur minority with greater influence on the administration of their region. In reality however, the Communist Party of China has forced an authoritarian rule upon Xinjiang, cracking down on freedom of religion and freedom of speech on the Uighurs, even going as far as resorting to violence to control the area. While the Uighurs complain of marginalization, discrimination and a campaign of ethnic dilution, the Chinese government accuses separatist agendas of encouraging religious extremism in the region. China’s accusations are not unfounded, with various militant groups operating in the area. The most famous of these groups is the Turkistan Islamic Party, a group that has been labelled by China, the US and the UN Security Council as a ‘terrorist organization’ with links to various extremist groups in the Middle East and South Asia (Human Rights Watch, 2005). The TIP is active throughout the country and has instigated many attacks against the ethnic Han Chinese population, including a deadly bombing in Kashgar before the 2008 Olympics that left 16 policemen dead (Telegraph, 2008). More recently, the political unrest in Xinjiang since the introduction of various government policies restricting freedom of religion has culminated in a series of violent attacks, including a knife attack in February 2017 carried out by Uighur separatists. (The Star , 2017).
However, China has laid out policies in the region that have led to Uighurs feeling more alienated than ever before, with many accusing the Chinese government of a campaign to marginalize the Uighur ethnicity, given that terror attacks in the name of separation have been few and far between since the early 1990’s. The main issue of contention is the clampdown of religious freedoms in Xinjiang, especially on the Muslim majority. The Chinese government has clamped down on organized religious activities in the region, purged schools of religious teachers and students and regularly vets local Imam’s (Scholars) across Xinjiang (Human Rights Watch, 2005). Individuals suspected of condoning separatism are arrested, tortured and executed while free speech is also limited. The state media agency is controlled and censored by the Chinese government and a campaign of ethnic dilution has been in effect since the 1950’s to forcefully integrate Xinjiang into Chinese society. This discrimination towards the Uighur community extends further than just the region of Xinjiang, meaning that Uighurs are alienated across the country.
The Chinese government labels extremism, separatism and terrorism the ‘three evil forces’ in the region and carries out its regressive policies to eradicate them, however experts and the international community argues that China’s racial discrimination only serves to increase the ethnic hatred between the Uighur and Han-Chinese community and remains a barrier towards the economic success of the resource-rich area. As China looks to revive the old Silk Road trade route to boost its economic potential, Xinjiang becomes a key element in their success, as the Chinese section of the Silk Route passes directly through the region.
The nation is scheduled to invest millions in Xinjiang, constructing oil pipelines and developing transportation links so as to accommodate the reformation of the Silk Route. One may insinuate that continued regression and economic development is what the Chinese government believes Xinjiang needs in order to reduce the violence instigated by terrorist groups. However, this project may well render the region economically dependent on Beijing, meaning that the repression of Uighurs will remain, as great economic distress will be the consequence of any attempt at separation from the Chinese government.
China’s authoritarian-policy approach to the region has allowed it to capitalize on the natural resources available in Xinjiang, yet at the same time isolating it, ensuring that it remains dependent on the Chinese government at all costs. However, with such policies the risk of alienation and anger remains a threat, and with separatist ideology and violence increasing in the region, it must be questioned as to whether China has taken the right approach towards governing Xinjiang.
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Available at: http://www.chinatoday.com/city/china_autonomous_regions.htm
[Accessed 18 April 2017].
CNN, 2015. Pakistan lands $46 billion investment from China. [Online]
Available at: http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/20/news/economy/pakistan-china-aid-infrastucture/
[Accessed 18 April 2017].
Council of Foreign Relations, 2012. Uighurs and China's Xinjiang Region. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cfr.org/china/uighurs-chinas-xinjiang-region/p16870#p1
[Accessed 20 April 2017].
Human Rights Watch, 2005. China: Religious Repression of Uighur Muslims, s.l.: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch, 2005. Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Xinjiang, s.l.: Human Rights Watch.
Telegraph, 2008. Beijing Olympics: Security stepped up after terror attack kills 16 Chinese policemen. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/2499084/Beijing-Olympics-Security-stepped-up-after-terror-attack-kills-16-Chinese-policemen.html
[Accessed 20 April 2017].
The Star , 2017. Chinese police out in full force after Xinjiang terror attack Read more at http://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2017/02/15/chinese-police-out-in-full-force-after-xinjiang-terror-attack/#RhptX66d5M9Q1OJd.99. [Online]
Available at: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2017/02/15/chinese-police-out-in-full-force-after-xinjiang-terror-attack/
[Accessed 20 April 2017].
ThoughtCo, 2015. Who Are the Uighurs?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-are-the-uighurs-195430
[Accessed 20 April 2017].