Technology: Game Changer or Game Stopper in the Middle East?


Afghan Mujahideen with surface to air stinger missile, near Jalalabad, 1989, Steve McCurry

by Dan Caldwell

The development and advancement of technology has influenced reform and revolution throughout history, but arguably never more so than during the last three decades in the Middle East. The recent “Facebook revolutions” are the current manifestations of this trend.

In the 1970s, the Shah’s Iran was what President Jimmy Carter called “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world” and was one of the “three pillars”, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, on which U.S. policy in the Middle East region was based. The Shah viewed Islamic radicals as a threat and imprisoned or exiled many of them, including the Ayatollah Khomeini who lived in exile in France and then Iran for fifteen years.

Despite the Ayatollah’s desire to reverse history and take Iran back to the mores of the fifteenth century, he readily exploited a late twentieth-century technology to communicate and spread his message: cassette tapes. Smuggled into Iran, duplicated, and sold in bazaars, cassette tapes there were low-tech compared to today’s standards contributed to the overthrow of the Peacock throne.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution was just one of several indicators of the explosion of Islamic radicalism in that year which included the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the burning of the American embassy in Islamabad. Alarmed by the demonstrations of Islamic radicalism and concerned about the twenty percent of the Soviet population that was Muslim, Soviet leaders ordered the invasion and occupation of the Afghanistan on Christmas Eve of 1979 in part to stem the spread of Islamic radicalism.

Like Alexander the Great, the Persians, and the British before them, the Soviets soon discovered that the Afghans were a tough, independent population who fiercely resisted foreign intervention and occupation. Nevertheless, the Soviets employed brutal tactics which contributed to their gaining the upper-hand by 1985. At the prodding of flamboyant Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, the U.S. began providing the mujahedeen with surface-to-air Stinger missiles, which enabled the Afghans to shoot down 270 Soviet aircraft and ended the USSR’s command of Afghan airspace. Although the Stingers did not win the war, they were a game changer in Afghanistan.

American Predator Drone, Pakistan 

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked and occupied its fellow Arab neighbor, Kuwait, with what was at that time the world’s fourth largest army. The international community and the United States demanded that Iraq withdraw and re-establish the status quo ante. When Saddam refused to do so, the United States, with more than thirty coalition partners, attacked Iraqi forces employing high-tech precision-guided munitions, which contributed to the rapid, decisive coalition victory.

However, Technology is a double-edged sword; it can be used offensively (as in the first Gulf War) or defensively and can occasionally help defend a country as well as pose a threat to it. With apologies to Al Gore, it was the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that developed the network—the ARPAnet—that evolved into today’s internet. The ARPAnet was developed in order to provide redundant communications capabilities among military bases and command and control centers. If one or more were destroyed in an attack on the U.S., communications could be routed through other bases and facilities. Even if Washington was attacked, the ARPAnet provided the means for the U.S. government to communicate. Since we now know that al Qaeda used the internet to recruit, communicate, and propagandize, so now the technology that was invented to increase America’s security is now presents a threat to its security.

Al Qaeda’s use of technology, however, did not only enable it to threaten and attack the U.S.; al Qaeda’s use of advanced, modern technology increased its vulnerability to attack. In June 2006, American intelligence was able to locate, track, and kill Musab al-Zarqawi when he used his cell phone. In addition, the U.S. developed and deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones to locate, tract, and kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Drones enabled the U.S. to increase its reach into some of the most remote and formidable regions of the world; the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether drones will tip the advantage to the U.S.

What conclusions can be drawn from these uses of advanced technology? First, it is clear that advanced technology has played an important role in the Middle East and South Asia, sometimes even a game-changing role. But technology alone cannot win a war. Second, technology can threaten as well as defend, and for this reason there is a vital need to constantly assess technology’s direction, velocity, and likely effects. Third, the effects of technology, such as the effects of social networking technologies in today’s Middle East, can be unpredictable and unintended. And last, as the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad demonstrates, there are limits to technology; bin Laden had evaded the U.S. for almost a decade.

About the Author:

Dan Caldwell is distinguished professor of political science at Pepperdine University and the author of Vortex of Conflict: U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.