Time's cover story on "The Crescent of Crisis" ended with the following observation: "In the long run there may even be targets of opportunity for the West created by ferment within the crescent. Islam is undoubtedly compatible with socialism, but it is inimical to atheistic Communism. The Soviet Union is already the world's fifth largest Muslim nation. By the year 2000, the huge Islamic populations in the border republics may outnumber Russia's now dominant Slavs. From Islamic democracies on Russia's southern tier, a zealous Koranic evangelism might sweep across the border into these politically repressed Soviet states, creating problems for the Kremlin.... Whatever the solution, there is a clear need for the U.S. to recapture what Kissinger calls 'the geopolitical momentum.' That more than anything else will help maintain order in the crescent of crisis."
Fifteen years later, when some of the very Afghani mujahideen who had given Moscow a bloody nose were turned loose as an international terrorist force, carrying out some of their most heinous crimes on the streets of America (including at the front gate of the CIA headquarters), a senior CIA officer who had played a central role in the Afghan War admitted to New York Times reporter Tim Weiner that, back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the United States first began pouring in billions of dollars in aid to the Afghans, it had never occurred to anyone inside U.S. intelligence that the program would blow back in such a bloody fashion. Charles G. Cogan, the CIA's operations chief for the Near East and South Asia from 1979-84, told Weiner: "It's quite a shock. The hypothesis that the mujahideen would come to the United States and commit terrorist actions did not enter into our universe of thinking at the time. We were totally preoccupied with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is a significant unintended consequence."
Replaying the 'Great Game'
Maybe it was unintended in Washington and Langley, but not so elsewhere. Such American naiveté was anticipated in London, where British intelligence had a 200-year history of playing what Rudyard Kipling had dubbed the "Great Game" across the steppes of Central Asia, and where Islam had been probed, prodded, and profiled by the British East India Company, and by the successor British India Office's Arab Bureau, since the time of James Mill, and, later, Lawrence of Arabia.
Great Britain jealously guarded its Great Game, and, at times, fiercely fought to keep the United States out of the picture.
In 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had gone so far as to assert that Afghanistan was "denied territory" to the Americans, when President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched his most trusted military aide, Gen. Patrick Hurley, to Kabul to get a first-hand picture of how Afghanistan might be drawn into FDR's vision of a postwar decolonized world. British intelligence did everything short of assassinating Hurley to prevent him from successfully reaching the Afghan capital. When Hurley did finally get to Kabul and spend four days with the king and senior government officials, he made such a lasting impression that the Afghanis immediately declared themselves anxious to forge a partnership with the Americans, whom they saw as totally different from the two imperial Great Game rivals, England and Russia, who had kept the country in a state of enforced backwardness and poverty for half a century, preventing the construction of even a railroad or a paved highway. Senior British military officials, based out of the Northwest Frontier Province across the border in Pakistan, had, however, put their stamp of approval on the production of vast crops of opium poppy in the rich mountains of Afghanistan, and had facilitated the processing and distribution of that opium in the South Asian and Chinese markets.
With the death of FDR, Afghanistan's vision of economic partnership with America died as well. Once again, Afghanistan fell into the category of denied territory for the United States.
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