Isis is simply the latest in a series of fanatical, violent movements born out of the disastrous consequences of US military intervention argues Alastair Stephens

Isis, or the Islamic State as it now styles itself, is the current threat of the hour which according to the Western powers and their media demands intervention. The widespread revulsion at the genocidal killings of Iraqi minorites and the brutal beheading of US journalist James Foley have reinforced the sense that something must be done.

There seems hardly adjective enough for the opprobrium being poured on it by the media and governments.

Isis’s crimes, in repressing minorities and all those who disagree with them, are indeed great. It is a thoroughly reactionary movement. How they are worse than the other forces to intervene Iraq though is difficult to quantify. They certainly have a long way to go until the pain they have inflicted on the country can even start to compare to that inflicted by the United States. But the blows inflicted by Isis are starting to look like the death throes of that unfortunate country however.

The intolerant and oppressive version of Islam is also excoriated, but is little different to that enforced in the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, a Western ally. Much has been made of their destruction of the tomb of Jonah and yet the ongoing Saudi destruction of Islamic religious sites is less commented on.

Isis is condemned for its “medieval barbarism” and yet the most “medieval” features of the regime they are seeking to create exist in the Saudi Kingdom already.

That Isis may not have killed as many people as the US in Iraq, or not (as yet) have the genocidal record of Saddam (when a US ally) should not fool us into thinking there is nothing peculiar about them.

There are things which set them apart. To list but a few, there is their fanaticism (most other movements in the area have proved all too earthly in their corruption), their mixture of “Medieval” violence and millenarian aspirations, the desire to create an Islamic utopia whilst re-establishing a fourteen hundred year old Caliphate (abolished by Atatürk in 1921) and their complete rejection of the nation state, the framework within which all movements and powers have operated in the Middle East since the break up of the Ottoman Empire.

All these set Isis apart. It is not unique however. It does have antecedents. But we don’t mean theological ones. We are not talking about Isis as an Islamic movement, rather we are talking about its peculiarities as part of an observable pattern in history.

It is how a certain type of movement can emerge out of the destruction of society, and completes it. The antecedents of Isis are the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The connection is the United States and its massive and destructive intervention in their societies.

The connection is also that once these new and shocking movements have arisen the US has both demonised them and sustained them for its own despicable purposes.

How the course of events of shaped each of these occasions is worth examining.

Cambodia: the Khmer Rouge

The recent end of the trial of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge was a reminder of one of the more brutal episodes of 20th century history.

Their regime, and its attempt to reboot history by turning the clock back literally to “Year Zero” led to the death of one in five of the country’s seven million people. Responsibility for this tragedy has now been laid firmly at the defendants’ door. The role of the US has been airbrushed out of history.

Vietnam War

Cambodia gained independence from its colonial power, France, in 1953. Its neighbour Vietnam though, was less lucky, and had to fight a war against first France to free the north, and then the US to free the south of the country.

Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihanouk tried to keep his country out of these wars and remained neutral whilst also fighting an internal Communist insurgency, but in 1970 he was overthrown in a coup by the pro-American Lon Nol.

The US had been secretly conducting air attacks in the east of the country since 1965. Now under President Nixon there was a massive escalation. One of the largest bombardments in history was launched as B-52 bombers carpet-bombed large parts of the country. In the three years the campaign lasted 2.7 million tonnes of bombs were dropped.

The result was that 30% of the population were internally displaced, production of rice, the staple crop, dropped by 80% and what was already a subsistence economy was destroyed. As many as 500,000 were killed by the bombing, many more died of disease and starvation.

What was an underdeveloped agricultural society, barely touched by the  modern world, was suddenly hit with all the might of the world’s leading industrial power. By the time the bombing stopped in 1973 Cambodia was in ruins and society, completely unprepared for the horrors of modern warfare, traumatised.

Year Zero

With the state paralyzed and the country in chaos a vicious civil war broke out which was won by the Khmer Rouge, a previously marginal group. The Communist Party of Kampucheaor Red Khmers as they were known, rode to power on a wave of peasant anger at the regime centred on the capital, and the country’s only big city, Phenom Penh. Its inhabitants were believed to have been in league with the men who sent the “metal birds” that had brought death and destruction to the countryside.

The peasanty were a willing audience for Pol Pot’s eccentric ideas of agrarian development, and with the country on the verge of famine the cities were emptied of people. All were sent to the countryside to join rural communes and work to build a rural utopia as 1975 was declared “Year Zero”. The so-called “New People”, anyone educated and from the city, now felt the wrath of the people and the “Angkar” (Organisation). they were tortured and killed out of hand.

