Cold War and the War on Terror
Arne Westad


Editors Introduction
There is a strong historical connection between the Cold War and the current War on Terror. It is hardly a coincidence that some of the most dramatic battles of the Cold War were fought on Afghan soil and that Afghanistan has proved to be a training ground for terror. In this interview with Fathom on 18 July 2002, Arne Westad, reader in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, considers the pivotal role Afghanistan has played in the Cold War and the War on Terror. He also comments on the importance and nature of intelligence networks, and on speculation about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He argues that the major Western powers are trying to impose the rhetoric and style of the Cold War on a situation that doesn't fit within an old world-view, and urges that the specific details of each conflict be examined in deciding an appropriate response.

Is there a useful comparison to be made between the Cold War and the War on Terror?

Arne Westad: I think there is a very strong historical connection between the two. Much of the background for the present situation was the Cold War in the Third World and how that developed during the 1970s and the 1980s, the last two decades of the war.

The most obvious connection is the involvement of Afghanistan with the main combatants of the Cold War: the Soviet Union and the United States. It is clear to me, for instance, that without the high degree of involvement that the US had with the Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, the kind of situation we are witnessing today simply would not have arisen.

How important do you think intelligence networks will be and have been since 11 September 2001? Do you think these will be comparable in importance to intelligence during the Cold War?

Westad: I think they will be comparable in importance but very different in nature. This is not state-to-state conflict. It is a very different kind of movement that the United States especially, but also other Western countries, see themselves as being up against. In intelligence terms that means one has to go about the gathering of intelligence in a very different manner.

When thinking about intelligence it is very important to consider background, because these radical Islamist networks were set up (and almost all of them go back to the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s) to work as self-defence organisations for Islamic nations who were under external pressure. A couple of them, however, have taken off in much wider directions and formulate the West and the US as enemies. It is interesting that in terms of intelligence, what the Americans and the British have to do is go back and look at some of the networks that they themselves helped develop and fund in the 1980s, in order to find where some of the terror that is now directed against them is coming from. We know, for instance, that during the 1980s at least two, if not more, training camps were set up for radical Islamists, most of them from North Africa, to take part in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The primary recruiting ground for organisations like Al Qaeda simply came out of the networks that were established around those training camps.

Are the current fears and speculation about chemical and biological weapons similar to the way the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race were perceived during the Cold War?

Westad: There is a great difference between the approach to nuclear weapons during the Cold War and the approach to chemical and biological weapons now. The fundamental reason for this is that during the Cold War era, one had to deal with state-to-state relations. There were worries about various groups outside of state control getting hold of an isolated nuclear weapon, particularly towards the end of the Cold War, but it was never of the magnitude that is seen now with regard to non-state actors. I think much of this fear, part of it quite irrational, comes out of having to deal with entities different to the ones we got used to during the Cold War.

Much of this fear is based on the sense that an organisation which is not dependent on a state would actually be able to develop and use these weapons. I think that, in most cases, fear of the massive use of chemical and biological weapons is overstated. If the present crisis goes on, and if these organisations continue to see the West as their primary aim and regard any kind of weapon that they can turn against big cities in the West as legitimate, there will be attempts to make use of such weapons. However, the scale and magnitude that we were imagining with regard to a nuclear holocaust is of quite different dimension to what we are looking at today.

How does the rhetoric of the major states and players in the War on Terror compare to that used during the Cold War?

Westad: One of the most interesting points is the degree to which, particularly on the American side, much of the rhetoric of the Cold War has resurfaced, but in a slightly different form to that witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s. Again, the main issue is to try and demonise the opponent and to depict this as a grand ideological struggle, rather than looking at the more specific conflicts feeding into the present situation. A good example is the situation in Palestine. Without taking that into consideration it is impossible to understand how the rhetoric is being played out today.

It is perceived as very important for domestic purposes both in the UK but most particularly in the US, that one harks back to the Cold War era. It is important that one shows, as is now very often the case, that the Cold War was won in the West because of its cohesion and because of its power, and that was what mattered in the long run.

Proceeding along those same lines with regard to rhetoric today, as the Bush administration is fond of doing, will not lead anywhere for two reasons. Firstly, it was a different kind of enemy that was out there then and one cannot impose that conflict onto this. More importantly, however, it is very difficult for the populations of the UK and the US to buy into it. There is no visible enemy that can be projected in the way the Soviet Union was projected and this, I think, will become an increasing problem for the Bush administration and for the Blair government. An increasing number of people, both in the UK and the US, will look at the more specific issues of the conflict and be concerned to interact with those in a positive way and offer solutions, rather than just worrying about destroying an enemy that is out there. In this case that response would be quite irrational, simply because the enemy has such an amorphous nature.

