Afghanistan as the Place of The Cold War in the Middle East

It is generally accepted that, over history, different great powers imposed their influence over the Middle Eastern region, thus modifying significantly the internal dynamics of the area. Among the others, the Cold War dynamics have caused dramatic effects on the Middle East’s political appearance. Some scholar might posit that the Cold War should not be considered a period as dramatic as others for the Middle East’s scenario: for instance, there was neither communist revolutionary movement which was worth mentioning like in South Asia nor a high casualties ratio within these 45 years, unlike it happened in Vietnam or Korea [1]. However, the Middle East was still subject to the struggle for influence between the US and the USSR over the region which resulted in the superpowers backing regimes that have considerably jeopardized the economic/social/political growth of these countries. This will be an attempt to provide a general overview of how the political appearance of the Middle East was modified during the different stages of the Cold War and how this modification depended on the bipolar dynamics development. Particularly, this effort will show to which extent the superpowers shaped the ME dynamics and vice-versa to which degree the ME modified the superpowers’ relationship.

 

Main events over the CW decades in the region

The first post-WWII years were crucial for the Middle East to rid of the very long period of colonization undertaken by the European powers such as France and the UK, whose resources became too few to continue with their influence over the area. For instance, France withdrew from Syria and Lebanon in 1945-46. The French influence over Northern Africa would instead take longer to end. Similarly, the British grip over places like Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian region (with the subsequent declaration of Israel as an independent state in 1948) ended a few years after the end of WWII. Immediately after WWII, the Middle East handled alone most of the decolonization processes and was not subject to much of the American/Soviet influence: the two superpowers were busy with other issues such as Indochina. As a matter of fact, several ME countries such as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran [2] participated in the 1955 Bandung conference, which promoted non-alignment and anti-colonialist principles. However, not even the Middle East could exempt itself from taking a position in the new international scenario. In fact, both the two superpowers tried -progressively- to impose their influence over the area, sooner or later.

If the US tried immediately to fill the vacuum left by France and the UK upon their withdrawal, the Soviet Union took longer to understand its role over the region: this happened because of Stalin’s idea of “socialism in one country”, which ended only with his death in 1953. Despite this, Stalin initially kept much control over areas that the Red Army managed to occupy during the WWII battlefields. Consequently, the USSR tried to keep enclaves in Iran and in some parts of Turkey to keep the “southern Russian belly” [3] protected from potential “capitalist invasions”. Eventually, Stalin withdrew troops from Iran in the aftermath of the Churchill speech. However, Stalin delayed its troops’ withdrawal for long enough to help instigate the Communist-led separatist movement and wrest a favorable oil deal from Teheran [3]. This did not meet the American pleasure: with the increased interest of the USSR for what was beyond Eastern Europe, the US became quicker in playing on the Middle Eastern chessboard and preventing its enemy from doing the first moves. The Eisenhower’s New Look, for instance, contemplated -in its fight against the Communists- to implement some covert operations [4] conducted by the CIA, which managed to successfully overthrow the Iranian regime of Mosaddegh in 1953 through Operation Ajax. Specifically, the operation had two main goals for the US. For one, the American and the British oil companies obtained total control over the Iranian oil reserves (which Mosaddegh wanted to nationalize); for the other, the Western influence prevented a potential communist influence from insinuating there [5] [6].