Such a bizarre (and doomed) experiment, in a ruined country already torn apart by war, quickly degenerated into mass killing by an increasingly paranoid regime. Famine and disease killed many more. A fifth of the population died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule.

In the end it was the Vietnamese Communist regime, having recently defeated the Americans and unified their country, who stepped in to oust the Khmer Rouge. In 1979 they invaded and installed a new regime under a former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership fled over the border into the Thai jungle from which they fought an insurgency which would last into the 1990s. They were able to do because changing Cold War alliances had provided them new allies.

The Vietnamese Communists had been backed by both Russia and China, who themselves had been at loggerheads since the Sino-Soviet split of 1962.  But in 1972 there had been a surprise rapprochement between America and China when the Republican hawk, president Richard Nixon visited Beijing. China had also fallen out with its smaller southern neighbour, Vietnam, which it wanted to dominate. This local rivalry led to border clashes in 1979.

China and the US now had a common interest in harassing the pro-Moscow regime in Vietnam, and the perfect means to do so in the form of the ousted Khmer Rouge now sitting on the Thai border. Despite the exposure of the horror of the killing fields, something the US and its allies used as propaganda against the left world-wide, the US covertly backed China’s arming of the Khmer Rouge. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, later admitted:

“I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot… Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.”

Throughout the 1980s, the US, the European powers and China continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia and blocked moves to place Pol Pot and his colleagues on trial.

Eventually the usefulness of the Khmer Rouge came to end and it was decided to pursue some of the old Khmer Rouge leaders (though others such Prime Minister Hun Sen were left well alone). Shortly afterward the decision to put Pol Pot on trial in 1998 he mysteriously died in a Khmer Rouge camp, never having been brought to justice.

Eventually trials did start and culminated in the conviction in August 2014 of the few of the regime’s, now elder top leaders, still alive.

They were now to be held solely responsible for the tragedy that had befallen Cambodia. The role of the US in destroying the country, and its joint sponsorship of the Khmer Rouge afterwards, air-brushed out of history.

Afghanistan: the Taliban

In 1970, the year that heavy US bombing of Cambodia started, Afghanistan was a rural backwater, a landlocked mountainous kingdom, almost a place of legend, never having been colonised.

Its capital, Kabul, was the only city in the country that was something like modern, and open to the world, a key stop on the Hippy Trail. But it lacked any real industry and was an island of modernity in a sea of peasants.

The country’s economy and population was overwhelmingly rural. The countryside had barely changed in centuries, and was still dominated by feudal landlords who lived in forts, from behind whose walls they waged endless feuds, and wielded absolute power over the much-oppressed peasantry.

Society was about to be blown apart though when the country became caught in the crossfire between two superpowers. As in Cambodia this catastrophe would create one of the great dystopian regimes of the twentieth century: the Taliban.

Afghanistan might have been remote, but it was not unaffected by the outside world. By the nineteen-sixties the country was becoming restive and control of the cities, and in particular universities was contested by a still brutal if weakening state, the Communists (an ideology still seemingly full of vigour) and a new force, political Islam.

In 1978 the Communists sized power in a coup, but attempts to assert control of the countryside led to rebellion and civil war. The countryside quickly started to slip out of government control in a welter of local uprisings lead variously by local mullahs, angry Khans or just peasants rejecting state interference with tradition. Fearing the spread of war and Islamic radicalism to its own southern, Muslim republics, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979.

Rather than strengthen the Afghan Communist regime in Kabul this action decisively undermined it. The whole country rose in revolt against the invading Russians, just as it had against the British a century before. As localised rebellions swept the country all but the cities was lost to the Communists.

The US steps in

The US saw its chance to take revenge on the Soviet Union for Vietnam and started to arm and finance, through Pakistan’s ISI secret services, the Islamist parties who had now set up shop in the refugee camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

They quickly hegemonised the resistance across the country, but also carried with them a stricter more puritanical form of Islam, different from the more relaxed and Sufi influenced traditions of the country. The US and Saudi Arabia also facilitated the flow of arab Islamic radicals to the region to fight the “godless Soviets”. All of this had unintended consequences for Afghanistan and the US.

As the Americans had in Vietnam, the Russians held their own bases, the cities and the main roads in between, from which they launched operations into the hostile countryside.

The Russians, like the Americans before them, also made full use of the biggest advantage they had over the Mujahedin: airpower. They deployed massive aerial firepower against the country leveling whole areas and killing huge numbers. They carpet-bombed and used napalm and cluster bombs – just as the Americans had done. And it did as much for them as it did the Americans, alienating even further the mass of the population. When the US supplied the Mujahedin with stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Soviet air power became much less of a threat, but the damage had been done to already the Communist cause.

