Iraq Afghan Culture
The War on Terror and the Imposition of Cultural Change
The War in Iraq began on March 19th, 2003, when American bombers began a ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign designed to ‘decapitate’ Iraqi Republican Army leadership and to pound the civilian population into preemptive submission. The attack preceded the arrival of a deadline by which despot Saddam Hussein had been given the ultimatum to vacate Iraq with his sons to make way for democratic reform or to face the wrath of the United States. The purpose of this invasion was proposed quite singularly as the disruption of a regime which ‘could’ aid terrorists in destroying the United States, its friends and its allies. The final justification for this war was that, to that end, Iraq was guilty of acquiring and maintaining Weapons of Mass Destruction for potential sale to terrorists for use against the United States. Ultimately characterized as an invasion connected to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States, this would be the follow-up to a continuing conflict already raging in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces had unseated the Taliban and continued a vain search for al Queda mastermind Osama bin Laden. Reflecting now, eight years since this first invasion, it becomes increasingly clear that both wars have failed in their stated goals to establish democracy and to instigate the embrace of Western cultural values. Both nations are steeped in violence, disorder and resentments, all of which are features that now readily define the culture of Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are few ways to take the invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan that don’t suggest an explicitly intended change in the prevailing culture of each. Indeed, though distinctly different from one another, both nations re presented a sharp departure from western political values, religious philosophies and social priorities. This break is best understood by the hostility perpetuated between the United States and the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, for instance, a history of Cold War occupation by both the United States and the Soviet Union had helped to create a brutal theocracy in which the Taliban ruled through an ultra-orthodox and rigidly punitive form of Islamic rule. Its extremity would make the government the only one in the world willing to shelter bin Laden. By contrast, Iraq was a military dictatorship overseen by Saddam Hussein, frequently demonized in political discourse for the political brutality levied against his enemies. In both were leaders reflective of cultures driven by resentment for the United States, Europe and the modernity that had so frequently been confronted in the form of military capability.
Certainly, these are the cultural qualities that have been emergent in the aftermath of such attacks as those on September 11th. To the point, when Islamic extremists used American commercial airliners as missiles and felled the World Trade Center in New York City while simultaneously using the same method to punch a whole in the side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the Western World came to understand the extent to which hatred between the modern and tribal worlds had grown. The ultimate implication of the events of 9/11 is that Islam has become, as a result of American foreign policy, economic patterns and military endeavors, a hostile and radicalized culture. This is largely based on perceptions in the Islamic World that the Western World acts with favoritism toward Israel in diplomacy, demonstrates a tendency to exploit Arab states with military acts and pursues opportunistic relationships based on its dependence on Mid-East oil. One of the reasons that is most noted for anger with the Western World by Muslim leaders of state and by the average Islamist residing in the Middle East, is the fact that the United States has so strongly supported Israeli statehood.
The Mamdani (2004) text captures this geopolitical disposition particularly well, indicating that the United States, the U.S.S.R. And other global powers helped to create the current Islamic cultural tendencies toward violence and armed resistance. Mamdani notes that “as the battleground of the Cold War shifted from southern Africa to Central America and Central Asia in the late seventies, America’s benign attitude toward political terror turned into a brazen embrace: both the contras in Nicaragua and later al-Qaeda (and the Taliban) in Afghanistan were American allies during the Cold War. Supporting them showed a determination to win the Cold War ‘by all means necessary,’ a phrase that could refer only to unjust means. The result of an alliance gone sour, 9/11 needs to be understood first and foremost as the unfinished business of the Cold War.” (Mamdani, 13)
This is an important way of framing the discussion because it distinguishes the political and military objectives that were inherently related to the goals of armed Islamic jihad. Recognition that the United States and other imperialist nations had played a key role in fomenting the violent proclivities which are today regarded as somehow historically Muslim suggests that we are under a misimpression to view Islamic extremism as religious in nature. This is a perspective that Gottschalk & Greenberg (2005) regard derisively, identifying this as a false cultural stereotype emergent in western media which holds that “ultimately, religious beliefs and acts not only distinguish the terrorists, they motivate the terrorists’ irrational violence. The implicit message, then, is that Muslims who do not act religiously can be good, normal Americans, while Muslims who perform Islamic rituals and espouse Islamic beliefs also commit terrorist acts.” (Gottschalk & Greenberg, 62)
Of course, the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq would suggest very little recognition of these patterns, instead taking an approach mirroring those which had helped to radicalize both cultures. The result is, of course, a continuing disruption of the positive cultural aspects of either nation as military struggle and political disorder come to define a shared experience. Certainly, when the United States entered into Iraq, it did so with rhetorical expression of its desire to introduce Iraq to a culture not defined by dictatorship. The symbolic act of its invasion would suggest as much, while simultaneously obscuring an intention with very little to do with the production of positive cultural outcomes. So denotes the Iraqi News (2008), which would indicate that
