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EMPIRE'S Last GREAT GAME
by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
As the U.S. continues to commit itself to the Great Game for Central Asia with the pre-emptive attack of Iraq, it is time to ask one question: Is the U.S. ready for a grass roots cultural challenge to the West that the world has not seen since the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity?
The Romans made it as far as Baku, cutting themselves a thin strip of territory through the Caucasus on their way to the Caspian. But by the 4th century A.D. the Empire had reached its furthest Eastern expansion and was faced with crisis. Any semblance of a true Republic had long since collapsed and even the system of strict military governorship that replaced it had fallen on hard times. Rotting from within, pressured from without, the Empire had lost its purpose. Something new was needed and with the help of Emperor Constantine and a militant ancient Persian philosophy known as Mithraism, Rome transcended its corrupted material form and found victory.
Turning the militarist, pagan Rome into an empire of the spirit was no simple process. But having been carried by its disciplined legions from the borders of Central Asia to the far reaches of Britain, Mithraism, the soldier's religion - laid the groundwork for the Christian holy war that remains as true to its original mission as it did when it began 2 millennia ago.
The process of conversion from secular to spiritual is no longer the monopoly of Rome. As Islamic states wrap themselves in what St. Paul called "the armor of light," a military victory in Iraq by the US will become a rallying cry for the complete radicalization of Islam. The U.S. may soon be faced with a global spiritual conversion in the heart of the Islam that will challenge the very core of US hegemony.
If successful this conversion could prove to be the equal to Constantine as the greatest act of unifying statecraft in the history of global politics. But this time, the beneficiary of this spiritual unity will not be the West. It will be the East and it will do for Islam what Christianity did for Rome.
History has proved more than once that assassinations can be a dangerous business for empires. Aside from its strategic value, the attempts on Saddam Hussain's life is having a profound symbolic effect that should not be overlooked. Completing a two millennium cycle that heralded the beginning of the Christian era, the high tech bombings used to target Hussain and his Republican Guard has raised his stature from reviled dictator to latest folk hero of the Islamic Jihad against the US. The same Mithraic holy warrior god of light that inspired Constantine to "conquer in his sign," is now activated for Islam..
As with the British before them, the whole U.S. involvement in the Great Game for Central Asia has been filled with holy warriors and sacred places without whose understanding the stakes and the nature of the game involved cannot be anticipated. Sitting as it does between Asia, Europe and the Middle East, the countries of Central Asia form a buffer between diverse cultures and beliefs and as such define the limits of conventional Western thought.
Hitler's entire strategy on the Eastern front during the waning days of World War II relied on reaching Azerbaijan and redirecting its oil to his own fuel starved fleet of Panzers. But the German defeat at Stalingrad demonstrated more than just the limits of Hitler's military strategy, it demonstrated how the Great Game can take more from its players than it gives back and as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan illustrated, it can be ruinous to Empires.
Although the game was coined by the British in the 19th century, the Great Game actually began millennia ago as a struggle over lucrative trade routes through Central Asia. Alternately, these routes served scores of invaders and as the Soviet's proved in December of 1979, the idea of a direct passage from northern Europe to the Arabian Sea is as desirable today as it was when 9th century Viking raiders plied the Volga to Itil on the Caspian.
The U.S. was a latecomer to the Great Game of Central Asia, inheriting the responsibilities and reaping the rewards of failed 19th century British attempts to secure the region. For awhile what the U.S. lacked in diplomacy was made up for with huge amounts of money and advanced military technology and through client states like Iran attempted to remold the politics of Central Asia to fit a manichaean U.S. anti-Soviet philosophy.
Beginning with Henry Kissinger's tenure as Secretary of State this Good v. Evil approach at first showed great promise for the U.S. as the Shah assumed the role of America's policeman in the Gulf. But as his new anti-Communist platform moved into Central Asia to challenge the Soviet Union, a very old breed of religious enemy re-appeared.
The first official sign that the U.S. had entered the complex web of intrigues for Central Asia came in 1973 when a little noticed palace coup in Iran's neighbor Afghanistan prompted U.S. Ambassador Robert Neuman to signal that a "limited Great Game" was back on. And when in 1978 a group of Marxists assumed power in a bloody coup, the limited game Neuman had spoken of only five years before, became the only game in town.
The U.S. responded by sending a seasoned diplomat, Adolph "Spike" Dubs to wean the Marxists away from Moscow and return them to a neutral buffer state. But Washington's signals were split between detente minded Cyrus Vance and virulent anti-communist Zbigniew Brzezinski and as tensions rose between Russia, China and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Dubs stood defenseless.
Kidnaped by a splinter group of Afghan Maoists, the U.S. Ambassador was killed in the rescue attempt and within days the policy that now sees the U.S. playing the Great Game for control of Central Asia was born.
Given a license by the death of Dubs, Zbigniew Brzezinski was as free as a Roman governor to push again towards the Caspian and unleashed the floodgates of support for rival Islamic factions fighting the Marxists and their Soviet advisors in the mountains. Within months the chaos had drawn the Russians in and 20 years later the war still rages. But lost in the shuffle were the obscure Afghan Maoists that triggered the event that led the ascetic Taliban warriors to emerge from the ruins of what was Afghanistan To understand the Taliban's role is necessary to grasp what may be the next crucial phase of the Great Game.
In what is viewed by some Islamic Scholars as the most important intellectual and ideological trend in the Arab and Islamic world, the Afghan Maoists known collectively as the Sholah Jawed (Eternal Flame) have merged with Islam to form a hybrid, grass roots revolutionary movement that if successful could change the face of half the world. Known as the party of Islamic Unity, the Sholah up until now have been known to spread their hybridized political philosophy of unifying the nations of Islam.
2000 years ago, nothing was more unlikely than the marriage of pagan Rome and the Jewish cult of Christianity. But a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate sealed the fate of the next two millennium and an American national security advisor acting like a Roman governor, may have sealed the fate of the next.
Zbigniew Brzezinski's policies fostered the destabilization of Central Asia that cost the Soviet
Union its Empire, but at the same time it empowered radical elements in Islam to fight the Soviet Union and now the world must face Brzezinski's creation.
Saddem Hussain is only the latest "friend" turned enemy. Now as the target of Washington's anti-terrorist campaign, he has become a legend in a region known for world conquerors. Armed with this new recognition and open to a powerful new philosophy that merges the grass roots attraction of revolutionary Maoism, Islam stands to become a deciding factor in a region the U.S. is vitally dependent on for its future survival.
Will Saddam become the next catalyst by uniting Islam with a grass roots political system that brought China into the hands of Mao Tse-tung. The answer to this next and final phase of the Great Game may lie in the word "Taliban" itself which in the Arabic means seeker and as the Prophet Mohammed was said to have urged his followers, knowledge must be pursued even if it means traveling to China.
Copyright © 2003 Gould & Fitzgerald