Death and destruction

As many as a million Afghans, the vast majority poor peasants, died. Six million fled to live in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Agriculture was wrecked and relations in the countryside were changed as the old Khans fled, only to be replaced by the warlords of the Mujahedin.

Heroin also started to be planted on an industrial scale to finance the war. The trade in this drug, and the money it generated, would corrupt not only Afghanistan but also the countries around it. Pakistan’s already weak state in particular fell prey to its malign influence.

By 1989 the Soviets had had enough and withdrew, their own country now in deep crisis. The client regime they left behind in Kabul under the thuggish former head of the dreaded Khad secret police, and hands on torturer, Mohamed Najibullah, lasted longer than expected, but still collapsed in 1992.

The Islamist parties who took over soon fell out amongst themselves. Kabul had been practically untouched by the war up until then. Now it was razed to the ground, with artillery battles between the warlords reducing the city to ruins. In the battle for the city 25,000 were killed and half a million fled. The Khmer Rouge had emptied the cities of people but left them standing but eerily empty. The Mujahedin let the people stay, but demolished the city around them, killing thousands.

The rise of the Taliban

As endless infighting went on between the warlords the people of the country began to desire peace and order above else. And new force arose promising order, and a pure version of Islam, appeared.

It was led by the young men who had grown up during the war, known as the “the Students” (Taliban). They had been educated by the Islamist parties in religious dogma, but nothing else. Their world view was shaped by the war, the refugee camp and the betrayal of the militia commanders after the war.

Their program was to replace the warlords who had, as they saw it, corrupted the pristine message of Islam with greed and lust, and ruined the country, and to replace them with a perfect Islamic state. Their movement was at once backward looking and utopian. Their Islamic Emirate was not in reality based on any historically existing place (though its proponents harked back to the supposed early years of Islam), and nor was it based on any indigenous tradition. It was in fact characterized by innovation and imported traditions from Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban quickly swept aside the warlords, at least in the Pushtun areas, and soon took the capital, Kabul.

Their rapid rise to power required popular acquiescence, but would not have been possible without large scale aid and support from Pakistan’s ISI, in what Tariq Ali has described as Pakistan’s only foreign policy success in its five decades of existence. They wanted a stable and pliant regime in their difficult neighbour, and their former protégés, the warlords had demonstrably failed to provide this. Maybe their new ones would.

Pakistan’s plan to bring order to the country was one the US acquiesced in even as the Taliban took the ruined country back to its own Islamic Year Zero banishing women from streets and banning music.

Reaping the Whirlwind

However US were about to reap the whirlwind.

Some the Islamist radicals who had been brought to Afghanistan by the US and their Saudi clients in the 1980s had found a new enemy: the USA and the Saudi Regime themselves. They began a campaign of terrorism designed to drive the US from the Arabian Peninsular which culminated in the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001.

The US now turned fully on the Taliban and launched a full-scale attack on Afghanistan, ostensibly to bring the alleged organizer of the attacks, Osama bin Laden to justice, conveniently ignoring that most of the perpetrators of the attacks had been Saudis. The former warlords who the Taliban had been used to oust from power, were rehabilitated and again became allies of the US, their destruction of Kabul forgotten.

The Taliban were in their turn overthrown and driven from Kabul, and the country again entered into another cycle of imperialist occupation and resistance which continues until this day.

Afghanistan had now been bombarded by both superpowers. From the fall of the King in 1970 the country has moved rapidly from feudalism through all the great experiments of the 20th century from Communism to Islamism to the Taliban (the most obscurantist and most backward looking of all the utopias tried on this country), finishing with liberalism down the barrel of a gun.

Only the kind destruction and manipulation that can be carried out by massive super power intervention in a poor and weak society could have produced such a tortured history and such extreme reactions.

Syria and Iraq: Isis

The history of the Islamic State has yet to be written.

It is early still and we do not know how long its ersatz Caliphate will last. It may yet prove to be more ephemeral than the Taliban’s Emirate. The story of the dodgy dealings and deals that it may have done, or are doing, may take years to emerge.

The epicentre of the earthquake the movement is creating in the Middle East is Iraq. The context of its emergence therefore is well known, if not mentioned by the media.

In the last few decades, in the lifetime of an adult, the country has moved from one of the more modern countries in the Middle East, an oil rich developing state, to a failed state. It has also been a pawn in the power games of all the region’s powers. A power struggle which looks set to see the country finally fall apart.

The country moved from the Soviet orbit into the US’s and with the help of the CIA Saddam Hussein was put into power.