“when U.S. forces stormed Baghdad on April 8, 2003 and, in a carefully staged propaganda stunt, tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, the first center of the former regime the GIs occupied was the Oil Ministry.” (IN, 1)
This contrast between symbolic and actual behavior would be revealing of American priorities and simultaneously predictive of the actual culture realities that would be instigated by the invasion. As the text by Vlahos (2004) tells, there was in the aftermath of the invasion a palpable sense that though the United States had only superficially permeated the country, that it was prepared to declare the achievement of broad and unrealistic cultural goals. Vlahos characterizes the attempts at foisting cultural change upon the Iraqis as both poorly conceived and philosophically misguided. As the Vlahos article observes, “victory itself has been fundamentally misunderstood. In war the relationship with the enemy and his world defines both the narrative of the conflict and the parameters of victory. In Iraq the United States ignored the centrality of its relationship with the Muslim World and instead reflexively replayed its own cherished story line of World War II. In doing so we are unconsciously participating in — and legitimating — the enemy’s story.” (Vlahos, 1)
Such is to say that the perception of the Iraqi and Afghani people — that the United States was a ruthless and greed-driven foreign invaders — was being shown as warranted in the conflict. The cultural perception of the West would taken on even more monstrous proportions, directing those formerly of a moderate theological or military disposition toward a far more dramatic cultural stance against the U.S. In the midst of this distortion of intrinsic cultural values, the invasion of Iraq would set off another kind of cultural destruction as well. The centuries of human history which earned the Iraqi region the moniker, ‘the cradle of civilization,’ would be evidenced by artifacts throughout Iraqi museums and universities. The vacuum of power or interest in the preservation of culture would set off a looting epidemic that continues unabated to present day. Indeed, “Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve who served in Iraq in 2003, said on March 18 that the smuggling of stolen antiquities was helping finance insurgent groups in Iraq.” (IN, 1) Essentially, a priceless array of artifacts detailing history well prior to the founding of Iraq have been lost to oblivion. In this very material respect, the war has helped to erase the evidence of years of human evolution simply through a failure — perhaps willful or perhaps simply through disinterest — to protect existing Iraqi culture.
That said, there can be evidenced no greater impact on Iraqi culture than that produced by the outright desperation created in an atmosphere of perpetual war. To be sure, one of the most significant effecters of the cultural experience in Iraq has been the stimulation of more widespread, proliferated and severe violence. This has instigated a widespread change in the experience of Iraqis, who have been subjected to one of the most dangerous periods in the nation’s history. Accordingly, a study by Roberts et al. (2004) used cluster household sampling in Iraq to measure the mortality rate both before and after the 2003 invasion. The study found that “the risk of death was estimated to be 2 5-fold (95% CI 1-6 — 4-2) higher after the invasion when compared with the preinvasion period. Two-thirds of all violent deaths were reported in one cluster in the city of Falluja. If we exclude the Falluja data, the risk of death is 1 5-fold (1-1 — 2-3) higher after the invasion. We estimate that 98000 more deaths than expected (8000 — 194000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included.” (Roberts et al., 1857)
Where culture is concerned, this would produce a wholesale disruption of families, a destruction of communities, a dismantling of public governing agencies and, now six years into the war, the creation of a generation of Iraqi adolescents who have only known a life of armed combat. To be sure, this differentiates present-day Iraq from a nation that a decade ago stood in turmoil but with a relative societal stability. The transfer of power and the enervation of violent resistance produced since the war’s initiation denote a far different cultural response to a society that is today without shape or civic definition.
Referring once again to the study by Roberts et al., we note that the future outlook for the culture of Iraq is certain to be one of economic depression, social disorder and psychological frustration. Together, these conditions will produce a culture impinged upon by violence, resentment, structural weakness and a poorly defined seat of power. The massive amount of casualties produced by the conflict and the manner in which these causalities have been produced will have a lasting impact on the psyche of the Iraqi people and of the state of Iraq. As Roberts et al. report, “making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.” (Roberts et al., 1861) Though no concrete number exists listing the total number of Iraqi lives lost, it is certain that the number of those lost directly to the invasion is a cost that will weigh heavily on the experience of those orphaned, widowed or left without children by the invasion.
This is to say that the future cultural outlook for Iraq, as well as for Afghanistan, is one likely to be defined by a strong minority of individuals who have emerged in response to the aggression of American invaders. Indeed, the amount of civilian dead accumulated over the course of this war has ensured that those modern or secular Islamists who previously populated the cities and universities of Iraq are likelier fodder today for participation in the cultural conflict with Iraq. As Vlahos observes, “the moderate Islamist is ignored — even denied — by U.S. statecraft but the broader movement for change within Islam has a strong and vital element that is pluralistic and non-violent. Its quietude makes it vulnerable, however, to the radical Islamists, who insist that theirs is the only way to defend a Muslim World under attack from the United States of America needs to reach out to peaceful Islamists or risk change in Islam that is wholly radicalized.” (Vlahos, 1) Of course, at this juncture, much of the damage which has be n done in Iraq is irreparable from a cultural standpoint. The Iraqi people will carry forward the burden of this war on their psyche and in their way of life. So too will the people of Afghanistan.