With the development of the Cold War and especially in the ‘60s, although the Middle East was still considered a hot zone (given the 1967 Six days war, for instance), the pivot of the Cold War switched mostly to the South-East Asia, where the Vietnam War was in its crucial steps. Although aid programs and development projects were sent to the area, not much political attention was paid during the ‘60s decade. During the first years of the ‘70s, further global emphasis instead took place in the Middle East because of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent oil embargo imposed by OPEC. A distracted eye might posit that the Middle East especially was crucial in shaping the superpowers’ relationship because of occurrences that happened in 1973. Specifically, the Yom Kippur war would have put an end to the attempts of reconciliation between the US and the USSR called “détente” because each “champion” pushed their “protector” to intervene and help. However, the 1969-1976 “détente period” collapsed mostly for internal political elements like Nixon’s Watergate and the lack of agreements on the SARS. Hence, it is not surprising that there was no real reconciliation attempt in the area: for one, both the US and the USSR tried to avoid dangerous confrontations that could lead to nuclear war. For another, each side supported the countries in conflict, worsening the conflict itself [7]. As far as the oil embargo is concerned, it did not affect significantly the two superpowers: while the USSR was not one of the targets of the oil embargo, the US took little efforts in searching for oil elsewhere (given also the fact that the US had a considerable share of oil over its territory). Furthermore, the practice of the two superpowers backing certain regimes or anti-regimes groups (carried out not only in the ME but elsewhere) did not stop in the 1970s, given the Sour Revolution of the minor communist party in Afghanistan that -backed by the USSR- overthrew the monarchy in 1973 and took the power. In the 1980s the Middle East still represents one of the arenas where the Cold War is -in its last decade- fought. The intervention of the USSR within the domestic affairs since the beginning of the ‘70s provoked a resurgence of Afghani guerrilla warfare against the communist regime: the Mujahideen fighters -divided into several sides and parties that never had a unified leadership in the course of the conflict- undertook a long guerrilla campaign to the detriment of the Soviet-Afghan forces. The Red Army found it very difficult to succeed because of the increased military support the US gave to the from 1984 onwards during Reagan’s administration. Specifically, what helped the Mujahideen the most was the American grant of new military technology like the Stinger missiles[8]. Reagan, therefore, decided to obstacle the USSR in its struggles with Afghanistan as much as it was possible.

 

Afghan’s region and the Cold War impact

The case of the Afghani Cold War scenario is certainly the result of power struggles between the two superpowers since the end of WWII. One might understand the growing influence of the Soviets within Afghanistan in the light of the zero-sum game logics: the American preferences for neighboring areas such as Pakistan would allegedly have led the Soviets to become increasingly more interested in Afghanistan, given the US lack of attention on the area. However, the Afghani game is instead much more complex and ambivalent than it can superficially look like. Afghanistan tried its best to carry out a double-sided strategy to achieve the best profit out of the two superpowers. In a sense, Afghanistan in the Cold War had its own battle with Pakistan, and the bulk of the occurrences that happened throughout the Cold War era can be attributed to this rivalry. At times, this tactic succeeded. At times, Afghanistan became involved in scenarios that went beyond its control.

In the aftermath of WWII, the United Kingdoms left the area, which created in turn strong instability. The British presence hitherto served as a pacifier for the difficult relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Pashtunistan region, which was divided by the UK into two areas (one belonging to Afghanistan, the other pertaining to Pakistan) through the 1893 Durand Line agreement. Since the British could not guarantee for the Durand Line anymore -given their withdraw-, new tensions arose between the two Middle Eastern countries [9].

At the very beginning of the Cold War era, Kabul was much convinced that the US would have provided significant financial and military support to tackle the then reignited Pashtunistan issue. However, the US only very partially supported Afghanistan through non-military funds, and they did so only to respect Truman’s Four Points program[10]: the US categorically refused to hand out military capabilities to Afghanistan. The reasons for the American approach to Afghanistan consisted in: the US firm beliefs that Kabul already decided to side with the Soviets; and the American privileged relation with Pakistan. After the Indian’s non-alignment decision, the US considered Pakistan as an important geostrategic place to keep in South Asia. The US commitment towards Pakistan surely led Afghanistan to truly search for shelter and defense on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, in the first Cold War years, Stalin paid much more attention to how to keep his grip over Eastern Europe. However, certain achievements between the Soviet-Afghani relations took place regardless, as the 1950 duty-free transit agreement for Afghani goods[11]. However, after the umpteenth American refusal to provide military capabilities to Afghanistan and after the Pakistani participation in the SEATO and the CENTO (respectively in 1953 and 1954), Afghanistan clearly felt the need to intensify its partnership with the USSR, especially during the Daoud’s first presidency. Afghanistan felt the need to exploit a situation that could not handle on its own, and thus it attempted to gain Soviet attention in its trial to be superior to Pakistan. Afghanistan and the Soviets enhanced their economic cooperation through infrastructure projects over the Afghani territory in exchange for Afghani natural resources at a very convenient price. Paradoxically, the Soviets will exploit the new infrastructure built in the decades earlier during the 1979-1989 Afghani-Soviet war. This partnership extended to the military field too, with intense expertise and training of the Afghani troops carried out by Czechoslovak and Soviet personnel. Additionally, the USSR provided a significant amount of weapons and contributed to restoring the Afghani Air Force [12]. However, this partnership took much more the shape of Soviet penetration into all the levels of the Afghani structure. During his second presidency, Daoud became extremely aware of it and -at times- concerned. As a result, between 1973 and 1978 Daoud tried to undermine the Soviet influence over Afghanistan through policies like the anti-communists campaign that produced concern in the Kremlin. Fortunately for the USSR, Daoud’s reputation was extremely tarnished by his authoritarian tendencies and his wrong economic maneuvers, which led the Soviets to overthrow him with a coup d’erat in 1978 quite easily. The Soviets initially firmly believed that the intervention in Afghanistan would have been brief and relatively cheap in terms of resource usage. It is exactly at this timing that the US exploited the situation and took the best out of it by entertaining a stronger and stricter relationship with the rebellious side (the so-called Mujaheddin). The US sent there the so-desired military capabilities   (like the provision of the then-modern Stinger missiles)[8] that Afghanistan had been looking for since the beginning of the Cold War [13]. In a sense, the ten-years long war significantly contributed to exhaust the final Soviet resources, thus accelerating the collapse process that would have taken place in 1989. Pakistan, with the American blessing, played a role in the Afghani rebels’ support thanks to its training bases, where more than 8000 Mujahideen were instructed. Despite the rebels’ victory eventually (thanks to the Geneva Accords), the outcomes of the war were devastating: millions of people died and crops, resources, and infrastructure were damaged.

