What Has the United States Achieved in the Middle East?

US Troops in Afghanistan

Photo courtesy CFRA

US Troops in Afghanistan

The so-called “caliph” of the terrorist group Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, was recently killed in a U.S. raid on his home in Northern Syria. Given the possible implications of this event, it is important that we examine how the United States federal government has conducted its foreign policy in the Middle East from around 1980 until the current year.


The Middle East is a region primarily spanning west Asia, with North Africa sometimes included in its definition. Arabs are the predominant ethnic group in this region, and the majority of people in this region follow Islam, which differentiates it from the primarily Christian western world. Due to the rise of Arab nationalism and more conservative schools in Islamic theology, America has recently seen itself at ideological odds with many countries in the Middle East. In attempting to obtain a secure geopolitical foothold in this ostensibly hostile neighborhood, the United States stepped up interventions in multiple countries throughout the region from 2001 to 2021. This article will examine the results of interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and evaluate whether they were a net positive or negative for U.S. influence in the region.


Firstly, let us look at the geopolitical results of U.S. intervention in Iraq. Prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq was under the control of Saddam Hussein, an Arab nationalist dictator who was widely condemned for human rights abuses under his leadership, particularly towards the Kurds in the northern parts of the country. After illegally setting up no-fly zones, falsely claiming that Hussein was in possession of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), and alleging that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks, the United States, along with Great Britain and Poland, launched an invasion of the country and quickly removed Hussein from power. While the coalition was initially successful in setting up a parliamentary democracy in the country, France, one of our closest allies, felt uneasy about the invasion and how we had not consulted them beforehand. Moreover, many jihadist groups also took the invasion as an opportunity to launch an insurgency in Iraq in an attempt to set up a radical Islamist state. After a troop surge in 2007 by President Bush, as well as further action against the insurgents by President Obama in 2011, Iraq had stabilized and our troops withdrew. However, the Islamic State, a former branch of Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist network, seized upon this opportunity to conquer vast areas of Iraq, including Mosul, its second largest city. Islamic State committed many horrendous war crimes during its war, with some labeling it as the most brutal terrorist group in modern history. The primarily Shia Iran sent troops in to help the Shia-led government against the Sunni Islamic State (Shia and Sunni Islam are two sects of the religion often at theological odds with one another). The eventual defeat of the Islamic State allowed for Iran, a country known for its staunch opposition to the United States, to gain unseen influence in Iraq and the region as a whole, thereby degrading America’s reputation and influence in the country substantially, opposite of what the U.S. intended going into the 2003 invasion.


Secondly, Syria. Much like Iraq, Syria was – and still is – governed by Bashar Al-Assad, an Arab nationalist dictator with similar ideological viewpoints to Saddam Hussein. During the Arab Spring in 2011, in which many people across the Arab world protested against the authoritarian nature of their governments, Assad chose to fire upon civilians and was widely condemned by the international community as a result. These protests eventually turned into a full-scale rebellion by a group known as the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA).  Many countries, including the United States, were keen on removing Assad from power to increase their influence in the region, and thus had the CIA train some of the rebels fighting Assad. However, Assad eventually released many jihadists from Syrian prisons, who then joined the FSA, thus making it more controversial for the U.S. and its allies to support them. The rebels were initially very successful, taking urban areas such as Raqqa and governing a substantial amount of the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. However, the aforementioned Islamic State eventually recruited some of these jihadists and used weapon stockpiles to seize much of the rebel-held territory, making Raqqa the “capital” of their “caliphate”. This resulted in the rebels becoming severely weakened, and Islamic State eventually turned their attention toward fighting the Assad government. Alongside Iran, Russia, long seen as the primary military opponent to the US, began sending weapons en masse to Assad to help them fight the Islamic State. The terrorists were eventually defeated, however this campaign left the extremist-hinged FSA in ruins, and at present they only govern a few significant settlements in the north of the country. Note that Northern Syria was where al-Qurashi, the Islamic State leader, was killed. Instead of a US-backed democratic government taking hold in Syria, Assad is now arguably in a stronger position than he was a decade ago, and terrorist groups including Islamic State still have a lingering influence in the north of the country, from which they conduct heinous attacks against innocent civilians across the earth.


