The year 1979 is a turning point in the history of the region, as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Islamic revolution in Iran and ‘Seige of Mecca’ laid the groundwork for the rise and victory of the Taliban over forty years later.
The Taliban’s lightning offensive in mid-August marks a disastrous end to the 20-year American war in Afghanistan. However, it also serves as a historic milestone for the Middle East, even though Afghanistan is not considered part of the region.
The recent Taliban victory is the historic culmination of events that transpired in the Middle East since the year 1979; as of then the fate of both Afghanistan and the Middle East were linked. While Afghanistan’s current problems can be traced to December 25, 1979 with the Soviet invasion, it could also be linked to the resurgence of political Islam in Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same year.
While it is debated whether Afghanistan belongs to South Asia or Central Asia, I argue that the confluences of these events in 1979, resulting in the fall of Kabul 42 years later, embed the country’s history within the Middle East.
Middle East vs Southwest Asia
While the “Middle East” serves as a focus of identity and belonging for many, or an area of study for some, it is quintessentially an Anglo-American geopolitical construct that excluded Afghanistan. From London’s perspective during the height of its empire, Afghanistan served as a buffer zone preventing imperial Russia from encroaching on British interests in its neighbouring crown colony India.
The geopolitical contest known as the “Great Game” divided ethnic Pashtun tribes along the 1893 Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a border that reflected Anglo-Russian colonial policy and imperial compromise without taking into account how it split tribal communities. More than a century later, some from these various tribes began joining the ranks of the Afghan Taliban.
During the Cold War, disciplines such as Middle East area studies proliferated in the US, but did not include Afghanistan. As a liminal nation, it did not warrant much attention in its de facto category, South Asia studies; and Central Asia studies did not really exist as most of these nations were still part of the Soviet Union.
Foreign policy bureaucracies in the US mirrored American area studies. After the Cold War the State Department’s South Asian affairs section dealt with Afghanistan, but as a vestige of Pakistan. This was a bureaucratic compartmentalisation that isolated and insulated Afghanistan from events in the Middle East following the collapse of the USSR. This division continued even after 9/11, when DC policy makers invoked the neologism of “Afpak” to link Afghan and Pakistani affairs into a joint but incohesive American foreign policy.
Ideally, the Middle East should be referred to as “Southwest Asia.” Such a term does not necessarily preclude Afghanistan from South Asia, while it prompts a geographical reimagining of Afghanistan that is also linked with Persian-speaking Iran and the Arab world. In the following section I develop the historical trajectories that link Afghanistan to the Middle East.
The year 1979
In this publication, I argued that the year 1979 was pivotal for Southwest Asia. First, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faced two shocks: in February the regime of the Shah of Iran fell as Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and on March 30, elections established Iran as an Islamic Republic. A few months later, on November 20, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by Saudi dissidents who challenged the royal family as being too lax and pro-Western to rule over the two holy sites of Islam.
The Islamic Republic served as a model of political Islam that threatened the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, while the seizure of the Grand Mosque challenged the royal family’s religious credentials.
Both events lead Riyadh to embrace a more austere form of Wahhabism, which it also exported. This ideology influenced Afghans (and Pakistanis) studying in funded madrasas in Pakistan, who would later form the Taliban that seized Afghanistan by the mid-nineties, providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
Osama bin Laden was a young man in 1979 who was alarmed by the Saudi military desecrating the holy site with tanks and artillery to flush out the rebels. The royal family had to call in foreigners, French special forces to defeat the rebels, foreshadowing the House of Saud calling in American forces to defend the Kingdom in 1990 when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. The latter event is often attributed as the motivating factor as to why bin Laden revolted against the Saudi royal family and its protector, the US.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and withdrew a decade later in 1989. Bin Laden's network of foreign fighters played a marginal role in defeating the USSR, but the withdrawal of the Cold War superpower led to his belief that his network could bring down the remaining superpower, the US, culminating in the 9/11 attacks, which invited American retaliation into Afghanistan.
The legacy of 1979
Three major dynamics emerged during this transnational history of Afghanistan and the Middle East. The first is ideational. Afghanistan was the battleground where militant Arab extremists in the 1980s came together for a single cause, expelling the godless Soviets from a fellow Muslim nation. While their role was marginal, these networks of Arab fighters could trace their first victory in the defeat of the Soviets.
Second, Wahhabism, Salafism and other interpretations of Islam took root in Afghanistan. First, the Taliban adheres to the austere Deobandi school, which is a South Asian Islamist revivalist movement. However, austere devotees of Wahhabism emerged in Afghanistan in the 1980s, such as the mujahidin faction led by Abdulrasul Sayyaf. Finally, an ultra-violent form of Salafism reached Afghanistan in the form of the Daesh branch which rivals the Taliban.
Ultimately, Afghanistan serves as a testament to the Arab world’s violent and coercive response to political Islam within each state’s national boundaries in the 1980s, with the nation emerging as de facto refuge for those seeking refuge.
The fact that bin Laden or al Zawahiri of Egypt went to Afghanistan was part of this trend. That they were sheltered by the Taliban was the rationale behind the American invasion in 2001. Twenty years later, the American invasion and occupation failed spectacularly, a testament to the enduring historical fallout from the events that began in Southwest Asia in 1979.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to email@example.com