Though the Soviet-Afghan War occurred nearly 30 years ago, it still impacts the Middle East, according to an Ohio State University professor.
The roots of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring and the 9/11 attacks can be traced to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, said Alam Payind.
Payind, director of the Middle East Studies Center (MESC) at OSU and a professor in the international studies program, discussed shifting alliances in the Middle East on Friday as part of the Great Decisions lecture series in Delaware.
Payind, who was born and raised in Afghanistan, said he witnessed the Soviet-Afghan War’s effects on his country firsthand.
Soviet troops came to Afghanistan intending to seizing the country in 1979. But by the mid-1980s, the Afghan people fought back, receiving support from the U.S., United Kingdom, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
About 15,000 Soviet soldiers died in the war, and having accomplished nothing, the Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989, but the country was in a chaotic state, Payind said.
“Afghanistan was a very easy target,” he said. “You can destroy Afghanistan, but rebuilding it is the most difficult thing.”
The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan made it vulnerable to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which set up its training camp in Afghanistan before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in the U.S.
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were ultimately driven out of Afghanistan, but neither was defeated, Payind said.
Another destabilizing event in Middle Eastern history is the Arab Spring, which occurred in 2010. Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in protest when police officers confiscated his cart.
“The gates of hell [were] opened then,” Payind said.
Following the Tunisian Revolution protests, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after nearly 30 years of dictatorship. Other Arab rulers, including those in Egypt and Libya, also were overthrown during this period of regional unrest.
Payind said the only reason Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, continues to survive is because of the support he receives from Russia and Iran.
“Most of the Arab countries want Bashar al-Assad to go because they consider him the source of the problem,” Payind said. “He is allowing Iranians into the Middle East and he’s allowing Russians into the Middle East. Many insecure Arab countries are against that.”
Another shifting alliance he discussed is the nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries opposed the deal because they consider Iran a threat.
Though there are 57 Muslim-dominated countries in the world, the largest Muslim country in terms of population is Indonesia, which is located outside the Middle East. Following Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are the next largest Muslim countries in the world.
“This is the reality of how these alliances are now shifting in the Middle East,” Payind said. “[The attacks on] Sept. 11 shifted alliances. The Arab Spring shifted alliances in the Middle East. The nuclear deal is shifting alliances in the Middle East.”
One audience member asked: “It’s obvious that things [in the Middle East] are very complex. What are some of the silly, simplistic comments our presidential candidates are making?”
In response, Payind said many of the presidential candidates have broadly categorized all Muslims as terrorists, which he considers politically incorrect.
Just as one cannot blame the Inquisition on all Catholics, he said he doesn’t think it’s right to blame events like 9/11 on all Muslims.
The Great Decisions series continues Friday, Feb. 19, at William Street United Methodist Church with a lecture about the Kurds by Melinda McClimans, assistant director of the MESC at OSU.