A child in front of her family's tent inside a camp for internally displaced persons in Midi District, Hajjah Province, Yemen, on June 17 (XINHUA)
"Kabul, Afghanistan, I love my job!" Nicole L. Gee, a 23-year-old marine from California posted on her Instagram on August 21, holding up a photo of herself cradling an Afghan newborn. The image also made it onto the U.S. Department of Defense's social media pages.
Six days later, this young and promising woman died in a suicide bomb attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The blast was claimed by ISIS-K, a radical terrorist organization in Afghanistan. Altogether, 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghanistan civilians lost their lives either in the explosion or the ensuing gunfire by U.S. soldiers.
It is a hugely painful fact that Gee and her colleagues died in a terrorist incident just a few days before the conclusion of the two-decade U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people and was followed by a major adjustment in U.S. policy on the Greater Middle East. The shift in focus intended to uproot terrorism and transform the target countries according to its own values.
War, conflict, chaos… The current situation in the Middle East is largely viewed as the legacy of U.S. policy. Together with its somewhat inglorious withdrawal from Afghanistan, a promised military pullback from Iraq, as well as stagnant development in other countries as a consequence of the Arab Spring movement, one can't help but wonder: What lessons or experiences can we draw from the U.S. actions in the Middle East? And, moving forward, how will the U.S. reshape its strategy for the region?
"It's fair to say the U.S. Middle East policy has been an outright failure, especially in the past 20 years," Gao Shangtao, an associate professor at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), told Beijing Review.
Following the September 11 tragedy, the war on terror became the top priority of the George W. Bush administration (2001-09), which resulted in the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
To measure success or failure, one must refer to the desired objectives. "The U.S. war on terror was successful, if success were to be measured only by killing Osama bin Laden," Gao said. "But if killing Bin Laden was the goal, then why didn't the U.S. troops pull out of the country in 2011 when this objective was achieved?"
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is far from being destroyed, despite President Joe Biden stating the organization had been fully wiped out in his speech defending the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even the Pentagon shot down this claim.
According to a UN report released in June, Al-Qaeda is still present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily those in the eastern, southern and southeastern parts. It is, in fact, far more than just "there." It has, in fact, gone on to breed other terrorist organizations. The so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) extremist group, responsible for multiple brutal attacks across the region and Europe, emerged from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and actively seeks to conquer and rule territory. What's more, there are concerns that the Taliban's recapture of power will prove beneficial to Al-Qaeda as they are reportedly closely connected.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recently warned of an increase in terrorist threats targeting the U.S., following the rapid fall of Kabul.
Taliban fighters celebrate during a rally in Kabul on August 31 after the U.S. pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan (VISUAL PEOPLE)
Arab Spring to Arab Winter
The war on terror aside, in his speech on November 6, 2003, Bush avowed another highly ambitious U.S. goal: so-called "democratic transformation" of the Greater Middle East.
Instigating and supporting the Arab Spring movement was part of a strategy continued by Barack Obama. Since 2011, an unprecedented wave of protests and regime collapse has swept some Arab countries. "Although the emergence of the Arab Spring is connected to the political situation of the affected countries, it is also tied to America's export of Western democratic ideas, its support of political opponents and NGOs in the Middle East," Tang Zhichao, Director of Middle East Studies at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
However, for the past 10 years, instead of the previously imagined onset of revolutionary change, several countries have fallen into unprecedented political turmoil and economic instability. "The number of political parties in Egypt reached more than 400 after its drastic changes in 2011, and even now there are hundreds of parties. In Tunisia, 81 political parties and independent candidates appeared on the ballot in the elections of 2011, the year of its Jasmine Revolution. Numerous political parties have led to fierce political power struggles in both countries, greatly weakening central authorities," Tian Wenlin, a professor at Renmin University of China, said.
"The situation in Yemen, Libya and Syria is even worse. For example, in Syria, years of civil war have resulted in the displacement of half the country's population, surging terrorism, and a decade-long economic regression. In 2020, 9.3 million people in Syria, once a great exporter of agricultural products, face food shortages," Tian said. "Against this backdrop, more and more people began to miss the strongman politics of the past. Hence, the trend of re-centralization has gained momentum in the Middle East."
"To some extent, the war on terror and the envisioned democratic transformation were merely excuses to justify U.S. intervention in this region. The real intention was to control the oil supply and sustain U.S. dominance," Gao Shangtao of CFAU told Beijing Review.
Oil might not have been the only goal of the war waged on Iraq, but there is no doubt that it was the central objective. "Of course it's about oil; we can't really deny that," General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, said in 2007. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan agreed, writing in his memoir, "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
The U.S. and its allies were like pirates coveting Syria's oil and abundant mineral assets, according to Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Bassam Toumeh in a television interview on March 20.
The U.S. currently controls 90 percent of crude oil resources in northeast Syria. The occupation of the region by the U.S. and its allies has led to losses in the country's oil industry totaling more than $92 billion.
"As the price of oil is pegged to the U.S. dollar, controlling the oil drive in the Middle East is essential to maintaining the greenback's financial dominance," Gao explained.
Above might explain why U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris admitted that "for years and generations, wars have been fought over oil" while attending an event on employment and infrastructure policies in April.
A U.S. military vehicle, part of a convoy arriving from north Iraq, drives past an oil pump in the countryside of Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on October 26, 2019 (VISUAL PEOPLE)
Pack up and go home?
"If the time period between 2001 and 2020 was the golden age of the Middle East analyst, it is clear that Washington is entering a new era ..." Steven A. Cook, a columnist with Foreign Policy, wrote in a recent article about the Biden administration's policy on the Middle East. "That is a good thing, the Middle East has sucked a lot—too much—time, attention and resources out of decision-makers who were often found chasing unrealistic goals and pursuing poorly thought-out policies," he added.
Strategic retrenchment in the Middle East was initiated during the Obama administration (2009-17). But a full-fledged U.S. withdrawal from the region might not be on the cards just yet.
Due primarily to the success of horizontal drilling and fracking technology, the U.S. shale revolution has dramatically increased domestic petroleum production. Other nations, such as China—viewed by the U.S. as the major opponent, remain in dire need of energy supplies from the Middle East. A country with control of or presence in this particular region can have a bigger say on the world stage. The U.S. will never fully give up this all too important geostrategic capital to engage in competition with China and Russia, Gao said.
Going forward, China could take on a more constructive role in the regional economic development of the Middle East. On the one hand, it could act as a mediator in dispute settlement, rather than take sides like the U.S. did, supporting some political forces while combating others. On the other hand, China could share with such countries the opportunities created by its own development through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Poverty is the soil fomenting extremism and terrorism; thus, the path of security through development should be further explored, Gao said.
(Print Edition Title: Rise and Fall)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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