Games Without Rules

Tamim Ansary ’70 traces the history of the two Afghanistans.

By Miles Bryan ’13 | September 1, 2013

Hamid Karzai has not turned out to be the kind of president America wanted for Afghanistan. Since he was elected in 2004, Karzai has approved reactionary social laws, flirted with the Taliban, and embraced conservative religious leaders. Yet Karzai is in a tougher position than one might think. While he has disappointed abroad, Karzai’s compliance with America and other Western powers has infuriated many Afghans at home. Karzai is trapped in a double bind, one that seems like it may destroy him. Such a fate would not be surprising—it is the same trap that has destroyed almost every single Afghan ruler in the last two centuries.

That’s the conclusion of Tamim Ansary’s new book, Games without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan. Tamim contends that the history of Afghanistan is best understood as the story of two competing power structures: a local, informal network of tribes and villages, and the global, formal system of urban elites. Leaders like Karzai have been able bring the informal networks together in battle against foreign powers, but that cohesion has never lasted in peacetime. While his diagnosis may seem pessimistic, Tamim is not. History, as the historian E.P. Thompson wrote, may have a logic, but it never has a law. Like Thompson, Tamim knows that to change the course of history you have to understand it first—a task that his new book accomplishes with remarkable clarity. 

Growing up as a child of Kabul’s first Afghan-American marriage, Tamim always felt like somewhat of an outsider. He moved to Colorado when he was 16, and enrolled at Carleton College in Minnesota two years later. But the buttoned-down Midwest culture made him feel out of place. Tamim wanted to go somewhere where everyone would seem as idiosyncratic as he felt—naturally, he transferred to Reed, where he majored in literature but fell in love with the social psychology classes of Professor Bill Wiest [psychology 1961–95]. After he graduated, Tamim wrote for the Scribe, Portland’s first alternative weekly. In 1979, an engine failure in San Francisco brought him to the steps of the Asian Foundation, a think-tank focused on Asia and the Middle East. At the foundation, he saw a chance to help his two countries understand each other. He never looked back.

In Games without Rules, Tamim suggests that a telling clue to Afghanistan’s identity can be found in its national pastime, buzkashi. This game involved men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to a designated goalpost. There were no rules: buzkashi was governed by tradition, social context, and by implicit understandings among the players. Such was Afghanistan. Before the mid-18th century, each Afghan town or village had its own sphere of influence. They usually had a malik, a formal headman, and a mullah—an all-purpose Muslim cleric who took on the community’s religious duties simply because he knew how to read and had a basic understanding of sharia, or Islamic religious law. Afghanistan had traditions, values, customs, and contexts, but no rules. That is, until the British invaded, and the Great Game began.

In 1830, a crafty Afghan leader named Dost Mohammed was looking to unite his territory into a kingdom. For help Mohammed turned to the British and Russian scouts who, by the early 19th century, were plying him with gifts and praise. The British wanted a buffer against Russian aggression into India, their colonial jewel; the Russians wanted a pathway to the Indian Ocean. Both saw their answer in Afghanistan. In 1838 the British, having been rebuffed by Mohammed, took matters into their own hands by invading the country. The British easily took Afghanistan—whose tribal warriors were no match for British muskets—but holding the country was another matter. The Afghans had coalesced in wartime, but under occupation they dissolved into an unruly gang of mullahs and maliks that, to the British, was entirely untamable. The Afghans simply would not stop fighting. The British were forced out in 1842, invaded for a second time in 1878, and were then forced out again. For the rest of that century and much of the next, the Afghans would be left more or less alone. When they were drawn back into the Great Game, it was being played under a new name: the Cold War.

In the years following the British exodus, one Afghanistan became two. A series of modernizing kings created networks of officialdom—mayors, bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, and institutions—superimposed on traditional village and tribal structure. This second Afghanistan was composed of the rich and elite, centered in Kabul, and infatuated with Western ideas—such as communism. In 1973 Afghanistan’s communist prime minister (and great-grandfather of a current Reedie) Daoud Khan overthrew the monarchy and established a republic in its place. Khan flirted with his Soviet neighbors—he willingly accepted their military and economic aid—but he would not always toe their line. When Khan was toppled in a military coup in 1978, the Russians saw an opportunity to cement their influence in Afghanistan once and for all. They invaded the following year.

On the face of it, the Afghan-Soviet War was part of the Great Game: Afghanistan once again fighting for its independence from an imperial power. In reality, the Soviet war was as much a conflict between the two Afghanistans as it was a phase of the Cold War. The Soviets and the Afghan allies were not just communists: they were the modernizing elite of Kabul. The Mujahedeen were not just anti-Soviet freedom fighters: they were the villages and tribes of the old country. When the last Soviet fighters marched out of Afghanistan in 1989, it was less of an ideological victory for the capitalist West than the defeat of the new Afghanistan by the old.

When U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan 12 years later, it was the old country that they found. The years of chaos that followed are a well-worn, and by now unsurprising, story. But in Games without Rules Tamim is hopeful about his home country’s future: cell phones, computers, and other technology are drawing even the most remote Afghan villages into the modern era. The logic of Afghanistan’s history is finally becoming clear. Now all that’s left is to change it.

Miles Bryan ’13 is a history major and aspiring journalist. 

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