Survivors: a woman walks through the rubble of a suicide bomb in Wardak province. photograph: pam constable/the washington post via getty images
AFGHANISTAN:The Afghan story in modern times is one of invasion and division, but Tamim Ansary believes that urban modernisers can coax the rural population into a better future
Games Without Rules, By Tamim Ansary, Public Affairs, 416pp, £17.99
Tamim Ansary’s new book is about the “often interrupted” history of Afghanistan, focusing on the past 250 years. “Five times in the last two centuries,” he writes in the introduction, “some great power has tried to invade, occupy, conquer or otherwise take control of Afghanistan . . . These interventions have all come to grief in much the same way and for much the same reasons.”
Oh no, I thought, another book about that? There have been almost as many “graveyard of empires” books as there have been soldiers’ own accounts of the six-months-in-hell variety, and rarely does either offer anything new.
I needn’t have worried. Ansary has that rare gift of being able to blend an academic’s knowledge with the skill of a natural storyteller. He is Afghanistan-born, and although he left when he was just 16, in 1964, he has clearly spent a lifetime collecting stories, which he has edited masterfully, knowing exactly when to move away from the major events and focus on the tiny details that give you a sense of what life must have been like for the country’s many poor villagers, who often had no idea what was happening in their capital city. Refreshingly, he keeps his focus on Afghans, with the foreigners appearing for brief periods, usually offering little and understanding less.
I was gripped as I read the first 200 pages of Games Without Rules, which concentrates on the kings and warriors who ruled Afghanistan from 1747 until the Russian occupation of the 1980s. The rulers themselves had enough ambition, arrogance, cruelty and madness to make Games Without Rules often feel like a version of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars for Afghanistan. The author brilliantly describes the personalities of these men and the conflict, conceit or foreign intervention that brought them to power. Once in power, they attempted to expand or establish Afghanistan’s borders, while simultaneously trying to transform the societies living within them, often with calamitous results. The mistakes being made now have been made many times before, but we were blinded by our good intentions. Ansary shows us, time after time, that good intentions are nowhere near enough to succeed in Afghanistan.
The efforts to transform Afghan societies (Ansary is quick to point out there have always been several societies within the country, never just one) were usually aimed at modernisation, or a fight back against whatever modernisation the previous ruler had managed. There is a constant battle, the author says, between the city and the countryside, between modernisers and traditionalists, between the capital and the many “village republics”.
Such conflicts still exist today and go some way to explaining the turmoil not just in Afghanistan but also in Egypt, Iraq and Iran, among others.
Ansary’s book is an important reminder that we shouldn’t listen only to the educated and westernised city dwellers while ignoring the conservative beliefs of the countryside. For every Google employee on Twitter, there may be thousands who would prefer that we left them alone.
During the reformist periods, Ansary describes several surprisingly successful programmes to empower women (one of the early graduates of Afghanistan’s first girls’ school went on to become minister of health in 1965). He tells these stories so well that I found myself getting excited and rooting for these brave efforts, even though I knew they were doomed.