And yet, for both, the uncertainty of outcomes remains so because both nations are still in a state of war. Permeated by foreign invaders, bubbling over with tribal warring and likely to experience the tumult of civil unrest even for years to follow the eventual departure of occupiers, these nations are a demonstration of the failed theory driving the United States in its global conflict. Its War On Terror, like the nation-building and colonial theories of the past, has toppled under the weight of its own rhetoric. The idea that one culture can, or should, be supplanted by another is refuted soundly by the cultural change taking place in the Muslim world today. Not only are these populations farther away than ever from adopting the values and practices of Western culture, but centuries of their own heritage have been disrupted, dismantled and distorted in the process.
A more intuitive approach to Muslim culture would see the United States approaching the improvement of human rights and political representation in the contexts where it has instead pursued brutal militancy. The actions perpetrated on 9/11 wer a result of the duplicity of which this discussion speaks, with a history of exploitation in the Middle East motivating the political fury that manifest so violently. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the U.S. To engage the international community in efforts to establish negotiation and discourse even with those governments with whom there are fundamental philosophical disagreements. This is not a charity to those who would harbor terrorists. Rather, it is a response to the understanding that violence and isolation are the very cultural conditions which have stimulated terrorism.
Indeed, the poorly suited approach taken by the previous administration suggests a certain absence of rational understanding for the cultural realities contributing to the terrorist problem. Quite certainly, these have only grown in scale and intensity. Indeed, the War on Terror has to this point taken an approach to terrorism which does not conform to the expectations of a traditional, and protracted conflict. The current quagmire in Iraq certainly endorses the idea that a more rational orientation, with a long-term plan aimed at providing contingency responses to the flexibility of terrorist cell-groups, might more sufficiently serve policy interests than the current attempts at altering a culture. There had appeared practically no end in sight to a policy approach which pursues a finite goal such as domestic security through the destruction of another ethnic or religious tradition. On the balance, this has suggested a need for a more rational policy approach in this category as the Obama Administration has sought by bringing greater multilateralism to the needs imposed by the conflict and the global threat of terrorism. Indeed, beneath the self-gratifying spin, which was given a loyal soapbox in the form of mainstream media venues such as talk radio and cable news, the Bush Administration’s management of military and security policy in both of its invasions has now become a defining aspect of the culture for both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Namely, these invasions would magnify the host of cultural issues impacting the world’s Arab population, noting that religious isolation, political disenfranchisement, a cultural resistance to the vagaries of modernization and a host of other instincts promoting resistance to the west have rendered a population that is unwilling to be forced into occupation, capitalism or democratization. (Hoge & Rose 2005) Unfortunately, many biases in the international discourse on the subject tend to foist responsibility dominantly upon the Arab population, making limited acknowledgement of the forces of colonialism and military imposition which have helped to forge a defensive and resentful Arab culture.
Perhaps even as much as the handling of these conflicts, which have truly incited a cultural proclivity toward terrorism on a scale previously unseen, especially in the continually inflamed Iraq, the lead-in to war demonstrates that the will and approach to traditional warfare is itself vulnerable to exploitation. In many ways, this period of conflict was defined and rationalized by the events of September 11th. It was accepted that the world had indeed changed insofar as it was to be seen as now more dangerous. American culture, which in the 1990s was regarded as a beacon in the international community for technological, corporate and human rights progress, took on a far more bellicose, ideologically regressive and pointedly unilateral outlook in the policy eventualities provoked by the attacks. But these changes were not the security inevitabilities of a terrorist attack on American soil as the hawkish representatives of the Bush Administration had argued. In examining the individual conflicts of the War on Terror, especially Iraq, as well as the ideology hanging as a banner over the more protracted War on Terror itself, it is clear that there had been a startling lack of either philosophical or practical realism where the subversion of a centuries old culture is concerned.
The most crucial step that we can take therefore in preventing another attack on the scale of 9/11 is to reverse the type of intensification of violence that succeeded 9/11. The intensity of terrorist activities, as demonstrated by the ample resistance generated in Iraq, Afghanistan and such places as Pakistan, Israel and Syria over the last decade, suggests that we must extend a hand to those governments which are either unwilling or incapable of reigning in terrorism. As demonstrated by many of the above situations, government will is meaningless if the cultures in these contexts are defined by poverty, humiliation, disenfranchisement, squalor and violence.
Gottschalk, P. & Greenberg, G. (2005). Islamophobia. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Hoge, J.F. & Rose, G. (2005). Understanding the War on Terror. Foreign Affairs.
Iraqi News (IN). (2008). Experts assess extent of Iraq’s cultural catastrophe five years after the U.S. invasion. Iraqi News. Online at http://www.iraqinews.com/culture-tourism/experts-assess-extent-of-iraqs-cultural-catastrophe-five-years-after-the-us-invasion.html?Itemid=126
Mamdani, M. (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Random House.
Roberts, L.; Lafta, R.; Garfield, R.; Khudhairi, J. & Burnham, G. (2004). Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey. The Lancet, 364(9448), 1857-1864.
Vlahos, M. (2004). Culture’s Mask: War & Change After Iraq. The Johns Hopkins University. Online at http://www.jhuapl.edu/POW/library/culturemask.htm
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