War Stories

The Tape Loop of History

A new play explains why wars in Afghanistan always end badly.

Among the latest WikiLeaks documents is this passage from an April 2009 diplomatic cable, summarizing a conversation between Vice President Joe Biden and Britain’s then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

Vice President Biden described the complex nature of the security problem in Afghanistan, commenting that besides the demography, geography and history of the region, we have a lot going for us.

Biden’s shrewd assessment might serve as a fitting epigraph for The Great Game: Afghanistan, a three-part play produced by London’s Tricycle Theatre Company, now playing at New York University’s Skirball Center, under the auspices of the Public Theater, through Dec. 19.

The Great Game

It’s an ambitious play, spanning 168 years of foreign powers trying to impose order on the country’s bleak and tribal frontiers—from the skirmishes for empire between Britain and Russia in the 19th century (which inspired the phrase “the great game,” in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim) to the Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 1970s and ‘80s, to NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban today. And its theme is in line with Biden’s: seemingly sound strategies, waged with sometimes-good intentions, but on landscape that might be impervious, or hostile, to armed foreigners bringing change.

The play—or, actually, it’s a series of mini-plays, 12 of them, by as many playwrights, hammered together by directors Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham—begins with Lady Florentia Sale, the real-life wife of a British army officer in the First Anglo-Afghan war of the 1840s, reading a line from the journal she kept while held prisoner by the Afghans for nine months before she bribed her way to freedom: “It is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place.”

It ends, six hours or so later, in the present day, with a British soldier on home leave, explaining to his wife why he keeps going back, to protect the Afghan children, while she protests that his own family needs him more, interrupting his story about one Afghan girl with the cry, repeated five times, “Can we have him back now please?” Finally, he replies, “If we leave now, then that’ll be everything fucked.” She says, “Everything’s already fucked. There’s nothing you can do about that. … It’s gone on for too long. We’re not helping. We’re just smashing it all up.”

In the context of what has happened on stage up to this point, it’s clear that the phrase “It’s gone on for too long” refers to nearly 200 years of fighting, and, if past is precedent, the wife is right.

But The Great Game is not anti-war agitprop. Several of the plays within the play show the Taliban’s monstrousness and the Afghan people’s (or some Afghan people’s) desire for a better life. A few interludes, featuring actors playing real officials or experts (Hillary Clinton, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, journalist Ahmed Rashid, among others), reciting lines they’ve really said or written, suggest (without irony) that there might be something to the new NATO strategy, that this time things might end differently—or that, in any case, it might be worth hoping that they do.

In other words, the play, taken as a whole, conveys the same anguished ambivalence as a perusal of news stories, columns, and military briefings about the war—that failure would be disastrous but success might be impossible. And so we persist in retracing the steps of past occupiers and idealists, with calculated risk, blithe confidence, moral righteousness, strategic folly, or a mix of all the above.

It’s a shame, then, that The Great Game is not a better play, though it’s hard to see how it could have been a great work—or even a dramatically coherent one—given that the dozen playwrights who wrote its bits and pieces devised their stories, themes, and characters without so much as consulting one another.

A few of the episodes are riveting, at least one is brilliant, offering a hint of what might have been if the theater company had entrusted the project to a single playwright of vision (or, probably more to the point, if a single playwright had dared to take on such a laborious project).

The brilliant piece is David Greig’s “Miniskirts of Kabul” (in Part II: Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban, 1979-1996), in which a British female writer imagines interviewing Najibullah, the last Soviet-installed president of Afghanistan, as he sits under house arrest in the U.N. compound, days before the Taliban take power and subsequently mutilate and hang him.

This is the most theatrical episode, at once playfully surreal and deeply tragic, as rich as something that David Rabe or Tom Stoppard might have written, and enhanced by the presence of the company’s two finest actors, Jemma Redgrave and Daniel Rabin. (Like all the other actors, they play several roles throughout the play’s three parts.)

Second best is Ron Hutchinson’s “Durand’s Line” (in Part I: Invasions and Independence, 1842-1930), in which Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, Her Majesty’s Indian foreign secretary, draws the lines on the map that define Afghanistan’s borders with what would later be Pakistan, over the challenges but eventual accession of the country’s emir, Abdur Rahman (the two are wonderfully played by Michael Cochrane and Raad Rawi). *

Durand, puzzling over the map, complains: “Waziristan and the Pushtans are in the wrong place, we can all see that. In some ways, your entire country is.” Rahman replies, “How thoughtless of Providence to put us in the wrong place,” adding, “There is your map, take good care of it. The lines on it may be imaginary but the problems they cause only too real. You will be fighting because of them for many years.”

“Miniskirts of Kabul” takes up the map’s consequences most explicitly; its imagined conversation between the British writer and the doomed Afghan president, sparring and witty on its own terms, serves as a metaphor for the two countries’ entire history with each other. “My country has been imagined enough,” says Najibullah. It “is the creation of foreign imaginings. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is an imaginary line—Pakistan is a dreamed-up country. … Every blood conflict in the world today has its origins in the imagination of British surveyors. You come here imagining. You expect me to cooperate? … This is not a great game for me. This is my country.”

A problem plaguing all the foreign adventures in Afghanistan over the centuries is an underestimation of—at times, a failure even to perceive—the country’s physical obstacles and ethnic divides (in Biden’s words, the “demography, geography and history” of the whole region).

In his column this week in the Boston Globe, H.D.S. Greenway cites a Soviet study, written after their own military defeat, concluding that they had not sufficiently considered “the historic, religious, and national peculiarities of Afghanistan.”

The U.S. Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency (COIN), supervised by Gen. David Petraeus, emphasizes, “Successful conduct of COIN operations depends on thoroughly understanding the society and culture within which they are being conducted.” Yet exactly one year ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at the time the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, confessed in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, that, despite his years of command experience in the country, “there is much in Afghanistan that I do not understand.”

Petraeus, who has since replaced McChrystal, is clearly sensitive toward tribal politics (as was McChrystal); a key element of his strategy is to exploit fissures between the tribal leaders and the Taliban insurgents. But the tribal lines are so complex and intermingled, the central and provincial entities supposedly governing them are so weak or corrupt, and the border with Pakistan—the Durand line—is so porous, providing easy sanctuary for Taliban leaders, that it’s hard (not impossible, but hard) to see how even the most tactically skillful COIN campaign can yield strategic victories.

The Great Game draws the line from the present to the past, as one continuous tape loop, replaying the same pattern over and again, like some tragic tale of eternal recurrence. It succeeds more as a dramatized seminar than as captivating drama, but it’s a provocative and valuable one all the same.

Correction, Dec. 8, 2010: This article originally misspelled Emir Abdur Rahman’s name. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slateand the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.