Lastly, Afghanistan. Modern history has not been kind to this country whatsoever – the Afghan people have had to endure continuous conflict since 1978, when the Saur Revolution overthrew a relatively conservative and authoritarian government with a communist, Soviet-aligned one. Afghans across the nation quickly joined various mujahideen (essentially meaning ‘holy warrior’) groups to fight against the new atheist government seemingly opposed to Islam, which has had a long and significant cultural influence in Afghanistan. American presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan subsequently provided billions of dollars in funding to the mujahideen in order to counter Soviet influence in a crucial time during the Cold War. The mujahideen were eventually successful in driving out the communists, but eventually began fighting amongst themselves while attempting to form a new government, thus prolonging the Afghan civil war. Out of this chaos, two new radicalized figures who had previously fought with the backing of the United States emerged onto the stage: Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman and founder of the previously mentioned al-Qaeda, and Mohammed Omar, an Afghan who founded the Taliban, a militia comprising of ethnically Pashtun students following the Deobandi form of Sunni Islam (Pashtun is an ethnic group residing primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Deobandi Islam is an ultra-conservative form of the religion originating out of Pakistani colleges). With the backing of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Taliban swiftly conquered most of the country in the 1990s and allowed Al-Qaeda to set up a base there. Under Taliban governance, Afghanistan witnessed cultural genocide with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as well as an infamously brutal law code which heavily restricted daily activities such as music and television, heavily reduced the role of women in public life, and called for the amputation of thieves. The Taliban also denied UN food aid to much of the starving Afghan population. Still, the Taliban government gained recognition from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. Under bin Laden’s leadership, Al-Qaeda also committed several terrorist attacks while based in Afghanistan, including the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, two countries located in Africa. In 2001, having already declared war on the USA, Al-Qaeda launched the notorious September 11 attacks against the United States, killing many innocent civilians in the process. President George W. Bush subsequently demanded that the Taliban extradite bin Laden so he could be put on trial. The Taliban refused to comply with Bush’s order, and thus the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and toppled their largely unrecognized government by the end of the year. What followed was a 20-year insurgency in which the new Afghan government and the West initially performed very well against the Taliban and killed bin Laden, in an operation known as “Enduring Freedom”. However, after 2014, the Taliban started to regain ground as the West downsized their troop number during operation “Resolute Support”, designed to support the new Afghan government, and Islamic State also gained a presence in the country at this time. After the administration of President Donald Trump concluded a peace deal with the Taliban in 2020, the U.S. began to fully withdraw, which was completed in 2021 under President Joe Biden. During this time, the Taliban swiftly conquered most of Afghanistan in 3 months and captured $80 billion equipment abandoned by their opponents. Biden came under heavy fire for this, as well as the process of evacuating troops, embassy staff, and many Afghan people and officials seeking refuge from the Taliban. I would argue he takes a significant amount of the blame: part of President Trump’s peace deal was that the Taliban cut ties with Al-Qaeda, which Biden failed to enforce, and recent reports have suggested that Biden had no plan for withdrawal prior to the fall of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. However, it can be said that the war in Afghanistan was made due to poor-decision making on the part of the Western-backed government, as well as the Taliban’s use of social media and superior strategies in attacking Afghan forces. Regardless, the fall of Afghanistan also allowed for the Islamic State to regain a significant presence in the country after it was defeated decisively by the Taliban in the late 2010s. Islamic State launched a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport, killing 12 U.S. service members as well as over one hundred civilians. The U.S. Department of Defense then estimated Islamic State could launch attacks outside of Afghanistan within six months. At the end of the war, Afghanistan was, unfortunately, what it was at the beginning: An impoverished nation on the verge of famine governed by a radical Islamist group providing a safehaven for terrorists.


With trillions of dollars spent and thousands of American lives now gone, it is clear that the interventions by the U.S. in the Middle East have been a net negative for the influence of the country in the region. We sent our troops there to ensure that terrorism would have no safe place and that so-called “rogue states” would not have far-reaching influence on the world stage. Iraq has essentially become a satellite state of Iran, one of our strongest opponents, Afghanistan has been hijacked by a radical Islamist militiant group, and Syria is a bit of a mix of the two. Note that it was the tax dollars of your families that paid for all of this to happen. The trillions of dollars spent on these interventions could have gone to new infrastructure, national debt repayments, and better health care instead, but Congress, seeking cash from the defense lobby, chose another path. The right choice for the U.S. going forward is clear: a halt to interventions like those seen in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan until our government figures out how to properly put America, and the American people first in policy making, without exception and without apology.