Women marching in support of Afghan revolutionary leader Taraki.
When Western politicians and pundits point the finger of blame at the people of the Middle East for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is especially insulting. It is US foreign policy that has led to the rise of jihadist forces. Cases in point are the examples of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.
First, let’s take Iran. How did the Islamic Republic come into being? Let’s go back to the CIA’s first large scale operational success, the 1953 coup. This is at a time when, thanks to its 1906 Constitutional Revolution, the country had a parliamentary system. In April 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, a nationalist leader, was elected prime minister. Britain called for, and the United States supported, a worldwide embargo of Iran’s oil. Mossadegh was demonized by the imperialist media. Time Magazine called Mossadegh a “mad man.”
The CIA and the British MI6 developed a comprehensive plan called Operation AJAX. The mastermind of the plot was CIA Middle-East agent, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt. The plot involved organizing right-wing military leaders and financing groups of criminal elements. Street riots of bands of thugs were staged, offices of newspapers loyal to Mossadegh were burned, and the parliament was attacked. Then, the CIA-designated generals arrested Mossadegh and declared Martial Law. The Shah was put on the throne as a tyrant with absolute power.
The Western media celebrated the CIA coup. The New York Times wrote: “underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserkwith fanatical nationalism.”
Following the coup, the client state unleashed a wave of arrests, torture and executions. Before the coup, the leftist Tudeh Party had been the largest organized force. The nationalists were also strong and well-organized. But now, any opposition to the Shah’s regime was repressed with extreme brutality.
Still, despite all the repression, there was bound to be resistance to the Shah’s dictatorship. And this resistance led to the revolution of February 1979. But by the time of the revolution, the left and the secular nationalist forces had been crushed, so the revolution was led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Islamic Republic is not an ultra-reactionary force like Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIL. But in a country where the left used to be the strongest organized force, thanks to the CIA coup, only the clergy was in position to win power in 1979.
In Afghanistan, the US role in the rise of Islamic forces was not indirect. The US organized and funded them. Afghanistan had a communist-led social transformation, what is called the Saur Revolution. In April 1978, the government tried to crush the country’s main communist party, the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and arrested almost its entire leadership.
An uprising by the lower ranks of the military freed the popular party leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki. On April 27, the PDPA and progressive members of the Afghan military overthrew the monarchy of Zaher Shah. Two days later, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in celebration. Many waved the red flags of the PDPA, a party with close to 50,000 members that had wide popular support in the cities.
In a country of less than 20 million, 200,000 peasants received land from the PDPA government. The revolutionary state set up extensive literacy programs. The government trained many teachers, built schools and kindergartens and instituted nurseries for orphans. By 1985, there had been an 80% increase in hospital beds. The government initiated mobile medical units and brigades of women and young people to go to the undeveloped countryside and provide medical services to the peasants for the first time.
Afghanistan made tremendous progress during this era. But the era came to a quick end. Immediately following the revolution, the CIA organized counter-revolutionary forces. Washington formed and funded a militia of mercenaries supported by feudal landowners. This militia called itself the Mujahedeen. The Carter administration called them “freedom fighters.”
Al Qaeda and other jihadists militias today trace their roots to the Mujahedeen. The US organized them, trained them and funded them. Osama bin Laden was one of the leaders of the Mujahedeen. The Mujahedeen carried out a terror campaign in the countryside, torturing and murdering teachers, doctors and women who worked outside of the home.
Western media coverage of developments in Afghanistan was simply that the Soviet Union invaded to expand its so-called empire. But the Soviet Union had no intention of conquering Afghanistan. The Afghan government insistently requested Soviet military assistance and the Soviets only reluctantly agreed to do so. Zbignew Brezhinski, at the time Carter’s national security adviser, later revealed that US support for the Mujahedeen started in July of 1979, months before the Soviet intervention.
The huge cost of Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan, their arms race with US imperialism and a shift to the right in the leadership, resulted in the Soviet Union pulling troops out of Afghanistan in 1989.
But the revolutionary Afghan government did not collapse when the Soviets pulled out. Supporters of the regime fought bravely against a better-armed and well-funded force. It wasn’t until 1992, three years later, that the Afghan government fell to the Mujahedeen. Then the rival factions of the Mujahedeen started fighting each other. In 1996, the Taliban, a faction formed from some Mujahedeen fighters, took power with backing from Pakistan’s ISI. The Taliban gained control of most of Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over, Washington moved to work with them. It was only after Sept. 2001 that the US made the Taliban its enemy. And to this day, the misery of the Afghan people continues thanks to the U.S. occupation.
Modern Iraq came into being in the aftermath of World War I with the Sykes-Picot agreement. The former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul became the new British mandate of Iraq. The country was ruled by a British-installed monarchy, and continued to be occupied by British military bases.
But on July 14, 1958, a military rebellion led by Abd al-Karim Qasim and the Free Officers movement turned into a country-wide revolution. The revolution put an end to colonial domination and marked the beginning of Iraq’s real independence.
Over the next three decades, the US applied many tactics to weaken and undermine Iraq as an independent country. After Iraq completed nationalizing the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1972 and signed a defense treaty with the USSR, the US added Iraq to its list of “terrorist states.”
Washington supported the more rightist elements within the post-revolution political structure against the communist and left-nationalist forces. For example, the US backed the overthrow and assassination of President Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1963. And Washington applauded the suppression of the left and unions by the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party governments in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1980s, the US encouraged and helped to fund and arm Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, in its war against Iran. Iraq was not a client state but the US wanted to weaken the Iranian revolution and the Iraqi state both. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summarized the real US attitude about the war: “I hope they kill each other.”
And then there was the so-called first Gulf War in 1991, when the US destroyed much of Iraq. More than 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped on the country. The civilian infrastructure throughout the country—water, power, phone and sewage systems, food and medicine production, storage facilities, schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, and more—were targeted, often many times over.
The sanctions on Iraq were the most comprehensive in history; in reality, it was a blockade of the country that was to last for 13 years, killing more than 1 million people, half of them children under the age of five. The sanctions lasted through the presidencies of Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, up to the 2003 invasion,
Still, the desired goal of regime change was not achieved. It became clear that regime change could only be accomplished by a military invasion. After a major public relations campaign, US and British forces invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. The entire government and state apparatus was disbanded, from the military to the government ministries to the state-run food-distribution and health-care systems.
The occupying forces ripped apart the social fabric of the country. They deliberately promoted ethnic and religious conflicts to weaken resistance. As a result, while most Iraqis primarily identified themselves as Iraqis prior to the occupation, now the occupiers have created a deep divide between Shiite and Sunni.
What finally worked for the occupiers was not military victories. It was General Petraeus’ so-called surge strategy. It wasn’t so much the actual surge of the troop numbers, however. It was putting a number of former resistance fighters on the US military payroll. Up to that time, by supporting Shiite militiamen connected to the Iraqi government, the US had effectively promoted a campaign of ethnic cleansing by US allied Shiite forces against the Sunni population, who were killed in the thousands and forced out of their homes and neighborhoods. Al Qaeda forces had also done the opposite, massacring the Shiite and destroying their holy sites. Now, fighting for their community’s survival, significant numbers of resistance fighters accepted the US offer to become part of the military.
One of the reasons that ISIL has made such impressive gains is that the military did not fight them. And the military did not fight them because much of the rank and file and the officers see Maliki as a sectarian Shiite, not as the prime minister of Iraq.
There are many other examples of the US weakening independent states in the Middle East, the most recent being Libya. Also, Israel has consistently played a key role in weakening left and nationalist Arab governments and forces.
So, on the question of why Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, we should give credit where it’s due: The U.S. government.