War and more war

He then led the country, at the behest of the US into an eight year war with its larger neighbour, Iran. A million people were killed in a struggle that wrecked both their economies, but ended in stalemate.

During this war the West also provided Iraq with chemical weapons which it used on a large scale against Iranian forces and the Kurdish population. The regime was protected from international outrage by Washington.

Henry Kissinger famously wished that both sides might lose. His wish was granted. It was Iran that asked for peace first, but recovered more quickly having depended on its own resources more. Iraq soon found tht the Gulf states on whose behalf it had fought the war, were unsympathetic creditors.

A bankrupt Iraq invaded its super-rich neighbour, the city state of Kuwait, an act of disobedience that put Iraq on the US’s rogue state list.

It also led to full-scale attack. In a month of bombing by the US (and its loyal ally Britain) thirty years of development were wiped out as the country was bombed back “into the 19th century”.

The country was defeated and expelled from Kuwait. Saddam Hussein remained in power but a strict sanctions regime was put in place that held the country in a state of pauperism and in which a million people died.

War and Occupation

In the end Washington found the casus belli it needed to try and replace Saddam’s regime with a new client state to balance the power of a  resurgent Iran. A series of absurd lies, an alleged link with al-Qaida and a WMD program, were concocted and sold to world opinion via a willing and supine media.

Iraq was attacked and invaded again. This time it was occupied by the US (and Britain) who dissolved what remained of the state and attempted to turn the country into an oxymoron, a liberal and democratic client state. What actually hapenned was the almost complete collapse of infrastructure, the paralysis of the state and public services and a break down of law and order.

Resistance to the occupation was met with massively disproportionate military force, and when resistance by different groupings, uniting Sunni and Shia, threatened to coalesce into a national uprising the genie of sectarianism was released.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (an acolyte of bin Laden’s) spread sectarian chaos, until he was killed, and the country descended into an orgy of killing. The US killed Iraqis and Iraqis killed each other.

Between the deliberate killing and death from disease more than a million Iraqis died as a resulted of the invasion and occupation. No family was untouched.

Eventually to stop the country entirely flying apart some order had to be restored. Sunni tribes were armed and co-opted in the west of the country whilst power in Baghdad was handed to Shia Islamists allied to Iran, in a tacit deal with that country, the new “necessary country” in the region.


The invasion and occupation of Iraq had been supposed to weaken Iran. It had the opposite effect. The US could not just leave it at that. It looked for ways to make up lost ground.

The Arab revolutions were a major threat to US power in the region, but it managed to deflect the Libyan revolution and when rebellion broke out in Syria, Iran’s only ally, it saw its  chance to get back in the game.

Syria, is and was an unpleasant dictatorship, but had up until then been relatively stable (despite the convulsions next door, or the million Iraq refugees in the country). The massive state repression of the uprising made the revolutionaries turn first to arms, and then to the West to get them.

The country soon descended into its own hell.

The secular and interdenominational nature of the initial rebellion quickly faded as militarisation led to polarisation and the Sunni radicals formed in the furnace of Iraq’s sectarian killing crossed a now meaningless border with Iraq.

The were aided by a flow of arms from the Saudis and Gulf states, all eager to undermine Iran and spread their own reactionary versions of Islam.

The more secular FSA was soon eclipsed by local the al-Qaida franchises such as Nusra Front, who in their own turn were outflanked by the emergence of Isis, a group deemed too violent even by al-Qaida.

The US’s relationship to this new kid on the block is uncertain. Its attitude to this force which wants to entirely overthrow the system of states created by Sykes-Picot a hundred years ago seems diffident, vacillating between demonisation and instrumental use. Isis may yet be handy in the final breaking up of a series of states which seem already broken, a possible new take on the neo-cons fantasies of remaking the architecture of the region. Neoliberalism’s doctrine of “creative destruction” transferred to geo-politcs and taken to its ultimate conclusion.

One thing is for certain Isis seems to be a movement characterised by its fanaticism, violence and desire to remake the world in its own image by simply wiping the slate clean, as its forebears in the Khmer Rouge and Taliban before them.

Repeated tragedies

The appearance of such a movement, at once modern and retrospective, millenarian and dystopian, is entirely predicated on the complete destruction of a society by massive military intervention by a superpower and continued manipulation of the consequences.

The US is not the only power to have done this, Russia with its near genocidal war against the Chechens produced a similar reaction, an almost nihilist terrorism. But for frequency, sheer scale and the historical consequences of its adventures, the US is in a league of its own. One of the horrible clubs in history

The current tragedy in Iraq is just another awful episode in the story of US imperialism’s bloody relations with the developing world.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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