Is the CIA capable of investigating an Islamicist terrorist movement? One former operative says no, quoting a former member of the agency’s Near East Division: "The CIA probably doesn’t have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan." There are, of course, dissenting opinions; a different foreign operative argues that "it’s easy to find anyone if you’re willing to pay enough money", although he makes the rather dubious case that Congressional oversight and CIA reluctance to recruit badguys handcuffed intelligence operations. Given American backing of the various murderous right-wing regimes during the Cold War (as well as the more specific rebuttals linked above), this is somewhat hard to believe. But as William Saletan argues, anti-terrorism, like anti-Communism, is soon going to create its own moral framework in which smaller considerations (such as not dealing with murderous zealots) fall by the wayside. For an understanding of the roots of militant Islamic movements, one needs to understand Afghanistan. A group like Islamic Jihad, which grew out of a non-militant group, the Muslim Brotherhood, during the Seventies, was fueled by the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan:

An international brigade of 5,000 to 10,000 highly motivated youth, financed and armed principally by Saudi Arabia and the US, fought alongside Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet forces. At the peak of the conflict, Egypt’s al-Gamaa al-Islamiya was said to have contributed about 300 combat troops training and fighting in Afghanistan. After Moscow withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the surviving Muslim fighters, battle-hardened and more militant than ever, began to look for some other areas, like Egypt, where they could fight for the "cause of Islam." The wave of terrorist violence that Egypt suffered from since 1992 can be regarded as the natural outcome of those developments.

So the CIA-backed mujahideen — the fundamentalist Muslim insurgents — had driven the Soviets out and had nothing better to do than to turn Afghanistan into, for many, even more of a hell for the Afghans than it already was.

It’s tempting to think of this as another incident of American foreign activities (usually covert, usually run by intelligence agencies) rebounding in an ugly way — that is, blowback. (There is an interesting-looking weblog of the same name which seems dedicated to left-slanted information about Afghanistan and the current state of American national security.) If anti-Communism created, at least in part, pan-Islamic terror — through sponsorship of the mujahideen, through sponsorship of the Pakistani schools where students (the talib) were taught a particularly violent and fundamentalist flavor of Islam — what will anti-terrorism create?

But it’s hard to say that the mujahideen were solely a result of the Cold War. Afghanistan, which has been, thanks to its location and the Khyber Pass, a geopolitical hot spot for centuries, and it has a tradition of clerics rousing armies to bloodily drive foreign invaders out. I picked up The Great Game a few months ago because I was interested in the Victorian skullduggery, but the bits about Afghanistan are proving more interesting right at the moment. Afghanistan was where imperial powers went to die. Consider the British retreat from Kabul in 1842:

Of the following day, [British physician Dr. William] Brydon wrote: ‘This was a terrible march — the fire of the enemy incessant, and numbers of officers and men, not knowing where they were going from snow-blindness, were cut up.’ Among those who perished were no fewer than three of Brydon’s fellow doctors, and at least seven other officers. The cold and continual exposure, her recounts, had rendered the ill-clothed Indian troops almost powerless to defend themselves against the incessant Afghan onslaughts, which came from all sides. By the end of the day, as darkness fell, Brydon tells us, ‘a mere handful’ of the sepoys remained alive. According to one estimate, all but 750 of the troops [of an estimated four thousand], British and Indian, who had left Kabul only five days earlier, were now dead, while some two-thirds of the 12,000 civilians accompanying them had also perished.

One entry in the index to The Great Game neatly encapsulates England and Russia’s history with Afghanistan: "Kabul, the Cavagnari mission arrives, 387; slaughtered, 389-391".

In a sense, then, the mujahideen were just part in a long Afghan tradition. Last year novelist and war journalist William Vollman wrote a "Letter from Afghanistan", and it gives a better sense of the Taliban’s achievemens and failings than a purely military or an unabashedly propagandistic one might. (Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to put your spin on a story; Tamim Ansary’s letter has been an effective piece of propaganda, probably doing more to shape people’s ideas about Afghanistan and the proper level of response than any other single piece of writing to date. It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted message, although it’s not going to have a hundredth the effect of the message sent by the pictures of the wreckage in New York.) Vollman’s letter rightly shows the Afghans as a complex people: people who may be happier with dictatorial Taliban rule than no rule at all, people who carry contraband photographs of loved ones; people who have lived through decades of pain and suffering. People who will not receive succor anytime soon.