When President Bush identifies an 'axis of evil', do you think he is consciously creating divisions similar to those made during the period of the Cold War?

Westad: I think it was definitely an attempt at doing that. I also think that in many ways this is a rhetorical lesson that the Bush administration believes it has learned from the way the Cold War ended. These are lessons learned from Bush's own father, but particularly from Ronald Reagan, to whom George Bush Jr is much closer in many ways than to his own father, particularly in terms of rhetoric. They both developed the sense that one must speak out against and engage the enemy rhetorically in order to make progress. If one looks at the two main speeches made by Bush, you will find that the idea of the 'axis of evil' goes back to a very clear and very conscious comparison with the way Ronald Reagan spoke about the Soviet Union in the early 1980s--calling it the 'Evil Empire'--and the rhetoric associated with that.

What is so striking if one looks at the countries that are now subsumed under this idea of an 'axis of evil' is how widely disparate they are with regard to their own ideologies and standpoints. Countries like North Korea and Iran have very little in common--they are utterly different countries with different ideologies. From the outside, and particularly in a Cold War context, it seems as if there has been an attempt to set up a straw man and create alliances that do not really exist. I think this is dangerous, because one ends up with a sense of sustained attack and being under siege from a combination of forces that one simply does not understand or even attempt to understand. It is absolutely necessary to look at the specific situation in order to understand where those potential threats may be coming from. Looking at the situation in the Korean Peninsula (again with a legacy going back to the Cold War) is only problematic if one does not move towards some kind of settlement of the division of the Korean nation. Similarly, with regard to Iran, if one does not understand the origins of the Iranian revolution it is impossible to get to grips with Iran's present position regionally and internationally.

Iran was considered a reformist state before September 11. Do you think this has been affected by the attacks?

Westad: This is what is so striking. It is still too early to tell what kind of effects the Bush rhetoric will have in Iran. There were some among the moderate reformists who thought this might be a useful position to take from the outside world--showing the leadership the consequences of moving in a more radical direction. I am fearful that for the great majority of Iranians it sounds as if Iran as a nation is being singled out, whatever political direction it happens to be going in. That in turn feeds into the hands of the radical Islamists, who are now a minority within the Iranian regime, simply by allowing them to say that whatever they do, the Americans and the West will still hate them because they have an Islamic state. That is now the issue, when what it should be is Iranian foreign policy and Iran's position in the region.

Do you think there is the possibility that a singular threat, like Communism during the Cold War, would be created out of Islam?

Westad: Yes. I think there is a fear there, although for most people in the West this is a rhetorical game that simply will not work. The enemies that have been listed are simply too diverse and have too many conflicts between themselves. The idea of listing Iran and Iraq as part of the same axis of anything is, for anyone who has worked in the Muslim world, utterly ridiculous. If there are further strikes of terror in the West, I am afraid that much of the relatively reserved and sensible attitude found within common people regarding what happened in September 2001 will simply dissipate because they cannot understand, based on their leaders' rhetoric, where the threat is coming from.

Have Cold War structures and attitudes remained in US foreign policy thinking? How do you think September 11 has affected this?

Westad: So far it is very difficult to say. I think there is a wish from the present administration that one could see the world in simple terms, as was the case during the Cold War. Those who are responsible for carrying out the military effort realise that the situation is very different. In spite of wanting more money for what they want to do, they are aware that they will have to spend it in very different ways simply because the enemy is very different. My fear is that as military budgets increase, there will be an increased emphasis on finding new enemies within the present structure--and I am not thinking only of Iraq.

If there is something we ought to have learned from the Cold War, it is the importance of engaging with those you regard as your enemy while keeping a defensive posture that is taken seriously by the other side. That is the winning combination--not going out looking for monsters to destroy, looking for new enemies that you may be able to take on to prevent military action. I think that is particularly important when you have as diverse a group of potential enemies as we are dealing with in this case.

Is there a danger of the US supporting controversial regimes as their allies during this War on Terror, as happened in the Cold War?

Westad: This was one of the most problematic aspects of the Cold War. Those who were not identified with the enemy were seen as necessary allies in spite of very repressive domestic policies and, in some cases, very irresponsible foreign policies. My biggest worry with regard to relationships in the present War on Terror is that one would see movements in the same direction. The West seems to be seeking allies from those areas where the challenges are actually coming from. I think this is particularly important when looking at the discussion going on in Washington about where one can find allies in the present crisis.

