Keeping abreast of politics and trial-and-error dynamics should have taught political analysts not to have much trust in morality lessons given by politicians. Nothing is more dangerous than men of politics using morality to justify their interests, and nothing is more worrisome than a certain power imposing its moral compass on others. The issue at hand goes beyond accusation: it is rather a reminder of the American practical definition of politics as taught in universities around the world: “the art of the possible.”
What is “possible”, however, is not always moral, and what is moral often turns out to be costly, too costly to be electorally adequate.
There is no better proof of this than a review of the journey of US politics in particular, be it inside the US at the onset of its expansion toward the west or outside the US during the Cold War. Perhaps following Smithsonian Channel’s broadcasts about the early history and development of the US could give a better idea of the unmasked “reality” of politics.
The US was originally built on the oppression and uprooting of Native American tribes for economic reasons (after signing charters and treaties) and the import of slaves from Africa, as well as border wars with Mexico or the purchase of lands, such as the great Louisiana and Alaska Purchase deals with France and Russia respectively. Thus, “moral” standards were not in any way consistent with the “interest” of building a major power that became the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country we know today. However, truth be told, the US is far from being an exception. This is precisely how all empires are built.
After all, all global empires, including former European monarchies and Islamic caliphates, were in fact entities made up of various peoples and nations and brought together by a dominant group that imposed its culture and interests on other, less powerful groups.
Our shock at the vile deals, interventions, and occupations by major powers, the latest of which is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, may be justified on an individual, psychological level. But they are as far as can be from “the art of the possible.” That’s because these powers are not charitable associations, and conflicts between them allow for contradicting and blatantly dishonest language.
Furthermore, were it not for conflicting interests between those who use specific terms and those who spread “propaganda,” what would have been the difference between a “terrorist” and a “freedom fighter,” or between “aggression” and the “legitimate right to self-defense,” or between “liberated territory” and “occupied territory”?
The issue is an issue of interests, then. What was shameful yesterday has become acceptable today, just like the Cold War considerations changed when we entered the “War on Terrorism,” or just like “instructing” military coup chiefs in Latin America, East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa to “prevent” popular liberation movements flying their red banners from invading the capitals with their AK-47s became a source of disgrace.
Here, we must focus on hypotheses regarding Washington’s decision to definitively withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of August.
Originally, US military intervention in Afghanistan stemmed from a strategy of dragging the USSR into the swamps of an Afghani attrition war against political Sunnism militias, also known as “mujahideen.” At the time, the US, the UK, Pakistan, and many Islamic and Arab states played a key role in not only supporting and training “mujahideen” but also in glorifying their movement and writing books about their leaders and triumphs. However, no sooner had the USSR withdrawn and Moscow plunged into collapse than the priorities of Washington and Western states shifted. This shift naturally provoked the hardline mujahideen, who were intent on exporting “jihad” from Afghanistan to the whole world. Thus emerged the most dangerous global repercussion of their resentment: al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, which reshaped the West’s priorities in dealing with the Islamic and Arab world.
We all remember how this was used to invade Afghanistan and strike the pro-al-Qaeda Taliban movement, then invade Iraq in 2003 to end the “Sunni dominance,” as described by “US Occupation Chief” Paul Bremer. The ultimate result was the handover of Iraq to the mullahs of Iran, despite their known relations with al-Qaeda, unlike the former Baghdad regime as acknowledged by US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Meanwhile, a ravaging civil war erupted in Afghanistan, facilitating the “demonization” of political Sunnism and, as such, benefiting the leaders of Iran in their expansionist endeavors in Lebanon, then in Syria and Yemen.
Faced with this expansion, which was marked in parallel with a manipulated, derailed “Arab Spring,” Washington’s position under Obama seemed confusing. Furthermore, Obama’s approach to the situation in Syria then the Iran nuclear file showed that the US has no worries about “co-existing” or “engaging” with Iran at the expense of Washington’s traditional allies in the region.
Although Republican President Donald Trump disrupted the journey of Iranian dominance over the course of four years, he did not break it. Rather, he gave it a dose of “credibility” through his full adoption of Israeli far-right policies. Trump repeatedly stressed that US military presence in Syria is for the sole purpose of combating ISIS, and that he is intent on withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, as “Obama’s team” returns to the White House under the leadership of Joe Biden, Washington has resumed negotiations with Iran and cooperation with Russia on Syria and has accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Surely, Washington’s decision to leave Afghanistan under the mercy of Taliban and reshape its relations with Tehran only concerns Washington itself. But political analysts are right to wonder whether the Biden administration has any real strategic objective in the Middle East.
The toppling of the Iranian regime is not on the table, but is “a change in behavior” a serious possibility?
Moreover, if co-existing with hardline political Sunnism in Afghanistan is possible, why is Washington so opposed to its equivalent in countries under Iranian dominance (Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon)?
Then, assuming Washington can live with a strong Iran, does this mean it will leave Iran’s eastern regions, which are home to a large Sunni Baloch minority, to become an extortion battlefield through which the Biden administration shows that there is a “ceiling” for Iran’s regional ambitions that Washington will not allow Tehran to cross?
Despite all the spurious hostile statements, the Iranian regime remains a geostrategic necessity for Washington within the Islamic world. As part of geostrategic considerations in East Asia, Iran and its “neighbor” Afghanistan play a key role in the future behavior of the Biden administration toward the Chinese and Russian challenges in the region.
In conclusion, Iran grows and shrinks according to Washington’s terms. As always, notions of “terrorism,” “extremism,” “democracy,” and “human rights” are no more than temporary, expendable notions.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.