In the light of the Afghani case, one might conclude that a margin of a room that the Middle Eastern countries had in manipulating the superpowers and taking the best from the then situation existed. However, certain scenarios were simply beyond these countries, which could not completely outrun the dynamics of the Cold War balance of power.

 

Inter-relations between superpowers and the Middle East Countries during the Cold War: who influenced whom the most?

What might be interesting to assess is the degree of influence the Superpowers over the ME countries while playing over the Middle Eastern chessboard during the Cold War. Similarly, one might wonder how much instead the Middle Eastern internal dynamics affected the behavior, the choices, and the relationship of the two superpowers. Surely, the two Cold War superpowers affected significantly the internal dynamics of the Middle East countries from the point of view of political influence. The examples are various, ranging from the Iranian case (with the 1953 covert operation Ajax) to the Afghani. In several cases, the two superpowers’ actions have had important repercussions over the current cultural, social, and political scenarios in different countries. For instance, the 10-years-long Afghani war gave birth to the Mujahideen resistance but also to the group that will be called later Al Qaeda. Bin Laden in fact moved to the Pakistani-Afghani border to gear up, train, and later lead a group that would fight the Soviets first, the West later[14].

The Middle Eastern countries were at times able to divert and adjust the two superpowers’ behavior in the way these countries desired. However, one cannot really say that the Middle East was important in the development of the Cold War phases. For instance, the 1973 oil embargo destined to those countries that supported Israel in the Yom-Kippur war was not much effective since the countries in question never really changed their approach towards that war [15]. Of course, some countries (like the United Kingdom and Portugal) were affected more negatively than others, yet the US was able to recover rather quickly. Hence, the real subjects that were determinant in the Cold War beginning and evolution cannot be found in the Middle East actors, not even in the case of oil utilization as a weapon. However, the Afghani case might represent a brilliant exception because of the already described reasons: the ten-years long war did indeed contribute to the progressive exhaustion of the USSR superpower title.

Although -as seen- the Cold War impact of superpowers over the Middle East was bigger than that of the Middle East over the superpowers, the Middle Eastern countries proved to be extremely resilient to the two ideologies. The ideological dichotomy that stemmed from the Cold War scenario did not take place in the Middle East, unlike in other regions such as Europe or Southeast Asia. One could say that the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was representative of the triumph of the Communist ideology in the region. However, that group that organized the 1979 coup d’etat represented a very marginal minority of the population which was greatly supported by the USSR. In fact, the rest of the Afghani population did not appreciate the Communist regime that took place. As a matter of fact, the Mujahideen (backed by the US and Pakistan) revolted a few years later. Additionally, the rebels were greatly supported by the local population, who offered shelter, food, and any kind of support to them [16]. This is a sign of the fact that the locals did not like the communist ideology at all because it was considered alien to them. In essence, there was no trace of ideology in the Middle East Cold War arena. This can be also detected in the different ending the Middle Eastern Cold War had from the “mainstream” Cold War. The Cold War in the Islamic world did not end in 1989 with the triumph of the democratic and liberal values over the communist: Hamas in Palestine or the FIS in Algeria showed how the triumph of democratic ideals did not happen exactly worldwide. Finally, there were also differences in how the “mainstream” Cold War’s losers collapsed and how the Middle Eastern Cold War’s losers faded out. Unlike in Europe -where the USSR collapsed peacefully and where a rather peaceful liberation of the Eastern and Central Europe took place-, the Cold War in the Middle East did not resolve peacefully but with revolutionary and leftist movements being defeated by violently illiberal political movements.