The talk about General Musharraf 's Pakistan as a trustworthy ally in the War on Terror simply doesn't make sense. This is first and foremost because it is a military dictatorship, one that took over from a civilian government through a coup. It obviously has its own links with radical Islamist groups, particularly through Pakistani military intelligence. It also goes much further than that. There are those in Washington who argue that the only possible allies that the West can get in the Third World are those who are authoritarian and willing, through their own domestic policies, to challenge the kind of groups that the West now sees as their enemies. This is highly problematic because, instead of emphasising domestic solutions to the problems these countries are experiencing and thereby helping to reduce the kind of situations radical terrorist groups emerge from, one is doing the opposite: creating even more dissension, political conflict and instability. This indirectly helps the recruitment of more poor, dissatisfied and politically disenfranchised members into these groups.

What about the more explicit relationship between the two 'wars'? The US and others supported Afghanistan and even funded bin Laden during the war against the Soviet Union. Could it be argued that the Cold War was responsible for the current state of affairs, or at least the military capability of certain groups?

Westad: Very much so. I think if one looks at this from a purely military side, there is no doubt that the aid the US and other countries gave to radical Islamist groups during the last phase of the war in Afghanistan is to a very great extent responsible for the military capabilities that they have now. One of the biggest problems, I think, is that a number of the weapons that the radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan were supplied with still have not re-emerged on the battlefield within Afghanistan, but are out there somewhere. For instance, the advanced missiles that they were supplied with by the CIA from 1986 onwards have not been put into use and we don't know where they are.

It is also very striking, and this is one of the most interesting links with the Cold War, that by removing the Taliban from Afghanistan, which was of course one of the most reactionary, oppressive governments and a substantial problem for most people who wanted to go about their daily lives, one has opened up the way for some of the more radical Islamist movements to come in through the back door. These are movements that are not home-grown reactionaries within the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan-based as the Taliban were, but have a much wider range. Basically, in political terms, they want to set the whole region, including central Asia, on fire. They have very close relationships with radical Islamist groups elsewhere in the region.

For instance, the Hezb-i-Islami, which was the main ally of the United States during the war against the Communist regime in Kabul, is now trying to emerge as the main radical Islamist force within Afghanistan. That party is a universalist Islamist organisation. It does not see itself primarily as Afghan, but wants to ignite situations that confront Muslims everywhere and has a particular target in those countries that are seen to be oppressive and are supported by the West, all the way from Saudi Arabia to Tajikistan. In the long run, these organisations will be much more difficult to handle than the Taliban, in spite of its support for Al Qaeda within the country itself, ever was.

Russia's position in the world seems to have shifted radically in the last decade. What has Russia's role been in this conflict?

Westad: Russia's role is very much a result of the way the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Russia has now found its place as a well-defined Western country. It wants to ally with the United States, not least for economic reasons, but also because it has its own war against Islamic insurgents in Chechnya. This is very important for Russia's position today. It is ironic with regard to Afghanistan, because this is the country that in a former incarnation set off the international involvement and civil war in Afghanistan. They have now returned as an ally of the West, helping to train and supply the army of the present US-supported Afghan government. They are not in any way trying to make excuses over (or indeed references to) the troubles they set off in Afghanistan in the first place.

For most Afghans this is a very puzzling and threatening situation, because what they witness are former allies and former enemies ganging up on them. It is creating a situation where, from their perspective, it is very much those that are seen as representing the West, including the Soviet Union, that are coming back in a different guise trying to control and dominate their country.

Finally, how do you think the Cold War legacy will determine the War on Terror, if at all?

Westad: In many ways, I think the Cold War is the kind of situation that many leaders in the West would like to return to as a safety mechanism and model for wars that can be fought successfully. That much is evident in the rhetoric. It is also evident in some of the so-called 'reorganisation' that is taking place in security structures. At the same time, they are very much aware that the Cold War map simply doesn't fit the terrain of the present. Operations have to be carried out in a different way. The enemies are very different. I don't think that we are looking at a situation in which anyone is able to force a way back to the Cold War in terms of mind-sets and in terms of perceptions. I think that period has gone and it will not return. What is important is the degree to which those that are in command in the West are able to liberate their own rhetoric and perceptions from the past and try to create a link between what they understand they have to do and the way they present it to their own peoples. This is a key issue, and the Cold War comes in as a disturbing element of the past, simply because Western strategy was seen as a success during the Cold War and there is a constant danger that one is tempted, even against better knowledge, to fight the last war over again.

This feature was taken from an interview held at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 18 July 2002. Copyright London School of Economics and Political Science.