History interrupted

Survivors: a woman walks through the rubble of a suicide bomb in Wardak province. photograph: pam constable/the washington post via getty images

Survivors: a woman walks through the rubble of a suicide bomb in Wardak province. photograph: pam constable/the washington post via getty images

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

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.

During one controversy in 1959, after Queen Humaira and Princess Begum appeared in public with their faces uncovered – Ansary compares this to “the first lady attending the President’s State of the Union speech topless” – Prime Minister Daoud invited the country’s religious scholars to Kabul for a meeting. He wanted to do as they wished, he assured them, and follow the Sharia to the letter. He just couldn’t find the passage in the Koran that said a woman’s face must be covered in public. “They came,” writes Ansary. “They brought their books. They pored through them, fulminating and fuming. In the end they could not offer any indisputable scriptural support for the veiling practices traditional to Afghan society.”

These stories are heartbreaking because you know what didn’t happen next.

Dress codes

On one of the few occasions when he writes about his own experiences, he describes watching news coverage of Iran in 1978, just before the revolution. Women were shown wearing sombre dresses, long sleeves, black stockings and white headscarves. Ansary’s American friends “clucked” at the oppression. “I could not help remembering how,” he writes, “in Afghanistan, less than 20 years earlier, women who had dressed that way in public were making a shocking revolutionary gesture of feminist emancipation.”

These stories are important for anyone who still thinks that the Taliban are the only Afghans who want to keep women locked up and silent.

There are many such stories within the first 200 pages of this book, and I often felt that I was in the hands of a writer on a par with Peter Hopkirk or Barbara Tuchmann. I can’t think of another book that reveals as much about Afghanistan’s history while remaining such a pleasure to read.

Sadly that pleasure faded when I got to the 1980s, the Russian occupation, the mujahideen period and the rise of the Taliban. I was frustrated because, apart from a few passages – one a memorable account of life in Kabul when the mujahideen fractured, and started shelling each other indiscriminately, as told by Ansary’s own cousin, who was lucky to escape – these chapters felt like a simple catalogue of events, little different from the many I have read elsewhere. I was longing to know more about what this period was like for innocent Afghans trapped in the middle. I certainly didn’t need to read about Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and the scandal-ridden President Clinton, just because the bombing of suspected al-Qaeda camps in Khost province, Afghanistan, in 1988 may have been a welcome distraction from all the bad headlines about a stained dress.

This is perhaps a criticism not of Ansary or his book but of his publisher’s description of it. “Games Without Rules tells this story from the inside looking out” is the promise on the dust cover, which left me expecting more than I got.

To be fair, Ansary never overplays his link to his country of birth and is honest enough to reveal, in the book’s closing pages, that he didn’t return until 2002, and then again in 2012. (When covering war, many writers are careful to leave the impression that they could have been there, witnessing the events they describe.) But he says almost nothing of either visit, which is disappointing. I suspect he did not write this book for Afghans, or dedicated Afghan watchers, who won’t learn much here. I suspect he wrote it for westerners who still believe that Afghanistan has never been conquered, that it has never left the Stone Age, that the Taliban are al-Qaeda and that Afghans will always fight, first foreigners, then each other, even if there is nothing to fight about. He is very good when debunking such myths.

He is also good at describing some of the reasons why the latest intervention has failed. He describes being offered $200,000 over the phone to work in Afghanistan as a translator, even after he had said that he didn’t speak Pashtu. He says that one foreign technical expert roaming the country, with security, travel and accommodation, costs about $1 million, and he marvels at what that money could have done if it had been given to locals (whose average salary is $40 to $70 a week) or lent to small businesses and NGOs in microloans. I have often wondered the same thing and am convinced that what progress has been made in the past 10 years could have been made without a western military presence and at a fraction of the cost, in blood and money. When locals were hired as labourers, Ansary writes, they sometimes built a road during the day and destroyed it at night, because that was the only way they could stay in work. I’m sure that has happened often, in many different ways.

Ansary blames this and much bigger cases of graft on the influx of foreign money, especially as that money is mostly spent on the security and pampering of the foreigners themselves.

Cautious optimism

Ansary is cautiously optimistic about a few recent developments, such as the discovery of minerals and the spread of TVs (not in Helmand or Kandahar, I thought, the main focus of US and British military efforts), electricity and mobile phones. But even these gains are “fragile and reversible”, in military-speak. In other respects, I would go much further and say we have made things worse. The Afghan national police, for example, are often drug addicted, illiterate and prone to desertion or “insider attacks”. Police commanders abduct and rape young boys. Police checkpoints often exist for the sole purpose of taxing locals. With foreign forces rapidly withdrawing and handing control of the cities and countryside to that, I wanted to know what Afghans themselves thought they had achieved and what would happen once they leave.

Ansary doesn’t offer much advice on what needs to be done next (perhaps the main argument of his book is that no one should), but most of what he does say is convincing. His conclusion is that Afghanistan is “like a laboratory . . . The country is rife with contradictions – but then so is the planet. And if Afghanistan succeeds in blending its many strains into a cohesive cultural whole, well, then, maybe there’s hope for the planet too.” It is a statement that says almost nothing.

Far more important, I thought, were his descriptions of how the most successful Afghan rulers almost achieved their goals. They secured the sponsorship of the biggest relevant foreign power while also appearing to their countrymen as strong men standing up to outside forces. They won over the rural villagers, too, while “covertly pursuing” modernisation. The city, in other words, must trick the countryside into supporting it, before ushering in slow and gradual reform. I read this aloud to an Afghan friend, thinking he might see it as simplistic, or even offensive. “Actually, I think he is right on this,” he replied.

No one knows what will happen next in Afghanistan, but I hope that whoever ends up in charge takes Ansary’s advice.

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