Written by Giuseppe Loveno

 

[1] Fawcett, Louis (2013). International relations of the Middle East (Oxford University Press, Third edition)

[2] Acharya, Amitav (2016). Studying the Bandung conference from a Global IR perspective, (Australian Journal of International Affairs)

[3] Pechatnov, Vladimir (2010). The Soviet Union and the world, 1944–1953. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[4] Scott Lucas, Woke (1997). Beyond the new look: Policy and operations in the Eisenhower administration (Intelligence and National Security)

[5] de Moraes Ruehsen, Maria (1993). Operation ‘Ajax’ Revisited: Iran, 1953, Middle Eastern Studies, (Taylor & Francis, Ltd)

[6] Rüdiger, Guenther (2012). Making Use of the “Oil Weapon”: Western Industrialized Countries and Arab Petropolitics in 1973–1974 (Diplomatic History)

[7] Schulzinger, Robert (2010). Détente in the Nixon–Ford years, 1969–1976. (The Cambridge History of the Cold War)

[8] Westad, Odd Arne (2007). The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, (New York: Cambridge University Press)

[9] Gregg, Heather (2010). Fighting the Jihad of the Pen: Countering Revolutionary Islam’s Ideology, (Terrorism and Political Violence)

[10] Mohapatra, Nalin Kumar (26/02/21). The geopolitics of Durand Line and the question of Pakistan-Occupied-Pashtunistan, The Economic Times.

[11] Javed Siddiqui, Azhar (2014). Afghanistan-Soviet Relations during the Cold War: A Threat for South Asian Peace, Journal of South Asian Studies.

[12] Payind, Alam (1989). “Soviet-Afghan Relations from Cooperation to Occupation.” International Journal of Middle East Studies.

[13] Reuveny, Rafael. Prakash, Aseem (1999). The Afghanistan War and the Breakdown of the Soviet Union, Review of International Studies, Cambridge University Press

[14] Fawcett, Louis (2013). International relations of the Middle East (Oxford University Press, Third edition)

[15]  Westad, Odd Arne (2007). The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, (New York: Cambridge University Press)

[16] Saull, Richard (2010). One World, Many Cold Wars: 1989 in the Middle East. The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World Politics (Cold War History)

 

Bibliography:

Acharya, Amitav (2016). Studying the Bandung conference from a Global IR perspective, (Australian Journal of International Affairs)

Fawcett, Louis (2013). International relations of the Middle East (Oxford University Press, Third edition)

Gregg, Heather (2010). Fighting the Jihad of the Pen: Countering Revolutionary Islam’s Ideology, (Terrorism and Political Violence)

Javed Siddiqui, Azhar (2014). Afghanistan-Soviet Relations during the Cold War: A Threat for South Asian Peace, Journal of South Asian Studies.

Mohapatra, Nalin Kumar (26/02/21). The geopolitics of Durand Line and the question of Pakistan-Occupied-Pashtunistan, The Economic Times.

de Moraes Ruehsen, Maria (1993). Operation ‘Ajax’ Revisited: Iran, 1953, Middle Eastern Studies, (Taylor & Francis, Ltd.)

Payind, Alam (1989). “Soviet-Afghan Relations from Cooperation to Occupation.” International Journal of Middle East Studies.

Pechatnov, Vladimir (2010). The Soviet Union and the world, 1944–1953. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Reuveny, Rafael. Prakash, Aseem (1999). The Afghanistan War and the Breakdown of the Soviet Union, Review of International Studies, Cambridge University Press

Rüdiger, Guenther (2012). Making Use of the “Oil Weapon”: Western Industrialized Countries and Arab Petropolitics in 1973–1974 (Diplomatic History)

Saull, Richard (2010). One World, Many Cold Wars: 1989 in the Middle East. The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World Politics (Cold War History)

Scott Lucas, Woke (1997). Beyond the new look: Policy and operations in the Eisenhower administration (Intelligence and National Security)

Schulzinger, Robert (2010). Détente in the Nixon–Ford years, 1969–1976. (The Cambridge History of the Cold War)

Westad, Odd Arne (2007). The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, (New York: Cambridge University Press)

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